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Introduction

The English language, like most languages, uses the concept of “homographs” – that is, the concept that a single word can have many different meanings, depending on the context. Here are some examples of homographs in English:

  • Will he run for president?
  • Please don’t run across the street.
  • Don’t wear these tights because there’s a run in them.
  • Our house is the one on the right.
  • Jen always has the right answers in math class.
  • Susan B. Anthony helped woman obtain the right to vote in the U.S.A.

So, if the words “run” or “right” are used in English, it is necessary to look at the context of the word in question, in order to determine the meaning that was intended for that word.

In addition, there are many “idiomatic expressions” in English – in other words, expressions that have a “figurative” meaning, rather than a literal meaning. For example:

  • I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.
  • She has a smile that lights up a room.
  • He has two left feet.

Of course, the above expressions are not meant to be taken literally – they are used in a figurative sense, to make a point. However, non-native speakers of English often have difficulty understanding such expressions, since they are not aware of the figurative nature of those expressions.

Ancient Hebrew and Greek also use homographs and idiomatic expressions. As a result, it is very important to look at the context of words and phrases in Scripture, in order to determine the author’s intended meaning of any given passage.


Four different meanings of “heaven”

One of the words that Scripture uses very frequently is the word “heaven” – so it is important for us to understand what that word means. From my experience, most people immediately assume that there is only one meaning of that word. So, let’s take a look at some of the different uses of the word heaven in Scripture:

Group 1:

Genesis 1:20 (ESV):

20And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.”

Deuteronomy 11:11 (ESV):

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,

Job 35:5 (ESV):

Look at the heavens, and see; and behold the clouds, which are higher than you.

Group 2:

Genesis 1:15-17 (ESV):

16And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth

Deuteronomy 1:10 (ESV):

The LORD your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven.

Psalm 8:3-4 (ESV):

3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Group 3:

Psalm 11:4 (ESV):

4 The LORD is in his holy temple;
the LORD’s throne is in heaven;
his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man.

Isaiah 24:21-22 (ESV):

21On that day the LORD will punish
the host of heaven, in heaven,
and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
22 They will be gathered together
as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
and after many days they will be punished.

Ezekiel 1:1 (ESV):

1In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.

Group 4:

Daniel 4:26 (ESV):

26And as it was commanded to leave the stump of the roots of the tree, your kingdom shall be confirmed for you from the time that you know that Heaven rules.

Luke 15:21 (ESV):

21And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

Matthew 6:19-20 (ESV):

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

From what I can see, there are at least four separate meanings of the word heaven, in the above passages! My take on those four meanings are as follows:

Group 1: In this group, the word heaven means:  The atmosphere of the earth.

After all, birds fly through the atmosphere, rain falls through the atmosphere, and clouds reside in the atmosphere, right?

Group 2: In this group, the word heaven means: Outer space.

The sun, moon, stars, etc all reside in space – not in the atmosphere – right?

Group 3: In this group, the word heaven means: The place where God lives.

Psalm 11:4 (plus many, many other verses) appear to indicate that God lives in a completely different “dimension” from us – i.e., different from the atmosphere or outer space. Isaiah 24:21-22 indicates that angels (including rebellious angels!) also reside in that dimension currently. Ezekiel 1:1 uses the “heavens were opened” phrase (which is also used elsewhere); that apparently means that Ezekiel saw a vision of the place where God lives – rather than seeing the atmosphere or outer space.

All three of the meanings listed above are places – i.e., the atmosphere, outer space, and God’s residence are all locations. However, in addition to those meanings, there is another, “figurative” meaning of heaven:

Group 4: In this group, “heaven” is a figurative reference to: God himself.

Daniel 4:26 tells us that “Heaven rules” – but how can a place rule anything? Similarly, in Luke 15:21, the prodigal son says that he sinned “against heaven” – but how can we sin against a place? So, in these verses, it appears that the word heaven is being used to refer to God, himself – because in that case, the verses make perfect sense.

