Question: "Why did God take Elijah to heaven in a chariot of fire?"
Answer: The story of Elijah, the great prophet of Israel, being taken to heaven is found in 2 Kings 2:1–18. The chapter begins, “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind . . .” (verse 1). The Bible doesn’t actually say that Elijah rode to heaven in a chariot of fire, but that is the assumption, since there was a flaming chariot and horses of fire at the scene, along with the whirlwind. It would make sense that Elijah boarded the vehicle that pulled up in front of him.
We don’t know whether Elijah was aware that he would ascend to heaven in such a spectacular manner, but he did know he was about to be taken from Elisha, his protégé. “Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?’ ‘Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,’ Elisha replied” (2 Kings 2:9).
Elijah realized the request was not his to grant. Therefore, he made the fulfillment of the request dependent on a condition that rested solely in the hands of God. Elijah responded, “You have asked a difficult thing, . . . yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not” (2 Kings 2:10). Asking for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit is an allusion to the rights of the firstborn described in Deuteronomy 21:17 and indicates that Elisha’s request was to be heir to Elijah’s prophetic office and gifts. In answer to that request, Elisha did indeed witness Elijah’s most amazing exit: “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (verse 11).
The mode of transportation God chose for Elijah contains some important symbolism. The horses speak of power and speed; the chariot speaks of protection and triumph. The whole being “of fire” speaks of glory. God took His servant speedily, triumphantly into the glories of heaven, guarding his soul all the way. The prophet who had shown such fiery zeal for God—and who had literally called down fire from heaven several times (1 Kings 18; 2 Kings 1)—was now taken to heaven in fire.
The manner in which Elijah was translated to heaven, with a chariot and horses of fire, may have been primarily for Elisha’s sake. God was granting Elisha’s request to receive a double portion of Elijah’s power, and God was making sure that Elisha knew the condition had been met. Elisha had to see Elijah being taken up, and there was no way he could miss the spectacle God displayed. In taking Elijah to heaven in such a fiery, stormy manner, God assured Elisha that he would succeed Elijah in the prophetic office with twice as much divine power. Seeing Elijah going to heaven with the flaming horses, the chariot of fire, and the whirlwind would have had a profound effect on Elisha throughout his ministry. If ever he doubted that he had been chosen by God, he could remember the glory he witnessed that night. If ever he questioned the power of God, he could recall the chariot of fire and the horses of fire.
God’s awesome display of power to Elisha fitted him for service. Such a display is reminiscent of God’s revealing His power to Moses at the burning bush, fitting Moses for service (Exodus 3:1–10). Heavenly fire is associated with angels in other places in Scripture. When God opened the eyes of Elisha’s servant, he saw an angelic host, described as “horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17). Angels are not mentioned at the translation of Elijah, but the heavenly fire—the heavenly glory—certainly is.
In taking Elijah to heaven, God foreshadowed Christ’s ascension. Perhaps those who saw Jesus taken up from the Mount of Olives and hidden in a cloud would have been reminded of Elijah’s departure (Acts 1:6–9). Those disciples who witnessed Jesus’ ascension served God with dedication the rest of their lives, just as Elisha did.