When We All Get to Heaven

The concept of heaven as some sort of an otherworldly paradise, better than anything our mundane existence on planet Earth has to offer, is embraced by nearly all religions. Billions of believers yearn to be there. But if heaven really exists, what is it like? Is it a literal three-dimensional place or is it merely a metaphorical mental state? Is it located on the surface of a cosmic sphere somewhere in outer space or is sequestered in a secret spot here on planet Earth? Is there only one heaven or are there multiple heavens? Is it inhabited only by divine beings or is it accessible to mortal earthlings? Is it entered by the redeemed immediately after death or do we have to wait until Jesus returns? Is it a blissful theme park where we fellowship eternally with friends and divine beings, or is it a monotonously boring place where we simply sit on clouds and play harps?

There is considerable variation among the different religions in how heaven is perceived, even among Christians who ostensibly base their beliefs on the Bible. Our perceptions of what heaven is like should be based on scripture, but our views vary depending on our interpretations of scripture and our perspectives may be tainted by what we are told by parents, pastors, teachers, or friends, or by what we see in movies and other media. Setting aside for the time being what others believe, let’s focus on what the Bible reveals about heaven.

Is heaven literal or metaphorical? The Hebrew word for “heaven” (shamayim) is used 392 times in the Old Testament and the Greek word for “heaven” (ouranos) is used 256 times in the New Testament. The English translations of these words into singular “heaven” or plural “heavens” are used somewhat interchangeably, vary among different versions of the Bible, and are debated among theologians (e.g., “heaven” of KJV and “heavens” of NIV in Genesis 1:1). The terms “heaven” or “heavens” usually have three distinct meanings: 1) the Earth’s atmosphere, in which birds fly (Lamentations 4:19) and from which rain and snow fall (e.g., Deuteronomy 11:11; Isaiah 55:10; Acts 14:17); 2) more distant heavenly bodies, including the moon and stars or the entire universe (e.g., Genesis 1:1); and 3) the abode of God (e.g., Matthew 6:9), which is usually what comes to mind when we think of heaven. “Heaven” can also substitute for the name of God, such as “sinning against heaven” (Luke 15:18-21). The first two of the three usual meanings (the atmosphere and the universe) are certainly literal, for we can see them. Theologians debate whether the third meaning of heaven as the home of God is literal or metaphorical. Perhaps the strongest argument for heaven being a literal place comes directly from the words of Jesus in John 14:2 (KJV): “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” It’s difficult to dismiss such language as being metaphorical.

Where is heaven located? The Bible does not state where heaven is located, but dozens of verses refer to both heaven and earth as though they are distinctly different places (Deuteronomy 4:39; Joshua 2:11; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 29:11-12, 6:14; Ezra 5:11; Psalm 6:34, 115:15, 121:2, 124:8, 134:3, 146:6; Ecclesiastes 5:2; Isaiah 14:12, 37:16, 66:1; Jeremiah 33:25, 51:48; Matthew 5:18; 6:19-20, 24:35, 28:18; Mark 13:31; Luke 2:14, 10:21, 16:17, 21:33; John 14:2-3; Acts 14:15, 17:24; 1 Corinthians 8:5, 15:40-49; Ephesians 3:15; Colossians 1:16-20; 3:2; Philippians 2:10; 3:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Hebrews 1:10; 2 Peter 1:18). Based on these verses it is difficult to conclude that heaven is a utopian slice of paradise somewhere here on planet Earth. If indeed heaven is a literal place, it must be somewhere else in the universe, presumably well beyond our solar system.

How many heavens are there? The dwelling place of God is usually referred to as singular “heaven.” Aside from the frequently used term “heavens,” which usually refers to the atmosphere or constellations, there is only one enigmatic Bible text explicitly quantifying the number of heavens. In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul refers a man “caught up to the third heaven.” The usual explanation is that Paul is referring to the first heaven as the atmosphere, the second as the constellations, and the third as the home of God. This explanation is consistent with the three usual meanings of heaven described above.

