Risen from the Dust
The third heaven, or Paradise (see ch.3 Three Heavens), is the dwelling place of God and the angels. It is also the place where the souls of the redeemed go immediately when they die. This is confirmed by a number of verses, which make clear that the overcomers of this world go to a far better place when they pass on.
Jesus tells the malefactor on the cross, that that day he would be with him in Paradise, "And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23.43 KJV bible). In Acts 7, Stephen asks the Lord to receive his spirit, so that he may dwell with him in heaven, "[Stephen] looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God...And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7.55,59 KJV bible). Clearly, the assumption is that after life in the flesh, he may be allowed to dwell with Christ in spiritual heaven.
Paul tells us plainly that the souls of the saints go to heaven when he says, "Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord" (2nd Corinthians 5.6-8 KJV bible). He describes that upon death, he and his fellow servants would return to the Lord absent their bodies. Paul reaffirms this knowledge in his letter to the Philippians, "But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better" (Philippians 1.22-23 KJV bible). He wants to continue serving God in the world, but recognizes departing to be with Christ as far better than life in the flesh.
If the souls of the redeemed don't go to heaven when they die, then how would one account for the following scene in Revelation 6, "And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held: And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled" (Revelation 6.9-11 KJV bible). How could God's servants be depicted as crying out in the temple of the Lord, unless they are present with him in heaven?
The souls of the upright went to heaven in the Old Testament as well, and there are many examples of God redeeming individuals from the power of Sheol. The first account is of Enoch, who disappears because he is taken by the Lord, "And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him" (Genesis 5.24 KJV bible). Later, Elijah is taken to heaven, being lifted up both physically and spiritually in a whirlwind, "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" (2nd Kings 2.11 KJV bible). These accounts show us, beyond a doubt, that some individuals in the Old Testament were redeemed into heaven.
Later, David speaks of his own redemption from the power of Sheol, so that he might be received by the Lord, "But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave [Sheol]: for he shall receive me" (Psalm 49.15 KJV bible). Likewise, Job describes returning to the Lord at the end of his campaign or service, "If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time [Hebrew: tsebawaw - campaign or service] will I wait, till my change come. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee: thou wilt have a desire to the work of thine hands" (Job 14.14-15 KJV bible). While not as dramatic as Enoch and Elijah, both David and Job speak of the potential that their souls will dwell in heaven after they pass away. Also, Isaiah testifies to the redemption of Abraham, implying that he had gone to heaven, "Therefore thus saith the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob" (Isaiah 29.22 KJV bible). If Abraham was justified by faith, being a father to those who walk by it (Romans 4), then how could he not be dwelling with the Lord in Paradise?
We also know that it wasn't necessary for someone in the Old Testament to be physically taken up or translated as Enoch and Elijah were, in order to go to heaven. For example, Genesis 25.9 says that Abraham died and was buried, and Acts 2.29 tells us that David died in the flesh and was also buried, "Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day" (Acts 2.29 KJV bible). So we know that God had redeemed their souls from the hand of Sheol, and received them into heaven.
There is much evidence in the New Testament that the patriarchs and prophets from the Old Testament had previously gone to heaven. For example, Moses appears with Elijah, talking to Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration, "[Jesus] was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him" (Matthew 17.2-3 KJV bible). Now if we know for a fact that Elijah went to heaven, then apparently after Moses died he also went to heaven (which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone), otherwise how does one account for his appearance on the mountain with Elijah?
Also in the New Testament, Jesus describes to us how a beggar named Lazarus dies, and is taken by the angels into Abraham's bosom, "And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16.22 KJV bible). If the angels came and carried Lazarus away, then the place they brought him to must have been heaven. Therefore, Abraham's soul was already in Paradise, in order to receive Lazarus there. So we come to understand that spiritual heaven or Paradise is not only the dwelling place of God and his angels, but all of the faithful souls who have been redeemed from the power of death, even from the beginning.
But if the souls of the righteous went to heaven in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, then that raises a number of issues. For example, what shall we conclude about John 3.13 and Acts 2.34, which say, "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 KJV bible), "For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: "The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet"" (Acts 2.34 NASB bible). How could David (or anyone else) have gone to heaven if it specifically says that no man has ascended into heaven, but the Son of Man who is in heaven? These verses seem to indicate that none, not even Enoch and Elijah, went to heaven before Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.
However, if we fully analyze these verses we realize that they are not talking not about simply going to heaven, but specifically ascending into heaven. So what's the difference? An ascension implies that one is found worthy and justified to leave behind this world and enter into heaven. In contrast, all of the souls (both before and since Jesus) who have gone to heaven, have been received or taken there by God and his angels. They have not been given entry according to their own righteousness, but rather they have redemption through the Lord's mercy and forgiveness.
In contrast, Jesus not only first descended into Hades as he suffered for the sins of the world (Acts 2.31 and Ephesians 4.9), but then on account of his righteousness he was raised up from death and ascended to heaven in glory. He was not ransomed by God from the power of Hades, because he was not guilty of any transgression. Instead, he became the ransom and redemption of many through his crucifixion, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10.45 NASB bible).
It is sometimes construed from studying the New Testament, that no one could have gone to heaven prior to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, because there was no redemption for sin in the world. Indeed, if Jesus brought the remission of sins into the world through the cross, then how could anyone partake of these things before him?
The key to understanding this discrepancy is that Christ didn't necessarily bring redemption into the world, but rather he fulfilled his work of becoming the way and path of it. If we understand that all men are sinners, and all sins are transgressions against God, then we also understand that it has always been God's rightful power and authority to forgive sin. This was the nature of redemption before Christ; that God, according to his own mercy and apart from the law, pardoned the sins of a precious few to receive them back to him.
David speaks specifically of the Lord's mercy and forgiveness upon those that love him, "Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered...I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin" (Psalm 32.1,5 KJV bible), "For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103.11-12 KJV bible). Solomon also speaks of the Lord's willingness to pardon the sins of those that fear his name, "Then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and do, and give to every man according to his ways, whose heart thou knowest; (for thou, even thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men;)" (1st Kings 8.39 KJV bible). Notice how in the New Testament, and before his crucifixion, Christ exercises this same authority as his Father to forgive sin, "And when he saw their faith, he said unto him, Man, thy sins are forgiven thee...But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, (he said unto the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house" (Luke 5.20,24 KJV bible). Clearly, remission of sin was in the world before the time of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection.
However, this conclusion raises another issue. Why was the crucifixion necessary if pre-Christian redemption was already possible? The answer is that it was God's plan from the beginning to establish Christ as the Author of all salvation, and to complete him through sufferings, "For it became him [Christ], for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect (or complete) through sufferings...Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Hebrews 2.10,14 KJV bible). It is an insight into the righteousness of God, that through the sufferings of the cross, Christ has obtained perfect victory over the one who has the power of death. And so in fulfilling this plan, Christ has become the captain of all salvation, and man's desire to circumvent or annul so great a victory is nothing more than vanity and wickedness.
Generally, kings do not offer up themselves on behalf of their people, but rather they ask their subjects to sacrifice on behalf of them. Yet, the Lord of both heaven and Earth was willing to be humbled to the point of suffering the treachery, betrayal, and shame of the cross. He did this as an enduring expression of his love and compassion for us, "For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly...But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5.6,8 KJV bible), "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15.13 KJV bible). So we know that God is just, but also compassionate, even to the point of taking our stripes so that we may be delivered.