In Matthew 6:19-20, Jesus tells us to store up treasures “in heaven”. However, we cannot literally store up treasures in the atmosphere, in outer space, or in the place where God lives. So, this verse also appears to refer to God, himself – because we can “store up treasures” with God. In other words, God “keeps track” of what we do – and as a result, God will reward us for the good things that we do during this age.


Why are these four meanings important?

There are a number of “key” verses in Scripture which use the word heaven. In other words, some of the verses which mention the word “heaven” are used to make sweeping doctrinal statements, by various Christian denominations. As a result, if the correct meaning of heaven is not used in those verses, then our entire understanding of Scripture can be dramatically affected.

For example, consider the following verse:

2 Kings 2:11 (ESV):

And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

This verse tells us that Elijah was taken up into “heaven”, by a whirlwind. Most mainstream denominations believe that means that Elijah is currently in the place where God lives – i.e., the meaning from Group 3, above. In addition, mainstream denominations then go on to claim that all Christians go to be with God when they die, from this verse.

However, is the above understanding true? First of all, after Elijah was taken up, his followers organized a search party, to try to find him. If they thought that Elijah was in the place where God lives, they would not have looked for him, right? Also, about 10 years after that event, King Jehoram of Israel received a letter from Elijah! That certainly seems to indicate that Elijah was not taken to the place where God lives.

Notice that the verse above explicitly states that a whirlwind took Elijah into heaven. Well, where does a “whirlwind” (i.e., a tornado or cyclone) do its work? It seems to me that a whirlwind operates in the atmosphere of the earth – i.e., the meaning from Group 1, above. If that is the case, it means that Elijah was transported, through the atmosphere, to a different location on the earth. That certainly seems to explain the actions of Elijah’s followers, as well as the letter from Elijah.

Next, consider these verses:

Psalm 115:16 (NIV):

16 The highest heavens belong to the LORD,
but the earth he has given to man.

2 Chronicles 2:6 (ESV):

But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to make offerings before him?

2 Corinthians 12:2 (ESV):
2I 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.

The above verses seem to indicate that there are multiple “levels” in heaven – i.e., that there may be three separate “layers” of heaven. The Mormons have a rather “unique” belief about what that means. Basically, they state that there are three separate areas where God lives – with one “layer” controlled by the Father, one “layer” controlled by the Son, and one “layer” controlled by the Holy Spirit.

However, there is a much simpler explanation to the above verses. As mentioned above, there are three different “place”-type meanings for heaven – the atmosphere, outer space, and the place where God lives. So, with that understanding, the following explanation can be used:

– The atmosphere around the earth is the “lowest”, or “first“, heaven.

– Outer space is the “middle”, or “second“, heaven.

– The place where God lives is the “highest”, or “third“, heaven.

That looks to be a much more reasonable explanation to the above verses. (That’s just my view, of course.)

Finally – and most importantly – take a look at these verses:

John 6:38 (ESV):

38For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.

1 Corinthians 15:47 (ESV):

47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.

The above verses are frequently used – by many denominations – to try to prove that Jesus personally pre-existed in heaven (the place where God lives), before he was born on the earth.

However, as noted above, one of the meanings of the word “heaven” is figurative – i.e., sometimes heaven refers to God himself. So, those verses could certainly mean that Jesus was sent from God rather than meaning that he personally pre-existed in the place where God lives. In fact, John 6:38 explicitly refers to the fact that God sent Jesus – because Jesus states that he is going to do “the will of him who sent me”. Also, take a look at this verse:

James 1:17 (ESV):

17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

The above verse tells us that every good gift is “from above”. Does that mean that every good gift “personally pre-existed” in heaven, before God manifested it on the earth? I don’t see any evidence to support that supposition.

In a similar way, Jesus did not need to “personally pre-exist” in heaven, either, before God manifested him on the earth.

There are many, many other references to the word “heaven” in Scripture as well, of course; so I would be interested to find out any additional meanings that any of you have discovered!

