There are various Hebrew and Greek terms that get translated as “heaven” in the English-language Bible. In the New International Translation (NIV), for example, the word “heaven(s)” appears 622 times. It’s clear that heaven is crucial to the biblical worldview. We can identify two broad meanings for “heaven” in the Bible.
In the majority of cases, “heaven” or “the heavens” refers to the “sky” above the earth. We find this in the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Here “heavens and earth” is a “merism” or figure of speech that means “all created reality.” Thus, “heaven” refers to the upper portion of reality where the birds fly, the rain pours down, the sun shines, etc.The Hebrews believed this upper portion of reality, just like everything else, was created by God and belongs to God: “God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Joshua 2:11; see Deuteronomy 10:14; Isaiah 40:26). As a figure of awe-inspiring vastness, “heaven” is often used as a metaphor for God’s transcendence above manmade constructions: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways higher than human ways and God’s thoughts higher than human thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
Here we begin to see the critical, counter-cultural potential of heaven. The earth is not the totality of reality; there is something “above” manmade reality that transcends and challenges it.
Thus, in more specialized uses, “heaven” refers to the spiritual sphere of reality in which God’s presence and purpose are unlimited. Jacob calls heaven the “house of God” (Genesis 28:17). Moses and Solomon call heaven God’s “dwelling place” (Deuteronomy 26:15; 1 Kings 8:43; 2 Chronicles 30:27). Through the Prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Heaven is my throne” (Isaiah 66:1; see 1 Kings 22:19; see Psalm 2:4; 103:19; Matthew 5:34). The reformist prophet Amos says that God’s “palace is in the heavens” (Amos 9:6).
Jesus centralized this notion of heaven as the fulfillment of God’s presence and purpose in his radical preaching about “the kingdom of heaven.”
For example, Jesus launched his public career with this call for fundamental change rooted in heaven: “Reverse your worldview [metanoiete], for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). We get a glimpse of how Jesus envisioned this worldview reorientation in his first major teaching, which was attended by the sick, the suffering, foreigners, and other social outcasts:
In addition to the Hebrew Prophets, it is likely that Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of heaven was highly influenced by his young mother Mary. Of course, Mary grew up as a peasant in Palestine under the shadow of the colonizing Roman Empire. When Mary learned that she would give birth to Jesus the Messiah, she broke out into an anthem that celebrated God’s will for political and economic reversal:
“[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble! He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty!” (Luke 1:52-53)
For Mary, Jesus’s birth was God’s flesh-and-blood proof that God’s counter-cultural purpose would finally be fulfilled for the poor and oppressed. We should remember that Jesus grew up listening to his mother sing these kinds of subversive protest songs.
First, when a “rich young ruler” came to Jesus and asked him how he could go to heaven, Jesus bluntly answered, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). It is striking that Jesus makes radical economic generosity and justice the precondition for following him and going to heaven. In this story, the rich man walks away because he is too attached to his wealth.
Third, Jesus tells the story of “a rich man” who “lived in luxury every day.” Outside of his house was a poor man named Lazarus who lived in the streets with open wounds and begged for the scraps from the rich man’s dogs (Luke 16:19-31). When the poor man dies, Jesus says that he goes to heaven or “Abraham’s bosom.” When the rich man dies, Jesus says that he goes to hell. When the rich man complains about his destiny, he’s told, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony” (Luke 16:25).
Here we see the radical, destiny-defining implication of Jesus’s declaration: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” For Jesus, the rich’s disregard for the poor is damning. By contrast, the poor’s suffering will be overcome in heaven. They are blessed.
In sum, then, heaven is God’s home for the poor and a blockade against injustice. The kingdom of heaven vindicates the losers and welcomes them as its first citizens – as “the blessed” or truly happy.
But this heavenly reversal is not a justification for the poor staying poor on earth. Instead, heaven is a fierce critique and condemnation of earthly economic injustice, and heaven calls for reversal and reform here and now.
When Jesus called for “worldview reversal” or metanoia, he was challenging us to fundamentally rethink how we order our values and structure our society. It is unsurprising, then, how the first Christians organized their earthly community:
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need… There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-35)
Numerous historians have demonstrated that the early Christian movement expanded so rapidly, in large part, because the first followers of Christ created unprecedented dignity and empowerment for those who were seen as worthless in the Roman imperial hierarchy. For example, Professor Gary Anderson writes in his award-winning book Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (Yale University Press, 2013),
Jesus’s vision of heaven was literally transforming earthly society and creating institutions for the most vulnerable classes. The first Christians took extremely seriously Jesus’s prayer, “Let your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
When we get to the end of the Bible, we hear this ultimate declaration of God’s will for human life in the “new heavens and new earth” – the final renewal of reality:“God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Of course, this is a promise of hope for the poor and oppressed – for those whose earthly lives have been dominated by death, mourning, crying, and pain under the crushing weight of “the old order of things.” According to the Bible’s final Revelation, heaven is “the new order” of liberation and life for the oppressed, who are met with healing, joy, and abundance in God’s new creation.