Rapture into the Third Heaven and Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh (Part Three)1
What are we to make of people who speak so casually (if not flippantly) about multiple heavenly visitations that involve conversations with angels, apostles, and even Jesus? Let me be clear about one thing. I have no biblical or theological grounds for concluding that Paul’s translation into the third heaven was a singular event in the history of the church, as if to suggest that no one else in any other era has ever experienced a similar encounter.
But I’m more than a little suspicious when people talk of going to heaven the way I do of going to the Seven Eleven. I make at least one daily visitation to the local convenience store to purchase a newspaper or a Diet Coke. Some today lay claim to heavenly transports with only slightly less frequency.
It would be easy, and careless, of me to pass immediate judgment on such claims. I’ve decided to take a different and more judicious approach. My aim in these studies on 2 Corinthians 12 is simply to explain Paul’s supernatural encounter and hope that the principles gleaned will inform our discernment as we try to make sense of what others allege to have occurred.
But before we turn to the text, let’s not forget that there is one infallible rule by which we may test the validity of all claims to heavenly visitations. If the person “returns” with a report that they saw or heard something that is explicitly contrary to the truths already revealed in Scripture, we are justified in concluding either that the individual has deliberately fabricated their alleged experience or is the naïve victim of a religious deception. If the former be true, their lack of integrity disqualifies them from any position of leadership in the body of Christ. If the latter, their lack of maturity and spiritual discernment should likewise diminish any influence they may have gained on the strength of their now discredited claims.
Does that mean it is possible for a reasonably sane individual honestly to believe he/she has experienced a heavenly translation, together with the “visions and revelations” that might accompany it, when in fact they did not? Yes.
Most of us at some time or other have mistakenly believed we heard or sensed God speaking when in fact it was the projection of our own desires or simply the result of a heightened state of emotional ecstasy (or last night’s pizza). It is not uncommon for people to experience an altered state of consciousness (which is most often self-induced) or to convince themselves that what they have imagined or mentally envisioned was spiritual reality. They perceive themselves in what they believe is a transcendent realm and conclude that whatever they hear, sense, or see is divine and revelatory.
Sadly, the social pressure to deliver or bear witness to a consistent and never-ending stream of sensational disclosures and miraculous encounters (which is especially true in the charismatic world) often clouds their judgment and diminishes their willingness to critically assess what has happened. When one’s personal identity and sense of worth in the body of Christ become inextricably tied up with the accolades and authority that come with reports of these “supernatural” events, it becomes increasingly difficult to objectively evaluate the legitimacy of such phenomena. Far too many Christians remain silent, reluctant to pass judgment (1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:21), fearful of being labeled as cynical or a Spirit-quencher or a skeptic.
But we can be grateful in knowing that such was not the case when it came to the apostle Paul. So let’s look again at the account of his experience:
“I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (2 Cor. 12:1-6).
(7) The seventh of our ten questions that calls for an answer is: What and where is the “third heaven”?
Some believe the OT provides evidence for a three-fold division of heaven: first, “a lower atmospheric heaven, then a higher stellar heaven or firmament and finally beyond these two what is described by the phrase ‘the heaven of heavens’ (cf. Neh. 9:6, 1 Kgs 8:27; 2 Chron. 2:6; 6:18; Ps. 68:33; 148:4). Paul’s ‘third heaven’, it is said, corresponds to the last in this threefold division. . . . [But] there is no direct evidence that the ‘third heaven’ was a common designation for this OT ‘heaven of heavens’, and it is unlikely that Paul had this in view with his specific reference here” (Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet, 77-78).
A few contend that Paul believed there were seven heavens, and that he was taken only into the third. But “it would seem illogical for Paul to write of such blessedness if he were not in the ultimate heaven. That is, Paul would be open to the criticism that his vision and revelation were inadequate if the Corinthians believed there to be seven heavens and Paul only ‘journeyed’ to number three” (Ralph Martin, 402).
When we look below at the relation of the third heaven to Paradise it should become evident that Paul has in mind the highest possible or most exalted heaven, namely, the manifest presence of God himself.
(8) What and where is “Paradise” and how does it relate to the “third heaven”?
The word translated “Paradise” (paradeisos) is found in only two other NT texts: Luke 23:43 (in Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross) and Revelation 2:7. It was used in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) to refer to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8.9,10,15,16; 3:1,2,3,8[twice],10,23,24; 13:10; Num. 24:6; Isa. 51:3; Jer. 36:5; Ezek. 28:13; 33:8[twice],9; Joel 2:3). It may well be that Paul is portraying heaven as a restored Eden.
