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.
Charles W. Hedrick
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.