How Many Heavens?
In the theories of the universe held by “ancient peoples there was a plurality of heavens, varying from three to seven, the higher transcending the lower in glory.” What does the Bible say?
ACCORDING to the dean of St. John’s College, Cambridge, England, what the Bible has to say about heaven and hell should not be taken too seriously. After all, says he, its expressions only represent “opinions current at the various dates of their utterance.” In the same vein Harper’s Bible Dictionary tells us that “the belief in a plurality of heavens was common in the ancient world (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2). It found support in the speculations of Aristotle and of the Pythagoreans.”
As Christians we cannot grant that what the Bible says about the heavens merely reflects current notions of the time or that it is based on human speculations. Nor shall we blame the Bible because some have misunderstood or misinterpreted it. Rather, we must accept its claims to inspiration and Jesus’ statement that God’s Word is truth. We therefore confidently turn to it for reliable information regarding the heavens.
While the Jewish religious leaders known as the rabbins held that there were seven distinct heavens, and while the heaven of the Koran has some hundred degrees, the Bible uses the term “heavens” in some ten different senses. It speaks of righteous and unrighteous heavens, visible and invisible heavens, physical and spiritual heavens, and past, present and future heavens. What do all these have in common so as to merit being termed “heavens”? They are all exalted, raised up or lofty as compared with other things or persons. This is in keeping with the Hebrew word shamáyim, which some students claim was taken from a root meaning “to be lofty.” Likewise with the Greek term ouranós; literally meaning “the sky,” it appears to be derived from a root meaning “elevated.”
THE PHYSICAL HEAVENS
The Scriptures repeatedly term the sky or atmosphere in which the birds fly as “heavens.” Thus at creation God said: “Let flying creatures fly over the earth in the bosom of the expanse of the heavens.” And the divine Record states that at the time of the Deluge God wiped out every existing thing from man “to flying creature of the heavens.” These are the heavens into which Elijah ascended as he was separated from Elisha, as we read: “a fiery war-chariot and fiery horses, and they proceeded to make a separation between them both and Elijah went ascending in the windstorm to the heavens.” This could not have been the heavens where God is, because many centuries later Jesus said that “no man has ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man.” And Paul stated that all the faithful men of old, who had died, “did not get the fulfillment of the promise,” it being given to a heavenly class.—Gen. 1:20; 7:23; 2 Ki. 2:11; John 3:13; Heb. 11:39, NW.
The term “heavens” is also used in the Scriptures to refer to the celestial bodies, the universe of the stars, all of what can be seen by the most powerful telescopes. Thus we read that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Also that God promised Abraham: “I shall surely multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens.” These milky ways, starry galaxies, testify eloquently to the majesty of the great Creator and therefore the psalmist well exclaimed: “The heavens declare the glory of God.”—Gen. 1:1; 22:17, NW; Ps. 19:1, AS.
THE RIGHTEOUS INVISIBLE HEAVENS
The Scriptures also speak of God’s invisible creation, his host of spirit creatures as well as their abode, as “heavens.” Incidentally, there does not seem to be any distinction made between the singular or plural form of “heaven(s).” Some speculate as to whether these heavens are merely a condition or mental state or have a location, but the Scriptures clearly indicate that we are to associate a special location with the spiritual heavens. Thus we read of an angelic messenger’s being sent from Jehovah to Daniel, who, en route, was waylaid by a demon prince for twenty-one days, until Michael the prince rescued this messenger so that he was able to proceed to Daniel on earth. Likewise we read of Jehovah’s holding court at one time and asking Satan where he had been and of Satan’s replying that he had been upon the earth. So we are to associate location with the heavens where spirit creatures reside.
These heavens are the “house” Jesus referred to when he said: “In the house of my Father there are many abodes. . . . I am going my way to prepare a place for you.” In this heavenly house are to be found Jehovah God’s Son, the resurrected glorious Jesus Christ, now the express image of his Father, the seraphim, the cherubim and other angelic creatures, spirit messengers, as well as those footstep followers of Christ who have been faithful until death and to whom God has been pleased to give the crown of life, these having put on incorruption and immortality in the “first resurrection.” Daniel had a view of these heavens in a vision in which he saw thousands of thousands ministering to Jehovah and ten thousand times ten thousand standing before him. These also are the heavens that were told to rejoice at the time that Satan was cast out of them and down to the earth, as recorded at Revelation, chapter twelve.—John 14:2, NW; Dan. 7:10.
As to what those heavens are like, which are of such special interest to the footstep followers of Christ, it seems that it would not be possible to describe them to humans. The Bible does not state and it would be foolish to speculate. Since we are told that “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom,” it must follow that the heavens could not be composed of literal gold and precious stones. Rather, such expressions as are found, for example, at Revelation 21 and Ezekiel 28, are to be viewed as figures of speech. Such figures of speech, however, do help us to appreciate that these heavens are beautiful, in fact, transcendently glorious.—1 Cor. 15:50, NW.
