Friday, November 13, 2015

Heaven: A Spectrum of Meanings? III

In Part I of this series I discussed the meaning of the word heaven in the Old Testament, noting that there was a spectrum of meaning ranging from the physical regions above the earth (sky) to the dwelling place of God, either literal or metaphorical.  In Part II, I covered the word heaven in the New Testament and found basically the same spectrum of meanings.  Nowhere on that spectrum was there a sense of a place of reward in the afterlife.  So, where did this notion come from?  I would propose that many popular notions of heaven come not from the Bible, but rather, from a Greek philosopher named Plato, who predates Jesus and the birth of Christianity by nearly 400 years.

Let's start with Plato's "allegory of the cave." In this allegory, from Plato's Republic (7.514a-520a), there are a group of people held prisoner in a cave.  They are chained and facing away from the entrance of the cave.  Some way behind them in a cave is a fire, and a walkway.  And on the walkway all sorts of puppets and the like are passed between the fire and the prisoners.  All that the prisoners can see are the shadows of these puppets: animals, humans, trees, etc.  Therefore, they take this shadow dance on the cave wall to be reality. By chance, one prisoner escapes and makes his way up in the cave and sees the puppets and the fire for what they really are.  He continues to make his way up and out of the cave and sees that not only were the shadows on the wall not reality, but neither were the puppets, they were only a shadow of the reality of the world outside the cave.  In this allegory, when the prisoner returns to try and tell the other prisoners of reality, they do not believe him.  In fact, they become hostile and kill the escaped prisoner.

Plato likens humans on this earth to the prisoners in the cave.  Through this physical world we can only see shadows.  Only as the soul turns away from this physical reality to seek the true higher light, can the soul ultimately be freed from this world and find its true home.  Moreover, like the prisoners in the cave, humans do not like to be told that what they see and experience are not reality.  Hence, this present physical reality is a barrier to seeing the truth.

Thus, Plato holds a worldview of the duality of reality.  This world, the created order, was at best morally neutral, and at worst, evil.  The physical reality was a prison for our souls, preventing the soul, the core and true form of the person, from achieving true reality.  Our bodies and their appetites were roadblocks to achieving enlightenment. The spiritual reality was the only true reality.  Thus there is a duality: physical vs. spiritual, body vs. soul.

I remember reading Plato for the first time in college, and having an epiphany.  I wondered how Plato, who lived nearly 400 years before Christ, had somehow stumbled upon the absolute Christian truth of heaven, this other reality where our souls truly belong. Surely God must have enlightened Plato somehow, however, God did not give him the full truth or knowledge of God.  How naive was my thinking back then?

Is it not far more logical that Christianity, which was born out of a Jewish background and worldview, but quickly spread to Greek and Roman culture, would come to mix Jewish ideas about the Messiah with a predominately Greek worldview?  Here is my proposition: Christianity began with a largely Jewish view of the world, where heaven primarily represented the sky, and by extension, the abode of God. The Jewish worldview was essentially non-dualistic with regard to reality.  That is, the world, both heaven (sky) and earth, was and essential unity and part of God's creation.  But, as Christianity spread to Gentiles (Greeks and Romans), the predominate dualistic worldview of the Greeks (where physical reality is a mere shadow of a much greater non-physical reality), remained in place for believers.  Therefore, Christianity embraced a dualistic worldview, and adapted that worldview to the message of Christ.  It is in this dualistic worldview, I contend, that the word heaven takes on its more popular meaning.  Heaven, in a Christian/Platonic mix becomes the true, spiritual reality, where souls go after death and dwell with God in bliss, provided they have accepted Christ, of course.

Thus, we get our third meaning of heaven on the spectrum.  Heaven now no longer means sky, nor simply the idea that the abode of God is in the sky, but now, heaven is a non-physical reality, a place where spiritual beings like God, and human souls, exist apart from physical reality.  Yet, I do not find this third meaning in the New Testament, at least not when used in conjunction with the word heaven (οὐρανός).  I think that this dualistic worldview is largely foreign to the New Testament.  I say largely foreign because I do think that the Platonic worldview does creep in around the edges of some New Testament books, but that is a discussion for another post.


  1. Very interesting. Looking forward to the next post on this series.

  2. Keith, I've been thinking about this very question for some time now, and have come to the same conclusions. I'm wondering what, then, you do with statements like, "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy." Most people read this as storing up treasures for the place they will go when they die, but with your reframing of the term heaven (and mine), such a reading doesn't work. -- Eric Gilchrest

  3. When you talk about multiple meanings for the word 'heaven', I'm wondering if the original Hebrew writers were referring to conceptually different places. There are numerous places in the Bible, particularly the OT, where they refer to heaven in the plural; the first of these occurs in Genesis 1:1. Paul refers to the 'third heaven' (2nd Corinthians 12:2). My understanding of this was that the Hebrew writers/readers were thinking of three different places: one level in which Earth-bound bodies moved (birds, stones, arrows), another level in which the celestial bodies moved (Sun, Moon and stars), and yet another level beyond those in which heavenly bodies moved (God, angels, human souls). Is there any merit to this?

  4. Eric, Great questions, and one I am wrestling with as well. I could go verse by verse through the word heaven, and test the meaning, but in this case of Matthew 6:20 (and other gospel parallels, cf. Matt 13:44, 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 12:33, 18:22) I would say that we are dealing with a third usage of heaven from my 2nd blogpost, and that is where Heaven is a stand-in for God. I think this is how Matthew often uses heaven in his phrase Kingdom of Heaven. He is not saying anything substantively different from Mark's and Luke's Kingdom of God. Heaven is just a stand-in for God. Thus, in this case, store up for yourselves treasure in God, or perhaps, in the Kingdom of God. Either way, what is envisioned is not some future non-material world of the afterlife, but is instead, the world recreated by God and ruled by God. What do you think?

  5. Luke,
    In the Old Testament, the term is always in the plural in Hebrew. As time goes on the heavenly geography got more and more complex. For Paul, the third heaven was a fixed term for the dwelling place of God. It was the highest level of heaven.