Somewhat apologetically, Paul describes himself as a man “in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2). What in the world is he talking about? Or better: what in heaven is he talking about?
Here are four textual clues that can help us answer this question. And I have to admit at the get-go, I am attempting to understand Paul’s experience myself. So please read this as an example of thoughts-in-process. With that caveat in place, here we go.
First, Paul defines the third heaven as paradise
Paul in his own words defines the third heaven as “paradise” (2 Cor 12:2). Luke 23:43 records Jesus on the cross as saying, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Since Luke accompanied Paul on some of his journeys, likely they both mean the same thing by the word “paradise.” Luke could have heard Paul preaching and teaching on the matter.
We can be more specific about what Jesus means by paradise. The thief on the cross asks Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 22:42). Jesus does not reply, “you will be in my kingdom” but “today you will be with me in paradise.”
Likely, these two concepts (kingdom and paradise) overlap since Jesus claims that God’s power to cast out demons signifies “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20) and claims that the kingdom of God was in the midst of the Pharisees where Jesus was speaking (Luke 17:21). Where Jesus is, the kingdom is. And Jesus tells the thief “today you will be with me.”
So paradise at least has some conceptual overlap with the kingdom. Both signify at minimum being in the presence of Jesus.
The other biblical passage that mentions paradise is Revelation 2:7. In that passage, Jesus speaks of the tree of life as being in the paradise of God. Later John identifies the tree of life as being in the city of God where God dwells (Rev 22:2, 14, 19).
The tree’s leaves will heal the nations and then: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:5). So God’s presence, and thus the connection to life, seem to be the reality that John signifies when he speaks about the tree of life. Further, those inside the city of God will live; and those outside of it will sin (Rev 22:14–15).
The point at hand is this: paradise means being in the presence of God who is life. The tree of life symbolizes God’s life-giving presence. In Luke 22, Jesus must mean something similar because he claims that after the thief dies, he will then live in paradise with Jesus. So life comes to the thief alongside of Jesus’s presence.
Therefore, Paul likely means something like this: he entered into God’s presence by ascending to the third heaven or the paradise of God. That he describes his visionary revelation as a revelation “of the Lord” only confirms this notion (2 Cor 12:1).
Second, Paul defines his experience in terms of ascension
To describe what happened in his vision or revelation of the Lord (2 Cor 12:1), Paul says that he was “snatched up” and went to the “third heaven.” Both the language of snatching (arpagenta) and “up to the third heaven” (eos tritou ouranou) describe an upward ascent.
Since Paul admits to being unable to explain his experience (2 Cor 12:3), we probably should not take his upward ascent too literally. A cross-reference to his 1 Corinthians may clarify his intent here.
In 1 Corinthians 15:35–49, Paul relays a three-tiered hierarchy of bodies (see Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body). First, he describes earthly bodies (15:40) by using the words “kernel,” “seed,” and “flesh” (sarx). Humans, animals, birds, and fish have different sorts of fleshly bodies (15:39). Paul thus describes earthly and fleshly bodies: “as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven” (15:48).
Second, he describes heavenly bodies which have differing glories (not flesh types). These celestial bodies with differing glories include the sun, the moon, and the stars (15:40–41).
Third, he describes spiritual bodies. Paul explains that what is sown naturally (i.e., the body of flesh) will become also “a spiritual body” (15:44). The spiritual body approximates the heavenly bodies with their differing glories.
The specific cause for our reception of a spiritual body that exists in the celestial realm is Christ’s resurrection. He first gained a spiritual body via the resurrection. So we will also (e.g., 15:49; cf. 15:13–19, 35).
And Paul explains that a fleshly body cannot inherit the kingdom of God: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50). Then Paul goes on to explain what this spiritual body will look like (15:51–54). This body corresponds to and is continuous with our earthly body, however, because Paul says, “And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain” (1 Cor 15:37).
Our body of flesh and blood has been sowed, yet it will grow into a spiritual body. And this happens because we follow the resurrection of Christ, our head.
With all that said, we can discern a pattern in Paul of a three-tiered body: the earthly, the heavenly, and the spiritual. They all relate. We should not think of distinct tiers in a hierarchy per se. Instead, these are three parts of the cosmic body—the makeup of the universe.
If we grant that Paul had some conception of a tiered-universe (however we want to define it), then we can gain some clarity as to why he might say: I was snatched up to the third heaven. By third, he may mean something like: the spiritual realm that exists in the heavenly places.
It is not unusual for Scripture to identify the spiritual resurrection body with the heavens. Daniel says that resurrected people will shine “like the brightness of the sky above” and “like the stars forever and ever” (Dan 12:3). And Job 38:7 describes the angels as being stars: “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” So Paul may have entered into the heavenly realm in which spiritual bodies lived—where Jesus in his spiritual body is.
