Where is Heaven?
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).
Come Follow Me lesson February 7–13, 2022; Genesis 12–17; Abraham 1-2; by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
As depicted in the painting, The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the people who built the tower apparently thought that Heaven was somewhere in the air, up above the clouds, and if they built a high enough tower, they could reach Heaven.
Genesis 1:1 states that, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Then we learn from Genesis 1: 6, “And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.” The same account in Moses says pretty much the same thing. The account in Abraham 4 also provides about the same information except that there “Gods” is pleural and “firmament” is replaced by “expanse.” No matter which account is followed, you still end up with God or the Gods calling the firmament or expanse, Heaven. These accounts all seem to suggest that Heaven is somewhere up in the air, above the clouds.
We can read at churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/heaven?lang=eng: “In the scriptures, the word heaven is used in two basic ways. First, it refers to the place where God lives, which is the ultimate home of the faithful (see Mosiah 2:41). Second, it refers to the expanse around the earth (see Genesis 1:1).” Whereas I agree with this conclusion, it seems that in ancient writings the two definitions often become entangled and confused.
We learn that Lucifer had “fallen from heaven” (Isaiah 14:12) and aspired to “ascend into heaven” (Isaiah 14:13) and “ascend above the heights of the clouds” (Isaiah 14:14). Daniel made specific reference to the God of heaven (Daniel 2:18). And Jacob “…dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12)
The “…Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, Stand up and bless the Lord your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. Thou, even thou, art Lord alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee” (Nehemiah 9:5-6).
Jesus stated, “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” (John 3:12-13) “And when he [Jesus] had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9-11).
All of these scriptures seem to make it clear that Heaven is somewhere up above the clouds. That was all well and good for thousands of years. Humans were ground-dwelling creatures and no one had ever seen above the clouds – that is, not until December 1, 1783, when Jacques Alexandre Charles, of France, rose to 8,900 ft in a hydrogen balloon, well above the lowest clouds. Then on June 27, 1931, the Swiss physicist, inventor and explorer, Auguste Piccard, along with Paul Kipfer, rose to 51,770 ft in their hydrogen balloon. That is well above the highest clouds. Now, many people have flown above 30,000 ft in commercial airlines. There are clear blue skies up there, with no signs of the Pearly Gates. So, how do we understand, in our modern times, where Heaven resides?
In our modern era, since 1783, the earth has been visited by Heavenly beings. First, the fourteen-year-old boy Joseph Smith was visited by God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ “…on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring [apparently March 26] of eighteen hundred and twenty…I [Joseph] saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me…When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith History 1:14-17).
To my knowledge, this is the first time in recorded human history that a pillar of light has been described in association with a Heavenly visit. The pillar apparently descended from somewhere in the sky, but from where? Then 3 ½ years later, on “…the twenty-first of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-three…While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor… He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do… After this communication, I saw the light in the room begin to gather immediately around the person of him who had been speaking to me, and it continued to do so until the room was again left dark, except just around him; when, instantly I saw, as it were, a conduit open right up into heaven, and he ascended till he entirely disappeared, and the room was left as it had been before this heavenly light had made its appearance.” (Joseph Smith History 1:27, 30, 33, 43).
This statement, that a “conduit open[ed] right up into heaven,” to me, is one of the most remarkable statements ever made about Heaven or Heavenly messengers. So what, if anything else, did Joseph have to say about Heaven? He taught the Saints living in Ramus, Illinois in 1843, “The angels do not reside on a planet like this earth; But they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord.” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:6-7) However, he did not propose where this “sea of glass and fire” might be located.
Joseph’s most famous statement about Heaven is, “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 324). His most famous revelation on Heaven was recorded as what is now the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. Of that experience, Joseph and Sidney stated, “We, Joseph Smith, Jun., and Sidney Rigdon, being in the Spirit on the sixteenth day of February, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and thirty-two— By the power of the Spirit our eyes were opened and our understandings were enlightened, so as to see and understand the things of God— Even those things which were from the beginning before the world was, which were ordained of the Father, through his Only Begotten Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, even from the beginning; Of whom we bear record; and the record which we bear is the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the Son, whom we saw and with whom we conversed in the heavenly vision.” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:11-14).
They never mentioned where they were, probably they didn’t even know, but they described what they saw and experienced and the Heaven they saw was so different and so much greater than anything anyone else had ever before described. This statement brings us all the way back to the beginning of the Come Follow Me lesson: “The only way to reach heaven is by following Jesus Christ. The account of the people of Babel building a tower provides an interesting contrast to the account of Enoch and his people building Zion, which class members studied last week. Both groups of people were trying to reach heaven but in different ways.” As it turns out, we have no idea where Heaven is at present. It matters not at all; it only matters that we follow Christ’s, and our Father’s plan on how to get back there.
We may not know where Heaven is currently, but we apparently know where the Celestial kingdom will be eventually – on the same sort of “sea of glass” like where angels currently dwell and as mentioned in Revelation, “And before the throne [of God] there was a sea of glass like unto crystal…” (Revelation 4:6). John further stated, “And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God.” (Revelation 15:2) Joseph Smith asked God, “What is the sea of glass spoken of by John, 4th chapter, and 6th verse of the Revelation?” And God answered, “It is the earth, in its sanctified, immortal, and eternal state” (Doctrine and Covenants 77:1).
We may also know where the spirit world is, where spirits are during the “space between the time of death and the resurrection” (Alma 40:9). They may be right here on earth, among us, but we cannot see them because they are “more fine or pure” (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7). Elisha described what we might see if our eyes are opened: “And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (2 Kings 6:16-17).
Brigham Young said, “When the spirits leave their bodies,…they are prepared then to see, hear and understand spiritual things… Can you see spirits in this room? No. Suppose the Lord should touch your eyes that you might see, could you then see the spirits? Yes, as plainly as you now see bodies, as did the servant of [Elisha] [see 2 Kings 6:16–17]. If the Lord would permit it, and it was his will that it should be done, you could see the spirits that have departed from this world, as plainly as you now see bodies with your natural eyes” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 376–77).
President Ezra Taft Benson said, “The spirit world is not far away. From the Lord’s point of view, it is all one great program on both sides of the veil. Sometimes the veil between this life and the life beyond becomes very thin. This I know! Our loved ones who have passed on are not far from us” (“Because I Live, Ye Shall Live Also,” Ensign, Apr. 1993, 4). He then quoted Brigham Young, “‘Where is the spirit world?’ and then answered his own question: ‘It is right here. … Do [spirits] go beyond the boundaries of this organized earth? No, they do not. They are brought forth upon this earth, for the express purpose of inhabiting it to all eternity.’ He also said, ‘… If the Lord would permit it, and it was His will that it should be done, you could see the spirits that have departed from this world, as plainly as you now see bodies with your natural eyes.’” (Ensign 1993; Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 3:369, 368.)”
As with that part of “Heaven,” the spirit world, being right here among us, we can have heaven on earth while we are yet alive – if we so live as to bring heaven into our own lives now, much like the followers of Enoch discovered when they created Zion, first in their hearts.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD