What and Where is the "Third Heaven"?
This week I have the privilege of answering a question my mother sent to me (Thanks, Mom). She asks, “In 2nd Corinthians 12:1-2, what does it mean by ‘third heaven’?” The passage in question is the introduction to a “vision” the apostle Paul is relating to his readers: “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” (2 Corinthians 12.2). In this “third heaven” Paul heard “inexpressible things that man is not permitted to tell.”
So, where is this “third heaven”?
This is the only direct reference in our scriptures to any sort of hierarchical heaven. However, there is another possible biblical reference that may answer the question—and one very interesting extra-biblical reference that we’ll look at last.
The first biblical reference is found in 1st Kings 8.27a: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee….” Some have speculated that this refers to a threefold heaven that is based upon the creation story. There we read, in an oblique manner, that there are explicitly two heavens. The first heaven is the heavens in which the birds and clouds fly—an atmospheric heaven. The second heaven, therefore, is the realm of the stars. This leaves the third heaven as the dwelling place for God—and thus is where Paul was taken in his vision. This particular understanding of heaven was quite popular in the early church and may well be what the Corinthians understood Paul to have been referring.
However, there is another interesting possibility. Outside of the Bible is a wealth of writings from the Middle East, many of which were well known and widely quoted by scholars of Jesus’ and Paul’s day. Of these, The Testaments of Twelve Patriarchs are rather revealing in this particular study. This set of twelve “books” is thought to have been written about 100 years before the birth of Jesus and apparently they were widely circulated. It is also clear that both Jesus and Paul were aware of their contents, since both seem to cite some of their teachings from these books. For instance, Jesus freely adapts large portions of Joseph 1 when he tells the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. And Paul cites The Testaments so frequently it almost seems he carried a copy of the book around with him.
However, it is from Levi 1.17-25 where we discover an interesting teaching about the levels of heaven. Apparently, the writer of Levi was steeped in the understandings of gnosticism, a religious and philosophic belief that the material world is evil and only the purely spiritual world is good (an overly simplistic explanation). In any event, Levi delineates seven heavens—each one a bit more spiritual, and thus a bit more “good.” Each of these heavens have specific attributes:
1st Heaven: The most “gloomy” of the levels since it is “nearest to the iniquities of men.”
2nd Heaven: The level that contains snow, ice, and fire and all manner of retributions to be visited upon the earth by the wrath of God on the day of judgment.
3rd Heaven: The staging area for the angelic armies who will be deployed by God to bring judgment onto the earth. According to Levi’s scheme of heaven, this is the level Paul would have visited, and is the last level that has anything to do with the material world—which is why Paul could visit there, but would have been permitted to go no further.
4th –7th Heavens: These levels are called holy by Levi: “And the heavens up to the fourth above these are holy, for in the highest of all dwelleth the Great Glory, in the holy of holies, far above all holiness” (Levi 1:20-21).
4th Heaven: The home of Thrones and Dominions where heavenly hymns are sung.
5th Heaven: The home of angelic messengers.
6th Heaven: The home of the angels who minister to God and who make “bloodless” offerings for the “ignorance of the righteous ones.”
7th Heaven: The home of God.
So, did Paul have these “heavens” in mind when he wrote to the Corinthian church? We really don’t know; however, because of Paul’s knowledge of The Testaments we can be sure that he was at least aware of Levi’s hierarchy. If Paul had offered even a hint about what he’d seen in his vision, we could have made an informed guess, but alas, he kept the vision to himself.
But are there actually multiple levels of heaven? Since we know virtually nothing about the heavenly realm, there is no way to say. What we can do, however, is affirm Paul’s confidence that “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5.8).