Third, Paul cannot use words to explain what he experienced
He twice repeats that he does not know if he was in or out of body during his revelation (2 Cor 12:2, 3). He must mean the body of flesh since that is the only body he possesses. He may also not be thinking in the same categories about his body that he did in 1 Corinthians 15. In 1 Corinthians, he responds to Corinthian concerns about what sort of body will believers have in the resurrection. Here, he is simply trying to relay what happened to him during a revelatory vision.
During this time, he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor 12:4). The phrase “cannot be told” (arreta remata) can either mean: (1) cannot be expressed because it goes beyond human ability; or (2) cannot be expressed because it is holy (BDAG, 134). The second sense probably fits better here because the phrase “may not utter” (ouk exon … lalesai) uses a word that means “unauthorized” or “not permitted” (BDAG, 348).
With that said, we don’t necessarily need to make a decision on the exact sense of the phrase “cannot be told.” Paul cannot say what he heard because it goes beyond the ability of humans to express; and this is because Paul heard spiritual, holy matters that go beyond our fleshly ability to comprehend (flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God). Whatever the exact sense of the world, this may be Paul’s contextual meaning (the danger of illegitimate totality transfer looms in my mind here!).
Fourth, Paul possibly heard a heavenly language
To tread on controversial waters for a moment, we may be able to identify further the kind of words that Paul heard. He claims to have “heard things” or more literally: “heard unsayable sayings” (ekousen arreta remata). One gets the sense that Paul can barely describe what he experienced.
The only other place in his letters that he talks about heavenly language is 1 Corinthians 12–14. In 1 Corinthians 13:1, he speaks of the tongues of angels (tais glossais … ton angelon). He explains further, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (1 Cor 14:2). His point is that speaking in the tongues of angels does not edify others; instead, it means one can speak to God in a non-understandable way and ”he utters mysteries in Spirit.”
This corresponds to Paul’s description that he heard heavenly things that he cannot speak. Yes, he may have communed with God in paradise or the third heaven, but this revelation or communion does not edify others. Hence, Paul “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor 12:4).
Thus, in both 1 and 2 Corinthians Paul may emphasize the superiority of love over the gift of a personal, non-communicative angelic language.
I don’t expect everyone to be convinced of this argument since the biblical teaching about tongues is highly controversial.
Yet I offer four more pieces of evidence. First, the Jewish writing the Testament of Job (c. 100 BC to AD 100) also speaks about angelic language or tongues. Job’s daughter Day “departed her body” and “sang angelic hymns in the voice of angels, and she chanted forth the angelic praise of God while dancing” (Test. of Job 11:23, 24).
Day sings in the voice of angels to worship God as angels draw Job up to heaven so that she “may behold with wonder the powers of God.” Days’s two sisters also sing in angelic dialects for the same reason (11:25–28). After three days, the angels came for the soul of Job while the sisters praised and glorified God “in the holy dialect” (12:1–7).
This testament probably circulated during the time of Paul. Although he may not have known the document, its ideas could have been commonplace. And, secondly, we do know that idea of heavenly languages were commonplace in the Greco-Roman world (see Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body). So, the language of angelic dialects in relation to divine visions is not out of the bounds of possibly.
Third, about a 150 years after Paul wrote, Tertullian describes a Montanist woman who “converses with angels, and sometimes even with the Lord; she both sees and hears mysterious communications” during worship services (De Anima, 9). While seemingly uncommon after the New Testament period, the idea of a heavenly language and communing with God through revelation still remained in some places.
Fourth, Ezekiel describes God’s voice coming through the mediation of angels (Ezek 1, 3, 10). When their wings clap together, they make the sound of Shaddai. Added to this, Ezekiel has a vision of God’s glory that he cannot explain (note the repetition of “likeness” and “appearance”). And through his visions, he hears God’s voice through the wings of Cherubim—whether through their clapping together or though as in passing through them. Paul likewise saw something that he cannot explain or put to words. And so he may have heard a heavenly dialect in ways similar to Ezekiel. I plan to write on this soon. So for the moment, I will leave this idea fallow.
In sum, Paul may have heard the dialect of heavenly angels. Or he may not have. This is merely speculation.
Paul gives us little information. But what we do have is this. First, Paul somehow (in or out of his body of flesh) was caught up to the third heaven—paradise. Second, paradise is where Jesus is. Third, Paul heard unsayable sayings. Fourth, these sayings may have come to him in the form of a heavenly or angelic dialect. We simply do not know.