Many people are curious about heaven. They wonder how people go to heaven, what people will do there, and who people will see. Yet the starting point for a lot of people is learning the answer to the simple question, what is heaven?
According to the Bible, heaven is the place where people who put their trust in Jesus Christ for salvation go after they physically die. It is God’s place, not people’s customized or personalized utopia, where God uniquely and fully reveals his splendor and glory.
Is heaven a place or a state of mind? What does the Hebrew word for heaven mean? What does the Greek word for heaven mean? Is God everywhere or only in heaven? What does the term “heavens” mean in the Bible? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also see What Do Angels Look Like In Heaven? to learn more.
The Meaning of Heaven in the Bible: Life After Death
The Bible teaches that upon dying physically believers will be with God (e.g. Luke 23:43). At first, deceased people are in a disembodied state and exist only as a soul or spirit. Then, after the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, believers are given new bodies (e.g. Rom. 8:23) and permanent residence in the New Heavens and New Earth (e.g. 2 Peter 3:13).
Does “heaven” refer to all of the afterlife or just a part of it? The Bible describes heaven as the place where believers go when they die. In the broad use of the term, all of the afterlife for a believer is called “heaven.” In a narrow sense, the place where believers go when they die is “heaven,” yet their permanent residence, following the Second Coming, is technically the “New Heavens and New Earth.”
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” (Isa. 65:17, ESV; also see 2 Peter 3:13 and Isa. 66:22)
How does the Bible describe heaven? Many people are curious about where heaven is and what heaven is like. These questions are natural and the Bible offers glimpses of their answers. However, the primary message the Bible conveys about heaven is about God. God’s holy and majestic presence — as well as his other holy realities like forgiveness, love, and redemption — are the most important truth about heaven. (See the next section below for more details.)
Is heaven a place or a state of mind or consciousness? The term “The New Heavens and the New Earth” describes a physical location. However, Christian scholars and theologians haven’t always agreed on whether or not disembodied souls dwell in a physical location prior to the Second Coming.
Some argue that Scripture doesn’t explicitly teach that souls or spirits go to a physical place, though it’s clear they are in God’s presence, which is what is most important.
Others argue that when Jesus ascended into heaven (Acts 1:11), he went to a place, meaning, he didn’t ascend to a new state of mind. There are also other hints in Scripture that heaven is a place, such as what Jesus said to the thief on the cross:
“And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.'” (Luke 23:43, ESV)
Also see What Does Jesus Look Like In Heaven? to learn more.
What Do the Hebrew and Greek words for “heaven” mean?
Biblical authors wrote the vast majority of the Old Testament in Hebrew. Greek is the original language of the New Testament. In both testaments, the original words translated “heaven” have a basic definition, yet, in some contexts, the term clearly has a broader and supernatural connotation.
What does the Hebrew word for heaven mean? The most often used Hebrew word that is 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 (more below).
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)
Also see What Do People Look Like In Heaven? to learn more.
Heaven as God’s Unique Dwelling Place
In popular use, some people use the word “heaven,” not to describe the biblical reality, but their own customized, utopian afterlife. These descriptions are often permeated with unholy values and treasures. The Bible never describes heaven as a place where all a person’s dreams, wishes, and desires come true. Heaven is God’s creation, not people’s.
Can people create their own afterlife? No. God alone is sovereign over life after death. No being or force enables a person to make heaven be whatever they want it to be. The Bible is clear that heaven is God’s unique dwelling place.
- Isaiah 66:1, “Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” (ESV)
- Matthew 6:9, “Pray then like this: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.'” (ESV)
- 1 Peter 3:21b-22, “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to Him.” (ESV)
Heaven is God’s unique dwelling place, but he welcomes all those who put their trust in his son Jesus to live there forever. John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (ESV)
Isn’t God everywhere, not just in heaven? Yes. The Bible teaches that God is omnipresent, which means that he is everywhere (Psa. 139:7-10; Jer. 23:24). When heaven is referred to as God’s unique dwelling place, it means that is where he has chosen to fully reveal his splendor and glory. People can truly know God and be in his presence on Earth, but they will experience it more fully in heaven.
“To say that God dwells in heaven is not to say that He is contained there. But it is uniquely His home, His center of operations, His command post. It is the place where His throne resides. And it is where the most perfect worship of Him occurs. It is in that sense that we say heaven is His dwelling – place.” (The Glory of Heaven by John MacArthur, p. 56)
Also see Are Babies That Die On Earth Babies In Heaven? to learn more.
The meaning of “heavens” in the Bible
When the Bible uses the term “heavens,” it isn’t referring to multiple places in the afterlife. Rather, the term comes from the basic definitions of the Hebrew and Greek words (see above) and refers to the sky.
Depending on the context of the verses and passages that use the term, the sky could mean the atmosphere directly above the Earth or it could refer to the space beyond the Earth, as in the stars and planets and other celestial objects. Old and New Testament examples of “heavens’ include:
- Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
- Deuteronomy 28:12, “The LORD will open to you his good treasury, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season and to bless all the work of your hands. And you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow.”
- Nehemiah 9:6, “You alone are the LORD. You made the skies and the heavens and all the stars. You made the earth and the seas and everything in them. You preserve them all, and the angels of heaven worship you.”
- Ephesians 4:10, “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”
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