Many people are uncertain about the differences between heaven, the kingdom of heaven, and the kingdom of God. We will attempt to provide helpful explanations of each of these terms, as well as indicate whether or not the kingdom of heaven has already come.
According to The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, the kingdom of heaven “refers to the Messianic kingdom promised in the OT [Old Testament], of which Jesus was about to be presented as king.” Wycliffe notes that the term kingdom of God “often has a wider connotation, but usually in the Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John], the two are used interchangeably.”
Unger’s Bible Dictionary gives additional insight as to the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God. According to Unger,
The “kingdom of God” is evidently a more comprehensive term than the “kingdom of heaven” and embraces all created intelligences both in heaven and on earth who are willingly subject to God and thus in fellowship with him. The “kingdom of heaven,” more precisely the “kingdom of the heavens,” is a term descriptive of any type of rulership God may assert on the earth at a given period . . . .
In other words, Unger is saying that, in its broadest sense, the kingdom of God pertains to the rulership of God both in heaven and on the earth, whereas the kingdom of heaven pertains to the rulership of God just on the earth.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible states that the kingdom of heaven was opened “to all believers, by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a kingdom of which Christ is the Sovereign. . . . It is a kingdom of heaven, not of this world, a spiritual kingdom. . . .”
This may raise the question as to whether or not the term kingdom of heaven is synonymous with the term heaven. The answer is that the two terms are not synonymous. Whereas the Bible is clear that heaven is a place (e.g., see John 14:1-3), there is no indication in the Bible that either the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God is a place. In this regard, Jesus Christ says in Luke 17:21, “[T]he kingdom of God is within you.”
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
Wycliffe explains that the Greek word that is translated in Luke 17:21 as “within” may mean “among,” and Henry shares this viewpoint. Wycliffe goes on to say, “Jesus asserted that the kingdom of God was already present and needed only to be recognized. He [Jesus Christ] had brought the kingdom with him and was living among them.” This additional explanation by Wycliffe is compatible with the view expressed by Unger.
In contrast, several scriptures imply that the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) did not begin until after Jesus Christ had completed His ministry. For example, Jesus states in Matthew 4:17; 10:7 and Mark 1:15 that the kingdom of heaven (or, the kingdom of God) is near (or at hand), rather than saying that the kingdom has come.
And, in Matthew 6:10, as Jesus Christ prayed what is generally referred to as “The Lord’s Prayer,” He says to God, “your kingdom come,” which infers that the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) had not yet come.
Furthermore, if the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) had already come, Jesus would not have said in Mark 9:1 and Luke 9:27 that some of those to whom He was speaking would not taste death till they saw the kingdom come. In other words, if the kingdom had come when Jesus came to the earth during His first advent, there would not have been a logical reason for Him to say to these people that they would not taste death till they witnessed the coming of the kingdom, because the kingdom would have already come.
So, what did Jesus Christ mean when He said in Matthew 4:17; 10:7 and Mark 1:15 that the kingdom of heaven is near (or at hand)?
We believe that although the term “near” or “at hand” in the aforementioned scriptures indicates that the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) would come soon, it would not come until after Jesus Christ completed His ministry. And, the most likely time was when the Holy Spirit came to dwell on the earth, which was on the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus Christ’s death on the cross.
An important consideration in this regard is that only Christians can be a part of the kingdom, so no one could have entered the kingdom before the Holy Spirit came on the Day of Pentecost, because no one could have become a Christian until the Holy Spirit began to dwell on the earth. This premise is supported by John 3:5 and 16:7-8, which indicate that it is necessary for the Holy Spirit to be present on the earth for people to become Christians.
Regardless of exactly when the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) actually came, we can be confident that it has already come. And, whereas the people to whom Jesus Christ was speaking about the kingdom needed to wait for the kingdom to come before they could enter it, people today who have trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation do not need to wait to enter the kingdom. [For a discussion of how to be assured of eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]
A question that is often associated with the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God is: Where will Christians spend eternity? The Appendix that follows briefly addresses this question.
Where Will Christians Spend Eternity?
Evidently, most Christians believe they will spend eternity with God in heaven. However, the Bible indicates otherwise. Although Christians apparently go immediately to heaven when they die, the Bible attests that they will not spend eternity there. [For a discussion of where Christians go when they die, click on “Do Christians Go Immediately to Heaven When they Die?”]
Revelation 21:1-4, 27 indicates that people whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (i.e., the righteous, who are primarily, if not exclusively, Christians) will spend eternity with God on what the Bible refers to as “the new Earth.” In these verses of scripture, the Disciple John offers the following perspective,
Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
[T]here shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s [Jesus Christ’s] Book of Life.
These verses and others in the Book of Revelation indicate that the new Earth will be similar to heaven in some respects, but it will also be somewhat like the current Earth in other respects. In any case, the new Earth will be eternal and it will not have any of the imperfections of the current world, such as sorrow, sickness, and death.