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.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University