Every week I receive great questions and I try to answer as many of them as possible. This week in response to a question on what the Bible says about ghosts, I linked to an earlier article on what the Bible has to say about where people go when they die. In short, the post follows Biblical scholar Michael Bird in arguing that before the resurrection of Jesus Christ, people went to Sheol, a place that is neither heaven nor hell. Sheol is divided into two realms and the righteous go to paradise (Παραδείσῳ. Luke 23:43) while the unrighteous go to Hades. Once Jesus was resurrected, the souls of the righteous followed him to heaven but the unsaved wait in Hades for final judgment (Revelation 20:11-15).
But several people rightfully asked if Bird’s theory failed because Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-11) was supposedly taken to directly to heaven This is a great question!
It is important to remember that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the word often translated as “heaven” is שָׁמַיִם (samayim) has a range of potential meanings. According to tools such as the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, when an inspired author of Scripture used the word he may have indeed intended to mean heaven but he may have also have been referring to the sky or the atmosphere or even the created universe as a whole–it all depends on context.
Now, God does not reveal anywhere in Scripture why He spared His servant Elijah physical death. Some have speculated it is because he was unusually righteous and some go on to identify him (possible along with Enoch, which is another issue) as one of the “two witnesses” listed in Revelation 11:3. In the end, it is all pure speculation as to why he was spared death but it does not follow from the Hebrew that he was taken directly from earth to the very throne room of God. In fact, when one weighs the entire canon of Scripture, it appears unlikely that he was taken anywhere but Hades.
Yes, Elijah was transported into the sky before the eyes of his successor but rising into the “sky” does not necessarily mean going to “heaven” lest we think heaven is a place in our universe just beyond the clouds. In the New Testament, Jesus ascended into the sky after His resurrection but He was hidden by a cloud and disappeared (Acts 1:9). Luke, the inspired author of Acts, did not necessarily believe that heaven lay just beyond the clouds. In the Bible, rising and descending is simply a sign of God’s royal blessing.
While I agree with C.S. Lewis who cautioned in The Great Divorce against being too dogmatic about the afterlife but it appears from the scant Biblical evidence we have that heaven is a dimension hidden from our sight rather than a physical place within our universe (see Genesis 28:10-17). Such a scenario would make scientific sense as well.
Many scholars contend that we miss the entire point of Elijah’s dramatic ascent in 2 Kings 2. Elijah’s “chariot of fire” parallels the fire from heaven in Exodus 13, which highlights the presence of Yahweh and demonstrates the superiority of the true God over the false god of Baal (2 Kings 1:10). The whirlwind in 2 Kings 2 is another sign of God’s presence (see Job 38:1). Thus, scholars several Hebrew academics argue the scene is about confirming Elijah’s role as the true prophet who offered both salvation and judgment rather than a cool ride to heaven!
In sum, I don’t see any evidence that Elijah’s heavenly escort by the powerful presence of God means that Bird is wrong about the Sheol and Paradise as the destination for the dead before the resurrection and Sheol and heaven for the souls of those who die after the resurrection. I hope that answers the question. Grace and peace.