3 Models of Heaven in the Early Church

Lately, I have been reading a book called A History of Heaven by Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang. I am fascinated with their 22-page chapter, “Irenaeus and Augustine on our Heavenly Bodies.”

The authors compare the eschatology views of Irenaeus, the early Augustine, and the later Augustine. Irenaeus represents the early church’s premillennialism. Augustine represents the later amillennial view. You can see the stark contrast between these two men. Also helpful is the distinction between earlier and later Augustine. The early Augustine held very much to a Spiritual Vision Model approach, while the later Augustine was slightly less so. I have charted out some of the differences in the perspectives. Hope you find this helpful. See below:

3 Models of Heaven in Early Church


Early Augustine

Later Augustine

Main theme: Glorified Material World

Main theme: The Ascetic Promise—A Heaven for Souls

Main theme: The Ecclesiastical Promise: Physical Beauty Eternalized

Reliance on kingdom view coming from John the Apostle and Polycarp

Heavy reliance on Neoplatonism worldview

Views largely the same as the early Augustine with some modifications as mentioned below

Historical Situation: Persecution and martyrdom were main issues facing Christians of Irenaeus’s day; showed your allegiance to Christ via suffering and martyrdom

Historical Situation: Christianity is an accepted part of society; show spirituality by fleeing society and its comforts and delights

Historical Situation: Mostly same as early Augustine but Augustine became more comfortable interacting with society

Hermeneutic: Prophecies about earthly kingdom and physical blessings should be taken literally and not allegorized

Hermeneutic: a mix of literal and allegorical interpretation; don’t take Revelation literally

Hermeneutic: Mostly same as early Augustine

Heaven will be on a renewed, restored earth

Heaven has nothing to do with earth; only a spiritual realm

A renewed, restored earth will occur after Jesus’ return

Earth and material things viewed positively and will be restored in the future

Earth and material things viewed negatively and will not exist in the future heaven

Softening of dualism between physical and spiritual matters

Physical bodies viewed positively now and will exist in the future

Physical bodies viewed negatively and will not exist in the future (came close to denying bodily resurrection)

Physical bodies not viewed as negatively with later Augustine, and will exist and be beautiful in Heaven; yet must obey the will of the spirit

Food, culture, and society are often good and can be enjoyed now and in Jesus’ messianic kingdom

Food, culture, and society hinder the pursuit of God; ascetic ideal should be sought; those matters do not exist in Heaven; no social interactions

Seeing God is primary but some eating and drinking will occur, but not out of necessity; societal interactions will occur

Civilized urban life in the present can be good, is not all bad

Urban life in the present is corrupt and bad; escape it

A somewhat softening from the early Augustine; some appreciation of civilized life

Jesus’ kingdom is compensation for lost life and production in this world

Heaven is a glad escape from the present world

Mostly early Augustine

Those loyal to Jesus will regain life on earth in the future world

Those loyal to Jesus will be rewarded with a heavenly escape from the world

Mostly early Augustine

The physical body will be a major part of Jesus’ kingdom; Believers will do much with their bodies

The human body is not part of Heaven

More place for physical,  resurrected body; physical eyes will be part of seeing God

3 main eras: 1. Present era; 2. Kingdom of Messiah (millennium); 3. Kingdom of the Father (Eternal State)

2 main eras: 1. The present era is Jesus’ kingdom. 2. Then eternal state

Same as early Augustine

Not much discussion of what the Kingdom of the Father will be like after Jesus’ messianic, millennial kingdom

This is the era of Jesus’ kingdom; spiritual Heaven is the eternal state

Same as early Augustine but Augustine open to a renewed earth

Marriage, family, childbearing occur in Jesus’ kingdom (future millennium)

No marriage, family, childbearing in eternal Heaven

Same as early Augustine but some recognition of previous relationships could occur

Distinctions in genders exist in the future

No distinctions in gender

Distinctions in gender will exist in the future; gender body parts will exist, but are beautiful and lust will not occur


Michael Vlach bio

Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D. (Twitter: @mikevlach) is Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary where he has been teaching full time since 2006. Michael specializes in the areas of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Apologetics, and World Religions. Dr. Vlach was awarded the “Franz-Delitzsch Prize 2008” for his dissertation, “The Church as a Replacement of Israel: An Analysis of Supersessionism.” He blogs here.

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