Fortunately we do not have to wonder about the uncertainties of what Paul may have believed; his views can be described from what he himself wrote. How Paul used the word "heaven" (ouranos) shows that he clearly understood heaven as the divine realm, the abode of God, Christ, and the angels (Rom 1:18; 10:6; 1 Cor 8:5; 15:47; Gal 1:8; 1 Thess 1:10; 4:16). The view as expressed in these passages is identical to that of the ancient Greek world where heaven, and/or Mount Olympus, was seen as the abode of the Gods.1 In Paul's view this heavenly abiding place of the divine appears to have been permeable (2 Cor 12:2), so perhaps its nether regions were open to visitation by other travelers on heavenly journeys as well as Paul.2
Paul described those who shared his religious views as citizens of the commonwealth of heaven (Phil 3:20-21), which is their transcendental home in the heavens (2 Cor 5:1-4) where they would always be with the Lord (2 Cor 5:6-8; 1 Thess 4:16-17). With respect to the sovereign rule of God, in five instances the concept appears to be something that is realized in the future (1 Cor 6:9; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:2; 1 Thess 2:12), but in two instances it appears to be something one can experience in the present (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20).
One way Paul may have differed from contemporary views of the Christian heaven is the state in which the departed soul would experience heaven. The Christian view of heaven today seems to be more Greek than that hope anticipated by Paul. Today, in general, Christian churches tend to think of a person's soul in terms of the disembodied state; the soul is the essential spiritual essence of a person that remains after the body has been discarded. This is essentially the ancient Greek concept.3 Paul, however, being Hebrew, was more influenced by the Hebrew myth of the first human being (Adam), who was created as a unified living being (Gen 2:7), and hence for Paul a disembodied soul was apparently a strange concept. In Paul's view a person was essentially a living being, and not an embodied spirit/soul. He argued that the dead will again be embodied with an imperishable "spiritual body" (1 Cor 15:35-50; 1 Cor 5:1-5), and, I suppose, in that state the believer would experience heaven.
Another concept in Paul, strange to Christian ears today is Paul's association of the hereafter with the liberation of the physical creation from its futility (Rom 8:20) and bondage to decay (Rom 8:21), perhaps occasioned mythically by God cursing the ground when Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden (Gen 3:17). Romans 8:19-23 reflects a kind of restoration or renewal of the physical universe to its original "very good" state (Gen 1:31). The idea of a "new heavens and a new earth" (Isa 65:17) is shared by other early Christians (2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1). Paul, however, has specifically associated this restoration of the physical universe with believers awaiting the "redemption of their bodies" (Rom 8:22-23) as the universe awaited its renewal. I am not at all sure, however, what role a restored physical universe would play in the completely spiritual reality of heaven. But Paul dies not elaborate.
In sum, Paul anticipates that after death the believer will be with the Lord in heaven; nevertheless that experience does not appear to be identical with contemporary ideas of the blessed state of the Christian heaven.
Missouri State University
1 Helmut Traub, TDNT, 5:500 [497-502].
2 James D. Tabor, Heaven, "Ascent to," ABD, 2:91-94.
3 Christopher Rowe, OCD, 1428.
As most of you likely know, I cannot read minds—much less the mental state of paper characters invented by the minds of others, that is to say, the synoptic evangelists of whom virtually nothing certain is known. Here is a prolegomenon addressing the question in the title. The Greek word for heaven (ouranos, οὐρανός) according to the lexicographers is used three ways in the New Testament: 1. referring to a part of the ancient universe, hence firmament or sky; 2. referring to a transcendental abode, hence not part of the universe; 3. as a circumlocution for God, hence neither of the first two.
I limit my inquiry to the testimony of the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical Gospel Q. In Mark there are 17 uses of ouranos. I would describe the uses of ouranos in Mark (readers may disagree): firmament or sky (1:10-11; 4:32; 6:41; 7:34; 13:25 [twice]; 13:27; 13:31); as a circumlocution for God (8:11; 11:30-31); as a transcendental abode (10:21; 11:25; 12:25; 13:32; 14:62). Such is the evidence in Mark.
The question now becomes do the five "heaven-is-a-transcendental-abode" sayings attributed to Jesus in Mark survive the scalpel of critical scholarship. The report of the Jesus Seminar published in The Five Gospels (abbreviated here as FG) is the most critical sifting of the Jesus tradition to date. All but one of these sayings attributed to Jesus by Mark are colored gray, meaning that in the judgment of the seminar Jesus did not say this, but the ideas expressed are (may be) close to his own (FG, pp. 36-37). The saying rendered black is Mark 14:62 meaning Jesus did not say this; it represents the perspective of a later strand of the Jesus tradition. To see their rationale, look up the sayings in The Five Gospels. Hence, the sayings on heaven as a transcendental abode in the Gospel of Mark appear to be a later Christian tradition attributed to Jesus. Apparently Jesus himself did not share the view of an ultimate heavenly abode affirmed by the later tradition. Such is the judgment of critical scholarship on Mark's sayings about heaven as a transcendental abode.
The hypothetical early Christian gospel Q (Quelle, source), which no longer exists but is reconstructed by scholars from close verbal parallels between Matthew and Luke, is thought to be earlier than Mark. It is dated by some as early as 50 CE. Reconstructions of Q include seven sayings on heaven, four of which appear to be referring to heaven as a transcendental abode: Luke 6:23; 11:13; 12:23; 15:17. One saying can either be a transcendental abode or a circumlocution for God (Luke 10:15). One refers to heaven as part of the firmament (Luke 16:17), and the last is a circumlocution (Luke 17:29). Such is the evidence from the hypothetical early Christian sayings gospel Q.
Critical scholars regard four of these Q sayings as highly questionable (i.e., colored gray): Luke 6:23; 11:13; 12:33; 16:17; and three of them were definitely not spoken by Jesus (i.e., colored black; Luke 10:15; 15:17; 17:29). Such is the judgment of critical scholarship on Q's sayings about heaven as a transcendental abode.
When the earliest sources about Jesus (Mark and Q) are read critically it appears that Jesus did not share the later Christian hope of heaven as a transcendental abode to which the Christian soul journeys after death. He did, however, anticipate the imminent coming of what he called the "sovereign rule of God" (Mark: 10:14, 23, 25; Q: Matt 6:10a/Luke 11:2b; Matt 12:28/Luke 11:20) All of these sayings, when evaluated critically, are affirmed as originating with Jesus.
On the basis of the passages I have listed just above, the sovereign rule of God does not appear to be a transcendent abode (readers may disagree), but rather a domain, in the sense of God's sphere of influence over human life—or do you read them differently?
It is a naïve mistake to assume that what the church believes is what Jesus believed. Basically people must decide if they will live by the uncritical faith that the New Testament gospels are historically correct in all particulars, or live by reason and logic and make use of the results of 250 years of critical studies of the Bible. Critical scholars are not always right—true enough! But neither are they always wrong. One must look at the evidence and make informed judgments.
Missouri State University