Friday, November 6, 2015

Heaven: A spectrum of Meanings?

Heaven is a fascinating term.  Ask anyone on the street the meaning of the word heaven, and I would bet you would get a wide variety of answers.  Heaven has become an amorphous word that can be conformed to just about anyone's definition.  Interestingly, heaven, for much of modern Christianity, has become the ultimate goal.  It is the one point of hope for Christians, the place where the righteous (read, people like "us") will go after we die.  For those interested in a challenge to this view, N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, is a great place to start. All this said, heaven is a biblical word, used both in the Old and New testaments, and so perhaps looking into the word in the Bible would be a good place to start in trying to define a range of meaning for the word.

One does not have to venture very far into the Bible to find the word heaven.  In fact, it is in the very first verse Genesis 1:1 which reads,
"In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,"
The word for heaven here is the Hebrew שָׁמַיִם (shamayim) which only occurs in the plural in the Old Testament, thus the translation "heavens." Interestingly, to import our modern conception of "heaven," a place of reward in the afterlife, into this context of Genesis 1:1 would be a grave error. For, in the entire Old Testament the word never carries that meaning.  In Genesis 1:1 and many other places in the Old Testament, the word refers to a physical object above the earth, what we would most likely call the sky (see my post from several years ago on ancient science here).  In the Brown Driver Briggs (BDB) Hebrew Lexicon the first definition of the word is,
"visible heavens, sky, where stars, etc., are."
So, on a spectrum of meanings for this word, at one end would be the definition of the visible, physical reality that exists above the earth.  When a modern Christian encounters the word "heaven" or "heavens" in the Bible, I think that it is a gut reaction to import the idea of a spiritual afterlife reality into the context.  This idea of the word "heaven" meaning a physical reality is almost totally off their radar screen.  But, in much of the Old Testament the word simply means "sky."

But, there is a second definition of the word given by the BDB as follows:
"as abode of God (’י), where he sits enthroned." 
The visible heaven or sky then can take on a metaphorical meaning as the dwelling place of God. Where is God?  Look up, he is in the heavens.  Once again, while moving away from the first meaning a little bit, the conception of the sky as the dwelling place of God is not entirely removed from that first meaning.  We are still nowhere near the definition of heaven most Christians would give as a spiritual reality where Christians go after they die.

As far as the Old Testament is concerned, this is basically the entire spectrum on which the meaning of this word lies.  No afterlife.  There is simply a concrete meaning as that which is visible above the earth (sky), and then a more metaphorical and figurative meaning as the dwelling place of God. Look up any occurrence of the word heaven in the Old Testament and I bet either one of these two meanings will be a better fit for the context than would a modern Christian definition of a place of reward in the afterlife.  Well that is it for the Old Testament.  What about the New Testament?  Stay tuned.


  1. What makes you think that the second meaning is metaphorical, rather than the sky being where God was literally thought to be enthroned?

  2. That is a great question, and one which I am not sure I have a good answer for. Even as I wrote the word "metaphorical" I was sure it was not the word I was looking for. That is why I added "figurative" later, but even then I knew I did not have the right word. I think what I was thinking of was the developing conception of God in the Hebrew Bible that tended to distance god from creation. I am thinking of things like the prohibition of making images of God. There seems to be a movement in Hebrew literature from seeing God as one god among many, alongside other tribal deities, to later the one god over all other deities, to even later, the only god who is substantively different than the created order (you are much more the expert on Jewish monotheism than I am). In this latest phase I think that using "heaven" as God's abode might have to take on a more metaphorical tone. Yet, I am not highly confident of this view. One specific place come to mind and that is Isaiah 66:1 "Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool." I find it hard to take either heaven or earth here as anything but figurative along with the anthropomorphic description of God. Or is God here just described as really big? Any thoughts? I appreciate the thought provoking question.

    1. Sorry for the delay in replying. I'm going to post something about this on my blog. My inclination is to think that heaven was literally thought to be the place where God dwells, although God is so great that neither heaven nor earth can contain him, according to other authors. But if that language is not literal, it isn't clear to me what it would mean as a metaphor.