On Earth as in Heaven: A (Very) Brief Biblical Theology of Heaven
For many Christians, what we know about heaven comes from a few passages scattered around the New Testament. We know that being absent from the body means being present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). We know that being with Christ is far better than continuing in our present state here on earth (Phil 1:21–24). We celebrate that Jesus went to heaven to prepare a place for us (John 14:3). These are glorious truths for pilgrims journeying toward the grave.
But does Scripture offer more than a few scattered references to heaven? Even more, does heaven play any part in the Bible’s storyline?
When I first discovered biblical theology, I was struck by how I’d spent so many years as a Christian yet had missed the rather obvious fact that “heaven” wasn’t the Christian’s ultimate destination. Instead, God’s people are headed for restoration—resurrected bodies on a new earth. In that discovery, however, I struggled to see how heaven, the realm of the intermediate state for Christians between death and resurrection, fit within the biblical storyline. While still gloriously hope-giving and comforting in the face of my inevitable funeral, heaven still seemed disconnected from Scripture’s narrative arc: creation, fall, redemption, new creation. Where exactly does it “fit” in that progression?
In this article, I want to briefly sketch out the role “heaven” plays in the biblical storyline.
A biblical theology of heaven begins in the first verse of the Bible: God creates “the heavens and the earth.” While “heavens” often simply refers to the sky (Gen. 1:20), throughout Scripture it also refers to God’s holy realm, his special abode populated with righteous angels (Ps. 2:4; 1 Kings 22:19). “The heavens and the earth” in Genesis 1:1 therefore is a word-pair delineating the entire created order—a created order that houses two distinct realms: heaven and earth.
A Copy and Shadow of Heavenly Things
Even though these two realms are distinct, Scripture unfolds an intriguing relationship between the two. In order to see this point, we need to skip over to Exodus for a moment, before continuing on with the creation story.
In Exodus, God commands Moses to build a tabernacle and its furnishings “after the pattern for them, which is being shown you on the mountain” (Exo. 25:40). In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews further explains that the earthly tabernacle was a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5; cf. Heb. 9:23). As strange as it might seem to us, heaven has a sanctuary and this sanctuary was shown to Moses as the blueprint for the earthly tabernacle. The heavenly sanctuary is an archetype, the earthly one a copy. Perhaps a fun little graphic might help here.
But Moses’ depiction of the tabernacle not only shows that it’s a copy of the heavenly tabernacle, it’s also a miniaturized recreation of the garden of Eden. The tabernacle is decorated with fruit-bearing trees, angels, gold, and other images meant to recall the garden of Eden (Exod. 25). The priests are commissioned to “work and keep” the tabernacle, just as Adam was commanded to do the same for the garden (Gen. 2:15; Num. 3:7–8; 8:26; 18:5–6). Even God’s instructions for building the tabernacle, laid out in seven divine speeches, mirror God’s seven speech acts of creation (Gen. 1; Exodus 25–31). In fact, both seven-speech cycles end by focusing on the Sabbath (Gen. 2:2–3; Exod. 31:12–17).
So now let’s get back to Genesis and the creation story. What’s the point of all these correspondences? Essentially these correspondences show us that “the cosmos is a large temple; the temple is a small cosmos.
In other words, both the temple and the garden of Eden were designed to mirror the heavenly sanctuary. Far from being two independent realms, God designed earth to mirror heavenly realities. Other features of Genesis bear this out as well. The marriage covenant is an earthly picture of the heavenly reality of God’s relationship with his people (Gen. 2:18–25; Gen. 15:12–21; Eph. 5:22–33). Even Adam’s covenantal relationship with Yahweh as his image-bearing son participates in these heavenly analogies—reflecting the eternal, paternal and filial relationship between the Father and the Son. Again, perhaps a fun little graphic will help:
Heaven and earth, though distinct realms, aren’t entirely separated in the biblical storyline. God built an earthly sanctuary (the garden of Eden) to reflect his heavenly one. The fate of these two distinct realms, then, appears inextricably linked from the earliest moments of the biblical storyline.
