Monday, November 9, 2015

Heaven: A Spectrum of Meanings? II

In part I, I discussed the use of the term heaven (Hebrew שָׁמַיִם (shamayim)) in the Old Testament.  I noted that there is a spectrum of meaning from simply meaning the visible creation above the earth (sky) to a more metaphorical meaning of heaven as the dwelling place of God.  James McGrath pressed me on my use of "metaphorical" for this second usage of heaven in the comments, and I responded to him also in the comments.  The substance of my response was that while I granted that using heaven as the abode of God could certainly be literal, as in the physical place above the earth where God actually dwells, I am not sure that the literal "sky" is what was consistently meant by Hebrew writers, as if God actually dwells in the sky.  One instance where I think heaven is used metaphorically is in Isaiah 66:1 where it says,
"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 my resting place?" (NRSV)
In this case, I think just about the entire verse is figurative in its usage.

But today, I want to look at the New Testament term corresponding to the Hebrew שָׁמַיִם, and that would be the Greek οὐρανός (ouranos).  This term occurs 273 times in the New Testament and is usually translated as heaven.  The question is, when that word is used in the New Testament, what does the author have in mind?  I would venture that the notion of heaven as a place of reward in the afterlife is not on the author's mind in most, if not all instances, of the word οὐρανός.  There are several reasons for this statement, but in the following I will give one.  It comes from the definition of the word.  If you look at Greek lexicons that analyze literature from the time of the New Testament and before, the Classical and Koine Greek worlds, one does not find the definition of οὐρανός as a place of reward in the afterlife.  In fact, the Greek lexicons provide basically the same spectrum of meaning for οὐρανός as the Hebrew Lexicons give for שָׁמַיִם in the Old Testament.  That is, in Greek, οὐρανός can be simply the region above the earth (i.e., sky), or the abode of God/gods.  Take for example Louw & Nida's entry 1.5
"οὐρανός, οῦ m (either singular or plural without distinction in meaning): space above the earth, including the vault arching high over the earth from one horizon to another, as well as the sun, moon, and stars — ‘sky."
That is one meaning.  A second meaning for this word is given as entry 1.11,
"οὐρανός, οῦ m (singular or plural; there seems to be no semantic distinction in NT literature between the singular and plural forms): the supernatural dwelling place of God and other heavenly beings (οὐρανός also contains a component denoting that which is ‘above’ or ‘in the sky,’ but the element of abode’ is evidently more significant than location above the earth) — ‘heaven.’"
Interestingly, in their comments on this second meaning, Louw & Nida mention that the notion of "abode" is more significant than the location above the earth.  Are they saying that this usage is more metaphorical than literal?  Do they answer McGrath's question?  I am not sure.

Louw & Nida give one final definition of the word in entry 12.16 as follows:
οὐρανός, οῦ m: (a figurative extension of meaning of οὐρανός ‘heaven,’ 1.11) a reference to God based on the Jewish tendency to avoid using a name or direct term for God — ‘God.’ ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου ‘I have sinned against God and against you’ Lk 15:18, 21.
This third usage is certainly figurative in meaning where Heaven is a stand-in for God.

But, even though there is this range of meaning for the Greek term οὐρανός, none of these approach the modern conception of heaven as a place of reward after death.  So, if the spectrum of meaning of heaven in the NT ranges from the physical sky above the earth to the dwelling place of God and as a stand-in for God, then where does the modern conception of heaven as a place of reward after death come from?  Well, that is a question for another day.  Stay tuned.

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