Monday, May 22, 2017

Did Paul believe in the Christian Heaven?

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
Professor Emeritus
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.


Mike Pulley said...

Excellent as always. Scholarship at its finest.

Anonymous said...

Nice posting, Charlie. Some quick observations. 1) From discussions with NT students, I'm not sure there is a "Christian view of heaven today." You're probably right about the prevailing view, but I've encountered others. My second point is related to the first. 2) Given the powerful influence of Star Wars on two generations of Christians, I suspect that many of these Christians imagine heavenly bodies to be recognizable as bodies, but made of light. This is how Jedi appear in their afterlife, and Yoda says things that reinforce this view. Indeed, what is going on in these films bears a very strong resemblance to what Paul appears to have in mind with pneumatic bodies. And though Acts is a secondary source, the presentation of Paul's experience of the risen Christ there seems to be along these lines. 3)The texts pertaining to the renewal of creation are a bit ambiguous. I tend to think that Paul has in mind a pneumatic creation. In order to free creation from decay, it to will have to be reconstituted as lighter, eternal "stuff" too.

Mark Given

bobinberea said...


Excellent, as always. But may I stir things up a little? What about the many passages in which Paul says that the "dead in Christ" are "asleep"? E.g., in 1 Thess 4:13-17 Paul says three times that the dead in Christ are sleeping. In v. 16 it sounds like Christ is coming down from 'up there,' while the dead in Christ are 'down here' and need to rise up to meet him. The real question, of course, is what happens after v. 17, in which the living and the dead "meet the lord in the air." I take it (along with many of our colleagues) that after this _apantesis_ ("meeting"), the _parousia_ ("coming to be present") will not be accomplished until Jesus completes his triumphal arrival on earth. Too bad Paul didn't write a few more sentences about that, filling out the rest of the scenario that he has in mind! I'm guessing that Paul thinks that Jesus is bringing heaven to earth, to complete the new creation. But it would have been nice if he had spelled that out more clearly!

Anyway, "sleeping"? I put you under no obligation to make Paul clear and consistent, which he is not! I like to call him a "theopoet," forever trafficking in mixed (contradictory?) poetic metaphors.


Bob Fowler

Charles Hedrick said...

Thanks Mike!

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Mark,
I think I understand your rationale about the pneumatic earth: If the Christian is to have a spiritual body (which you take to be pneumatic) in the after life, then that must also be true for the renewed earth as well. But what would be the purpose of a physical earth renewed spiritually/pneumatically, if all the Christians are "with the Lord" in heaven, which must be somewhere above the firmament?

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Bob,
Thanks for "stirring things up." Are you suggesting that heaven might be relocated to Mark's spiritual/pneumatic earth? And then the domicile of Christ is the pneumatic earth while God and the other divine entities reside in heaven?
Paul is not a consistent thinker; I agree. I have always thought of the "sleeping" of the Christian after death and before the "appearing of the Lord" as an some kind of an interim period between the Christians' death and the Lord's appearance--Paul having discovered a glitch in his hurriedly put together timetable for the end times. But I acknowledge that is a far cry from Paul's simplistic statement: "absent from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8). And where in our speculation do we make room for the Christian appearing before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10)?

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

Perhaps one factor has been over-looked in the discussion and that is Paul's belief that Jesus was to come again very soon, perhaps as soon as the Father chose to end Paul's mission opportunities.
That factor seems to compress dying and being with the Lord, appearing before the judgment seat of Christ, raised to a spiritual/light body, and the transformation of a world subjected to futility, into the birth moment like right before the Big Bang of creation.

Given that scenario of beliefs, how could any of it apply with accuracy to our own time. However, personally, I've always liked the idea of transforming a world in futility. I'm hoping it's true, and for sure I wouldn't object to a spiritual body.


Charles Hedrick said...

Hi Gene,
You are clearly correct that our attempts to speculate a time-table for the "events" of the end-time are surely guess work--assuming there is an end time scenario. Your suggestion of the end-time "egg" that explodes and in a fraction of a second all events are done, works as well as other speculations, and perhaps a little better. Too bad it didn't occur to Paul.
Personally I like the world as it is, even with all its dangers to our species. God's judgment in Genesis on his creative act in my mind still has merit--"it was very good."
A spiritual body? I have no idea what that is, but it is not something that I am longing to experience--for one reason it will be missing the best aspects of the fleshly body.

Elizabeth said...

Charlie, It's difficult for me to ascertain what exactly heaven is from either Paul or Jesus. They both speak interchangeably about transforming our physical world (perhaps when Jesus returns?) and another realm that is non-physical in nature. Furthermore, Paul has a very negative view of being made of human flesh. Have you ever heard the phrase "crucify the flesh?"

To Paul, "heaven" has something to do with abolishing our fleshly body... according the scriptures you presented in Corinthians and Galatians. He associated flesh with sin. Like you, I have no idea what a spiritual body is. But I do not view my flesh as being tainted in any way. I think in Paul's time, being flesh and blood was a curse and was something that had to be fought against/resisted.

In another blog, would you address the subject of being born into sin (ie. having a "sin nature") and living in a "fallen world?"... And whether or not that concept has outlived its usefulness? Just a suggestion.

From the scriptures you presented, Paul (more so than Jesus) seemed to view heaven as a state of being freed from the density and heaviness of a fleshly human form- he seemed to long for a non-physical existence. I'm like you- I enjoy being a physical human being and I enjoy physical reality, with all its ups and downs and highs and lows.

Thank you for everything, Elizabeth

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Sunday Afternoon Elizabeth,
Always good to hear from you. Yes I have heard of the phrase "Crucify the flesh." It is a statement attributed to Paul in Galatians 5:24. One might add in challenge to Paul's ill-thought out expression that these were the "passions and desires" that are ultimately attributable to God (if God there be). But I have no idea what people are saying that this obscure phrase means in contemporary society.
That we are "born in sin" is an opinion. I know of no way that such a statement can be validated other than by citing other opinions (for example Psalm 51:5, John 9:2. 34). We are born like all human beings and have the same possibilities and opportunities, as well as having to face the same pitfalls and challenges as every body else. Some of us succeed and others fail. The statement does not reflect a very high opinion of the genus homo sapiens.