Has anyone ever ascended to heaven before Christ? Did Jesus’ words in John 3:13 contradict the accounts of Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) and Enoch (Genesis 5:24) in the Bible? Doesn’t it clearly say they were taken to heaven? Why then did Jesus say that no man hath ascended to heaven?
The short answer is this: the Bible does not contradict itself at all. Old Testament people did not go directly to heaven when they died; they went to a place called “Sheol,” which means abode of the dead (it’s also used to mean grave). Sheol was divided into two areas, and the Old Testament saints went to a section referred to as “paradise” or “Abraham’s Bosom.” The other area of Sheol is hell or “hades” (for unsaved people).
Christians today go to heaven to be with Christ after death, whereas unsaved people still go to this hell section to await the final judgment (and they will then be placed in the Lake of Fire for eternity).
When the Bible says Elijah was taken into heaven by a whirlwind, the Hebrew word “shav” can refer to the sky, the universe, or God’s abode. His body was taken into the sky by the whirlwind, and he was then “translated” and taken to paradise, just like Enoch. He did not go to heaven (where God dwells).
Aside from that, the context itself reveals clearly that Jesus was merely stating that no one has divine knowledge from heaven, because no man has went to heaven and then returned to tell about it. Only Jesus knew those details! So even if someone tried to argue that Old Testament saints did go to heaven (which the scriptures indicated they did not), it still doesn’t matter. That wasn’t Jesus’ point.
Let’s examine this alleged discrepancy in more detail.
Does John 3:13 Contradict Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) and Enoch (Genesis 5:24)
In John 3:13, Jesus tells us the following:
“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 3:13).
The passage above appears to contradict two famous accounts of Godly men being taken to “heaven”: Enoch and Elijah. Consider these two passages below:
“And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Genesis 5:24).
“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 2:11).
Why This Isn’t a Contradiction
There are at least two possible solutions to this alleged contradiction. I’ll address the longer explanation first, which is that neither of these men went to “heaven.” Genesis never says that Enoch went to heaven, just that he “was not; for God took him.” Hebrews 11 clarifies it a bit more:
“By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God” (Hebrews 11:5).
Enoch was translated (much how Christians will be translated in the rapture), so that he would not have to endure death. It never says that he went to heaven–just that he was translated. God allowed Enoch to miss out on the pain of death by allowing him instant access to paradise.
However, it does say that Elijah was taken up into “heaven” by a whirlwind. The Hebrew word “shav” can mean either heaven or sky. The Bible uses the generic word “heaven” to refer to one of three places:
- First Heaven: The first heaven is merely the earth’s “sky” or “atmosphere.” Birds fly in this “heaven,” and this is where Enoch went before being translated and taken to paradise.
- Second Heaven: The second heaven the Bible speaks of is the universe, where the stars, sky, moon, and stars are located.
- Third Heaven: The third heaven refers to a location where God dwells with the angels and sits upon His throne.
To examine which heaven the Bible is referring to, you must examine the context. For example, long after Jesus said these words, the Apostle Paul was given the privilege of seeing the third heaven:
“I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2).
When the Bible talks about birds flying in the heavens (the same word), clearly it is talking about the sky:
“By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches” (Psalm 104:12).
Regarding Elijah, the context does not provide strong evidence that he actually went to God’s abode. Instead, it seems mostly likely that it is talking about him going up into the sky in the flaming chariot. After that, God apparently translated Elijah just like He translated Enoch, and Elijah then joined the other Old Testament saints in Abraham’s Bosom (or paradise).
Remember, Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would soon be with Him in “paradise,” not heaven! Jesus didn’t ascend to heaven until later.
“And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
Jesus clearly taught that before His death on the cross, people who died went to either hell (hades) or paradise (Abraham’s bosom). Consider this illustration Jesus gave about the poor man named Lazarus:
“Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:22-23).
Therefore, there is no contradiction at all. When Jesus said this statement, no mere man had been to heaven and then returned to earth to talk about it! Enoch and Elijah were translated (raptured) into Abraham’s bosom (paradise). But they did not go to the “third heaven,” which is God’s abode. No contradiction at all.
After Christ’s death on the cross, Christians now go directly to heaven to be with the Lord after death:
“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Unsaved people go to hell, where they will await a future resurrection where they will stand before God’s white throne for their final judgment. They will then be cast into the Lake of Fire where there is no ceasing of torment.
Jesus Was Merely Saying No One Had His Divine Knowledge
Even when you exclude the above explanation, it really doesn’t make a difference. It still wouldn’t be a contradiction even if Old Testament saints did go straight to heaven. Why? Because the context clearly shows that Jesus is merely saying that no one has authority to speak about heavenly matters, because no man has been there and returned to tell about it (aside from Jesus, of course).
“Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man” (John 3:12-13).
Jesus was basically saying this: “Look Nicodemus, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been in heaven, and I’m telling you stuff I’ve witnessed first-hand.” That’s all Jesus was saying.
Wouldn’t Jesus Have Known About Enoch and Elijah?
To put the final nail in the coffin in this alleged contradiction, let us consider this last point. Jesus clearly knew the scriptures well. The story of Enoch occurs in the first few chapters of Genesis. The story of Elijah going up by a whirlwind is legendary.
Are we to believe that Jesus Christ, who knew the scriptures like the back of His hand, made the blunder of a lifetime by forgetting that two people “allegedly” went to “heaven?” Of course not! Even a person with elementary knowledge of the Bible has probably heard about those two accounts, much less someone who mastered the scriptures like Jesus!
In conclusion, this is no contradiction at all. When saved people died in the Old Testament, they went to Sheol/Paradise/Abraham’s bosom. They did not go to heaven, as the scriptures indicate many times. Jesus was accurate in saying that no man had ascended to God’s abode and returned to tell the details about it.
God’s word can be trusted for ever and ever, Amen!
Have you been saved? Did you know that God stands ready to forgive any skeptic or scoffer? God sent His son to die on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins. When you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you will receive forgiveness of your sins and become born again. Will you accept Christ today, and be saved from your sins? I pray that you will.