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2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (New International Version)

2 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. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

Here Paul is relating a story of an experience that (presumably) he had, where he mentions going to 'the third heaven' also called 'paradise' in the same passage.

  • What is he referring to? Is he talking about a distinct place other than heaven, the abode of God'?
  • Is this phrase, 'the third heaven' have some meaning in Greek that is lost in English?
  • How would a first century Corinthian have understood this?
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3 Answers 3

In Jewish tradition (which is the milieu in which Paul was educated), there is a mention together of three heavens, as well as seven heavens.

Three Heavens

Targum of 2 Chronicles 6:18

שמיא עילאי ושמיא מיצעאי ושמיא תתאי

"the supreme heaven, and the middle heaven, and the lower heaven"

Seven Heavens

According to the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Chaggiga 12b, Resh Lakish said there are seven heavens.

ר"ל אמר שבעה ואלו הן וילון רקיע שחקים זבול מעון מכון ערבות

They are:

  • Vilon (וילון)
  • Raki'a (רקיע)
  • Shehakim (שחקים)
  • Zebul (זבול)
  • Ma'on (מעון)
  • Machon (מכון)
  • Aravot (ערבות)

In the NT, we see the mention of a third heavem implying the existence of at least three heavens.

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From the FaithLife Study Bible, this represents the undersatnding of the universe held by the Greeks:

According to ancient cosmology, there are seven levels: the sky, the clouds, the sky above the clouds, the firmament, the waters above the firmament, the heavens, and the heaven of heavens, where God dwells. The three heavens view understands the first heaven to be the visible sky or the “firmament” (see Gen 1:8 and note), the second heaven to either be the “heavens” or the division between the “heavens” (the “waters above the firmament”; Psa 148:4), and the third to be the “heavens of heavens” or “highest heavens” (1 Kgs 8:27; Psa 148:4). All views agree on the places, but they label them differently.

In a nutshell then:

  1. the first "heaven" is the atmosphere, the sky - the "heavens" that you can imagine a Victorian talking about.
  2. the second heaven is the border between the sky and what we think of as "heaven," or, what I like to think of as "Space"
  3. the third heaven is that bit with the pearly gates, the gold streets, and free harps.

In identifying "the third heaven," Paul is saying he was in the presence of God directly.

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Very interesting! (+1) –  Jas 3.1 Dec 6 '12 at 21:57
    
Exactly what I'd have answered. +1. –  David Stratton Dec 6 '12 at 23:53
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In the Psalms, we read that the heavens declare the glory of God. In this case, the psalmist seems to be referring to what we call "space", as he asserts that in the heavens is where the sun resides.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork... 5 In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. 6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat. Psalm 19:1, 5-6 ESV

So, it seems to be an invalid assumption to think that there are three (or more) heavens when heaven is taken to exclude physical realities like space.

I have heard the three "heavens" described as follows:

  • The Sky, the domain of birds (and planes), is the First Heaven
  • Space, the domain of the stars, is the Second Heaven
  • Heaven, the dwelling place of God, is the Third Heaven.
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