Did Elijah Go to Heaven in a Chariot of Fire?

by Glenn Conjurske

We need only open almost any children’s Bible story book to see pictures of Elijah going to heaven in a chariot of fire. This wondrous chariot of fire which transported him to heaven is also sung in various songs, written of in commentaries, and preached in sermons. Yet the plain fact is, Elijah never went to heaven in a chariot of fire. The Bible never says that he did, and in fact makes it quite clear that he did not.

Why then is it so universally believed that he did? Alas, this is but one example among many of the almost unaccountable ignorance of the Bible which reigns in the church of God. Popular errors, concerning both the facts, the principles, and the doctrines of Scripture, hold almost undisputed sway in the church, and the Bible remains an unknown book.

But I suppose that at this point some of my readers will be more than ready to contradict me, and positively affirm that Elijah did go to heaven in a chariot of fire—-just as old John Jasper positively asserted that “de sun do move,” in contradiction of all the infidel scientists, all the carnal Christians who were influenced by the scientists, and all the other enemies of God. And yet John Jasper had at least half an excuse for his belief, for the actual language of Scripture does seemingly imply that “de sun do move,” but there is no excuse whatever for the popular notion that Elijah went to heaven in a chariot of fire, for the actual language of Scripture makes it perfectly plain that he did not. And by “the actual language of Scripture” I am not referring to the Hebrew original, which is inaccessible to most readers, nor to any subtle technicalities which only a council of lawyers could discover, but to the plain language of the English Bible, which any child can understand, if he has no veil of popular error or traditional interpretation before his eyes. I turn, then, to the actual language of Scripture. In the first verse of the second chapter of Second Kings we are told, “And it came to pass, when the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal.” There is nothing here about any chariot of fire, but a plain declaration that “the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven BY A WHIRLWIND.” A whirlwind is not a chariot of fire, and a chariot of fire is not a whirlwind. This much is plain enough.

But does not the Scripture speak also of a chariot of fire? To be sure, it does, but it says never a word about that chariot of fire taking Elijah to heaven, while it positively asserts that it was a whirlwind which took him to heaven. We read of the chariot of fire in the eleventh verse of the chapter: “And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder, AND ELIJAH WENT UP BY A WHIRLWIND INTO HEAVEN.” This is also plain enough. How, indeed, could anything be plainer? “Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” This verse, moreover, is the only one in the passage which makes any reference to the chariot of fire, and it says not a word about its taking Elijah to heaven.

What, then, was the purpose of the chariot of fire? That is also plain enough on the face of the text of the English Bible. “There appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder.” The horses and chariot of fire were not sent to carry Elijah to heaven, but to keep Elisha on earth. They were not sent to carry Elijah to heaven, but to separate him from Elisha—-to part them both asunder. This much is also perfectly plain in the text. They must needs be “both parted asunder,” as I suppose, so that the whirlwind did not take them “both” to heaven.

But what need were there of so grand an agency to accomplish so simple a task? We do not send an army to kill a mouse. What need were there of horses and chariots of fire, to accomplish so simple a thing as to part them both asunder? Ah! this was not so simple a thing! Elijah had tried already to separate himself from Elisha, but without success. In the second verse we read, “And Elijah said unto Elisha, Tarry here, I pray thee, for the Lord hath sent me to Bethel. And Elisha said unto him, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they went down to Bethel.” And twice more that day Elijah said to him, “Tarry here, I pray thee,” but Elisha was not to be thus moved. Each time that his master said, “Tarry here,” Elisha responded in the same way, with “As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.” In that point he was firm, and was not to be moved.

Elijah was the man of God. To Elisha he was “the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.” The welfare of the nation, and of the testimony of God, was bound up with this man, and Elisha would not part with him. He knew, for he was a prophet also, that God would take away his master from his head that day, and there was nothing he could do to stop that, but so far as lay in him, he would cling to the man of God. If God would take away Elijah, then Elijah must be taken away, but Elisha would surely not let him go easily, as though it mattered nothing to him. In this point Elisha towers above the sons of the prophets, in his solitary moral grandeur. All the sons of the prophets possessed the same knowledge that Elisha did. They could all say to him, “Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day?” (Verses 3 & 5). Yet to them it was a mere intellectual proposition, which little affected their hearts. To Elisha it was the wrenching of his very heart and soul, and he could not treat the matter with the glib indifference which he saw in the sons of the prophets—-nor could he bear to hear them speak so lightly of so solemn a matter. “Yea, I know it,” he says: “hold ye your peace.” To the sons of the prophets Elijah was merely Elisha’s master—-a great man, no doubt, and a man of renown, but their hearts were not bound up with him. He was Elisha’s master. But to Elisha he was “the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.” He was the man of God, he was the power and the guiding hand of all that was true in the nation, and was he to be taken away that very day? Then Elisha’s heart would cling to him to the last moment.