An Access Point
The link between heaven and earth, however, is even closer than the analogy that exists between the two. Eden’s garden-sanctuary not only reflects the heavenly sanctuary, it is also an access point between heaven and earth—a place where the two realms occupy the same space. The Lord accentuates this point by planting Eden on a mountain, an earthly structure scaling the heavenly heights (Ezek. 28:13–14; cf. Gen. 2:6, 10–14). In the garden, Adam, in covenantal relationship with Yahweh, enjoys his heavenly presence (Gen. 3:8; Lev. 26:12; Deut. 23:15). On this mountain sanctuary, heaven and earth overlap. The two realms co-exist as God dwells both in heaven and on earth with his people. In the garden, Adam can access heaven.
The goal of creation is for this overlap between the two realms to characterize every part of the cosmos. God commissions Adam and Eve to expand God’s heavenly dwelling over all creation. They must take dominion over the uncultivated lands outside the garden, expanding God’s sanctuary. At the same time, this expanded sanctuary will require more priests to worship God and keep it holy. Thus, Adam and Eve must “be fruitful and multiply,” filling the earth with more image-bearing priests (Gen 1:28).
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. But the end goal of creation is the eventual union of heaven with earth. Like another complementary pair, Adam and Eve, the two will become one.
As a result of the fall, Adam and Eve are exiled from the mountain sanctuary into the realm of death (Gen 2:17). East of the garden, Adam, Eve, and their progeny are no longer able to gain access to the heavenly realm as they had prior to sin’s defiling influence. To ensure their banishment from earth’s access point into heaven, God places heavenly sentries, the cherubim, east of Eden to keep them from God’s presence (Gen 3:24).
The rest of Genesis focuses on the ever-increasing distance between sinful men and God and between earth and heaven. Cain moves even farther east of Eden, establishing a city of man meant to rival the no longer accessible heavenly city (Gen 4:16–17). The tower builders also travel farther east, away from Eden (Gen 11:2), as do the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 13:11). These geographical movements demonstrate the ever-widening gap between God and men and heaven and earth.
In light of the widening gap between heaven and earth, the tower builders at Babel devise an attempt to merge the two realms through their own efforts.
Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Gen 11:4).
This tower, likely a ziggurat, is a mountain-shaped structure. Read in light of the earliest chapters of Genesis, these tower builders are trying to create a rival Eden—a man-made mountain sanctuary with its own access to the heavenly realm. Their rival mountain, however, turns out to be nothing more than a cheap knock-off—more molehill than mountain. God must “come down” from heaven just to see it (Gen 11:5).
The message of Genesis is clear: by rebelling against God, man has forfeited access to the heavenly realm. The two spaces no longer overlap as they did in Eden. Our best efforts at creating that access point are embarrassing and paltry, driven by hubris and riddled with yet more rebellion against the Creator. If heaven and earth are to unite again, God must act from heaven for earth.
Gloriously, God does just that. Responding to the tower-builders’ failure to access heaven and thereby “make a name” for themselves (Gen 11:4), God calls Abram out of Ur promising to make his “name great” (Gen 12:2). In other words, what the Babelites failed to achieve, God promises to achieve through his promise to Abram. In Abram’s seed lies the hope of uniting heaven and earth. Abram himself seems to understand this point. Sojourning in the land of promise, he often builds altars to the Lord (12:7, 8; 13:18). These miniature mountains symbolize Abram’s expectation that the land of Canaan will become a new Eden, a beachhead of heaven from which God will reclaim all the earth.
Moses makes this point explicit later on in Genesis as one of Abram’s seed, Jacob, meets angels at the borders of Canaan on more than one occasion (Gen. 28:12; 32:1). This recalls the heavenly sentries at the border of Eden. On one of these occasions, Jacob not only sees angels but witnesses them ascending and descending a staircase, likely a ziggurat-mountain structure that unites heaven and earth with the Lord himself at the summit (Gen. 28:12–13). Yahweh’s promise to Jacob from atop this mountain of stairs interprets the vision’s significance: “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring . . . and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 28:13–14). From the land of Canaan and through the Abrahamic seed, God is restoring on earth a “gate” into the heavenly realm (28:17).
As the biblical narrative continues, we find yet more evidence that God intends to once again overlap heaven and earth in the same space. One particularly intriguing story involves Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders of Israel scaling Mount Sinai and there beholding God’s heavenly throne room.
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exod. 24:9–11).
Unable to look up at God’s face, their description of the heavenly throne room focuses primarily on its floor (cf. Ezek. 1:26; Rev. 4:6). The summit of Sinai is the floor of heaven. God, through Israel, is establishing a connection once again between heaven and earth.
