This post is categorized as an OAQ, which stands for Occasionally Asked Question. (Think of FAQ, but without the frequency.)
Why did Elijah go straight to heaven? Why didn’t he die first like everyone else? And why did he go there instead of Sheol?
Elijah’s last scene on earth is described enigmatically. In that regard, it bears some similarities to Enoch’s departure (Genesis 5:24) and to that of Moses as well (Deuteronomy 34:5-6). What distinguishes Elijah’s departure from the other two, and from all other accounts of death in the Bible except for that of Jesus, is that it says Elijah went “to heaven.” This is confusing because we know that until the resurrection of the dead, which did not occur until immediately after New Testament times, everyone went to Sheol (Hades) at death. This was the teaching of the Old Testament. For confirmation of this fact, see the first six chapters of The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven, or you can do your own word study on “Sheol” in the Old Testament, where it occurs over sixty times. (Here’s a list which includes all the relevant verses.)
In John 3:13, Jesus confirmed that no one had ever gone to heaven at death. Thus Elijah’s ascension could be considered similar to the temporary heavenly sojourn Paul described in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4. It is clear that Elijah’s experience was a foreshadowing of Messiah’s ascension in heaven – He who would be “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5). Jesus could hardly have been “the forerunner” described in Hebrews 6:19-20; 12:1-2, going ahead of us so as to cleanse the heavens (Hebrews 9:22-25) from the defilement of “the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12) unless He was the first human being to break that plane.
We may wish we knew more about this incident of Elijah’s. However, we must be content with what the prophets have left for us in the Scripture. In any case, it’s certain Elijah didn’t precede Jesus in taking up permanent occupancy in heaven, for if he had, there would have been no reason for Jesus to die.