Did Elijah ride up to heaven in a flaming chariot, ending his life on earth?
Don’t you hate it when you’ve got a favourite Bible story and then someone who takes the Bible just as seriously as you comes along and ruins it for you? The story of Elijah and the flaming chariot is well-known. It comes from the book of 2 Kings, chapter 2. Here’s the passage, from verse 9 to verse 12:
When they had crossed [the river Jordan], Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
The first thing you might notice is that actually Elijah is not obviously taken up in a chariot of fire, as in popular version of the story, at all. Chariots of fire (plural), drawn by flaming horses, comes between Elijah and Elisha, and then Elijah is taken up in a whirlwind. But that’s a minor detail in a spectacular scene, and it could simply be an unclear description.
The way this story is often told is that Elijah went to heaven and that was the end of his earthly life. It’s true, in the sense that the Hebrew term הַשָּׁמַיִם (hashamayim) is frequently translated “the heavens” (or “heaven,” as it is here in 2 Kings 2:11), that Elijah was taken up into heaven. But that word really just means the sky (so that, for example, the birds fly in “the heavens”). That doesn’t mean that Elijah went to some place “on the other side” or to some spiritual realm where God and the angels live. As a bodily creature (Elijah was certainly not a ghost, nor is he depicted as dying), it is hard to see what this would even mean for Elijah. But let’s suppose that it might be possible somehow for people to go to this place. The point is, the story in 2 Kings does not say that Elijah went there.
In fact – and this is what most readers miss – although Elijah ceases to be a leading figure in the history of 2 Kings, he does not disappear entirely. He reappears later, in 2 Chronicles 21:8-15
In his days Edom revolted from the rule of Judah and set up a king of their own. Then Jehoram passed over with his commanders and all his chariots, and he rose by night and struck the Edomites who had surrounded him and his chariot commanders. So Edom revolted from the rule of Judah to this day. At that time Libnah also revolted from his rule, because he had forsaken the Lord, the God of his fathers.
Moreover, he made high places in the hill country of Judah and led the inhabitants of Jerusalem into whoredom and made Judah go astray. And a letter came to him from Elijah the prophet, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father, ‘Because you have not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat your father, or in the ways of Asa king of Judah, but have walked in the way of the kings of Israel and have enticed Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem into whoredom, as the house of Ahab led Israel into whoredom, and also you have killed your brothers, of your father’s house, who were better than you, behold, the Lord will bring a great plague on your people, your children, your wives, and all your possessions, and you yourself will have a severe sickness with a disease of your bowels, until your bowels come out because of the disease, day by day.’ ”
If Elijah had passed on to the great beyond, what on earth – literally – was he doing writing letters to Jehoram, King of Judah? Sure, you can concoct a story where Elijah was shown by God all that Jehoram would later do, and he wrote down this letter as a judgement based on these predictions. But that’s just not how the passage reads. There is certainly no record of this inspired event prior to Elijah’s encounter with the whirlwind, and nobody is surprised that Jehoram receives a letter from Elijah. Nobody, that is, apart from the reader who thinks that Elijah was living in heaven.
In the story of Elijah being taken up, the words “And he [Elisha] saw him no more” do not, in themselves, suggest that Elijah left this world for good. In fact there’s a strikingly similar occurrence of almost exactly this phrase in the New Testament. In Acts chapter eight, Philip was told by “an angel of the Lord” to walk along the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. There, he met an Ethiopian eunuch, who he told about Jesus, and then, at the eunuch’s request, he baptised him. Mission accomplished (I think we are supposed to assume that this is why the angel sent Philip down this road). And look what happened next, verses 39-40:
And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
If we stopped telling the story after the word “rejoicing,” we wouldn’t know what had happened to Philip. But because we then read that he passed through Azotus later, we know that he was still around. Similarly, if we stopped reading the story of Elijah at the end of “and he saw him no more,” then we wouldn’t know what had happened to him. But because we later read about him sending a letter to the king of Judah, we have pretty good reason to think that he was still around.
Or at least that’s what I currently think. Have I missed something?
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