Astute Bible readers recognize that Scripture uses the term “heaven” in more than one way. Context determines its exact meaning when Old and New Testament writers refer to it. While in some passages, the meaning of “heaven” is clear, but in others it’s not. This leads many people to wonder how many heavens there are in the Bible and the difference between them.
The Bible mentions three heavens. The first heaven (or “heavens”) refers to the earth’s atmosphere as in the realm of the sky. The second heaven (or “heavens”) refers to space as in the realm of the planets and stars. The third heaven, also called “paradise” in Scripture, refers to the abode of God.
Are there different levels of heaven, as in the place people go when they die? What do the Hebrew and Greek words for heaven mean? What is the first, second, and third heaven, and what is the difference between them? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Are there different levels of the afterlife?
The Bible teaches that there is only one “heaven” in relation to where believers go when they die. However, the Bible uses the word in two other ways.
What does the Hebrew word for “heaven” mean?
The most often used Hebrew word translated “heaven” in the Old Testament is samayim. The basic definition of samayim is “heaved up things” or “heights,” which generally refers to the realm of the sky as opposed to the land and sea. Hebrew doesn’t have a word for “universe,” so authors commonly use the phrase “heavens and earth” to describe it. In this use, “heavens” refers to the sky.
However, Old Testament authors also use the term in a way that extends beyond its basic meaning. For example, Ezra 7:23 reads, “Whatever is decreed by the God of heaven, let it be done in full for the house of the God of heaven, lest his wrath be against the realm of the king and his sons.” (ESV)
What does the Greek word for “heaven” mean?
The Greek word translated “heaven” in the New Testament is ouranos. The basic definition of ouranos is “sky” or “air.” However, like in the Old Testament, authors also use the term to describe supernatural realities, such as when Jesus referred to it as the dwelling place of angels. Matthew 22:30 reads, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (ESV)
What is the first heaven?
The first “heaven” is often referred to in the plural: “heavens.” When the Bible uses the term “heavens,” it isn’t referring to multiple places in the afterlife. The dwelling place of God where believers go when they die doesn’t have different levels, tiers, or floors.
Instead, “heavens” refers to the location above the land and oceans on earth, which can refer to one of two places. The first place is directly above the earth, which is the abode of birds, clouds, and other atmospheric phenomena. Three examples that refer to this “heaven” are:
- Genesis 8:2, “The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained.”
- Deuteronomy 11:11, “But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven.”
- 1 Kings 8:35, “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them.”
What is the second heaven?
The other place above the earth that “heavens” can refer to is the place above the earth’s atmosphere. This place is beyond the earth and includes the abode of stars, planets, and other celestial objects. Three examples that refer to this “heaven” are:
- Genesis 15:5, “And he brought him outside and said, Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. Then he said to him, So shall your offspring be.”
- Psalm 8:3, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place.”
- Isaiah 13:10, “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.”
What is the third heaven?
The third “heaven” the Bible mentions is the abode of God, where believers go when they die. Heaven is God’s unique dwelling place, but he welcomes all those who put their trust in his son Jesus to live there forever (cf. John 3:16). Three examples that refer to this “heaven” are:
- 1 Kings 8:30, “And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.”
- 2 Chronicles 30:27, “Then the priests and the Levites arose and blessed the people, and their voice was heard, and their prayer came to his holy habitation in heaven.”
- Psalm 123:1, “To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!”
When the Bible refers to heaven as God’s unique dwelling place, it means that it is where he has chosen to reveal his splendor and glory fully. People can truly know God and be in his presence on earth, but they will experience it more fully in heaven.
Is the third heaven and paradise the same place?
In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul writes, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.” Paul doesn’t want his readers to be confused that he’s referring to the sky or to space so he uses the phrase “the third heaven.”
In the next verse, he uses the term paradise to describe the same location: “And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—” (v. 3). Jesus and also use the word “paradise” to describe the same place.
- Luke 23:43, “And he said to him, Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
- Revelation 2:7, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
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