11 Responses to “What does the word “heaven” mean?”

  1. on 02 Aug 2010 at 6:47 amJaco

    Great article!!! Good to see some tough issues discussed here from time to time.

    Well done

  2. on 02 Aug 2010 at 6:57 amBrian

    I recognize that this is not a main point of our article, but it seems to me that your distinction between group 2 and group 3 is a bit anachronistic

  3. on 02 Aug 2010 at 9:40 amDoubting Thomas

    Brian
    Thank you for another great article. It was very informative. I’ve learned a lot from reading your articles…

  4. on 02 Aug 2010 at 1:49 pmFiona

    Brian
    Thanks for a well put together article. I agree with you on all points, some of which i had not really thought about much before, but sort of taken for granted, as one is inclined to do when English is your home language. You brought forward quite a few points that can be used as “ammunition” in discussion with those believing that Elijah went “to be with the Lord”
    Fiona

  5. on 02 Aug 2010 at 2:37 pmJaco

    Brian,

    – The atmosphere around the earth is the “lowest”, or “first“, heaven.

    – Outer space is the “middle”, or “second“, heaven.

    – The place where God lives is the “highest”, or “third“, heaven.

    Something interesting to consider:

    In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…

    Which heavens did he create? Well, “heavens” or hashshamayim is in dual form. Apparently two “layers” of heaven were created. This obviously excluded the realm where God was “dwelling.” The third heaven was the ultimate or highest heavens. That which Paul felt he was in at his conversion – right in God’s presence (2 Cor. 12:2).

    Just a thought…

    Jaco

  6. on 02 Aug 2010 at 4:13 pmBrian Keating

    Hi Jaco,

    That’s a good point – it certainly appears that God created multiple “layers” of heaven in Genesis 1:1. That, in turn, appears to reinforce the idea that there are multiple meanings of the word “heaven”.

    Brian

  7. on 03 Aug 2010 at 3:18 amFiona

    Hi Jaco
    That’s very interesting, I didn’t know that, thanks!
    Fiona

  8. on 04 Aug 2010 at 8:27 pmDoubting Thomas

    Brian
    I was just thinking about the temple and how it had 3 areas within it and wondered if this might be connected to the fact there are 3 heavens. The number 3 seems to come up a lot in the scriptures…

  9. on 05 Aug 2010 at 2:23 amXavier

    Jaco

    I think it was the famous scholar Bullinger who suggested that because the earth is actually described as “an unfilled mass covered by water and darkness (Heb. tohu; bohu; cp. Isa 34:11; Jer 4:23) it may be picturing judgment as the reversal of creation in which God’s judgment causes the world to revert to its primordial condition.

    This later use of the terms presupposes the judgment of a prior world where the rebellious angels, headed by Satan, warred against the angels of God. Thus, laying waste this “first world”.

  10. on 05 Aug 2010 at 11:22 amBrian Keating

    Hi DT,

    Yes, there are recurring themes about several numbers in the Bible. 7, 10, 12 and 40 are some of the other numbers that occur in multiple contexts.

    Brian

  11. on 09 Apr 2015 at 1:31 amTLA

    Thank you for your explanations of how the word heaven is used in the bible. I personally read the king James version. I have noticed that on certain occasions. The word heaven is ‘C’apitalized. In fact it is my interpretation that whenever a word is capitalized out of series of standard English Notation… It means that the word itself is capitalized as it is supposed to have special significance to man. As for the letter from Elijah to Jehoram. And your thoughts on Jesus not preexisting in the heavenly kingdom in which God almighty lives. I would just have to say cheap shots and irrelevant to the explanation of the four different interpretations of the word heaven that you provided. None the less your scrutiny into the way verse is used and understood has proven itself to be of great use in my own personal Bible study. It is my usumption that there are even more than the four different explanations of the word heaven. I’ll keep you posted on what I think these interpretations are, as I continue to re-study my Bible. Thank you for your diligence in keeping the Bible more accurate and thought provoking for the hard core God heads like myself.

  

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