If we comb through the scriptures, we will never find a reference telling us that the final destination of believers is YHVH’s Heavenly Realm,  yet this is what we are traditionally taught in the church – in every denomination – despite the fact that Y’shua said, “No one has ascended to heaven except He who came down from heaven, the Son of Man.” (John 3:13) (And a whole lot of people had already died when He said this.)
What DOES Scripture teach?
The dead do not praise YHVH, nor do any who go down into silence. Psalm 115:17 NKJV
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. Ecclesiastes 9:5
These things He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.” Then His disciples said, “Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.” However, Y’shua spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Y’shua said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.“ John 11:11-14
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet [referring to the trumpet blown when Messiah returns]. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 1Corinthians 15:51-53
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those carried up who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Messiah will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. 1Thess 4:15-17
But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished… Rev 20:5
We have written more about this in our article, The Importance of the Kingdom To Believers, but the pretty consistent message of scripture (as well as the teaching of the Jews since ancient times) is that we live; we physically die; we remain in an unconscious state until Messiah comes; at which time believers are raised from the dead to rule and reign with Him. The rest of the dead are raised at the end of the Millennial Kingdom, at which time they are judged.
So where did the idea of believers ‘going to heaven” come from?
Most Cultures Have a Theory of Afterlife
The belief in an afterlife has been found pretty universally in the cultures of the world. We often hear of an ancient grave being discovered in which are deposited all of the deceased’s most treasured possessions, and even food, for use in the afterlife. Belief in an afterlife almost seems to be instinctive – which we cannot help but see as one of the ways YHVH has given us to be aware of Him and our accountability to Him!
Unfortunately, man finds it forever tempting to reject what YHVH has planned, and so we find that in many (perhaps all) cultures, the belief in an afterlife was eventually ‘put down’ by more ‘enlightened’ individuals who taught a number of different theories that conflict with YHVH’s actual plan. This is no surprise – the enemy is always at work appealing to the lusts of the flesh and the pride of life, and we regularly fall for his lies!
The various cultural theories of afterlife are a fascinating line of study, but much too complex for this little essay. This discussion will be limited to the cultural views of the afterlife that prevailed at the time of Y’shua in Israel and in the Greco-Roman world of the early centuries of the Church.
First Century Beliefs
The ancient Greco-Roman world for the most part either denied an afterlife, or believed that an afterlife would be lived as a spirit in a spirit world.  The Greeks viewed the human body as glorious and perfect, and had no concept of the corrupting effect of sin on the body. For this reason, the Greco-Roman never envisioned restoration of the flesh to a pre-corrupted state.
The Jews, on the other hand, never entertained the idea of living as spirits, though it appears that even early on in biblical times, they envisioned death as the spirit still existing, but in an unconscious state.  Everything they knew about the history of Man and YHVH indicated to them that Man was designed to live in a physical world and that he should “keep to his own estate,” unlike Satan, who left his own estate (the spiritual realm) in defiance of YHVH. (Jude 1:6) Man would be physically resurrected at the coming of Messiah, and would dwell in this world or a remade world. We see this understanding in the account of the raising of Lazarus:
“Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Y’shua said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to Him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection AT THE LAST DAY.” John 11:21-24
Like most Jews, Martha expected that the dead would be resurrected, but not until “the last day” – and notice that Y’shua does not ‘correct’ her. Her belief system did not include “going to Heaven,” nor did Y’shua teach such a concept. Martha’s understanding agrees with Scripture.
The Hebrew Scriptures (The OT) actually say or imply little regarding afterlife or resurrection, though there is some mention of it. The Scriptures are primarily focused on informing us how to live in this life. As a result, many Jews of Y’shua’s day did not believe in an afterlife, let alone in the resurrection of the physical body. This group was primarily represented by the Sadducee party.
Many other Jews, however, were convinced that there was an afterlife, and they were prepared to believe that it included resurrection of the flesh. In fact, their view was that Messiah was coming to establish an eternal earthly Kingdom, and they were anxious to be part of it. They understood the necessity of an eternal physical body if they were to live in an eternal earthly kingdom. This view was taught primarily by the Essenes and by the Pharisees (who did get a few things right!).
The New Testament Church
Enter the Messianic community we call The First Century Church or The New Testament Church. (They called themselves “The Way” or “Nazarenes.”)
The accepted doctrine of The Way, established by the apostles and accepted by early believers, stated that believers would be ‘raised from the grave’ to meet Messiah ‘in the air’ (1Thess 4:16, 1Cor 15:52) at the First Resurrection; that their bodies would be ‘made incorruptible’ flesh (1Cor 15:52); and that they would live and reign with Messiah over ‘the kingdoms of this world.’ (Rev 11:15, Dan 7:27)
We find the disciples asking Y’shua: Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6) Their question makes it clear that, like other Jews of their day, they expected Messiah to rule an earthly Kingdom. Y’shua did not correct that perception – His reply reflected the standpoint that their question was based in fact. He simply told them that it was not their business to know when the Kingdom would be fully established.
Roman Government and Gentile Converts
Within only a couple of generations, the burgeoning Gentile membership of the fledgling church began to markedly outnumber the Israelite membership, pulling power away from Jerusalem and toward Rome. With the restraining effect of the apostles gone, power-seeking men began finding their way into leadership, and began twisting the body away from the early faith. This is testified to by multiple early Christian historians, such as Hegesippus.
This process was greatly affected by the prevailing attitude of the Roman government, which was hostile to the Jews (for political reasons), engendering a situation in which it was very expensive and literally dangerous to be identified with the Jews.  As Gentile believers sought to remove themselves from the arena of financial and political difficulties attached to the “Jewish” practices of their faith, a Gentile-centric (i.e. pagan-influenced) viewpoint began to prevail in the Body.
