The first clue that Jesus’s map of heaven is different from ours is found in the word itself. The Hebrew word for “heaven” in the Old Testament is shamayim, and the Greek word in the New Testament is ouranos. Both words are plural and are usually accompanied by a definite article. Therefore, they should more accurately be translated into English as “the heavens.” This means, according to the Bible, heaven is not a single place or a proper name, and we should not speak about heaven as a singular location the way we speak about London, Wrigley Field, or even something as vast as the Pacific Ocean.
The ancient cultures that shaped the Bible, and to which Jesus belonged, understood “the heavens” to be a vast realm surrounding the earth. First, they spoke of the heavens when referring to the sky or atmosphere. When Jesus said “the birds of the air,” the actual language he used was “the birds of the heavens” (Matt. 6:26). The heavens are also where the celestial bodies abide—the sun, moon, and stars. Modern people distinguish between the atmosphere and outer space, but ancient cultures did not. Therefore, the heavens were simply everything in the air and above the earth.
“The heavens” also carried another important meaning in the ancient world. It referred to the dwelling place of God. The heavens are the invisible, intangible realm occupied by the Lord and his hosts. When this meaning is intended, our English Bibles will often ignore the plural Hebrew or Greek word and use the singular instead. For example, Isaiah 66:1 is translated as “This is what the Lord says: ‘Heaven is my throne.’” When modern people read this verse with our mental map, it conjures images of God occupying a celestial city far away from the earth. But in Hebrew the verse says, “The heavens are my throne.” The Lord is saying that he occupies the air/sky/atmosphere immediately surrounding us. Unfortunately, most of our translations of the Bible do not help us grasp this more immediate and accessible vision of God’s heavenly presence.
The reason is simple. Our modern scientific knowledge has influenced how we translate these ancient texts. We want to differentiate the natural realm of the atmosphere from the supernatural realm of the spirits. Therefore, our English Bibles will say birds, clouds, thunder, or rain occupy “the air” but that God and his angels occupy “heaven,” when all of these verses actually use the same plural word—“the heavens.” By imposing our mental map of heaven onto the Bible, we obscure or erase the mental map of the biblical writers and of Jesus himself. Instead, we come to believe that heaven is a distant place accessible only after death and that God could not possibly be as near as the air filling our lungs.
The implications of this, as Dallas Willard notes, are a warped understanding of God, his kingdom, and the message of Jesus. “The damage done to our practical faith in Christ and in his government-at-hand by confusing heaven with a place in distant outer space, or even beyond space, is incalculable. Of course, God is there too. But instead of heaven and God also being always present with us, as Jesus shows them to be, we invariably take them to be located far away and, most likely, at a much later time—not here and not now.”
READ MORE: Acts 2:42–47; Ephesians 2:11–22