St. Peter at the pearly gates. Cherubs playing harps. Fluffy white clouds. These are all images people have of heaven—but what is heaven really?
There are many ideas about heaven, but what is heaven really, according to the Bible? Is heaven real? Is it truly the reward of those who have been saved? Is it our future resting place when we die?
Is heaven the reward of the saved?
There are no scriptures in the Bible that tell us that the reward of the saved is heaven. Solomon wrote about death and what happens to human beings at death: “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20).
Here we find clearly that upon death we do not head to a heavenly destination. In fact, Solomon goes a step further to show that the dead have no conscious state whatsoever: “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
The prophet Daniel also confirms this fact that all will die and enter a grave. “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). We are told that death is like sleep, and those who die are simply asleep in their graves.
Where did the concept of heaven begin?
The current concept of heaven did not begin during Jesus Christ’s ministry. It actually started thousands of years prior to Jesus Christ’s birth. Ancient Babylonians and Egyptians believed in a heaven for those who died. They were clearly convinced that man had an immortal soul. If the person lived a good life and did more good acts than bad, then his or her immortal soul would be in heaven.
However, not only does the Bible not support this idea of what heaven is, it also nowhere says that man has an immortal soul.
So how did these concepts catch on? Many contend that Greek philosophy and not Scripture was the main influence for the idea of an immortal soul in Christianity today. Notice this from the influential Greek philosopher Plato’s Phaedo:
“Do we believe that there is such a thing as death? To be sure. … And is this anything but the separation of soul and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation when the soul exists in [it]self, and is parted from the body and the body is parted from the soul. … The soul, whose inseparable attitude is life, will never admit of life’s opposite, death. Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible” (Plato the Teacher: Being Selections From the Apology, Euthydemus, Protagoras, Symposium, Phaedrus, Republic and Phaedo of Plato, 1897, pp. 425-426, 449).
While some may feel Plato’s philosophy makes sense to them, there is no scriptural support to back up this humanly contrived belief in the immortal soul. Nor is there support for the belief that we go to heaven when we die.
What did the apostles teach about life after death?
What did the New Testament apostles teach concerning those who die and the concept of heaven?
The apostle Paul spoke of those who were asleep (dead) who would be resurrected upon Jesus Christ’s return to this earth: “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:30). Paul is speaking of those who have died.
The apostle James also spoke about this physical life being temporary: “Whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14).
While James uses a metaphor, his point is very literal. All human beings die.
Even David, a man after God’s own heart, is not in heaven. Notice the apostle Peter’s words in his very powerful Pentecost sermon recorded in the book of Acts:
“Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption.
“This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:29-34).
So if heaven is not the reward of the saved, what happens to the dead?
While the apostle Paul spoke of those who were asleep, just like Solomon and Daniel did, Paul also speaks about what will happen to the dead. He tells us very clearly that the dead in Christ will be raised up—resurrected from the dead. When? At Jesus Christ’s triumphant return to this earth. Notice the apostle Paul’s words:
“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
Notice carefully that nowhere in these scriptural references are we told that the reward of the saved is heaven. Even Jesus Christ tells us that no one has ascended to heaven: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:13). This verse tells us that years after Jesus Christ had left this earth, John records that no one except Jesus Christ had ascended to heaven.
So what is heaven and who is there?
The Bible clearly shows that heaven is real, but it is not like many people imagine. No human being, except Jesus Christ, has ever ascended to heaven. However, where are God the Father and Jesus Christ? In Revelation 19:1, the apostle John says, “After these things I heard a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, ‘Alleluia! Salvation and glory and honor and power belong to the Lord our God!’” (Revelation 19:1).
If no human being has ever ascended to heaven, whose voices was John hearing?
Revelation chapters 4 and 5 describe John’s vision of God’s heavenly throne. Revelation 4:8-11 states: “The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’
“Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: ‘You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.’”
John adds: “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!’” (Revelation 5:11-12).
Both of these passages give us a glimpse of God’s heavenly throne. They tell us that while God and Jesus Christ reign on high at the heavenly throne, they are not surrounded by human beings. So whose voices did John hear? The passages in Revelation tell us that it is the angelic host that encompasses God’s throne.
Is heaven real? Yes, but not as mankind has pictured it. Yes, there is a real heaven, or, better put, a “heavenly throne” where God the Father and Jesus Christ reside. It is not a cloud-filled, harp-playing utopian destination for human beings who die. God’s inspired Bible tells us that our destiny is one of glory here on earth—being part of God’s family in His soon-coming Kingdom.