This week's question comes from a faithful, but concerned, reader in Georgia. She wrote in response to the column titled What Does Being Saved Really Mean and asked, "Are you implying there is no heaven?"
The Bible is full of references to heaven. In the beginning we read of God creating the heavens and the earth. In Genesis we read of the heavens being the host for the stars. In Exodus God sends manna from heaven. And so it goes throughout the Old Testament. Heaven is seen as the dwelling place of God and has the added feature of being the home for the stars. Obviously the Old Testament speaks of heaven -- it just doesn't say what it's like.
However, the Old Testament doesn't reflect an afterlife like the New Testament does. Indeed, there is good evidence the ancient Israelites didn't believe in an afterlife at all. According to the scriptures when a person died, whether good or evil, they went to "sheol" which means the place of the dead (it does not mean hell as some have intimated). For example, Ecclesiastes asserts everyone is going to sheol: "There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9.10b). Further, sheol wasn't a place of eternal life, but of eternal death : " In death there is no remembrance of you [O God]; in Sheol who can give you praise?" (Psalms 6.5).
But the New Testament is a different thing. In the New Testament we find the hope of an afterlife being taught by the Pharisees and by Jesus himself. Then there were the Sadducees who were considered the orthodox Jews, the "old guard" of Israelite theology. They maintained the Old Testament tradition that there was no afterlife, that everyone just died and departed to sheol forever (Mark 12.18).
So what does the New Testament teach about heaven and the afterlife? First, it teaches there is one. Heaven is mentioned 248 times in the New Testament and Paradise three more times. Heaven is seen as the home of God and the stars, like the Old Testament and this is the predominant picture in Mark, Luke, and John. However, Matthew adds another dimension -- the kingdom of heaven.
The kingdom of heaven is unique to Matthew and is found 32 times in the book. The kingdom is a place where mortal souls have a part. "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18.3). In many of the references the kingdom is seen as a coming hope. On the other hand, if the "kingdom of heaven" in Matthew and the "kingdom of God" found in all four gospels are one and the same place, then the kingdom is not only a kingdom to come, but present to us today: "For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17.21 cf., Matthew 12.28 and Mark 9.1).
The real problem with the notion of heaven as a eternal dwelling place for mortals is that it's nowhere described as such in the Bible. There's a "new heaven and a new earth" where mortals live described in the book of the Revelation, but the description is clearly of an edifice on earth (Revelation 21-22) including golden streets and pearly gates. It's not a heavenly dwelling place.
So, is there a heaven? Certainly the New Testament teaches there is one -- we just don't know what it's like. It's one of those matters of faith. So until we get there and verify what it's like for ourselves, we'll have to rely on Paul's words, "To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5.8) and that can't be bad no matter what it's like.