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Origins of the Heavenly Destiny Concept
Greek Mysticism & Gnosticism
Copyright © Tim Warner

Where did the idea of an eternity in heaven come from? Certainly not from Judaism, from which Christianity sprang! There is no such concept in the Old Testament. As we saw in the article, (The Kingdom in the Gospels), it definitely did not come from Jesus' teaching, and therefore could not have been part of the Gospel Jesus commanded to be taken into all the world. The hope of believers according to Jesus was the Kingdom of God to come here on earth at His coming.

Traditional Dispensationalists believe the "heavenly destiny" idea was part of the mystery revealed through Paul. But, where did Paul depart from what Jesus taught? He did not! He built on Jesus' teaching. Dispensationalists have no clear statement of Paul's to indicate a heavenly destiny for the Church.

The idea of a heavenly destiny was common in the first century among pagans schooled in Greek philosophy. It entered Christianity gradually, after the deaths of the Apostles, through the incorporation of elements of Gnosticism. The Gnostics taught that matter was evil, and the creation was a mistake, made by a lesser god who sought to imprison mankind in physical bodies, and demand their worship. Christian Gnosticism held that Jesus came from the supreme God to free mankind from this evil physical realm, in which he had been trapped by the lesser god whom the Jews worshipped. Jesus' mission was to show mankind the way to a higher heavenly reality (not atone for sins). Salvation was attained through levels of "gnosis" (the Greek word for "knowledge"). Through the attainment of supernatural knowledge of various mysteries, converts were supposed to advance through stages (helped along the way by certain spirit guides) until one reached the "pleroma," the Gnostics' version of "heaven." Since the material world was evil, Gnostics denied the resurrection of the body as well. Being freed from the bonds of earth and the material cosmos, so they could soar into the heavens, was the hope of the Gnostics.

Justin Martyr was an orthodox Christian writer who lived in the early second century. He strongly opposed the 'heretics' who promoted the 'heavenly destiny' concept. To the early orthodox Christians, the physical resurrection of the body in order to reign in Christ's physical earthly kingdom was the orthodox Faith handed down by the Apostles.

"Moreover, I pointed out to you that some who are called Christians, but are godless, impious heretics, teach doctrines that are in every way blasphemous, atheistical, and foolish. But that you may know that I do not say this before you alone, I shall draw up a statement, so far as I can, of all the arguments which have passed between us; in which I shall record myself as admitting the very same things which I admit to you. For I choose to follow not men or men’s doctrines, but God and the doctrines [delivered] by Him. For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this [truth], and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; ... But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare." (Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, LXXX)

The first century orthodox Christians definitely continued to expect the Jewish hope of the Millennial Kingdom, and the resurrection of the body in order to reign in Christ's physical Kingdom, as the destiny of all the saved. 1

Irenaeus was the pastor of the church in Lyons, Gaul, a student of Polycarp, the disciple of John, and a martyr for the Faith. He made it his life's work to refute the Gnostic sects, with their 'heavenly destiny' ideas, and denial of the resurrection of the body. Irenaeus wrote five volumes called, Against Heresies. In his fifth volume, Irenaeus soundly refuted the Gnostic idea of a heavenly destiny, by proving that the hope of the saved is the Kingdom of God on earth, and the resurrection of the body to reign with Christ.

"And again he says, “Let him be taken away, that he behold not the glory of God.” And when these things are done, he says, “God will remove men far away, and those that are left shall multiply in the earth.” “And they shall build houses, and shall inhabit them themselves: and plant vineyards, and eat of them themselves.” For all these and other words were unquestionably spoken in reference to the resurrection of the just, which takes place after the coming of Antichrist, and the destruction of all nations under his rule; in [the times of] which [resurrection] the righteous shall reign in the earth, waxing stronger by the sight of the Lord: and through Him they shall become accustomed to partake in the glory of God the Father, and shall enjoy in the kingdom intercourse and communion with the holy angels, and union with spiritual beings; and [with respect to] those whom the Lord shall find in the flesh, awaiting Him from heaven, and who have suffered tribulation, as well as escaped the hands of the Wicked one. ... Now all these things being such as they are, cannot be understood in reference to super-celestial matters; “for God,” it is said, “will show to the whole earth that is under heaven thy glory.” But in the times of the kingdom, the earth has been called again by Christ [to its pristine condition], and Jerusalem rebuilt after the pattern of the Jerusalem above, of which the prophet Isaiah says, “Behold, I have depicted thy walls upon my hands, and thou art always in my sight,”" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. V, ch. XXXV).

