Jefferson Vann surveys Paul’s use of the words for sky and land in the New Testament. He concludes that Paul comes closest of any New Testament writers of portraying the “heaven and earth” cosmology. But even Paul’s writings are not as clear when we look at what he says in context. Most of the “heaven and earth” cosmology is read into the scriptures, rather than deriving from them.
By surveying the texts in the Bible which contain the words for sky and land, we have found that the words are rarely translated correctly. Rather than referring to a place where God lives (usually translated “heaven” or “heavens” the Hebrew term שמים (shamayim) and the Greek term οὐρανός (ouranos) should simply be translated “sky.” They indicate an upward direction toward God, or an act of God from that upward direction. The do not connote a particular location.
Likewise, the Hebrew word ארץ (erets) and the Greek word γῆ (Gē) should simply be translated “land” because they don’t refer to earth as a planet, but it’s surface as the place where humans live, and God chooses to manifest himself by blessing or judging.
We are not— of course— denying that such places exist. Certainly God’s abode in heaven exists and planet earth exists. Our concern is that the texts of scripture which are often used to indicate those particular places may have been mistranslated.
The “heaven and earth” cosmology shows up everywhere in English translations. It seems most prevalent in the translations of Paul’s writings. In today’s article, we suggest possible corrections to those translations.
Romans 1:18 (CSB) For God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all godlessness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth,
Paul’s first use of the word for sky is in Romans 1:18, where he speaks of God’s wrath being revealed from the sky (ἀπ’ οὐρανοῦ). While English readers are accustomed to the reading “from heaven” there is nothing in the Greek text itself that requires that translation. The cosmology we have seen elsewhere in the Bible is still present in Paul’s writing.
Romans 9:17 (CSB) For the Scripture tells Pharaoh, I raised you up for this reason so that I may display my power in you and that my name may be proclaimed in the whole earth.
In 9:17 Paul asserts that the exodus events were part of God’s plan to display his power and reveal his name in all the land (ἐν πάσῃ τῇ γῇ). It sounds a bit ambiguous when we translate it that way. But sometimes ambiguity is precisely the point. When we moderns read “the whole earth” we think of the planet— we cannot help it. But the biblical terms are not that specific.
Romans 9:28 (CSB) since the Lord will execute his sentence completely and decisively on the earth.
Why does the CSB use the word “earth” here? There is no textual reason for using a word implying the whole planet, when Paul is referring to Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the land of Israel. The CSB acknowledges this by adding a marginal note “Or, land.” Either Isaiah was referring to the land of Israel, or not. Our English translations have Paul quoting Isaiah out of context. The CSB translated the word as land in Isaiah 10:23 and 28:22. Why not be consistent and translate it the same way in Romans 9, particularly since Paul was apparently alluding to those texts?
Romans 10:6 (CSB) But the righteousness that comes from faith speaks like this: Do not say in your heart, “Who will go up to heaven? ” that is, to bring Christ down
Surely this verse is an example of a reference to heaven? No, Paul’s meaning is not harmed by simply translating the text as “who will go up to the sky?” — and that would be consistent with the word’s use in the rest of the Bible. The idea of going up to the sky to retrieve Christ and bring him down is also consistent with the last known whereabouts of Jesus. He was last seen ascending in the clouds of the sky.
1 Corinthians 8:5 (CSB) For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth — as there are many “gods” and many “lords” —
The first instance where Paul uses both terms is 1 Corinthians 8:5. Here is an instance where the traditional translations actually suggest a theological problem. Is Paul actually saying that there are false gods in heaven? Of course not. The potential problem is solved by correcting the translation to read “whether in the sky or on the land.” The false gods on the land (I suggest) are political and religious leaders, while those in the sky would be demons pretending to be gods. Neither of these false gods is in heaven. That is where the true God alone lives.
1 Corinthians 10:26 (CSB) since the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.
It is certainly true that planet earth belongs to the Lord, but that is not what Paul is arguing. He is arguing that “the land is the Lord’s.” It is the land that contains the animals whose meat is sold in the meat market. That is the context in which Paul gives this statement. He is encouraging the believers in Corinth to eat meat sold in the market because the whole land belongs to the Lord, even the land where meat is sold. Thus, meat is not by definition defiled if it is purchased in a Gentile market.
But – wait a minute. Isn’t Paul quoting from Psalm 24 here? Yes, he is. Psalm 24:1 should be translated “The land (not earth) and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants.” It is the land (not the planet earth) whose foundation God laid “on the seas” and established “on the rivers” (Psalm 24:2). God placed the land in its place, and placed all he had made in it. By using the word “earth” for ארץ, the translators have obscured the visual imagery of the psalm.
1 Corinthians 15:47 (CSB) The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.
Paul was not making a comparison between an earthling and an alien. His contrast was between Adam and Christ. Adam was made “from the land” — out of the elements of the land God created. Paul clarifies that by adding the phrase “a man of dust.” But Christ came “from the sky” — a gift from above.
Paul is describing the resurrection body as compared to the mortal bodies we have now. They are made up of the dust of the land, but our future resurrection bodies will come from the sky, and be made of sky stuff (see 15:48).
