Maybe not a precise distinction, but I use it for asking the question.

  • Heaven: place where God is.
  • Sky: where sun, moon, and stars are.

Many biblical references indicate that God's place has something to do with the sun's, moon's, and stars' place. Acts 1, 11 say that Jesus was taken into heaven and the apostles were starring into the empty sky.

On the other hand, there's a strong intuition that sky is not equal to heaven. The picture of God as an old man on a cloud seems to be naive and was challenged by Soviet astronauts: There's no God over there https://en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Yuri_Gagarin#Quotes

Who was the first Christian author who made the distinction between sky and heaven explicitly?

  • In Jewish thinking, there were 3 heavens: sky, where God dwells, and the unseen realm of angels. This would predate Christ so the first Christian author would've been the first Jewish Christian to write something. – Jason Fry Nov 14 '17 at 2:42
  • Many thanks. Do you have any references to that? – Karel Macek Nov 15 '17 at 0:33
  • Are there separate words for "sky" and "heaven" in Greek? I know that there isn't one in Latin; both can be referred to as caelum or firmamentum. If there isn't, I'd look for the earliest Christian writers of Germanic background. – Wtrmute Nov 15 '17 at 1:26
  • The first mention I see of it is right up at the start of genesis. Thus, the matter would be whether in Hebrew there is a distinction between heaven and sky and whether our notions about heaven are in harmony with the meaning of the corresponding word in Hebrew. (Seems like too often heaven is just another word for paradise.) – jony Aug 9 '18 at 15:06

The first Christian author who made the distinction between heaven vs. sky appears to be none other than the apostle Paul.

At 2 Corinthians 12:2 (ESV) we read:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.

The context indicates that Paul was presenting his credentials as a true apostle, so the statement is likely made about himself even though he refers to the "man in Christ" in the third person. But the point of interest here is the mention of a "third heaven," indicating a belief in multiple heavens. The lowest heaven would be that observable from the earth, and the highest heaven would be God's dwelling place.

We don't know exactly what Paul meant by the "third heaven," as the book of 2 Enoch (or Slavonic Enoch, not generally considered a Christian writing) refers to Enoch's traveling through seven heavens to reach the presence of God. (2 Enoch 3-37) Was Paul's third heaven the third of seven, or did Paul consider it the highest heaven?

In turn, the belief in multiple heavens may go back to a prayer attributed to King Solomon at the dedication of the temple. According to 2 Chronicles 6:18 (ESV), Solomon prayed:

But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!

The second century Christian writer, Justin Martyr, referred to God as dwelling in "super-celestial realms," indicating that God dwelt beyond the visible heavens. He wrote regarding God the Father:

. . . no one with even the slightest intelligence would dare to assert that the Creator and Father of all things left His super-celestial realms to make Himself visible in a little spot on earth. (1)

The idea that God dwells in a literal place called "heaven" seems to conflict with another Christian belief, God's omnipresence. If God is present everywhere, how can he be confined to a particular place? Augustine of Hippo attempted to solve this problem by stating that the redeemed, even though they would enter heaven, would not behold a localized deity but would discern God's presence everywhere:

Wherefore it may very well be, and it is thoroughly credible, that we shall in the future world see the material forms of the new heavens and the new earth in such a way that we shall most distinctly recognize God everywhere present and governing all things, material as well as spiritual . . . (2)

With our expanding knowledge of the universe, "heaven" may be a symbol of God's transcendence, and refer to a state of being rather than a place.

(1) Dialogue with Trypho. Chapter 60.

(2) The City of God. Book XXII:27.

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  • The heavens are mentioned right from the beginning of genesis. The matter must be traced to Hebrew and whether it supports the two words and whether the original meaning suffered changes (ie. due to translation). – jony Aug 9 '18 at 15:12
  • Also, whatever heaven is, it as per genesis needs to be able to contain water (as in the stuff from which oceans are made). That makes it tricky to assume that it is a "symbol". – jony Aug 9 '18 at 15:16

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