The only "heavenly" ideas they had were related to a series of levels of reward in the Millennium. Irenaeus claimed that the New Jerusalem will descend from heaven, and the most worthy saints will inhabit this city (apparently hovering in the sky {heavens}). Others will inhabit the earthly city of Jerusalem, as well as the paradise earth (after being restored). Yet, all would be a part of this Kingdom, and Christ would be seen both in the New Jerusalem and on the earth.2 He saw the Millennium as prepatory for final dwelling, where the New Jerusalem would set down on the earth, after its complete renovation at the end of the Millennium.

"For as it is God truly who raises up man, so also does man truly rise from the dead, and not allegorically, as I have shown repeatedly. And as he rises actually, so also shall he be actually disciplined beforehand for incorruption, and shall go forwards and flourish in the times of the kingdom, in order that he may be capable of receiving the glory of the Father. Then, when all things are made new, he shall truly dwell in the city of God. For it is said, “He that sitteth on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And the Lord says, Write all this; for these words are faithful and true. And He said to me, They are done.” And this is the truth of the matter." (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. V. ch. XXXV)

Although Gnosticism itself was largely purged from the Church by early Christian apologists, like Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus, certain subtle elements of Gnostic thinking remained in some quarters, particularly Alexandria, Egypt. The central hermeneutic of Gnosticism, allegorical interpretation, survived and found a haven with the Alexandrian writers, Clement and Origen. Because of the influence of the Alexandrian school, the Millennial hope was gradually displaced entirely as Greek philosophy continued to invade Christianity in a much more subtle form. The doctrine of heaven, as the final destiny, began to penetrate mainstream Christianity in the late second and third centuries thanks largely to the wide influence of Origen's writings. He made liberal use of the allegorical method of interpreting prophecy. Origen saw the physical existence on this planet as only a temporary detour in a mystical spiritual existence.3  The physical creation, while not being 'evil' like the overt Gnostics imagined, was considered a temporary classroom for mankind, through which he was to become more mature until no longer needing the physical realm as his tutor. Our earthly existence in the physical realm was sort of an interaction with physical things which are meant as illustrations of spiritual realities.4 In short, we are all living in a continuous stream of parables. The idea is, learn the lesson of the physical parable, and then you are ready to shed the physical and live in the spiritual realm in heaven. Hence Origen saw no need for a resurrection of the body, and opposed the orthodox view of the physical Millennial Kingdom. Origen's views gained some popularity among the early Church, but certainly not wholesale endorsement. Many of the bishops considered him a heretic. Below is a quote from Origen, outlining his 'heavenly' scheme.

"...when, notwithstanding all things have been made subject to Christ, and through Christ to God (with whom they formed also one spirit, in respect of spirits being rational natures), then the bodily substance itself also being united to most pure and excellent spirits, and being changed into an ethereal condition in proportion to the quality or merits of those who assume it (according to the apostle’s words, “We also shall be changed”), will shine forth in splendor; or at least that when the fashion of those things which are seen passes away, and all corruption has been shaken off and cleansed away, and when the whole of the space occupied by this world, in which the spheres of the planets are said to be, has been left behind and beneath, then is reached the fixed abode of the pious and the good situated above that sphere, which is called non-wandering, as in a good land, in a land of the living, which will be inherited by the meek and gentle; to which land belongs that heaven (which, with its more magnificent extent, surrounds and contains that land itself) which is called truly and chiefly heaven, in which heaven and earth, the end and perfection of all things, may be safely and most confidently placed, — where, viz., these, after their apprehension and their chastisement for the offenses which they have undergone by way of purgation, may, after having fulfilled and discharged every obligation, deserve a habitation in that land; while those who have been obedient to the word of God, and have henceforth by their obedience shown themselves capable of wisdom, are said to deserve the kingdom of that heaven or heavens; and thus the prediction is more worthily fulfilled, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth;” and, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven;” and the declaration in the Psalm, “He shall exalt thee, and thou shalt inherit the land.” For it is called a descent to this earth, but an exaltation to that which is on high. In this way, therefore, does a sort of road seem to be opened up by the departure of the saints from that earth to those heavens; so that they do not so much appear to abide in that land, as to inhabit it with an intention, viz., to pass on to the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, when they have reached that degree of perfection also." (Origen, De Principis, Bk. II, ch. 4)

The keen reader will no doubt pick up on Origen's mention of a 'purgetory' in preparation for this heavenly abode. One can clearly see in Origen's ideas what soon became official Roman Catholic dogma.