Who inhabits heaven? The Bible repeatedly declares that heaven is the dwelling place of God (Deuteronomy 26:15; 1 Kings 8:30-49; 2 Chronicles 6:23-39, 18:18, 30:27; Psalm 11:4, 20:6, 102:19, 103:19, 115:3; Ecclesiastes 5:2; Isaiah 66:1; Matthew 5:16-45, 6:1-32, 7:11, 10:32-33; 12:50, 16:17, 18:10-35, 23:9; Mark 11:25; Acts 7:49-56; 2 Corinthians 5:1; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1; 2 Timothy 4:18; Hebrews 1:3, 12:22; Revelation 11:19, 13:6). Jesus was in heaven before his earthly ministry (John 3:13-31, 6:33-58; Ephesians 4:10; 1 Thessalonians 1:10, Revelation 7:9-11), and after his earthly ministry Jesus returned to heaven (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:1-11, 7:56; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; Hebrews 4:14, 8:1-2, 9:24-26, 12:22-24; 1 Peter 3:21-22). Angels dwell in heaven (Matthew 18:10, 22:30, 28:2; Mark 12:25, 13:32, 16:19; Luke 2:13-15, 22:43; John 1:51, Galatians 1:8; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 10:1, 11:11, 12:7-9, 14:7, 15:1-6, 18:1, 20:1) and presumably represent the “host” (KJV) or “multitudes” (NIV) of heaven mentioned in a few texts (2 Chronicles 18:18; Nehemiah 9:6). Satan and his angels dwelled in heaven until they were expelled after a war with Michael (usually interpreted as Jesus) and his angels (Revelation 12:7-9). The patriarch Enoch “walked with God” (Genesis 5:22-24), suggesting that he was taken to heaven. The prophet Elijah “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11). Moses is apparently in heaven because he appeared with Elijah at the transfiguration of Jesus (Luke 9:30; Matthew 17:3; Mark 9:4). Many Christians believe that our ancestors who have died and merit salvation are currently in heaven, but several Bible texts, as we shall see below, suggest that the reward of eternal life has yet to be received.

Can humans go to heaven and, if so, when? The Bible clearly teaches that the redeemed will receive eternal life (e.g., Matthew 19:29, 25:46; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; John 3:15-16, 36, 4:14, 5:24, 6:27-68, 10:28), but Christians are divided on whether eternal life is granted when we go to heaven immediately after death or after Jesus returns. Nevertheless, several texts strongly suggest that the redeemed, including King David, have not yet ascended to heaven (Matthew 3:13; John 3:13; Acts 2:34) or received their reward (Hebrews 11:13), and will be resurrected when Jesus returns and ascend with Him to heaven (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28-29, 6:44-54, 11:24; 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 51-54; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).

What is heaven like? The Bible offers few clues about the physical appearance of heaven; in contrast, more details are provided for New Jerusalem, which descends from heaven to a new earth (Revelation 21-22). However, we know that there are many homes in which we will live (John 14:2-3) in the city of the living God, where multitudes gather to worship (Hebrews 12:22-23). Within this city is the temple of God with the ark of the covenant (Revelation 3:12, 7:15, 11:19, 15:5). Presumably inside the temple there is an open door leading to God’s throne, which is encircled by a rainbow and surrounded by twenty-four other thrones, and nearby there are seven lamps (Revelation 4:1-5, 7:9-17). In front of the throne there appears to be a sea of glass that is crystal clear (Revelation 4:6, 15:1-2).

What will our daily lives be like in heaven? We are told that “no eye has seen, ...no ear has heard, and...no human mind has conceived the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). Nevertheless, the Bible provides glimpses of what life will be like in heaven.