Now under such circumstances Elisha was not to be parted from the man of God. Though he was Elijah’s servant—-though he had poured water on the hands of Elijah—-yet Elijah’s thrice-repeated request that he “tarry here” was nothing regarded by Elisha. Nay, it was firmly resisted, with a double oath, thrice repeated: “As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.” Elijah apparently yielded in the face of such determination, and said no more about it. Elisha clung to the man of God. If God would take him, he must let him go, but he would not let him go a moment sooner. Thus “they still went on, and talked.”

It was upon this stage that the chariot and horses of fire appeared, bearing down upon these two prophets at full gallop. “Whoa, there! Whoa!” calls Elisha, but the horses of fire pay no heed. On they come, bearing down exactly upon this pair of prophets. Elisha plainly sees there is no stopping them, and no time to lose. He lets go his grip upon the arm of his master. Elisha darts to the left side, and Elijah to the right, the chariot of fire thunders on between them, and the whirlwind sweeps away the man of God, ere his stunned disciple can get back to his side. “My father! My father!” he calls after the whirlwind, “the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof!”—-but Elijah is gone, and there is no recalling him.

Now certain of my readers, who can see but little in the Scriptures themselves, may not appreciate my description of this scene. They will accuse me of finding things in the Scriptures which are not there—-the very same thing that I thought myself when I was first introduced to the types of the Old Testament. Let such understand that Paul was also accustomed to seeing things in the Scriptures which were not there. He saw, for example, that Abraham went to offer up Isaac, “accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead” (Heb. 11:19)—-a thing concerning which the Old Testament account says not one word. Yet Paul plainly saw it there, for there are certain things recorded in the Old Testament accounts which imply or necessitate certain other things, and those who rightly understand the Scriptures are those who understand not only what they say, but also those further things which they imply or necessitate. This is in fact the manner in which the Scriptures are designed to be used, as New Testament examples make plain enough. What the Old Testament account says is,

“I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” but what that text teaches is, “that the dead are raised.” (Luke 20:37). Ah! if men could but see the truth which lies beneath the text, they would not so easily mistake the facts which lie upon the surface.

And after all, those who cannot see the things which are explicitly contained in the Scriptures have little reason to complain if others happen to see more than they see themselves. Those who have lived all their lives believing that Elijah went to heaven in a chariot of fire would do better to fault themselves for their own blindness, than to fault another for seeing—-even for seeing, as they suppose, more than is there. But it will be said, It is very easy to err in thus going beyond what the Scriptures explicitly say. Yes, of course—-and we have also just shown that it is very easy to err in altogether failing to see what the Scriptures do explicitly contain, for has not the church in general, for centuries on end, held that Elijah went to heaven in a chariot of fire? It is easy to err, but it is possible not to err, and humble and spiritual minds, who live and feed upon the word and the will of God, may understand aright, without erring.

But supposing that the explanation of the matter which I have given is all presumption and error, and must all be disallowed. Be it so: the fact remains that Elijah went to heaven “by a whirlwind,” and not in a chariot of fire. The fact also remains that the only mission which the horses and chariot of fire performed in this text was to “part them both asunder.” A third fact remains also, which is that much of the church of God has read this portion of Scripture times without number, and preached and written and sung concerning it, and yet failed altogether to see that which is explicitly contained in it, while reading into it something which contradicts its plain content—-and is this a light matter? It is in fact a rather plain indication of how thoroughly the mind of the church is controlled by traditional interpretation and popular errors, and how little weight the Scriptures actually have in it, and how little its statements are understood. This much can hardly be gainsaid. And I inquire further, if so much of the true church of God has been so far astray for so long a time concerning so simple a matter of fact, which is so plain upon the face of the text of Scripture, does it not appear to be more than likely that the church may also be far astray in the more difficult matters of principle and doctrine? Is it not probable that popular errors and traditional interpretations reign there also?

Yet it is not so easy to correct such errors, as it is mere errors of fact. It is a long and laborious process, and often effectually hindered by pride and lukewarmness. I may suggest, however, that if the church possessed a little more of the spirit of Elisha, the matter would be much facilitated. Elisha cared. Elisha was determined, and in earnest. Elisha clung to the man of God, as it were to life itself. Elisha was athirst, even for a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. Ah! if the church of God today were only possessed of a double portion of the spirit of Elisha, popular errors and traditional interpretations might quickly die an unlamented death.

Glenn Conjurske