“and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into the heavens.” (See commentary on 2 Kings 2:1). Elijah and Elisha were walking together and were separated from each other by a chariot of fire, then Elijah was taken into the heavens by a whirlwind. There are numerous paintings that show Elijah riding to heaven in a chariot of fire, but that is not what the Bible says. He was taken up from the ground by a whirlwind.
It is often taught that because the Bible says that Elijah “went up by a whirlwind into heaven,” that he did not die but was taken bodily to heaven to be with God. However, that is not correct. That Elijah went “into heaven” in no way indicates that Elijah was taken up to where God lives, which we generally refer to as “heaven.”
The word “heaven” has several usages in Scripture and often simply means “the sky,” or the air above the earth. Phrases such as “the dew of heaven” (Gen. 27:39; Deut. 33:13), and “the birds of heaven” (Gen. 7:3; 2 Sam. 21:10) show “heaven” being used for the air immediately above the earth (the birds of heaven” is often translated as the “birds of the air” or the “birds of the sky” even though the Hebrew word is “heaven”). The phrase “the stars of heaven” show “heaven” being used for what we today would call “space,” but to the ancients, the stars were just in the sky above the earth. The ancients did not think the stars were up with God.
God’s moving Elijah was an act of great love and mercy. God (and Elijah) knew it was time for Elijah to step down as the head prophet and let Elisha take over that position. The work and pressure were getting to be too much for Elijah. Not long before He asked God to let him die (1 Kings 19:4). But culture and respect would never allow Elisha to take over as long as Elijah was around, so God removed him from where Elisha and the prophets were and moved him to another place on earth where he could live out his days.
Elijah was taken from the earth into “heaven,” i.e., into the sky, by a whirlwind and set down somewhere else. The other prophets understood this, and wanted to go look for Elijah (2 Kings 2:16-17). Elisha, however, knowing that God would have hidden Elijah, did not want them to look for him. 2 Kings 2:11 simply means that God supernaturally moved Elijah from one place to another, similar to what He did many years later when He moved Philip (Acts 8:39-40). Elijah was mortal, and so we know that at some point after he was moved by a whirlwind, he passed away.
Elijah could not have gone up to heaven to be with God before Jesus Christ paid for the sins of mankind by dying on the cross. Like every person, Elijah sinned, and if Elijah could go to heaven without having his sins paid for by Jesus Christ, then any person could go to heaven without Jesus having to die, and Jesus’ death would have been unnecessary. Elijah is now dead and buried, awaiting the resurrection from the dead.
Even though Jesus has been raised from the dead and it would be possible now for God to take believers into heaven because their sins have been paid for, the resurrection and Day of Judgment have not come, so no human is in heaven except Jesus. The Bible says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13 ESV).
[For more on the resurrection of the dead, see Appendix 4, “The Dead are Dead.”]