by Dr. Glenn Peoples
Did Paul talk about leaving his body and going to the third heaven?
Although I’m familiar with the view that the apostle Paul is relating an “out-of-body experience” at the outset of 2 Corinthians 12, I’m pretty sure that he is not. That’s partly because I don’t think that Scripture teaches that we are immaterial souls that can escape our bodies. But my doubt is also based on the fact that the evidence for this claim about out-of-body experiences in this passage is just not persuasive. Here I’ll explain why I say this.
In context, Paul is explaining that he will not boast or take glory in himself and his own achievements. He is not worthy of such boasting, according to him. In passing, he gives an example of someone whose encounter with God is worthy of boasting about. He says:
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. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself…
Virtually all of the New Testament commentaries say that Paul was talking here about his own experiences fourteen years earlier on the road to Damascus, and that he was using the third person because he was embarrassed and did not want to sound as though he were boasting. If this majority opinion is correct, then the question of an “out-of-body-experience” doesn’t arise. He never had one, and that is that. After all, nobody believes that Paul’s (Saul’s) body died on the road to Damascus and that his soul went to heaven. However, I know that some individuals don’t accept this thesis, and some use this passage as a proof text for dualism out of more of a doctrinal interest and don’t actually realize that this is the majority opinion of scholarly commentators. I am therefore not going to assume that the majority are correct (and for all I know, they could be wrong).
I have intentionally chosen to quote from the New International Version because this is the version used by the majority of contemporary evangelicals, and also because of the significant translation questions raised by the translators’ selection of phrases. I have highlighted some words in particular that are not present or implied in the underlying Greek text, and which also significantly impact the meaning of the passage. If you don’t yet see how they do, read on. I’ll explain the impact of the NIV’s addition of these words in my second argument below.
The inference that some people draw from this text (or at least, from this particular translation of it) is that Paul knows someone who was taken to heaven, but he’s not sure if that person was taken to heaven bodily, or if that person’s soul left the lifeless body behind and went to heaven without it, only to return, bringing the body back to life later so that the man could tell other people about his strange experience.
Major reply 1: This was a vision
The first reply that I would make to this view raises none of the translation issues that I will delve into shortly. The first reply is just this: Why does Paul refer to the event as a “vision”? Obviously if the man went some place and was able to see it because he was actually there, then this wasn’t a vision, it was merely an observation. But Paul shows some uncertainty about what actually took place (again, if we rely on the NIV translation). He has two possibilities in mind: Either the man physically went there, or the man went there without bodily going there (“without the body”). The word ektos can mean “without,” and doesn’t have to mean “outside of.” It can mean something like sans as we use that word today. In the former scenario, it definitely wouldn’t have been a vision, it would have been more like a visit. But Paul is talking about something that could well have been a vision (according to him). That leaves the second scenario as a possibility. It seems perfectly reasonable to me to talk this way about having a vision of another place and seeing things as though you’re actually there as “going” there, even though you did not bodily go there.
The fact that Paul is prepared to countenance the possibility that this might have been a vision (although he’s not sure) suggests that his reference to the man going somewhere, but not actually bodily going there, might well have been a vision rather than an out of body trip as many suppose. If this approach is correct, then Paul is telling us that he knew a man 14 years ago who was taken to paradise, but he’s not really sure if the man was physically taken there, or if it was in fact one of the “visions” that Paul referred to in verse one.
I’ve made the following comments about “paradise” before, but they are relevant here. What I am saying is further bolstered by the way that the biblical writers used the Greek word paradeisos (paradise). This term is used in Genesis 2:8 and elsewhere in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) to refer to the garden of Eden. It is used in this connection to refer to the eschatological restoration that God will bring about (Isaiah 51:3). It is used again in Revelation 2:7 in connection with the tree of life, something said (in chapters 21 and 22) to be present on the “new earth.” So there is no suggestion in Scripture that the term should mean “heaven” or some sort of spiritual intermediate state. On the contrary, it suggests a very physical state of existence and is connected with a restored physical world. Because of the presence of this word, then, the natural way to understand what this man saw is a vision of the future. Since it is a future state of affairs, it is more likely that this was a vision, unless the man was miraculously taken to the future and then brought back. From the man’s perspective, however, the likely fact is that he would have been unable to tell the difference between the two.