These spaces where heaven and earth overlap, however, are often inaccessible to most of humanity. Only Moses and 73 other Israelites are welcomed to the top of Sinai. Only the high priest has access to God’s presence in the holies of holies, another meeting place between heaven and earth in the Old Testament. Even then, the high priest could only enter once a year, to offer sacrifice for himself and the nation (Heb. 9:6–7).
Given these restrictions on account of human sin, something more is needed for the eventual union of heaven and earth.
When Jesus enters the scene in the New Testament, the hope of the eventual union of heaven and earth once again explodes into the foreground of the biblical narrative. Jesus, the king from heaven (Eph. 4:9; Rom. 10:6), descends to earth to be born of a woman (Gal. 4:4). In his own person Jesus unites heaven and earth, embodying the ultimate union of the two realms. The heavenly tabernacle and the earthly tabernacle find their ultimate significance in Christ, the Word become flesh who “tabernacles” among us (John 1:14). Here’s that fun little diagram one more time:
Jesus makes this point plain as he reveals himself to Nathaniel in John’s Gospel:
And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51)
Jesus identifies himself as “Jacob’s ladder,” the new mountain-sanctuary who can unite the two realms. Heaven and earth now overlap not in a place but in a person. Heaven’s king has come to take David’s throne to rule over the nations of the earth.
The Gospel of Matthew focuses on this same point. Jesus begins his ministry by telling his listeners to repent, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17). Jesus’ call to repentance and declaration of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven is a shocking re-ordering of prophetic expectations. The anticipated eschatological union between heaven and earth has arrived not in the definitive, climactic moment at the end of time, but in the person and preaching of a Nazarene carpenter. Led by the heavenly king on earth, the heavenly kingdom invades earth.
You might be wondering: if the kingdom of heaven is here, then where are the outposts of heaven on earth? In the communities Jesus builds under his rule. In other words, in local churches. As individuals, Jesus’ followers are the people of heaven still living on earth. Our identity is a heavenly identity. Our lives glorify the Father “in heaven” (Matt. 5:16), we lay up treasures in “heaven” rather than earth (Matt. 6:20), our saving knowledge of Christ comes from heaven (Matt. 16:17), and we speak heaven’s judgments on earth (Matt. 18:18), all while praying for the day of consummation when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10).
Further, as we gather in local congregations in Jesus’ name, the King of heaven promises to be “there” in our midst (Matt. 18:20). As Christ’s people gather into local churches, they create access points between heaven and earth. As Jonathan Leeman puts it, the geography of heaven visibly (though temporarily) shows up on earth when local churches gather.
But these heavenly outcroppings pose a significant theological problem. They’re filled with sinners. How can they serve as access points to the heavenly realm? Even further, how can God ultimately unite heaven and earth not only in these outcroppings, but in the eschaton, since the cosmos itself has been defiled by sin and wickedness?
Answer: the saving work of Christ. Christ’s self-sacrifice not only stands in place of sinners deserving of God’s wrath; his blood also purifies the cosmos from the defilement inflicted on it through human sin. Hebrews 9:23 makes this point plain.
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.
Even the heavenly tabernacle had suffered defilement by human sin—a defilement now removed by the application of Christ’s blood. The cleansing of the heavenly tabernacle, and by implication the cosmos, paves the way for the union of heaven and earth on the basis of Christ’s blood. Or, as Paul summarizes, through Christ God has reconciled “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
On account of Christ’s cross-work, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement, we are now citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20); we have access to Mount Zion, “the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22–24). And yet we still await the consummation of the union of heaven and earth.
Revelation, using the types and symbols of earlier Scriptures, describes this union of the two realms at the end of time as the old creation gives way to the new. In Revelation 21, an angel takes John “to a great, high mountain” where he sees “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:10). Grasping to capture the grandeur and theological significance of the vision, John’s mixed metaphors go into hyperdrive. This heavenly city arriving on earth is the bride of Christ (Rev. 21:9). The city is also described as a perfect cube, evoking the shape of the holy of holies in both the tabernacle and the temple (Rev. 21:15–17).
John continues: “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev. 21:22). God’s heavenly presence is no longer restricted to an access point on top of a mountain or to an inner room of a tabernacle. God’s presence is co-extensive with the entire created order. God’s purpose for creation has finally come to fruition. Heaven has come to earth, and all creation has become the dwelling place of God.
 L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?: A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2015), 42.