To begin, we will be much more comfortable. Our bodies will be transformed so that our previous infirmities will disappear, our new bodies will be incorruptible (Isaiah 35:3-5; 1 Corinthians 15:42-54; Philippians 3:20-21), and we will all be beautiful (Zechariah 9:16-17). We are assured that we will no longer suffer from excessive heat, physical or emotional pain, crying, or death (Isaiah 65:19; Revelation 7:16, 17, 21:4). Surely we will be happy in heaven, rejoicing and leaping for joy (Luke 6:23). Although we will still eat food and drink beverages (Matthew 8:11, 26:29; Luke 22:18, 29-30; Revelation 19:9), we will no longer suffer from hunger and thirst (Revelation 7:16). Because the carnivorous beasts of our planet will apparently be transformed into peaceful vegetarians in heaven (Isaiah 11:6-7, 65:25), we too will likely be vegetarian. Perhaps we will retain our earthly names because we will be eating with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose names are not changed, in heaven (Matthew 8:11), and our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27). The Bible does not tell us what our apparent age will be; presumably we will appear grown up but youthful, and our appearance will not change with age. Likewise, we are uninformed about whether our gender will be retained, but Jesus apparently retained his gender after his resurrection and so may we. Although it’s difficult to comprehend the implications, we apparently will not be married (Matthew 22:30). Just as Adam and Eve were given the task to work in the Garden of Eden and take care of it (Genesis 2:15), we will probably have jobs in heaven, but surely they will be more enjoyable and satisfying than our current toils. Although we won’t be able to take anything from earth to heaven (1 Timothy 6:7-8), we won’t worry about our personal possessions because they will not be corrupted by moths or vermin, and will not be stolen by thieves (Matthew 6:19-20). We will enjoy fellowshipping with a diversity of redeemed humans representing many nations, tribes, and languages (Revelation 7:9), and together we will enjoy worshiping our Creator and Redeemer in heaven and the new earth throughout eternity (Isaiah 66:23).

To paraphrase a popular song by MercyMe, for now we can only imagine how enjoyable life will be like in heaven. Perhaps those who have suffered the most in this life are the most eager to go to heaven. More than a century ago a young schoolteacher, Eliza Edmunds Hewitt (1851-1920), became bedridden for a prolonged period after being struck in the back with a heavy slate by a boy who was being disciplined. Despite her painful condition, she shared with others the joy she felt in knowing Jesus by writing poems, many of which became popular hymns. One such hymn, published in 1898, eloquently expressed her emotions—and those of all of us—as she eagerly awaited her arrival at the ultimate travel destination:

When we all get to heaven,

What a day of rejoicing that will be!

When we all see Jesus,

We’ll sing and shout the victory!

Floyd Hayes is a Professor of Biology at Pacific Union College.

Photo by Luca Baggio on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9307

A great article. Thanks Floyd for the many questions and considered answers.
There is perhaps another question that could have been asked - When was Heaven created? Certainly before the angels were created there was no need for a literal Heaven. Was the creation story of the Earth also the creation story of Heaven?

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There are people who have answers for your question. Sorry I am not one opf them… :wink:

Robert –
GREAT question.
How BIG is “heaven”?
Does “heaven” Actually encompass the total Universe??
But through Sin the Earth is the Weird spot in the Universe [heaven].
And that is why Jesus wants us to ALWAYS pray that “heaven” will continue
to include Earth, and the activities and actions of humans on Earth will
match the attitudes of the rest of the Universe and beings who live there.
We also have to understand that God is not just “up there”. His Spirit
surrounds us here on Earth. His continued creative power is displayed every day
here on Earth.
Perhaps the reason that John at the END of Revelation stated there was “NO TEMPLE
in Heaven”. No NEED for one as wherever the Lamb and the Father go IS THE TEMPLE.
Because THEY are the Temple. Not building, not furnishings, not “seats”.
Could it be that the IDEA OF TEMPLE was for us humans, and we needed some
concrete “space” for God to be to make it easier for us sinful minds to worship a God.
To focus on God. To make God tangible since our “sinful eyes” could no longer be
able to SEE God as He is, and as He was when walking and talking with Adam and
Eve in the garden in the cool of the evening?
Perhaps we NEEDED the IDEA of “mercy seat”, tangible way to consider forgiveness
of our actions that were “un-heavenly”. To be aware of the ability to “begin again” each
day in our attempt with God’s help to make our lives a little “heaven on earth”.
Perhaps we NEEDED the IDEA of the “Rainbow” which reflected the memory of the
words God spoke to Noah. The IDEA of “Rainbow” being Peace between the Trinity
and Humans.
In the OT the idea of God in “Heaven” and the idea that God dwelt in Zion are spoken
of as ONE. That there is no “God is up there” or no “God is down here”. But God is
Everywhere – “up there” AND “down here in Zion”
In Leviticus it discusses people who live too far to go to the “Sanctuary – Temple”
for worship. It tells these persons it is OK to celebrate in community where they are.
They can meet with God, celebrate with God where they are.
And use their TITHE money to do it.


