What is the difference between the Kingdom of Heaven and Heaven?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Is there a difference between heaven and the kingdom of heaven? I recently heard a podcast referencing Matthew 5:21, saying that those who are saved go to heaven, but only those who are saved and do the will of the Father go to the Kingdom of Heaven… like there are two different eternal heavens. What do you think about this?

Answer: There is indeed a difference between Heaven and the Kingdom of Heaven… although, in both cases, we have to differentiate between what the person on the street understands by those terms and what the Bible says about them. But since even Christians disagree on what the Kingdom of Heaven actually is, we can have quite a mess. But let’s be brave.

I’ve never heard a teaching like the one you described, and I think you are right to question it. Furthermore, I’ve just reread Matthew 5:21-26 and I see nothing in that passage that even relates to such an idea. (In fact, I suspect a misquote!) But without hearing the podcast, I am not comfortable addressing its content specifically. But from what you have told me, they have the heaven-and-earth paradigm backward.

The Kingdom of Heaven (which is arguably the same as the Kingdom of God) is a huge entity, and it is not limited to the here and now. But where the rubber meets the road — that is, here on earth, where we humans deal with the will of the Father — the Kingdom of Heaven is in the here and now! And furthermore, this kingdom contains both saved and unsaved people. By way of contrast, heaven is commonly understood to be the future eternal home of only those who have done God’s will. Do you see how the podcast had those reversed?

But here’s another twist: although heaven is spoken of as a real entity, it is usually understood to be non-physical… so, the idea of “place” breaks down. But according to Revelation 21:1, the eternal dwelling place of believers will not be “heaven”… whatever that is. It will be the New Heavens and New Earth — a physical place fit for our physical (resurrected) bodies. My point here is that this podcaster identified a difference between Heaven and the Kingdom of Heaven that is incorrect both biblically and as commonly understood… and for this reason, I don’t really know what’s going on with him!

Broadly speaking, the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s entire creation — the physical, metaphysical and spiritual worlds over which he rules, and this is the biggest entity in our discussion. But there also exists a kingdom of the world which Christ will eventually conquer and subsume into his kingdom (Revelation 11:15). This is a lesser entity than is the Kingdom of God, but it is not merely physical. The kingdom of the world also involves powers and principalities (Ephesians 6:12), so it is metaphysical and spiritual too.

But Satan also has a kingdom, and it’s particular to him (Matthew 12:26)… yet, he also exercises influence in the Kingdom of God (Job 1:6-2:10; Ephesians 2:2). Now, Satan’s kingdom is somewhat like the kingdom of the world in that they are coextensive both physically and metaphysically. But his has a king… which is Satan himself. So, where the kingdom of the world has a more passive evil, Satan’s kingdom is anything but. It is energized by him personally — and he has our destruction in view (1 Peter 5:8). Since Satan is out there working his evil in arenas within the Kingdom of Heaven, we can say that he is in the Kingdom of Heaven — not of it… and this will be our circumstance until Christ returns.

Now, here’s where the difference between what we commonly understand by a term and how the Bible uses it can get us in trouble. In the Bible, the term heaven (which is used a lot) usually just means the sky… but the sky is only a part of the Kingdom of Heaven. So, when Jesus referred to his Father in heaven (Matthew 5:45), he was merely saying that God was not of this earth… that is, not a physical being. But he was not saying that God lived at a certain location in the sky, nor was he teaching that his omnipresent Father was absent from the earth.

So, heaven — by the powers of figures of speech and of imagery — became in popular understanding the “place” of our “omnipresent” God and the “place” of the righteous dead. But God is a Spirit being… as are the righteous dead before the resurrection (although some [but not I] believe that they have temporary bodies) … and neither have a well defined “place” at this time, so the term heaven will do.

But that all will change with the resurrection of the dead… although that figure of speech intrudes into the new physical reality because we still speak in terms of heaven and hell when referencing the far future. Even though hell will be destroyed (Revelation 20:14) and our eternal home will be the decidedly physical New Earth and Christ will be with us, we still speak in terms of heaven and hell… and why not! They still communicate.

But  — and as is true with all words and phrases — we need to be careful how far we push our terms. Some words are meant to be soft, and they should not be pressed for a level of precision that they do not contain… and the word heaven is one of these.

My point here is that the podcaster probably had this common misunderstanding about heaven. But also, he missed the fact that all born-again Christians are equally God’s children. There are no anterooms in eternity where we sit and nervously bounce our fingertips together while we wait for the cool kids to clear the main room. That’s what this podcaster envisions, though — an eternal class system. But once sin (and sinners) have been dispatched (Revelation 20:7-15), there will only be two classes of beings left: God and us. He’ll still be “in heaven” … but we’ll be on the New Earth with Jesus.

I’ve enjoyed discussing these issues with you. God bless you.

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