When thinking of heaven, we imagine a blissful place where God is and where good people go after death to receive their rewards. Modern scientists and astronauts have ridiculed religious people who think about heaven in these terms. But why and how did we consider it a place beyond the sky? I have often said that the Bible is not a scientific book but a theological one. Someone put it this way, "The Bible shows us how to go to heaven, but not how heaven goes." We must understand that God did not write his words on tablets and hand them to his people but inspired holy men to write them using the knowledge and understanding of that time.
So often, one of the biggest challenges in Biblical interpretation is understanding the Ancient Near East (ANE) and modern concepts of cosmologies. In other words, the ancient understanding of the structure of heaven and earth, or their cosmology, has shaped present theology. The Bible is difficult to interpret without importing or imposing an ancient near east cognitive environment on the Biblical text. We run into exegetical problems when we read the ancient text as it is: because we read from our current cultural cognitive environment when we do that.
Can one imagine people who lived 2000 years ago reading one of our recent non-fiction books loaded with present scientific and technical language like the law of relativity, gravity, atoms, matter, or the various parts of the human brain? Or, those people reading about internet bandwidth, broadband, cybersecurity, Bluetooth, bookmark, connectivity, or zoom? The answer is that they would not understand these terms because they had no clue what they meant. Nevertheless, we do that when we read ancient texts with our modern cognitive structure: pouring our current cognitive meaning or modern insights and culture into them.
We need to understand the cosmic geography of the Ancient Near East, Jewish and Greek cosmology, their cognitive environment, and the words and concepts of the Biblical language to help us understand the biblical texts. What were the detailed characteristics of the shared Ancient Near East cosmic geography about heaven, earth, and the underworld? John Walton, an expert in Hebrew, ancient east literature, and history, maintains that there was a three-tiered cosmos comprising heaven, earth, and the netherworld. The solid "sky" separated heaven, where deities live, and earth, where humans live. Furthermore, they conceived that evil spirits reside in the underworld. So, the idea was that the earth was impure because that was where humans lived. But "up there" was pure and suitable as the abode for the deities.
This concept may be new to many, but using spatial language or imagery like this has been a deep theological discussion from the church fathers to the present. Some people who have heard me teach about heaven have asked: "If heaven is not 'UP THERE,' then what does the Bible mean in the following verses, Acts 1:9, 'after he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.' Or, John 3:13, 'And no man hath ascended to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.' Or, 2 Corinthians 12:2, 'I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.'"
First, spatial language does not mean heaven is a location within our cosmos of space, time, and matter, located up in the sky. Many unbelievers and Christian skeptics wonder why Christians still believe that Christ is "Up There" despite all the astronomical advancement revealing what is "Up There." N.T. Wright, the world-renowned New Testament scholar and a great defender of the Christian faith, warns biblical interpreters about interpreting, "As Jesus said this, he was lifted while they were watching, and a cloud took him out of their sight," literally. He writes, "'Jesus is lifted up,' indicating to the disciples not that he was heading out somewhere beyond the moon, Mars, or wherever, but that he was going into 'God's space,' dimension."
Wright observes that "the cloud, as so often in the Bible, is the sign of God's presence. Think of the pillar of cloud and fire as the children of Israel wandered through the desert or the cloud and smoke that filled the Temple when God became suddenly present in a new way." He continued, "They could not bear the new overwhelming reality of a heaven-and-earth creature who could live in both heaven and earth together. It was not easy trying to put into words things no human being had ever experienced: A creature that could enter your room without using any opening. The resurrected Christ was not limited by time and space. When we say "UP," one could ask: from whose point of view? Europe? Brazil or Australia? You see, "UP" is spatially relative." Wright concludes. Even in the Old Testament, the use of spatial language recognized that "the heaven of heavens cannot contain God." (1 Kings 8:27, 2 Chronicle 2:6; 6:18, Acts 7:48).
C.S. Lewis held an academic position in English literature at both Oxford University and Cambridge University. Lewis was considered one of the most influential defenders of Christianity of his time. After a lengthy study, meditation, and reflection on Jesus' ascension, Lewis writes in his book, "God in the Dock," the following words:
"[A]n early peasant Christian might have thought that Christ's sitting at the right hand of the Father implied two chairs of state, in a certain spatial relation, inside a sky-palace. But if the same man afterward received a philosophical education and discovered that God has no body, parts, or passions, and therefore neither a right hand nor a palace, he would not have felt that the essentials of his belief had been altered. Even in the days of his simplicity, what had mattered to him had not been supposed details about celestial furniture. It had been the assurance that the once crucified Master was now the supreme Agent of the unimaginable Power on whom the whole universe depends. And he would recognize that in this, he had never been deceived."
In other words, Lewis says that many Christians do not understand that God is a spirit and cannot be located in space. That non-corporeal entities do not live in space. The New Testament writers' problem was putting something they had never experienced into words such that flesh and blood like us could understand. In addition, ancient cosmology taught them that the deities live above the sky, so if Jesus is God, then the most logical conclusion was that he was up there.
Take, for instance, Apostle Paul's third heaven. When Paul said he was caught up in the third heaven, was he referring to his body or spirit? We know Paul was not talking about his body being lifted to the third heaven. Instead, he was referring to a spiritual experience. He was spiritually caught up in the third heaven, and since spirit does not occupy space, his third heaven cannot refer to a spatial location somewhere up there.
St. Augustine examining the second verse of Genesis chapter one in his excellent book, "The Confession," said, "Heaven" does not mean the sky, but the immaterial "heaven of heaven." In his magnum opus, "The City of God," Augustine writes, "Under names heaven and earth the whole creation is signified, either divided into spiritual and material, which seems the more likely." For the ancients, who did not know anything beyond the sky and considered humans unworthy of living with the deities, the only place for God was beyond the sky. My next article will show that heaven will be a renewed cosmos.