Last week our question asked about hell, so it seems only fitting to take a look at the other side--what about heaven?
As shared last week, the ancient Israelites did not have a concept of the after-life: you lived, you died, your legacy was your children. So not surprisingly we find little written in the Old Testament of a spiritual realm in which creation participated. The term "heaven" described the physical reality of what we call the sky. Though it is true the ancient Israelites believed God and the heavenly host lived in the heavens, i.e., the sky, it is equally true they didn't expect to see it personally--in this life or any other.
Beginning with the seventh-century BC the Israelites were exposed to the Babylonian, Persian, and Greek cultures and they began to form their own conception of a life-hereafter. By the time of Jesus' ministry there was a widespread understanding of a dualistic afterlife--a heaven and a hell. However, the Sadducees, who were considered the more orthodox Jews, maintained the ancient teaching of no afterlife, though Christ refuted their beliefs (Luke 20.27-38).
The notion of heaven as a residence for departed souls isn't fully developed until rather late in Christendom. Jesus' words indicate the kingdom of heaven was near (Matthew 4.17) and humanity was called to be a part of that kingdom. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the gospels that are most similar) Jesus speaks of storing treasures in heaven by accomplishing good works on earth, but with the exception of a few parables and the promise to the thief on the cross (Luke 23.43) he does not indicate departed souls dwell in heaven.
Except . . . when speaking of the general resurrection and judgement. Which brings us to the eschatological (end times) view of the "new heaven and the new earth" (Revelation 21-22). In the Old Testament, the concept of "the Day of the Lord" indicated a forthcoming time in which God sent wrath upon the earth to deliver the righteous from their oppressors. By Jesus' day, and even more so by the end of the first century, the Day of the Lord had a fuller meaning. The book of the Revelation is Christendom's most fully developed glimpse of the Day of the Lord. However, even Jesus made references to the resurrection and judgement, both motifs of the Day of the Lord motif, as did Paul.
In Jesus' rebuttal to the Sadducees in Luke 20.27-38 he says, "Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection" [emphasis added]. Later, in John's gospel he promises, "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places . . . And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so where I am, there you may be also" (John 14:2-3).
But what of this heavenly dwelling place? Are the redeemed instantly translated to this spiritual abode? Though, church tradition has long taught this, and indeed there are references that support such claims, the majority of scriptures about heaven seem to belie this. Instead, in the Revelation, we are shown this heavenly home at the Day of the Lord: "I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . And I heard a loud voice saying, 'See, the home of God is among mortals. The Lord will dwell with them; they will be God's people, and God will be with them'" (Revelation 21:2-3).
Today we borrow John's description of the new heaven and the new earth of Revelation 21-22 and apply it to what we think heaven's like, but clearly that's not what John intends. For him the Day of the Lord would bring the resurrection, the judgement, and the ushering in of the kingdom of God upon this earth. This heaven on earth would be a place of eternal light, no tears, no hunger or thirst, total contentment, and peace forevermore as we live in the permanent presence of God. But John doesn't seem to expect that the departed saints dwell in the heavens until that final Day: "No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man" (John 3:13).