With all of the worry these days about people allowing too many people into heaven, it may seem odd to consider the exact opposite. That is, perhaps no one is going to heaven.
We have been debating and considering the nature of our soul over on Scot McKnight’s blog The Jesus Creed, and one of the ideas that is coming up is that we are somehow a composite being, not a dualistic being consisting of a body and a soul that can be separated. More specifically, we do not have a soul that can go anywhere when we die since our body will be dead and the only way the soul can exist is with the body.
I admit that this idea rocks my perception of life and god to its core. I have been taught and never questioned the absolute fact that we have a soul that will live on. Only in the past year have I been able to even consider such a thing. Let’s face it, science has never been able to come up with a way to measure or confirm the existence of an immortal soul. But on the other hand, every major religion out there says that there is an immortal soul, right?
Well, if I am going to seriously consider that there may not be an immortal soul and be a Christian, I need to look at what the bible says about my soul. There are many approaches that I could take to researching this, but for the first attempt I decided to explore the most immediate implication. If there is no immortal soul that can be separate from the body, then this soul obviously cannot go to heaven when we die, right? To examine this I set out to look at all of the instance of the word heaven in the New Testament and see if any of them said that we will ever go there.
If you want to view the raw data then take a look here. These data came from a search on Bible Gateway.com by choosing the word heaven, looking in all books from Matthew to Revelation, and use the NIV, which should be the NIV 2011 edition. This results in 276 entries while my table only shows 271 entries. The entries I eliminated were the three occurrences of the phrase “highest heaven” and the two occurrences where the section heading had the word “heaven” in it but did not have the it in the actual text. I eliminated the “highest heaven” ones because when I looked at other translations and the Greek it seemed that the word heaven was not actually there, just the word “highest”.
Here are the categories I came up with. (after the jump)
KoH – The phrase Kingdom of Heaven is primarily used in Matthew, and many consider it just another way to say the phrase Kingdom of God. Many Jewish people would not say the word God because they may inadvertently take the name of the Lord in vain, thereby sinning against God. Therefore KoH=KoG found elsewhere in the new testament. Further, I am not taking the phrase KoH or KoG to mean another word for heaven. When reading the text it becomes obvious that the Kingdom of Heaven/God more refers to us being a citizen of God’s Kingdom. Not that we are in the same place as God.
Place of God – I used this category when the authors are simply referring to the place where God is. For example, in Matthew 6:1 it says “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Here it is clear that they are using the phrase Father in Heaven to mean God, and the “in Heaven” part is the place where God is.
Place of Storage – In some cases the bible refers to a place where you have a reward or store up riches. For example, Matthew 6:20 says – “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” This is not saying that you have to go to heaven to get those treasures, but they are stored there. N.T. Wright put it this way (I am paraphrasing), “When my wife tells me that she has something special for me in the oven, it does not mean that I am supposed to physically put myself in the oven take advantage of it.”
Heaven and Earth – This category contains two types of references. First, if the text says “heaven and earth” then that is what is hear here. The second type of reference is when it is clear from the text that the author is referring to the place up above the earth, in other words the sky. In that sense they are referring to heaven as a physical place up high instead of down low on the earth. For example, Matthew 14:19 says “And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.” Here it is clear that Jesus is looking up, that is heaven.
Heaven and Hades – There are two references to heaven that play it off as the opposite of hades. Both of them are the same basic quote “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” It does not seem to me that we can take this reference to mean that we all may go to heaven some day. Lifted up to the heavens probably means something much more like what people do when they are making an offering to God, they lift it up to the heavens.
Place of Other Beings (e.g. angels) – These verses are referring to angels and other heavenly beings that the author assumes are in heaven. It is not people who are there. For example: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” or “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,”
Sin against Heaven – This is obviously another attempt to not use the name of God “I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”
John uses *from heaven* – The author of John uses the word heaven in less obvious ways. Some of them could have been categorized as the Heaven and Earth variety, but to avoid that I classified most occurances within John as this special John type. Here is one use “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” Or, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ”” Now I suppose that I could have assumed that this was from the sky, but John is using highly theological language and I felt that it is not doing him justice to classify this purely as coming from the sky. Regardless, he is not saying that we are going to be in heaven.
Attribute of Godly – There are places where it seems that heavenly is another way of saying something of God. For example “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit,” I don’t think the author is saying that this is someone who went to heaven, rather it is someone who has experienced a gift from heaven.
House in Heaven – In Corinthians, Paul refers to a tent or house in heaven 3 times. I don’t believe that it makes sense to assume that these occurrences mean that we are going to be there, but more like there is something there in heaven that we are going to get. Here are all three occurrences.
[ Awaiting the New Body ] For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling,
These are as close as it gets in the bible to referring to any sort of place that we will eventually go.
Third Heaven – Again, in Corinthians, Paul uses another phrase that does not appear elsewhere. Here it is “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.”
So What Does This Mean
I recommend that you read through the list of the occurrences yourself. No where does it say we are going to go to heaven.
Here are some summary statistics on the occurrences.
Other Beings (e.g. angels)
uses *from heaven*
I believe that the view of Heaven that is in the bible has largely been lost to Christianity today. If you read through the whole list of references to Heaven you will see that God and Jesus and Angels are the only ones that are in Heaven. We will never go there.
But we do have the opportunity to live on forever. There is the second coming and the New Heavens and New Earth that will be created for our bodily resurrection. That will be wonderful!
I hope to follow on with this study by examining less obvious phrases that could imply that we will ever go to heaven. God bless.