2 Corinthians 5:1-2 (CSB) For we know that if our earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal dwelling in the heavens, not made with hands. Indeed, we groan in this tent, desiring to put on our heavenly dwelling,
Paul picks up the topic of resurrection bodies again in his second letter to the Corinthians. The current adamic created body he calls ἐπίγειος, meaning it was made of the elements of the land. The future resurrection body is currently in the sky (ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς), and made of sky-stuff (ἐξ οὐρανοῦ). Paul’s treatment here is a restatement of what he had said in 1 Corinthians 15. He is not saying that when we die we go to heaven to get those heavenly dwellings. He is reiterating that those sky-stuff bodies will be brought down from the sky to us when Christ returns.
2 Corinthians 12:2 (CSB) I know a man in Christ who was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether he was in the body or out of the body, I don’t know; God knows.
Paul appears to be describing a personal revelation he received in which he was “caught up to the third sky.” The third sky is not one of the rabbinic so-called levels of heaven. It is the third sky created. The first sky and land was created as recorded in Genesis 1, and the second sky and land replaced after the flood.1 But there will be a third sky and land to replace this one. Paul, therefore, was having a vision of the future.
Galatians 1:8 (CSB) But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, a curse be on him!
This may be a rare case in which “heaven” is appropriate to translate οὐρανός. However, even here, “angel from the sky” would convey the same idea.
Ephesians 1:10 (CSB) as a plan for the right time– to bring everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him.
Substituting the words “sky” for “heaven” and “land” for “earth” would do no disservice to this text.
Ephesians 3:15 (CSB) from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.
God is the Father of the divine family in the sky, and the Father of all the families on the land.
Ephesians 4:9-10 (CSB) But what does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower parts of the earth? The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, to fill all things.
Substituting the words “land” for “earth” and “skies” for “heavens” would do no disservice to this text.
Ephesians 6:2-3 (CSB) Honor your father and mother, which is the first commandment with a promise, so that it may go well with you and that you may have a long life in the land.
Surprisingly, CSB translates ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς here as “in the land.” This shows that the phrase does not necessarily have to be translated “on the earth.”
Ephesians 6:9 CSB And masters, treat your slaves the same way, without threatening them, because you know that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.
This may be another rare case in which “heaven” is appropriate to translate οὐρανός. But, even here, “their Master and yours is in the sky” would convey the same idea.
Philippians 3:20 CSB but our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s point is not that heaven is a place where we hold citizenship. His point is that our king has gone skyward, and is coming back from the sky. So, “our citizenship is in the sky” (as opposed to here on the land) is the preferred translation.
Colossians 1:5 CSB because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. You have already heard about this hope in the word of truth, the gospel.
Paul does not say that heaven is the hope reserved for believers. He says that their hope is reserved for them in the sky. The gospel about Jesus Christ told them of this hope – the hope (or confident expectation) that our Saviour who went skyward will return from there.
Colossians 1:16 CSB For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through him and for him.
The phrase “in heaven and on earth” as if Paul was talking about the contents of God’s residence and the contents of this planet – is misrepresenting Paul. Paul is not asserting that Jesus created his Father’s throne in heaven. A better translation would include the words “in the sky and on the land,” and that would include the worldly thrones of kings as well as the skyward thrones of false gods.
Colossians 1:20 CSB and through him to reconcile everything to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
Likewise, Jesus does not need to reconcile anything in heaven. There is no conflict between God and his holy angels. The conflict was caused by human rebellion on “the land” and demonic rebellion “in the sky.”
Colossians 1:23 CSB if indeed you remain grounded and steadfast in the faith and are not shifted away from the hope of the gospel that you heard. This gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and I, Paul, have become a servant of it.
Using “all creation under the sky” would not change the import of Paul’s message here. The generic term fits, so there is no need for the more specific religious term “heaven.”
Colossians 3:2 CSB Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.
Paul’s point is the direction of his readers’ devotion. Mundane, carnal, worldly “things of the land” are contrasted with things of the sky above.
Colossians 3:5 CSB Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.
I would prefer “worldly” for ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς here, because it refers to the nature of this present earth. The new earth, or newly recreated land we will experience at Christ’s return will not include these vices.
Colossians 4:1 CSB Masters, deal with your slaves justly and fairly, since you know that you too have a Master in heaven.
The generic “Master in the sky” fits Paul’s purposes just as well as “Master in heaven.”
1 Thessalonians 1:10 CSB and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
It is true that Jesus is in heaven now. It is also true that he will be coming back to earth frpom heaven. But it is not clear whether Paul was referring to that fact here. He may have merely been encouraging the Thessalonians to wait for Christ to return “from the sky.”
1 Thessalonians 4:16 CSB For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Was Paul specifically referring to heaven as the location Christ will be returning from, or “the sky” as the direction he will come from? It is not entirely clear. Thus “the sky” is an appropriate alternative translation for ἀπ᾽ οὐρανοῦ here.
2 Thessalonians 1:7 CSB and to give relief to you who are afflicted, along with us. This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels…
When we see Christ’s revelation (when he is revealed) we will not see where he came from. We will not see heaven. What we will see is the sky opening and our Lord descending just as he ascended. What we will see is the sky. Thus “the sky” is a better translation for ἀπ᾽ οὐρανοῦ here.
Paul comes closest of any New Testament writers of portraying the “heaven and earth” cosmology. But even Paul’s writings are not as clear when we look at what he says in context. Most of the “heaven and earth” cosmology is read into the scriptures, rather than deriving from them.
- See 2 Peter 3; Did Paul Have an Out of Body Experience?