"And so also to those who shall deserve to obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, that germ of the body’s restoration, which we have before mentioned, by God’s command restores out of the earthly and animal body a spiritual one, capable of inhabiting the heavens; while to each one of those who may be of inferior merit, or of more abject condition, or even the lowest in the scale, and altogether thrust aside, there is yet given, in proportion to the dignity of his life and soul, a glory and dignity of body, — nevertheless in such a way, that even the body which rises again of those who are to be destined to everlasting fire or to severe punishments, is by the very change of the resurrection so incorruptible, that it cannot be corrupted and dissolved even by severe punishments." (Origen, De Principis, Bk. II, ch. 10)

As you can see, Origen admits a resurrection of the body for the unsaved, so they can suffer the torment of damnation. But, for the 'saved,' he envisioned a spiritual existence (similar to the Gnostics), and a heavenly destiny (as did the Gnostics). In the following quote, it becomes increasingly clear where the modern dispensational 'heavenly destiny' ideas came from.

"For which reason, now, we may also see of a truth that all the doctrines of the Jews of the present day are mere trifles and fables, since they have not the light that proceeds from the knowledge of the Scriptures; whereas those of the Christians are the truth, having power to raise and elevate the soul and understanding of man, and to persuade him to seek a citizenship, not like the earthly Jews here below, but in heaven." (Origen, Against Celsus, Bk. II, ch. V)

Origen's ideas were in direct opposition to the earlier orthodox writers, Justin and Irenaeus. While Justin called 'heretics' so-called Christians who forsook the Jewish idea of an earthly physical Kingdom of God, Origen called the idea of an earthly Kingdom 'fables.' He thought the hope of a physical Kingdom was absurd, and also denied the resurrection of the body for the saved, same as the Gnostics.

"And again he says, “We shall be caught up in the clouds to meet Christ in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” We are therefore to suppose that the saints will remain there until they recognize the twofold mode of government in those things which are performed in the air. And when I say “twofold mode,” I mean this: When we were upon earth, we saw either animals or trees, and beheld the differences among them, and also the very great diversity among men; but although we saw these things, we did not understand the reason of them; and this only was suggested to us from the visible diversity, that we should examine and inquire upon what principle these things were either created or diversely arranged. And a zeal or desire for knowledge of this kind being conceived by us on earth, the full understanding and comprehension of it will be granted after death, if indeed the result should follow according to our expectations. When, therefore, we shall have fury comprehended its nature, we shall understand in a twofold manner what we saw on earth. Some such view, then, must we hold regarding this abode in the air. I think, therefore, that all the saints who depart from this life will remain in some place situated on the earth, which holy Scripture calls paradise, as in some place of instruction, and, so to speak, class-room or school of souls, in which they are to be instructed regarding all the things which they had seen on earth, and are to receive also some information respecting things that are to follow in the future, as even when in this life they had obtained in some degree indications of future events, although “through a glass darkly,” all of which are revealed more clearly and distinctly to the saints in their proper time and place. If any one indeed be pure in heart, and holy in mind, and more practiced in perception, he will, by making more rapid progress, quickly ascend to a place in the air, and reach the kingdom of heaven, through those mansions, so to speak, in the various places which the Greeks have termed spheres, i.e., globes, but which holy Scripture has called heavens; in each of which he will first see clearly what is done there, and in the second place, will discover the reason why things are so done: and thus he will in order pass through all gradations, following Him who hath passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, who said, “I will that where I am, these may be also.” And of this diversity of places He speaks, when He says, “In My Father’s house are many mansions.”" (Origen, De Principis, Bk. II, ch. 11)

In the fourth century, Augustine was more successful in popularizing the heavenly destiny idea, making it mainstream Christian (Catholic) doctrine. He tended toward Origen's allegorical interpretation, but toned down the system to make it less objectionable to orthodox Christians.5 Unlike Origen, Augustine admitted the resurrection of the body. The heavenly destiny concept was a staple of the a-millennial view that grew out of Origen's and Augustine's allegorical methods of viewing Scripture.

"Augustin proceeds to a special election of a people of God from the corrupt and condemned mass; he follows their history in two antagonistic lines, and ends in the dualistic contrast of an eternal heaven for the elect and an eternal hell for the reprobate,..." (Philip Schaff, Preface to The City of God)

Traditional Dispensationalism's Partial Return to the Ancient Faith
Traditional Dispensationalism originally grew out of a return to futurist pre-millennialism. In doing so, it threw off some of Augustine's concepts held by both Roman Catholicism and the Reformers, particularly regarding Israel. The main objection early dispensationalists had was the allegorizing of the Old Testament prophecies related to Israel. But, it seems they did not really challenge the a-millennial ideas regarding the heavenly destiny of the Church. This partial abandonment of Augustine's views presented a paradox for them - how to reconcile a physical Kingdom promised to Israel with the idea of a heavenly destiny for the saved.

