Seminary Viewpoints

Why Elijah Did Not Go to Heaven in the Whirlwind

Guest Author, Ken Burkett | May 5, 2022
Theology Thursday

Most Christians have heard the Sunday school story of Elijah going to heaven in the whirlwind. But not everyone believes it.

The text in 2 Kings 2:11 seems clear: “And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.”

But there is a detail about Elijah in 2 Chronicles 21:12-15 which unravels this traditional story — a letter which, upon thorough study, has to have been physically written and sent by Elijah himself at least four years after he goes to heaven.

Many pastors and theologians defend the traditional story, either not knowing about the letter or by making excuses for it. However, not only do details of the story clearly prove tradition wrong, but getting the story right matters because of profound theological implications.

How We Know Elijah Did Not Go to Heaven in the Whirlwind

Several excuses for the letter are popular among theologians:

  • Elijah wrote the letter from heaven.
  • Elijah wrote the letter and entrusted it to another.
  • The story of Elijah going to heaven is chronologically misplaced in 2 Kings.
  • A different and lesser-known Elijah, or a prophet operating in the “power and spirit” of Elijah, wrote the letter.
  • A copyist error substituted the name “Elijah” for “Elisha” as the author of the letter.

Each of these theories is faulty, as I explain in my full article in the Journal of Biblical Theology & Worldview.

At the end of the day, 2 Kings 2:11 does not even affirm that Elijah went “to heaven.” As is common in the Bible, the Hebrew term for “heaven” merely conveys the notion of ascending in the direction of heaven, or “skyward.”

Rather than trying to make the Bible fit the traditional narrative, it is much simpler to understand that God lifted up Elijah with a whirlwind toward the sky and then transported him to some other unknown geographic location (probably in or near Israel). There he lived out the rest of his life in quiet retirement, except when he broke his silence with the letter.

This circumstance was not unusual for Elijah. He had a reputation for “vanishing” for extended periods of time (1 Kings 17:2-6; 18:10) and for being transported suddenly and supernaturally by the Holy Spirit to other geographic locations (1 Kings 18:11-12). In fact, the Holy Spirit also whisked away Ezekiel (Ezek. 3:12-14) and Philip from the wilderness (Acts 8:39-40).

Not only did the 50 eyewitnesses all believe the Holy Spirit dropped Elijah off in another valley (2 Kings 2:16), the ancient Jews and the early church fathers commonly held this view, and the Eastern Orthodox Church still does.

Theological Ramifications of Elijah Going to Heaven

Getting the story right is about more than just Hebrew and chronology. Implications of Elijah’s going to heaven affect at least eight different points of theology. To name a few:

  • What happened to Elijah’s body? If transformed and glorified, how could Christ be the first to receive a glorified body (1 Cor. 15:20-23)? If not transformed, how does that fit with the fact that “nobody can see the Lord without holiness” (Heb. 12:14) and that the saints in heaven are “perfected” (Heb. 12:23)?

  • Elijah is often said to be one of the two witnesses killed in the Tribulation period (Rev. 11:7-12). But how can he die if he is already in his glorified body?

  • What about Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus: “No one has ascended to heaven” (John 3:13)? (By the way, this would also include Enoch. In the article, I also explain that the Bible does not give enough detail for us to conclude that his body was taken to heaven, either.)

Important Lessons for Bible Reading and Study

This post would not be complete without drawing out several important lessons this exercise of scholarship offers for any Christian — theologian or not:

Set aside presuppositions. Notice how easy and dangerous it is for tradition, or Christian “conventional wisdom,” to influence our reading of the biblical text — even among educated evangelical protestants.

Focus on the text. Presuppositions distract us from the crucial hermeneutic principle, “When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” The Hebrew and context of 2 Kings 2:11, plus the details about the letter, made the truth clear right from the start. Creative explanations were not needed.

Systematic theology has its place. While we always need to let the text say what it says, synthesizing the biblical data into a coherent whole keeps pastors from unnecessarily contradicting themselves from one sermon to the next. For example,

  • “Elijah went to heaven, but Old Testament saints didn’t go to heaven upon leaving this world.”
  • “Elijah is in his glorified body, but he will die during the Tribulation period.”

May this topic encourage you to study the Bible for yourself, ask hard questions and rightly handle the word of truth.

As discussed by Ken Burkett on The Steve Noble Show on May 5