Church leadership made an unfortunate response to the Roman threat. Rather than teaching the true main message of The Gospel of Messiah’s Eternal Kingdom – which in Roman eyes was a rebellious “Jewish” political idea centered on the political entity of the kingdom of Judea – emphasis began to be laid on the salvation of the individual through the atoning death and resurrection of the Savior (whose identity as an observant Jew began to be obscured). This was a ‘spiritual’ and apolitical message that could be accepted by any culture, since the focus was placed on the individual rather than on a cultural connection to Israel or Judea.
This doctrinal shift, though technically still orthodox and based in the genuine desire to protect existing believers and make it possible for new believers to enter the ranks, nevertheless resulted in a skewed understanding of Y’shua’s primary purpose and message – the establishment of the Kingdom.
Ancient Pagan Beliefs Entered with the Greek Converts
It was inevitable that the pervasive Greco-Roman culture would affect the faith – often without believers even being aware of it.
Deprived of careful training in the Tanakh (Old Testament) because of anti-Jewish sentiment, and influenced by the underlying assumptions of their culture (ex: the dead become disembodied spirits) which were so basic and intrinsic to their cultural life, those Gentile beliefs appeared to be the ‘right’ way to look at things. As they studied scripture through that cultural lens, they found it ‘right’ and natural to envision themselves living the afterlife ‘in Heaven’ as spirit beings. Their concept of the resurrection of the dead focused on the spirit and essentially ignored the flesh.
The Gentile converts did not understand that the writers of the NT documents had used ‘code phrases’ (the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God) to refer to the earthly Kingdom for fear of the Roman government’s mis-perception that the establishment of the Kingdom would involve political rebellion.
As a result, when the Gentiles read the many scriptural statements about “The Kingdom of Heaven” in which believers will dwell, they assumed that these statements referred to the spiritual (Heavenly) realm in which YHVH dwells. They failed to understand that in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, when YHVH speaks of His Kingdom, it is always referred to as “YHVH’s Kingdom” or “the Kingdom of Israel,” and He is always referring to His faithful body of followers on earth.
Ought ye not to know that YHVH Elohim of Israel gave the kingdom over Israel to David for ever, even to him and to his sons by a covenant of salt? … And now ye think to withstand the kingdom of YHVH in the hand of the sons of David…. 2Chron 13:5, 8
And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever. Dan 2:44
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, Which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one Which shall not be destroyed. Dan 7:14
And the seventh angel sounded; and there were great voices in heaven, saying, The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Messiah; and he shall reign for ever and ever. Rev 11:15
Misunderstanding Becomes Doctrine
Christianity spread into other pagan lands, and those cultures, too, often believed in an afterlife lived in spirit form. As they ‘converted’ to Christianity (often a very superficial or even forced conversion), they carried this belief with them, envisioning themselves as joining YHVH in His spiritual realm.
By the time of the Dark Ages (about 500 CE through 1500 CE), the scriptures were no longer available to the general congregation. Often even priests did not have access to the Word – or could not read it even if they did have access! You can imagine the polluted teaching that occurred during the 1,000-year-period in which the average believer had no access to the Word and had to rely on the teaching of men who often had no access to the Word themselves, but were in turn relying on instructions from the Vatican….!
Without proper teaching, the pagan concept of ‘going to Heaven’ had no opposition and was readily accepted by the average believer, who just wanted “out” of his painful fleshly existence.
Are you beginning to see where the modern western Christian idea of “going to Heaven” came from?
Our fervent hope is that you will consider this article a ‘guide post’ directing you to further study on this topic. This is simply a layman’s quick overview of a fascinating and complex development within the church. There is much information available that will give you a more thorough understanding and that will help the reader reconnect with the historic faith of our forebears. As Y’shua instructed us:
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)
So He [Y’shua] said to them, “When you pray, say: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come: Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Luke 11:2 (NKJV)
John and Sue Wyatt (firstname.lastname@example.org)
© John and Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, 2014. Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Lamb’s Servant Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to John and Sue Wyatt and The Lamb’s Servant Blog, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
 We DO find references telling us that we will dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven, but these verses refer to the earthly Kingdom founded and ruled by Heaven – i.e. Heaven’s Kingdom. Please see our article entitled The Importance of the Kingdom To Believers
 “…death was not a glorious thing for the ancient Greeks. In Homer’s epics, the dead are ‘pathetic in their helplessness, inhabiting drafty, echoing halls, deprived of their wits, and flitting purposelessly about uttering batlike noises.’ While undesirable when compared with life on earth, this vague, shadowing [sic] existence was not generally cause for fear of the afterlife. Only terrible sinners (like Tantalus, Tityus and Sisyphus) were punished after death; similarly, only a select few ended up in the paradisiacal Elysian Fields…” (Greco-Roman Religious Beliefs, http://www.religionfacts.com/greco-roman/beliefs.htm)
 Jewish Beliefs on the Afterlife, http://www.religionfacts.com/judaism/beliefs/afterlife.htm
 By the year 96 C.E., it was equated with treason to “adopt the Jewish way of life.” Those who were already following “Jewish customs” (such as circumcision, celebrating the Feasts, etc.) – including Gentile Messianic Christians – had to pay an enormous tax, the Fiscus Judaicus. If the tax was not fully paid, they could be thrown into slavery. This tax, established early on in the existence of the church, played a huge part in drawing Gentile believers away from Torah. (Christopher Quinn, The Growing Split Between Synagogue and Church in the 1st Century: The Fiscus Judaicus)