Bible Answer

Where did God take Elijah and when did it happen?

In 2 Kings 2 the Lord removed Elijah without experiencing death. Did Elijah enter Heaven in bodily form (like Enoch)? If so, how was this possible before Jesus' death and resurrection? Also, Elijah writes a letter to King Jehoram in 2 Chronicles 21, but this king lived years after God took Elijah. How did he write this letter?

The Bible's accounts of Enoch's translation and Elijah’s removal from the earth tell us nothing about what happened to them after they were removed from the Earth. We can only know they did not see death on earth. In the case of Enoch, we read this:

Heb. 11:5 By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God. 

Hebrews 11 says only that Enoch didn’t experience death. Nothing more is said about his destination after death. For Elijah, we read

2Kings 2:11 As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. 

Again, we only know that Elijah was removed from the earth. The writer says Elijah was taken “to Heaven” but the Hebrew word for heaven is shamayim, which can take one of three distinct meanings: the sky, outer space or God’s throne room. We know the writer described Elijah’s departure from his perspective on the ground, so the writer could only say that Elijah was taken into the shamayim (i.e., the sky). Nothing more can be assumed about Elijah’s final destination.

Therefore, in both cases, we cannot say from these passages that these men entered into the presence of God in bodily form. On the other hand, scripture says definitively that no man entered into Heaven before Christ. 

John 3:13 “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.

Furthermore, Paul says Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection (1Cor 15:23), which means He was the first to enter Heavenly in bodily form. The Bible says clearly “no man” preceded Christ, which rules out any exceptions. 

Furthermore, it is theologically impossible for a man to precede Christ into Heaven. Christ said that no man could reach the Father except through Him:

John 14:6 Jesus  said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

Had it been possible for the Father to permit sinful men (like Enoch or Elijah) to enter His presence in bodily form before Christ’s death and resurrection, then the Father would have had no need for Christ to die on the cross! If the Father possessed another way to resurrect sinful men before Christ’s resurrection, then He would have had no reason to sacrifice His Son to make resurrection possible. Clearly, Christ’s death and resurrection were the only way to reconcile men to the Father, which precludes any possibility that Enoch or Elijah could be resurrected before Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Therefore, we must conclude that while the Lord permitted these men to avoid death, nevertheless He could not bring them into His presence in bodily form. Based on other scripture, we must assume their souls were transferred to Abraham’s Bosom (see Luke 16) to await the arrival of Messiah just like all Old Testament saints. God granted these men remarkable departures from the earth, but He couldn't grant them entry into Heaven before Christ’s sacrifice. Scripture specifically states this was not possible, and therefore it did not happen (John 3:13).

Regarding the timing of Elijah’s departure from the earth, the Bible never specifies the date of Elijah’s departure. Bible scholars have assumed Elijah was removed during the reign of Ahaziah or perhaps that of his successor, Jehoshaphat because the writer of 2Kings recorded his account of Elijah’s departure in chapter 2, between the account of the Ahaziah’s death in 2Kings 1 and the reign of Jehoshaphat in 2Kings 3. In chapter 3, Jehoshaphat calls for a prophet, but he is told that only Elisha was present, the prophet that succeeded Elijah.

Since Elijah is absent in1Kings 3, scholars conclude that the events of 2Kings 1-3 are presented chronologically. If this is true, it raises a problem in 2Chronicles 21. In 2Chron 21 we read this:

2Chr. 21:4  Now when Jehoram had taken over the kingdom of his father and made himself secure, he killed all his brothers with the sword, and some of the rulers of Israel also. 
2Chr. 21:12  Then a letter came to him from Elijah the prophet saying, “Thus says the Lord God of your father David, ‘Because you have not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat your father and the ways of Asa king of Judah, 
2Chr. 21:13 but have walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and have caused Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to play the harlot as the house of Ahab played the harlot, and you have also killed your brothers, your own family, who were better than you, 
2Chr. 21:14 behold, the Lord is going to strike your people, your sons, your wives and all your possessions with a great calamity; 

Notice that Elijah sent a letter to Jehoram, who is the son of Jehoshaphat of Judah. If Elijah sent a letter to Jehoshaphat’s successor, Jehoram, then it appears Elijah was alive even after Jehoshaphat’s reign, which contradicts the conclusion that Elijah was removed before Jehoshaphat’s rule. 

As we’ve said, the timing of Elijah’s departure is an assumption, since scripture never specifies the exact date of Elijah’s removal. Based on 2Chron 21, we know this assumption must be wrong. 

We must use the explicit teaching of scripture to guide any implied understanding. While 2Kings 2-3 may imply Elijah was removed before Jehoshaphat’s reign, 2Chron 21 explicitly tells us that Elijah was still alive even after Jehoshaphat had died and his successor, Jehoram, as ruling. The explicit teaching in 2Chron 21 must guide our understanding (and assumptions) of 2Kings 2.

Therefore, we conclude that Elijah was still alive during Jehoram’s reign. In 2Kings 3, Jehoshaphat called for a prophet, but only Elisha was present and ministering at this time. Apparently, Elijah was living elsewhere. The text in 2Kings 3 doesn’t say Elijah was dead but only that he wasn’t present. Elijah had previously given his mantle as a prophet of Judah to Elisha, so Elisha was operating as a prophet for many years while Elijah still lived. Elijah's absence in Judah explained his need to compose a letter to communicate with King Jehoram rather appearing before him. 

So why did the writer choose to record Elijah’s departure so early in 2Kings? We can only guess, but writers of scripture commonly move events around in time for stylistic or theological purposes. In this case, the writer chose to record Elijah’s departure earlier than it happened perhaps to emphasize Elisha’s role as the primary prophet during Elijah's declining years.