Thursday, August 16, 2018

Paul's Experience of the "Third Heaven"


It's late Wednesday night. I'm in our downstairs office with headphones on, listening to Mark Isham's lush music. His Pure Mark Isham album is one of my favorites.

I'm reading Origin's essays on prayer, in Bernard McGinn's The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. Origin writes:

"The grace of God..., through the co-operation of the Spirit, makes possible through his will things which are to our rational and mortal nature impossible. For they are very great, and beyond man's compass, and far transcend our mortal condition." (In McGinn, 82)

Indeed. I have called such things non-discursive experiences.

Then, Origin refers to 2 Corinthians 12:1-4, where someone is "caught up to the third heaven."


I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 
And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, 
things that no one is permitted to tell.

What does that mean?

Craig Keener has a section on this in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Craig writes:


  • The context suggests that "this man" was the apostle Paul himself, writing in the third person, since he does not want to brag about his experience.
  • "Some Greek thinkers expected the pure and unencumbered soul at death to rise to heaven, and so sought to practice contemplation on the pure heavens beforehand."
  • "Some Jewish thinkers tried to mystically cultivate visions of God’s heavenly throne, e.g., by depriving themselves of food and sleep, by meditation, and so on."
  • Paul was "caught up," meaning he did not program this experience.
  • Many Jews at that time believed there were several levels of heaven, and "paradise" (God's presence) was in one of them. (Ancient estimates range from 3 to 365 levels of heaven.)


  • "The most common views were three and seven heavens; the realm of air and the birds was a lower heaven. Paul apparently identified paradise as in the “third heaven” (v.   2), probably meaning the highest heaven, where God is."
  • Paul has a direct, unmediated experience in God's presence, that is too sacred to tell. (Which now makes me wonder about people who claim such experiences, desire to talk about them so quickly, and write books to tell everyone about them. Perhaps they have not been in God's presence, hearing "inexpressible things?")