I enjoyed the article and appreciated the thorough Biblical documentation. I often wonder why Christians spend so much time thinking, talking, and singing about heaven and little time discussing the new earth, where it appears we will have homes for eternity. Maybe heaven is easier to imagine for some folk.

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I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m going to do science in heaven (If I make it there), and communicate about it to others. I’m doubtful God is going to give us the answers to everything; surely we will be given the opportunity to indulge lifelong (um…make that eternal) learning.


Professor Jeff –
What about playing around with Genes? We humans do it on a limited scale
here now. And amazing wonders are discovered.

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Playing with genes doesn’t interest me now, but maybe it will in heaven. Who knows?

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No, you are not!.. :astonished:
Unless you land on the other side of the wall, where there will be no Adventists… :rofl:

Most of the enjoyable article I appreciatively agree with. But the author overlooked some obvious statements which were included in the article.

This is one of my pet peeves with religous discussions of eternity - The bible clearly states we will be eternally based (tho not necessarily confined) on the New Earth. Our time in Heaven is but a short period (1000 years vs eternity). The bible likewise indicates that Jesus himself will live with us on the New Earth.

This also leads me to believe many of our life experiences here (relative to Earth living) will have a parallel in the re-perfected New Earth.

But I spend little time conjuring or contemplating Heaven or the New Earth - Jesus has assured us it will be beyond our best hopes and desires.

As Paul wrote: Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. 1Cor2:9KJV

I’m certain we will be happily surprised.

The temple, in its original conception, was not a huge, imposing edifice; but a mobile tent in common with the tents of the people. When God had delivered Israel, He told Moses, “Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering … And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it.” Exod. 25:1-9

It was a home for God by people who really wanted God to dwell with them, and in this sense the sign of Emmanuel, i.e. Jesus Christ. We know this because Jesus told the woman at the well concerning temples, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, AND NOW IS, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:21-24

The Advent of Christ fulfilled the symbol of the temple and since His ascension, we worship God in spirit and truth. THERE IS NO TEMPLE ANYWHERE AT ALL.

The Book of Revelation speaks of the temple only as a point of reference to ground the visions in a reality familiar to the Jews. This is its point: that the family of God, His House, has problems and all these things are the dirty linen hanging out for the whole world to see. God however, is one day going to pick it all up and throw everything salvageable in the washing machine; and refurbish His House.


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I’ve always wondered, and challenged my friends and acquaintances, all with whom I sit and chat, … after that first day of meeting and the ceremony is over, what would it be like? The quote implies that it would be an other worldly experience, something we cannot even now begin to imagine.

There are strong indications however that we would become so overwhelmed by all the Christmas presents that we would say a thousand and one THANK YOU’s, over and over and over and over …


How could it be?


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The heaven isn’t a place but a concept, just like love isn’t a thing but a concept. Thus, Heaven, just like love, takes different shapes and forms.

We tend to think of it as a place where God is, but heaven isn’t a “box for God” that people imagined it to be in the past. Of course, the problem in the past that our imagination is constrained by our conceptual models of reality, hence God wasn’t here on Earth, so He must be “up there”, hence the misnomer of “Heaven” associated with “up” or “clouds and sky”.

Thus, “Kingdom of God” is probably a more fitting label than heaven, since it’s a place where God directs reality through his creation who recognizes it as valid and viable. And hell is the opposite of that, a disarray that results from lack of direction or recognition of proper function.

Hence, heaven is a place where we find our ultimate purpose. And it actually a place that can be here and now. Ironically, we are used to communicating that it’s not a state we can have right now, hence we are taught that access to heaven rests in some form of organizational structure that guards it, and that one gets that after one’s death or, if one is fortunate, then when Christ is back with a giant bus to take the church people on the promised trip.

Yet, if we remove the filters and deconstruct biblical narrative, then Kingdom of Heaven is not something that’s somewhere else. It’s doesn’t have origin in this world, but …

"Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

A a short analogy… “Microsoft is wherever Bill Gates sets up a shop”.


