Didn’t Paul know a man caught up to the third heaven out of the body?
Text in question: 2 Corinthians 12:2
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven.”
Proof texts: 2 Corinthians 11, 12
A number of Paul’s writings are perplexing to Bible students. His language and imagery tend to differ from that of other biblical authors, and on the surface he sometimes appears to hold a different theology than his contemporaries. The text in question from 2 Corinthians is one such example: He appears to describe a heaven with multiple layers, into which people can apparently enter into and then continue talking with living human beings.
Many sincere Christians use this text to support their idea that life continues on after death in a spiritual form without a body. Some churches even hold to a theology that divides heaven into three levels, each holding certain specific rewards for the people who enter them after death. To avoid being misled by unsound doctrine, we must, as always, study the context of the passage and examine the entirety of Paul’s argument.
The church at Corinth suffered from many shortcomings. Within just a few years of being established, enough reports of spiritual arrogance, sexual misconduct, and theological errors reached Paul that he felt the need to write a lengthy letter (1 Corinthians) to address them. His second letter to them reveals that additional problems arose later on. Among the issues facing the church was the influence of outsiders teaching falsehood in the name of Jesus Christ.
To address the issue of false teachings, Paul spends a considerable part of 2 Corinthians reestablishing his authority as the leader of the church to contrast his position with the positions of those who would seek to undermine his authority and harm the church. As he lists his merits as an apostle, he calls it “boasting.” Therefore, he “boasts” of the ample proof that Christ is speaking in him. In chapter 11, he “boasts” of his heritage as a Jew; his many tribulations in service of Christ, including beatings, alienation, and traveling hazards; and his escape from Aretas the king and the governor of Damascus. In chapter 12, he “boasts” of visions and revelations from God.
Throughout chapter 11, Paul is unambiguously boasting of himself. There is no contextual evidence to suggest that he suddenly shifts focus to boast of another person in chapter 12. In fact, to do so would contradict the lengthy argument that he is making! The only hint that he might be referring to another person in chapter 12 is his use of the third person. The passage in its entirety reads:
“It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me” (2 Corinthians 12:1–6)
The conclusion of the passage makes it clear that Paul is, indeed, referring to himself as the man “caught up to the third heaven,” but he uses the third person rhetoric to distance himself from the appearance of actual boasting. To make the matter even more clear, he continues in verse 7 by saying:
“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.”
By his own words, Paul admits that the revelations he mentions in conjunction with being “caught up to the third heaven” are his own. By examining this evidence, many Bible scholars agree that Paul is referring to his own experience 14 years earlier.
Accepting this as an autobiographical story discounts the idea that the text is referring to life after death, since Paul was very much alive when he wrote the letter to the Corinthians. However, it does not clarify the mystery of the “third heaven.”
The reality is quite simple. The term “heaven” is used three different ways throughout the Bible. The first refers to the atmosphere around the earth, such as when the “windows of heaven” were opened (see Genesis 1:8 and 7:11). The second refers to outer space, including the planets and stars. These “heavens” are often referred to in the plural (see Genesis 1:1). The third refers to the dwelling place of God (see Revelation 16:11 and 19:1, among others).
Therefore, when Paul describes being “caught up to the third heaven,” he is describing his experience as a prophet, seeing a heavenly vision. He was transported by the Holy Spirit to heaven itself to learn divine things directly from God, in much the same way that Ezekiel and John the Revelator are recorded as receiving visions. Once the vision was concluded, he resumed his normal life.
It is clear, then, that Paul’s passage in 2 Corinthians 12 teaches us about a prophet’s experience in vision, rather than the nature of death and the afterlife or the existence of a multi-layered heaven.
*All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.