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.
Mark Matthias says
I have no trouble with the reality of this subject — it’s not a routine observation but well-grounded, unlike Cessationism. I cannot discuss Cessationism without considering Luke 18:8, rhetorically telling us there won’t be any faith on the earth, relatively, in these the Last Days.
It would appear that cessationism may take us off the hook when it comes to the exercise of faith — not to lust for miracles which wouldn’t serve us for the Gospel’s sake but would probably corrupt us further. Notwithstanding, When Jesus said we will do greater works than He did, undoubtedly He was speaking of the effort to bring people to salvation (John 14:12) which was done by the Holy Spirit in us and not by us anyway. And with so little faith, which was the thrust of the Messiah’s message on the earth then and now in these ‘last days’ — zooming right along, salvation is the exigent point of focus.
Jon Humphries says
Thanks for this. It is refreshing to hear someone say that they don’t really know, but give it a good shot as deducing what it might be about.
Nate Galvin says
Wonderful explanation on this subject matter. I do understand the heavenly nature of speaking in tongues and that it really is Sanctioned from God himself, as a another form of communication with him.
Now we just have to figure out what Paul heard! Lol.. (Ah, the mysteries of God.)
About 14 years before for Paul was the Damascus road experience (Acts 9).
I have always equated the third heaven referred to in (2 Corinthians 12) being this experience.
As have many others.
I agree w/ Andrew. I have thought & guessed so, myself. It makes great sense. (ie. scripturally.. even factoring in that His ways & thoughts are higher than ours)… I agree, this is a wise & well educated guess…matching Paul’s Damascus road experience in Acts 9…scripture .
Q. f/ article’s author: Is the book of Jobab linked w/in this article, diff. from the book of Job? I’ve never seen or heard it referenced before. Is it an extra-Biblical Jewish / Hebrew text? Can you explain more about it, it’s origins, reliability, what’s the factual history behind it, etc.? It makes sense, but prefer confirmation of it’s veracity, accuracy, & specific origins, before just accepting it as credible, reliable, & on a level w/ the inspired & accurate Word of God written by God’s anointed & appointed vessels. or is it like Josephus, still accurate history, but an extra-Biblical (& factual?) text? Thanks!
Amanda Luna says
Yep. There’s only one truth. You can’t accept something as truth without having personally searched for the evidence.
God alone knows all about it
David Ellul says
If Jesus told the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in Paradise” Jesus broke his promise because we all know that Jesus spent 3 days and three nights in the heart of the Earth before he Resurrected.
I believe that it was more like, …”Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise”
Keep in mind that there were no commas in the original texts.
Yes a true explanation in my opinion. This has caused much controversy in Northern Ireland.
Did Jesus say “Today you will be with me in Paradise “ “Or I am telling you today you will be with me in Paradise “. It has been described by a late self taught Pastor as a “Hairy old Chestnut “. It is the word of God and should be interpreted as such. “ I tell you today that you will be with me in Paradise”. Just as the word of God tells me today that I will be in paradise.
fascinating. just getting into the Bible after years of turning away. Keep
up the great thoughts. i’m listening to Joyce Meyer. right now and love. her !!!!
James Sundquist says
Do you think there will be a new Third Heaven when God creates a new heaven and earth? 2 Peter 3:10–13 and Revelation 21:1–5. I don’t think so because that is where God’s Throne is, and I can’t fathom that God would think he needs a new throne or a replacement!
Brian Gauthier says
That is the third heaven and earth – the first heaven and earth began at creation and ended with the flood of Noah (2 Pet 3:6) – the second began with Noah and will end when destroyed by fire (2 Pet 3:7, 10, 12). This is also the transition point described by Rev 21:1 and 2 Pet 3:13 (among many others).
When looking at Rev 21:1 also look at Rev 21:4 and understand the the Greek word translated “first” in 21:1 and the word translated “former” in 21:4 are the same word in Greek and should both be former or previous. Thus the 2nd heaven and earth will pass away by fire and the 3rd will begin as per Rev 21:1. Therefore, Paul was not caught UP into a third level of the heavens, rather he was caught AWAY (in time) to the 3rd heaven or paradise of which John wrote in the book of Revelation.
Richard Brown says
In Hebrews chapter 9 the apostle speaks of the Heavenly Sanctuary, so my thought is while he was in the third heaven he was able to view and in return write about his experience.
We must not be like the Scribes and Pharisees on the letter of the Law but rather following the Lord in Praise and Service
Brian Gauthier says
The “new heaven and earth” ARE the third heaven and earth. (see 2 Pet 3:5-13)
The first heaven and earth were from the beginning (Gen 1:1), the second perished by water (2 Peter 3:5-6), meaning the flood of Noah. The second heaven and earth (2 Pet 3:7), which we are now living in, are being kept (safeguarded) by God until it is time for judgement. When that comes (2 Pet 3:10-12), the earth and heaven we know now will pass away in judgment by fire. Then the third heaven and earth are the “new” heaven and earth (2 Pet 3:13). And we get the same in Rev 21:1. Here, though, most English bibles translate the Greek word ‘protos’ as first but it should be former, just like they do in Rev 21:4. The former heaven and earth (the second) will pass as will the former “things” like tears, pain, death, etc …
It is to this 3rd heaven that Paul was snatched away to. Here the word translated “caught UP” could be translated as “caught AWAY” – Acts 8:39, Philip was “carried”, and John 6:15, they want to “snatch away” Jesus and make him king. Same word in those, so here, Paul was carried away (in time) to the paradise of the third heaven and earth, the kingdom of God, quite likely a similar revelation to what John received on Patmos. He was not authorized to reveal what he saw and heard – possibly it was just for him, or it was meant for another to reveal (St John and the book of revelation), or some other reason.
It very hot at the end of reading this why?people have different believe of the bible we are been born individual from what our parents invested in their diets.medications and protections from diseases.some bacterias are very friendly,while some are infectious and harmful.some countries are favourable and can afford meds while some don’t have the same privalages where as disease take over the brain.hunger in some places are a factor too.and the majority don’t speak english.to view Christianity as a factor in rasing farm like eaters in various places.therefore taking advantages here is a misdemeanor on human believes.and not to force anyone to harbors religious practices on anyone.been as we exist for a period of time individually.and leave one by one personally.friendship is been tolerate by gender preference.and not to be force or harassed per say.when we go shopping the majority is not been known by anyone.so to set aside not trying to force or approach bad dogs .amen.in other simplified words leave your aquanties to their own choices and welcome strangers in your practices.freedom of religions.
“”Today”you will be with me in paradise” I see this as, when we die and go to be with Jesus we enter into a timeless dimension. Jesus said He is the beginning and the end, at the same time. Time does not exist in heaven. So for the thief on the cross it would appear that it was “today” and not after a 3 day waiting period forJesus rose.
Verily, verily, I say to you today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.
We know from scripture Jesus was dead 3 days and nights and therefore he could not be in Paradise when the man died. Paradise is available after the resurrections.
edyth regan says
Heaven is available after resurrection
John Tisdale says
Paradise and Heaven are two different places. Paul describes 2 different visitations he had. Look at the Greek more closely. He visited both heaven and paradise. Heaven is where God dwells. Paradise is in the heart of the earth, which is where believers go after they. Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise that same day. Jesus arose out of paradise on the third day. He is the first begotten of the dead. All other dead believers are in Paradise awaiting Christ’s second coming. Scripture is clear about the location or Paradise – in the bowels or heart of the earth (Mt 12:40).