God is a great Scientist.
Making something out of nothing. Beyond my imagination.
God LOVES Chemistry. Loves to play with atoms.
God LOVES Physics. Invented light rays [visible, invisible] I have a plant that is
sensitive to the ‘invisible’ light rays. Wakes up in the morning at sunrise, goes to
sleep at night at sundown.
Then there are all radio, tv, micro. Who knows how much of these we will use.
God invented electricity and all the things can do with it. Invented sources of fuel.
Engines. Transportation.
The list is unending of all the things God has for His people to explore and use
for eternity.
No wonder Paul says, I can’t even describe all the things I saw in heaven. He would
be a loss for words if he showed up in our civilization today.

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…or beyond the universe. When God created the universe, He was outside of it, like an artist painting a painting; or the potter forming clay. The painter is in the painting, but not part of the painting.

When we delve into the sciences, we find there is all kinds of possibilities where “heaven” can be located (if indeed it is a PLACE). According to quantum physics there are multiple numbers of dimensions possible. We live in a three dimensional world, but Einstein concluded that TIME is the fourth dimension. How that could relate to “heaven” is anybody’s guess. Others have speculated that the universe exists as God holding it in His thoughts, sustaining it.

Some have difficulty with these science based concepts of what exactly “reality” is; but others have difficulty thinking of green fields and sunshine; and streets made of malleable gold as being the real picture of “heaven”. Those concepts resemble “pie in the sky” wishful thinking, making the biblical concepts of salvation and eternity with God a crutch to get us through the tough times in here and now.

The matter we call real - the stuff we can hold and look at, isn’t as simple as we might think. Matter is just another form of energy. When we investigate the molecular identity of matter, we find that our junior high models of atoms made of styrofoam with straws poking out, is not an accurate picture. Electrons don’t actually swirl around the nucleus in neat tracks like Saturn’s ring. The material universe is less “material” than we think. Atoms that make up everything in the universe are made of empty space more than actual particles.

Personally, I find these concepts fascinating when I think of God - what he is - what He’s created - and what eternity with God might look like. Forget the “old man with a white beard” concept of God.


It wasn’t really the historical position in the philosophical circles of Christian thinkers that written on the subject thousands of years ago.


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Since 1897 when British physicist J. J. Thomson discovered the electron, there have
been somewhere around 150 subatomic particles identified.
When an inconceivably small particle called a muon was identified, the legendary
physicist Isaac Rabi is known for saying, “Who ordered that?”
Then there is the fact that electrons don’t orbit the nucleus in a continuous and
consistent manner, what the do is,
disappear in one place and then appear in another place without traveling the
distance in between!
Particles vanish and then show up somewhere else, leaping from one location
to another, with no way to predict when or where they will come or go.
Quantum Leaping as studied by Niels Bohr.
Light is particle AND wave at the same time.
From "What We Talk About When We Talk About God, by Rob Bell. Chapter 2,
“Open”, pg 34-36.

All this will certainly keep Professor Jeff busy for a VERY LONG TIME.


Heaven possibly can not be anywhere in our universe since it is the dwelling place of God and God has to be outside of the universe because our universe was created and had to have a beginning.


Yes, Sirje, let’s forget the idea of god being a old white guy with a long white beard and flowing white garments.

But let’s also give up on the notion that we are as detached from our creator as a painting is from the artist who painted it.

And while we’re at it, let’s recant our belief that the most effective way to learn about our origins is by studying 2,000 year old stories and sermons.

Instead, since we know god is all power, we can also be sure that our creator has the capacity to be experienced “in living color”, at any place, during any time and by any of his creations. That is, a maker capable of creating this astonishing universe must also be powerful enough to be—and to be known—right here, right now, evolving right along within all of his artistic expressions.

In which case—as Belinda Carlyse sang—“Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.”

(Only don’t ask how I know this. I only know what I know, while knowing little to nothing about how I know it. In my defense, however, and as a famous atheist once said “Competency does not require comprehension.” That is, my car and brain are similar in that I don’t have to know how they work in order to put them to use.

And BTW, I like to tweek that last line of the hymn and sing “…a place called earth.” but that’s just me being picky.)

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My comparison between God creating the universe, and the artist painting a picture, is of course limited. My point is that God isn’t just hanging out on some other planet we call “heaven”. The Christian claim is that the “painter” did choose to enter His painting, but that has nothing to do with WHERE heaven is located. Or does it…

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