Could it be that Paul was given access to what we call the intermediate state, that place of disembodied existence where the dead in Christ are with the Lord and worship him unceasingly (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-10)? I find this unlikely given the fact that John communicated in great detail what he saw and heard there (Revelation 4-5), whereas Paul was forbidden from revealing anything of what he heard.
A few have suggested that the differences between v. 2 and v. 3 indicate that Paul is describing two distinct and separate heavenly translations, or perhaps that the one event had two related and successive stages. In other words, some argue that Paul first went to the third heaven and at another time he went to Paradise. But it’s unlikely that Paul would mention going to the third heaven if nothing of consequence occurred there. Also, a single date is given for the event and there is only one reference to the content of the experience.
As for the relation between the third heaven and paradise, observe that Paul says he was taken “as far as the third heaven” and “into Paradise” (such is a literal translation of the prepositions used). Thus, the third heaven points to the height of Paul’s translation and paradise refers to the depth of it. Paradise is thus within the third heaven, the place where the disembodied believers now live in the presence of Christ. But there must have been something there that was disclosed to Paul that John never witnessed; otherwise, the prohibition on Paul relating such information would make no sense.
(9) What did Paul hear or see while there? Whereas nothing is said about his seeing anything, he did introduce this paragraph by referring not only to “revelations” but also to “visions”. That would be odd if, in fact, there was no visual revelatory content to what he experienced.
Whatever he heard or saw, it consisted of “things that cannot be told, which man may not utter,” or more accurately, “unutterable utterances” (an interesting paradox indeed!).
But is Paul saying that what he heard/saw cannot or merely should not be articulated? In other words, is Paul referring to impossibility or simply impermissibility? Was there something about what he heard that by its very nature could not be expressed or was he simply prohibited by God from telling others?
If the former is correct, Paul would be referring to words or images that utterly transcend human language, to which there are no earthly terms that might correspond. No human language would be adequate to properly communicate the spiritual depths of what was revealed. But if that were the case, how could Paul himself have made any sense of it? He had to be capable of processing the content and making sense of its meaning in accordance with the linguistic capacities available to him on earth.
Perhaps it was angelic speech (i.e., “the tongues of angels”; 1 Cor. 13:1ff.) that he heard. Others have suggested he heard names for God never before disclosed, or perhaps events and the timing of the end of history or indescribable blessings of the new heaven and new earth. But even if that were the case, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t have grasped these glorious truths by means of the normal cognitive and linguistic faculties characteristic of all humanity.
Therefore, I’m led to conclude that he heard things that could have been disclosed had God granted him permission to do so. Such permission, however, was not forthcoming.
Let’s not forget that if Paul was unable to recall what he heard in meaningful and necessarily human linguistic form, the purpose for his supernatural transport is lost. As we’ll note below, he was most likely granted this remarkable experience in order to bolster his spirits and sustain him in the face of recurring hardship and persecution. But if what he heard was incapable of being cast in human terms such that Paul could easily reflect on the majesty of what he had experienced, the event itself loses its effect in his life.
Did Paul see the risen and exalted Christ? After all, the righteous dead are said to be “with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) or “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). It’s difficult to imagine that he saw Christ but doesn’t mention it. In the final analysis, we are left only to speculate about the precise content of what he encountered.
(10) Finally, if Paul was forbidden from sharing any information that he gained in Paradise, why was he taken there? What was the purpose of this remarkable journey if he could not communicate its essence to others? Evidently, whatever occurred was designed by God for Paul’s own personal benefit. I think D. A. Carson is likely correct in the conclusion he draws below:
“Most of us are largely shielded from the quantity and quality of the trials Paul faced; and we often do not live up to the light we have already received. But God’s purpose for Paul involved the apostle in staggering sufferings, formidable opposition, and quite incredible challenges; and so to fortify him for his service and sufferings, the God of all hope displayed to the apostle a little more of the glory to come than most of us perceive, so that it would serve as an anchor for his soul in the roughest weather. Even the glimpses of glory the New Testament gives us have as their purpose the promotion of holiness, steadfastness, and faith, not the satisfaction of idle curiosity (e.g., 2 Pet. 3:10-14; 1 John 3:2-3). Therefore, it is not surprising if the spectacular revelations afforded the apostle to the Gentiles, this ‘man in Christ,’ were designed for his own special strengthening to help him persevere to the end undaunted – not to satisfy the curiosity of immature believers like the Corinthians who would use the material to bolster their pride, not to increase their faith” (Carson, 141).
As we look back on Paul’s account of this remarkable event, the following words come to mind: restraint, caution, humility, and discretion. How different this is from the reckless, impetuous, self-promoting, and imprudent manner in which many today parade their alleged spiritual experiences for any who would hear. I trust we have learned much from Paul’s mature and Christ-centered approach to such phenomena.
To be continued . . .