And it came to pass, when the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal . . . And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 2 Kings 2:1, 11.
Many people take this passage to mean that Elijah never died, but went directly to the heavenly afterlife, bypassing death, not passing Go and not collecting $200. Two difficulties in this interpretation show themselves.
First, the Scriptures tell us that the cure for death is resurrection, not immediate afterlife:
But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.1
Yeshua taught resurrection and not afterlife:2
Then come unto him the Sadducees, which say there is no resurrection; [and posed a challenging question.] And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God? For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven. And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.3
When thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.4
But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: Neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection.5
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.6
Throughout the Book of Acts, the Apostles preached the resurrection in the last days.7 When Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin he turned the division between the Pharisees, who believed in resurrection, and the Sadducees who did not, to his advantage8 saying “. . . I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.”
The other difficulty is that sometime between seven and 13 years after Elijah passed the mantle to Elisha and rode off in the chariot of fire, he wrote a letter to King Jehoram of Judah, warning him that because he walked wickedly, God would send a plague.9 He was clearly on Earth and not in “Heaven” at the time.
The key to this conundrum is the word shamayim, which is translated heaven or sky, depending on the context. We discussed how a word in the original biblical languages may be translated by several English words. We saw that adon in Hebrew and kyrios in Greek can be rendered into English as lord, sir, or mister. The context determines which to use.
Shamayim is a word with both a material meaning and a spiritual one. In English, we usually say “sky” to refer to the physical space and “heaven” to refer to the spiritual space. It is a uni-plural, meaning that it is plural in form, but can have a singular meaning. Panim, face, and mayim, water work similarly. In English, we would say I drank a glass of water; in Hebrew we would say, I drank a glass of waters. We are prohibited to have any other gods before YHVH’s faces.10 There is no singular form of panim.
When the Psalmist says that “The heavens declare the glory of God,” he is referring to the lights we see in the physical sky. As we saw in the article on “spirit,” any word referring to a spiritual matter also has a natural referent. In the West, we commonly think of Heaven as being “up there” beyond the sky. Since Galileo, we are aware that the sky is not a big blue bowl sitting upside down on the surface of the earth, but a nearly infinite expanse.
How high into the sky was Elijah lifted? The Bible doesn’t say. Airliners typically cruise in the neighborhood of 30,000; birds fly at treetop level to several hundreds of feet. We can speculate that the chariot cruised somewhere below 10,000 feet, since modern airplane cabins require pressurization above that altitude.
Where was Elijah set back down? The Bible doesn’t say. But we can be sure that it was close enough to Jerusalem that he could post a letter to the King and be sure that it would be delivered. He probably did not provide a return address. The editors of the Revised English Version note, “The prophets that were there did not believe Elijah was taken to heaven, and asked to go look for him, but since God moved him, there was no point to look for him.”11
1 Rev. 20:5–6.
2 Yeshua’s promise to the repentant man on the next cross, “You will be with me in Paradise,” is the subject of another article.
3 Mark 12:18–27.
4 Luke 14:12–14.
5 Luke 20:35–36.
6 John 5:28–29. See also John 11:25
7 Acts 4:2; 17:18.
8 Acts 23:1–10.
9 Teleios Ministries. http://www.teleiosministries.com/Elijahs-Retirement-on-Earth.html
10 Ex 20:3; Deut 5:7. “Before Me” is al-panai, lit. “on my faces.”
11 Revised English Version, footnote at 2 Kings 2:1. https://www.revisedenglishversion.com/2-Kings/chapter2/1 .