A more accurate title for this post would be “four meanings for the word heaven,” but that struck me as unwieldy. As used in the Bible and among Christians, the word heaven has four distinct meanings, and when people confuse those meanings, their concept of heaven becomes muddled.
The first heaven is the sky—where the clouds are, where birds and airplanes fly. It could perhaps to considered equivalent to the Earth’s atmosphere, although sometimes it is said that the orbit of the moon marks the boundary between the first and second heaven.
The second heaven is the vastness of the universe beyond the Earth’s atmosphere or beyond the moon’s orbit. The sun and all the objects orbiting the sun are part of the second heaven, as are the other stars in our galaxy and whatever objects orbit around them. The second heaven also includes the other galaxies and everything they contain. Whatever physical objects exist outside of galaxies are likewise part of the second universe.
The book of Genesis starts with this sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The two heavens—the immediate sky and the vastness of the universe—are included in that sentence.
The third heaven is the presence of God—a special presence, since God is present everywhere in the universe. Paul wrote of being caught up into the third heaven (II Corinthians 12:2). In Revelation, John saw a door in the sky (the first heaven) and, moving through that door, entered the third heaven (Revelation 4:1-2). When we speak of a believer who has died and now is in heaven, we are referring to the third heaven. Jesus mentioned the third heaven twice while on the cross. When a criminal being executed with Jesus said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth: today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Therefore, we can describe the third heaven as Paradise, the Father’s hands, being with Jesus, or—in the case of one of Jesus’ parables—in Abraham’s bosom.
The fourth heaven is a shortening of the expression “new heavens and a new earth.” This new creation is promised to Christians as a future reality. On the Day Jesus is seen in the sky, with all his angels and all the believers who have died, he will restore creation. Everything in creation will be new—it will be like the world Adam and Eve experienced before they sinned. Everything that was very good then will be very good again, and it will remain very good for all eternity.
Unbelievers mock Christians as if we believed that the presence of God—the third heaven—was somewhere in the sky—the first and second heavens. They describe Christians as picturing God as an old man with a long white beard sitting on a cloud. The third heaven cannot be found by traveling anywhere in the universe. Instead, one could think of it as another set of dimensions overlaying the familiar dimensions of height, width, and depth. (Time has dimensions too, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Christians sometimes mix together the third and fourth heavens in our minds and our conversations. The third heaven is an ongoing reality. God, his angels, and the saints who have died are in the third heaven now. The fourth heaven is a future reality. It is the new creation established by Jesus on a Day that has not yet occurred. The Bible says many more things about the fourth heaven than about the third heaven. Therefore, Christians sometimes make the mistake of describing the saints in Paradise as having the blessings of the new creation. They are guaranteed those blessings or they would not be in Paradise; but they are waiting for the new creation even as we are waiting.
Eternal life in the new creation is the ultimate Christian hope and God’s firm guarantee. Heaven will be like Paradise because we will always be in the presence of God and always experience his presence. Yet heaven will also be this planet—and the rest of creation—restored to perfection. As Adam and Eve had tasks in Eden, so we will have things to do for God and for one another. None of them will be burdensome or boring. Each of us probably will do the things we love doing most in this world—singing, gardening, woodcraft, or many other possibilities. Yet many vocations will have disappeared. We will not need legal professionals, health care professionals, military professionals, and the like, because the world will be perfect. Deadlines will no longer be a problem, because there will be no death. Nothing in all of creation will be harmful or dangerous. Best of all, we will be with the Lord forever.
We are looking forward to a new creation, the home of righteousness. Our faith includes the guarantee of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. When Jesus spoke of heaven, he did not say much about white robes or harps. Instead, he compared it to a wedding reception—a joyful party with food and drink, music and dancing, and people celebrating the glory of a loving relationship. This is our future, and no power in all creation can take it away from us, for Jesus has already paid the necessary price to make this new world our home. J.