IF JESUS WAS THE FIRST TO ASCEND TO HEAVEN, WILL ELIJAH AND OTHER OLD TESTAMENT BELIEVERS BE IN HEAVEN?
“And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)
JEHOVAH’S WITNESS POSITION
The Watch Tower Society teaches that only 144,000 people will live eternally in heaven while the rest of faithful mankind will only have the prospect of living forever in “Paradise” earth. Believing that this heavenly group began at Pentecost (33 AD), Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that “there is nothing in the Scriptures to show that a heavenly hope was held out to God’s servants prior to the coming of Christ Jesus.”1. Thus, they assert that “David, Job and John the Baptizer” as well as “all faithful men and women who died before Jesus died … will be resurrected to become some of the earthly subjects of God’s kingdom.”2. In support of their belief that none of the Old Testament servants of God will be in heaven, Jehovah’s Witnesses reference John 3:13, Acts 2:34 and Matthew 11:11.
Is it true that “nothing in the Scriptures” indicates that a “heavenly hope” was held out to Old Testament believers? What about 2 Kings 2:11 where “Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven”? Didn’t Elijah reappear on earth along with Moses when Jesus was transfigured at Matthew 17:3?
What about Enoch who “God took” at Genesis 5:24? Scripture tells us at Hebrews 11:5 that “Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God.” Hebrews goes on to note that this “heavenly hope” was given not only to Enoch, but also to Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah:
HEBREWS 11:13, 15-16: “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, … and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. … indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
Not only does Scripture state that these servants of God who died prior to Christ were seeking a “heavenly” country, but Jesus proclaimed to his followers that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will be “in” the “kingdom of heaven.”
MATTHEW 8:11: “I say to you, that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
LUKE 13:28-29: “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out. And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God.”
Given the evidence that Old Testament believers will be “in” heaven, we will now turn our attention to the Scriptural proof texts that the Watch Tower gives in opposition to this belief.
Does Jesus’ statement here support the Watch Tower claim that no person who died prior to Christ will be in heaven?3. Scripture declares that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”4. Thus, none of God’s servants who died prior to Christ could go to heaven until their sins had been atoned for at the cross. Thus, Jesus proclaimed that He was the first one to ascend “into heaven.” The author of Hebrews explains what happened when Jesus entered heaven:
HEBREWS 9:24, 26: “For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us … but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”
So, what happened to Elijah and Enoch when they were “taken up”? If they didn’t go to “heaven,” where did they go? Scripture describes three heavens. The first heaven is the sky where clouds and birds soar (see Genesis 1:8). The second heaven is where stars and planets reside (see Psalm 19:1), and the third heaven is the place where God dwells (see 2 Corinthians 12:2). When Scripture states that Elijah “went up by a whirlwind to heaven,” it is likely referring to the firmament heaven (Abraham’s bosom at Luke 16) and not the place where God’s throne resides.
In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a story of a rich man who died and went to place of “torment” in “Hades,” while Lazarus (a righteous man) went to a place of rest in the “Abraham’s bosom” portion of Hades. Jesus reports that the rich man in the “torment” section of Hades was able to see and communicate with people in “Abraham’s bosom,” but that no one was able to travel between the two compartments as they were separated by a “a great chasm.” It is thought that in the three days between Christ’s death and resurrection, Jesus freed the Old Testament servants of God in the “Abraham’s bosom” side to go to heaven with Him, while those in the torment side of Hades remain there until the future white throne judgment of God when “death and Hades” will be “thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14). Thus, we see that while Elijah and Enoch didn’t die when they were “taken up” immediately to the sky “heaven,” God kept them in the “Abraham’s bosom” portion of Hades until Jesus’ resurrection, when they went directly to the heaven where God dwells. Other Scriptures that support this viewpoint are as follows:
EPHESIANS 4:8-10: “Therefore it says, ‘When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.’ (Now this expression, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)”
MATTHEW 27:50-53: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
1 PETER 3:18-19: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison.”
LUKE 23:43: “And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’”
Now that “Paradise” has been moved from “Hades” into the “third heaven” where God dwells, the spirits of Christians who die, go immediately to be with Jesus in heaven.
2 CORINTHIANS 12:2-4: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise, and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.”
2 CORINTHIANS 5:6-8: “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
PHILIPPIANS 1:21-23: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.”
ACTS 2:29, 34: “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. … For it was not David who ascended into heaven.”
The Watch Tower quotes Acts 2:34 about David not ascending into heaven and claims that he will receive a resurrection to live forever on earth, rather than in heaven.5. But just as we saw in the above response to the Watch Tower’s use of John 3:13, simply because David did not go to heaven immediately at death, does not mean that he was excluded from those Old Testament saints who went to heaven at Christ’s resurrection.
Furthermore, far from the Watch Tower’s use of this passage to prove whether or not David has a heavenly hope, the context spoke nothing of David’s resurrection but rather, of Christ and how He fulfilled the promises given to David. Thus, we see the Jehovah’s Witness’ use of this verse as a proof text for their view of David’s resurrection is completely without merit.
Does the fact that John the Baptist was not as great as someone “who is least in the kingdom of heaven,” prove that he did not go to heaven after the resurrection of Jesus? While the Watch Tower makes this claim,6. nowhere in the passage does it state that John the Baptist would never go to heaven. In fact, when Jesus stated at Luke 13:28 that “all the prophets” will be “in the kingdom of God,” this must have included John the Baptist, so we can be certain that he too will be in heaven with the rest of the Old Testament prophets. There is also good indication that he ascended to heaven after Christ’s resurrection (see Matthew 27:52), and it is noteworthy that at the time that Jesus made this statement, no one had yet “ascended into heaven.”7. Thus, Jesus could not have had anyone in mind who was already “in heaven” when he made this statement about John the Baptist.
John the Baptist lived under the Old Covenant, and as such, his ministry was not as “great” as someone who proclaimed the New Covenant in Christ. While John the Baptist paved the way for Christ, as great as he was, he could not match the “least” of Jesus’ followers who were agents of God’s “kingdom of heaven” — while yet on earth at the time. Thus, the “least” one of Jesus’ followers, by nature of the message he proclaimed, was “greater” than John the Baptist.
See Related Subject:
1. Insight on the Scriptures, 1988, vol. 1, p. 1064
2. You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, 1989, p. 122
3. You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth, 1989, pp. 121-122
4. Hebrews 10:4
5. See Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1989, p. 162
6. See Reasoning from the Scriptures, 1989, p. 162
7. See John 3:13