The Bible may not say as much about heaven as we think. This can be discouraging but most want to understand Scriptures correctly. The word Heaven, which appears hundreds of times in the Bible, refers to that which is above and the abode of God. Heaven cannot contain God obviously. It seems that Old Testament believers went into the grave to be resurrected at a later time into the presence of God. Job only hoped to die and go to a “place of darkness” (Sheol) to escape his suffering (Job 10:21-22). King David also describes Sheol as a place of darkness for those who are dead (Ps. 143:3). Enoch and Elijah, who did not suffer death, may have immediately entered God’s presence (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11).
The New Testament suggests Jesus’ resurrection enabled a different destiny for all believers. The “last days” referred to in the NT are commonly thought to be in the future of us readers. But, the NT writers spoke of the last days happening in the generation of their readers. The last days were not the end of the world but the Old Covenant and temple system passing away. The New Covenant ushered in believers going straight to heaven as Jesus overcame the grave for all by resurrecting from His grave. The NT makes promises that the OT did not. Jesus was said to have destroyed death and brought in immorality (2 Tim 1:10). John says Jesus brought no more death (Jn. 8:51), and whoever believes in me will never die (11:25).
There are different views of when the events in I Thessalonians 4:13-18 were to take place, but this passage strongly suggest those who died before Jesus’ arrival did not have the same hope as those who died after Jesus’ arrival (see also I Cor. 15). Jesus’ resurrection proved that Jesus could and did overcome death not only for those who died before Him but also now for those who lived in His lifetime and are born in the future. God can and has conquered the grave as our final destiny. I believe this passage speaks of an event that has already taken place as most think believers today enter Heaven after death.
If we have the hope of heaven and eternal life now, what does Scriptures say about our new abode? The word heaven appears about 272 times in the NT. It is referred to over 80 times in Matthew in references to the “kingdom of heaven.” Jesus says the Kingdom of God is coming in His readers’ lifetime (Mt. 16: 28). Thus, we are presently living in the kingdom of heaven. The second most frequent time the word heaven appears in the NT, after Matthew, is about fifty times in the book of Revelation. It is commonly thought that the book of Revelation speaks of events far in the future but the writer speaks of events taking place soon (Rev 1:1; 22:6). Daniel was told to close up and seal his words as the fulfillment was in the future (Daniel 12:4, 9). John in Revelation was told to leave his book unsealed (Rev. 22:10), because his words were to be fulfilled soon.
The new heaven and earth spoken of in Revelation (21:1-2) is not speaking about a time in the future when God will destroy the earth and come down to reign. John was telling believers soon they can begin to experience Heaven on earth, because of the new spiritual reality coming: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down of heaven from God….”(Rev. 21:1-2). Revelation is not describing what Heaven away from earth is like. It is describing a fulfillment of Jesus’ words in the generation of his readers (Mt. 24:35). The old heaven and earth passing away is fulfillment of the Old Covenant and promise of the New Covenant. The grave no longer holds people after they die as it did before Jesus came. Revelation 21:4 that speaks of no more tears, death, crying, or pain is referring to the fact that the grave is no longer our destination but instead we enter God’s presence immediately after death.
The Bible also does not say much about Heaven by way of speaking of the destiny of those who don’t want to spend eternity with God. Does the Bible really portray God as a sadistic torturer? HELL, NO! The popular concept of hell, where God is involved in the endless torture of people, is nowhere in the Scriptures. Hell is not a translation but a substitution for certain Hebrew and Greek words. In some translations you will not even find the word Hell, or you will notice Bible translations vary greatly in terms of how often the word Hell is used. Hell was an invention over the centuries to scare people into submission and obedience.
The Hebrew word Sheol in the OT often translated as “Hell” was simply a region or place of darkness occupied by the dead regardless of beliefs. As mentioned Job desired to go there to escape his tremendous suffering (Job 10:21-22). The Greek word Gehenna in the New Testament translated as “Hell” was the name of a real, literal, valley nearby Jerusalem that had a history. Hell is no more a translation of Gehenna than Atlanta is for Chicago. Scriptures only says after death that believers and unbelieves are judged by our merciful God
We can imagine though what Heaven may be like. Our imaginations may do greater justice to what Heaven will be like than descriptions of reality we have never experienced. The Apostle Paul does tells us that our eventual citizenship after death here on earth will be in heaven where we will have transformed bodies (Philippians 3:20-21). Heaven may be like the Garden of Eve before we rejected God’s oversight. There was no death or loss of loved ones. Streams came up from the earth and watered the ground (2:6), trees grew out of the ground that were beautiful and provided plenty of food (2: 9), humans and animals live among one another without fear (2:19), and then of course God created naked woman (2:25). If we accept God’s oversight we can hope for no personal evil as men will not take advantage or rule women (3:16), and no natural evil as the ground will not produce thorns or thistles (3:18).
The Bible does promise us eternal life. Most hope for something beyond life on this earth and a reunion with their loved ones. God seemed to want to encourage us to begin living with an eternal perspective while here on earth. John 3:36 is like many other Johannine passages which advises readers that eternal life can began immediately. One will pass through death eventually but one can enter a new life now when they shun evil which involves loving our neighbors as we wish to be loved (3:20). We can begin to have abundant life now her on earth (Jn. 10:10). Salvation is not being saved from Hell or only about entering Heaven sometime in the future after death. Salvation is healing, deliverance, or rescue on earth from the stranglehold of self-centeredness. We can begin living a life that will have less regrets when we pass from this earth. We no longer have to be bound but our desires for sin but look to God’s ways for true happiness.