When I was a kid, I used to misunderstand all kinds of words, and the results were often humorous. For example, I remember my mom and older brother once looking out of the window at a "lion." I wondered why a lion would be in our front yard. "Where did it come from?" I thought. "Was there a breakout at the local zoo? Would he try to come into our home and eat me? Does he know Timon and Pumba?"
It turned out that it was "lightning" they were looking at, not a lion. The same thing happened when I thought “tomatoes" were touching down around us, when it was actually "tornadoes."
Embarrassingly, the list goes on and on, but the illustration is that it's not uncommon to innocently misunderstand words, and that the results can be interesting.
I am convinced that one of the most misunderstood words in the Bible is "heaven," which is ironic, because it is one of the most important words a believer ought to understand. Heaven is the place where we will spend eternity. Not just a day. Not a week or a year or decade, but forever. Yet, somehow, when we think of heaven we tend to think of clouds and naked baby angels playing harps all day long. In fact the most oft-asked question about heaven is, "What will we do there?" The runner up is, "If heaven is perfect, won't it be perfectly boring?"
These questions reveal that we don't know much about our future eternal home, and what we think we know leads us to believe it will be humdrum.
This website is dedicated to bringing clarity to the subject of heaven, but before we can answer any question on the topic, we need to first answer the question as to what the Bible means when it talks about "heaven." I could go a number of directions with this answer, like breaking down the Greek and Hebrew words, or parsing every mention of the term in the Bible, or even explaining all of the contexts of its use, which would all be helpful (and laborious!), but what I want to do in this particular post is capture the general meaning of the idea of heaven, because doing so will provide a certain clarity to our eternal abode that will, in effect, make every other question on the subject more answerable, and therefore more understandable.
The Most Important Principle About Understanding Heaven
An important principle--perhaps the most important principle--about heaven is that it changes. Randy Alcorn is arguably the most prolific scholar on the subject of heaven alive today. He suggests the changeability of heaven in writing, “God created heaven, it had a beginning and is therefore neither timeless nor changeless … Only God is eternal and self-existent. All else is created. Heaven is not … part of his essential being” (2004:43, 44). For Alcorn, heaven exists in three categories, including the “past heaven, the intermediate heaven, and the eternal heaven,” and contends that, while they “can all be called heaven … they are not synonymous” (2004:44).
This is to say that the way heaven functioned in the past is different from how it functions in the present, and the way it functions in the present is different from how it will function in the future. These disparate moments of heaven can all be considered the same heaven, but it doesn't mean that heaven is the same, much like a person who is born as a baby but grows into an adult is the same person, but the person is obviously not the same. He looks and functions much differently.
Therefore, heaven is best understood in three major categories, including the past, the present, and the future. This is an imperative concept because every question about heaven must first be placed into its proper categorical (past, present, or future) context, otherwise it simply cannot be answered appropriately. For example, if someone asks, "Do we go directly to heaven when we die?" (a question we will answer in more depth in a later article), the answer is going to depend on the categorical (past, present, or future) nature of heaven. If a Christian believes that Jesus is the only way to the Father, and that it was his death and resurrection alone that opened the door for people to be with the Father in heaven (John 14:6), then that would mean that prior to his death and resurrection people could not be with the Father in heaven. Thus, the answer to the question, "Do we go directly to heaven when we die?" needs to be answered within the proper categorical context of heaven.
This principle applies to essentially every question that can be asked of the doctrine.
How Has Heaven Changed?
Answers on Heaven affirms Alcorn's three categories of heaven (past, present, and future), but believes that these are best understood as major headings to what amounts to seven "epochs" of heaven throughout creation. These epochs are established in Scripture via the ministry of Jesus. Once these epochs are understood, then the minutia of heaven can begin to be correctly appropriated, which results in a clarified grasp of the subject, which further results in excitement for our eternal home.
In order to keep this answer as simple as possible, the seven epochs will be listed, but not expressly detailed (if you are interested in a full analysis of these epochs, feel free to contact Answers on Heaven, or you can watch for our book to be released). The epochs include: (1) Pre-Creation Heaven (heaven before creation); (2) Post-Creation/Pre-Fall Heaven (heaven during the Garden of Eden); (3) Post-Fall/Pre-Gospel Heaven (heaven after the fall; essentially the entire OT, prior to Jesus); (4) Post-Gospel/Pre-Tribulation Heaven (the present heaven); (5) Heaven during the Tribulation (heaven after the rapture/resurrection of the church) (6) Heaven during the Millennium (heaven after the second coming); (7) Heaven during future eternity.
If we apply the three major headings to these epochs, it looks like this:
Past Heaven: (1) Pre-Creation Heaven; (2) Post-Creation/Pre-Fall Heaven (heaven during the Garden of Eden); (3) Post-Fall/Pre-Gospel Heaven (essentially the entire OT)
Present Heaven: (4) Post-Gospel/Pre-Tribulation Heaven
Future Heaven: (5) Heaven during the Tribulation (6) Heaven during the Millennium; (7) Heaven during future eternity
This means that heaven has already undergone several changes, and that it has several more changes to go. These changes impact how heaven functions, particularly with people, and impacts how we will experience heaven during each respective epoch.
Also, it is important to note that these epochs are initiated--and therefore created--by Jesus Christ. For example, his death and resurrection changed the way heaven functioned with earth. He offered the ability for mankind to enter heaven upon death. Future changes will happen via the rapture of the church and his second coming. In other words, every time Jesus performs a major event, it alters the way heaven functions. Scripture portrays seven different epochs, based on his work.
Once this principle is accepted, heaven becomes more clear. Suddenly, we can begin to specifically know what we have to look forward to. Heaven becomes less of a convoluted blob, and more of a coherent belief. And this is the major goal of Answers on Heaven--to provide clarity to one of the greatest hopes a Christian has, eternal life with Jesus.
Randy Alcorn, Heaven, 2004.