Now, even as the starry heavens are far above earth’s atmospheric heavens, so are the heavens of God’s throne high above the heavens where his spirit sons dwell. Without doubt God’s throne is exalted far above all his creatures. Thus Jesus said that certain “angels in heaven always have access to my Father who is in heaven,” implying that not all angels always have access to the presence of Jehovah God. It is of this particular heaven that we read: “Thus saith Jehovah, Heaven is my throne.” When Christ left his disciples forty days after his resurrection he entered “into heaven itself, now to appear before the person of God for us.”—Matt. 18:10, NW; Isa. 66:1, AS; Heb. 9:24, NW.
“HEAVENS” AS PART OF A “WORLD”
The Scriptures also speak of “heavens” as the exalted or lofty part of a “world.” The term “world” occurs in the King James Version some 275 times and more than 170 of these times it translates the Greek word kosmos. The noted Greek philosopher Aristotle defines kosmos thus: “A system composed of the heaven and the earth, and of the creatures contained in them; otherwise the orderly and beautiful arrangement of the world is called kosmos.” In keeping with this understanding of the term “world” are the words of Jehovah: “I will punish the world for their evil, . . . I will make the heavens to tremble, and the earth shall be shaken out of its place.”—Isa. 13:11, 13, AS.
The Scriptures tell of four such heavens as the exalted parts of four distinct worlds. The first of these was the righteous heavens that came into existence at the time of the creation of Adam and Eve, when God appointed a covering cherub as their guardian: “Thou wast in Eden, the garden of God; . . . Thou wast the anointed cherub that covereth.” This covering cherub was the invisible heavens and Adam and Eve were the visible earth of that first world, which was a righteous one.—Ezek. 28:13, 14, AS.
That righteous heavens, however, was very short-lived. It came to an end with the rebellion of the covering cherub, he thereby making himself into Satan the Devil. At that time the righteous earth also came to an end with the disobedience of Adam and Eve. That world corrupted itself and a wicked world began, Satan himself constituting the wicked heavens. That heavens, however, increased in number as many spirit sons of God were induced to leave their heavenly abode and service and come to earth to enjoy the pleasures of sex as husbands of human wives. These wicked “heavens” caused the “earth” of that time to become so corrupt that Jehovah had to call a halt by the Deluge: “The world of that time suffered destruction when it was deluged with water.”—2 Pet. 3:6, NW.
While the Deluge destroyed all wicked flesh-and-blood creatures, the “earth” of that time, it did not destroy the heavenly individuals, Satan and other wicked sons of God, but merely disrupted their activity or organization. Some time after the flood these heavenly forces overreached men and the postflood world became wicked, having wicked heavens and earth. This wicked world has continued down to the present time, and is also termed “the present wicked system of things.” Its wicked heavens are the foes against which Christians have to fight: “Because we have a fight, not against blood and flesh, but against the governments, against the authorities, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places.”—Gal. 1:4; Eph. 6:12, NW.
This world, with its wicked heavens and its wicked visible ruling powers on earth, together with its supporters, will come to an end at Armageddon: “But by the same word the heavens and the earth that are now are stored up for fire and are being reserved to the day of judgment and of destruction of the ungodly men.”—2 Pet. 3:7, NW.
The end of these wicked heavens and earth will be followed by the promised righteous new world: “But there are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.” This new heavens will consist of Christ and his bride, “the holy city, New Jerusalem.” John had a vision of these: “And I saw, and look! the Lamb standing upon the mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand . . . who have been purchased from the earth.” These, as the spiritual Seed of Abraham, will reign a thousand years over mankind, blessing and restoring it to perfection as a “new earth.”—2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 14:1, 3; 20:5, 6, NW.
MINISTERS AS “HEAVENS”
There are yet two uses of the term “heavens” mentioned in the Scriptures, the locations of the ministers of God and the ministers of Satan. Thus Paul writes regarding Christians who have heavenly hopes: “And he raised us up together and seated us together in the heavenly places in union with Christ.” These ministers of God, having been born of the spirit and made members of the body of Christ, can properly be said to occupy an exalted or heavenly position.—Eph. 2:6, NW.
In a similar way spokesmen for the religion of Satan the Devil, his ministers, are as in his heavens in that they occupy an exalted position and represent themselves as lights of the world. Included among these are the apostate “stars with no set course.” (Jude 13, NW) Such ministers of Satan are the spiritual or religious counterpart of the stars referred to by Jesus at Revelation 1:20; 2:1; 3:1.
As for the “third heaven” mentioned at 2 Corinthians 12:2 (NW) and cited by Harper’s Bible Dictionary and to which the apostle Paul was caught up: This does not refer to a plurality of heavens, but rather to the great degree of rapture experienced by Paul. Similarly, for emphasis or intenseness, “overturn” is mentioned a third time at Ezekiel 21:27. Jesus told Peter three times to feed his sheep, as noted at John 21:15-17, and at Revelation 4:8 “holy” is mentioned three times for emphasis.
So we see that in the Scriptures the term “heavens” is used to apply to both the atmosphere and the starry heavens. It is also used to designate the very presence of Jehovah as well as the location of his myriads of spirit creatures. Further, “heavens” also denotes the lofty, invisible part of a world or “system of things.” And finally, “heavens” is also applied to those ministers of Christ on earth who have heavenly hopes and to the ministers of Satan who occupy exalted positions and who profess to be lights of the world.