The solution devised by the early dispensationalists was a kind of dichotomy (absolute division) between the Old Testament program, which was seen as Jewish and earthly, and a New Testament program for the Church, which was seen as heavenly.

Taking the dichotomy approach to solving the seeming conflict between Old and New Testament programs is really nothing new. Faced with a God in the Old Testament who seemed to have one program, and a God in the New Testament who seemed to have a completely different program, the early Gnostic sects imagined that the God of Israel was not the same Father God whom Jesus proclaimed, but a lesser god.6 They envisioned a total 'dichotomy' between the God of Israel with His 'carnal' (physical - which they termed 'animal') program, and the Father Jesus proclaimed, who had a much more heavenly minded (spiritual) program for those who had knowledge (gnosis) of the mystery.7 The followers of Marcion (one of the more well known Gnostic sects) went so far as to claim that Paul alone received the revelation of the "mystery," not foreseen in the Old Testament, or revealed to the other Apostles.8

One of Irenaeus' tactics in refuting the Gnostics was to illustrate the continuity between the Old and New Testament programs. He did this by citing Old Testament prophecy fulfilled in the Church (that is, specific prophecy about this present dispensation), and citing New Testament passages that linked the present dispensation with the past one.9 He also appealed to the agreement between Old Testament prophecy and New Testament prophecy regarding eschatology.10 He proved with many quotations of Scripture that the Apostolic writings concerning the Church were in perfect alignment, and even depended upon, the goal of Old Testament prophecy regarding Israel. The goal of both Testaments was the same, and the destiny of the redeemed from both Testaments was a horizontal hope, the Millennial Kingdom of Christ on earth, not a vertical hope, ascending to heaven.11 The 'mystery' was not seen as a parenthetical Church age, but the whole hidden plan of God to redeem mankind through the atoning sacrifice of Christ and the Gospel being proclaimed to the nations. It was hidden within the Old Testament Scriptures, and revealed by Jesus and the Apostles.12 Therefore in Irenaeus' mind, one God was interacting with man through a single program, and the Church consisted of all of the redeemed. God's unfolding plan for mankind's salvation was manifest through a series of progressive dispensations, according to Irenaeus.13 This was the orthodox Faith of all the local churches in the second century, from Germany to Lybia, from Gaul to Egypt. And it was the tradition passed down by the succession of "faithful men," the elders of the churches founded by the Apostles.14

The "chilaism" (millennialism) of the early orthodox Christian Church knew nothing of a heavenly destiny for the Church distinct from God's program for Israel. The early Christians' hope was identical to that of the Patriarchs, the Prophets, and all the saints of Hebrews eleven, an inheritance in the coming physical Kingdom of God on earth. The Church was seen as all of the redeemed from every dispensation. While most may not be aware of this, progressive dispensationalism is largely a return to the basic pre-millennialism of the early orthodox Church. Darby threw off some of the Augustinian thinking predominant in Protestantism, particularly where it concerns the nation of Israel. But, it is my personal belief that he did not go far enough, and continued to entertain 'mystical' thinking regarding the Church, begun by the Gnostics, toned down by Origen, and made mainstream by Augustine. Darby should have gone all the way back to Apostolic theology found in those who had personal linkage to Apostolic oral tradition, like Justin, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus. He should have abandoned the heavenly destiny idea of the Gnostics, Origen, and Augustine, and embraced the chilaism handed down to the second generation Christians by the Apostles. Instead, he fell into the same trap as the Gnostics 1500 years earlier, and imagined a dichotomy between the Old Testament program for Israel and the New Testament program for the Church.


1. Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Penguin Books, pp.77,78,83
2. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. V, ch. XXXV,XXXVI
3. Chadwick, p.104
4. Origen, De Principis, Bk. II, ch. XI
5. Schaff, Phillip. The Post Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Preface to Augustin's The City of God. p.5
6. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. I, ch. XXIV, 2,4
7. ibid, Bk. I, ch. VI, 1-2
8. ibid, Bk. III, ch. XIII, 1
9. ibid, Bk. I, ch. X, 3, Bk III, ch. XII, Bk. IV, ch. VIII, IX-XII, XXI-XXV
10. ibid, Bk. V, ch. XXV-XXVI
11. ibid, Bk. V, ch. XXXII - XXXV
12. ibid, Bk. III, ch. XII, 9, Bk. IV, ch. IX, 3, Frag. XXXVI
13. ibid, Bk. IV, ch. IX, 3, ch. XXVI
14. ibid, Bk. I, X

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