If all we need is a plausible and sufficient explanation of this passage that does not involve an out of body experience, we can stop there, because we have found one. Paul is referring to a vision, and that is that. But there’s more to see in this text, and there’s also a second solution as well, which I’ll get to shortly.
The “third heaven”?
What then, of the phrase “the third heaven”? What does this refer to? It’s a good question because that phrase doesn’t appear anywhere else in the whole Bible. However, there’s an interesting reference to multiple heavens in 2 Peter 3:5ff
[T]he heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. …Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 
Look at what is said here about the heavens and the earth: The “heavens and the earth” once perished. There now exists the “heavens and earth” that will one day pass away as well, and there will be a new heavens and earth.
For those who are counting, how many is that? Which one is the eternal state? By my count, it’s the third. The third heaven is the third sky – the sky in the new creation (I’m going to assume that the reader realizes that “the heavens and the earth” just means “the sky above and the earth below” as a reference to the physical creation, as in Genesis chapter 1). Yes, it’s a strange way to put it, but don’t blame me, I didn’t write it. Speaking of the heavens and the earth just seems to refer to a “world order.” When all things are made new, we can speak of a new heavens and earth. The man then was caught up in a vision into the sky in the new creation (which is also how the term paradise is used), enabling him to get a view of it all. But while Peter uses this language of the heavens and the earth being replaced with version 3.0, Paul never does. But then again, Paul never spoke of these events with as much clarity either. Still, it is a speculative solution.
Does another solution exist?
The “third heaven” is also mentioned in the pseudepigraphal work (that means it was written in the name of an author who could not have actually written it) called the Apocalypse of Moses. There it is described as a physical place, equated with paradise, where the angel Michael buried the body of Adam as he awaits the resurrection. The difficulty with using this document as a source of Christian belief is that it is believed to have been written in the first century AD and very likely got this turn of phrase from 2 Corinthians itself.
There are a number of online pieces written by Christians explaining that the “third heaven” represents a spiritual place out there where God and the angels dwell. The first heaven is the sky or atmosphere, the second heaven is outer space, and the third heaven is what we mean when we talk about a person dying and “going to heaven.” But these are all retrospective arguments, trying to come up with a way that three different types of heaven could be distinguished in order to justify the use of this phrase in 2 Corinthians. The fact is, the Hebrew Scriptures to which proponents of this claim appeal nowhere show any awareness of the idea of a “third heaven.” There was a Jewish view that there are not three but seven levels of heaven, like an onion with multiple layers, but the earliest record we have of this comes from the Talmud, after Paul’s time. True, it’s still possible that the idea was present but unrecorded in Paul’s circles, but how would we know? What’s more, if there are seven layers of heaven, why would Paul refer to only the third?
So while my suggestion as to what the “third heaven” refers to is highly speculative, it’s at least possible, and it’s also not clear what alternative there might be. Whatever it refers to, as a visionary event no out of body travel needs to be dragged into the already strange picture.
Major reply 2: The NIV translates the passage poorly
Many years ago, before I had undertaken any formal theological or biblical training, I purchased a copy of the New Testament translated from Aramaic sources by George Lamsa. If you’re not familiar with this work, it’s an interesting enough story. There’s a view that the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic, and this translation purports to be from those original Aramaic sources. There’s a bit of fantasy in all of this. As is widely accepted, the earliest New Testament documents that we know of were in Greek, not Aramaic. The Aramaic Peshitta is still a very useful source, but that’s another subject altogether. Anyway, I bought this copy of the New Testament out of interest, and read it. On the whole, there’s nothing terribly different or striking about it compared to what’s available in other translations. I was fascinated, however, when I got to 2 Corinthians 12. This is what I started to read:
BOASTING is proper, but there is no advantage in it, and I prefer to relate the visions and revelations of our Lord. I knew a man in Christ more than fourteen years ago, but whether I knew him in the body or out of the body, I do not know; God knows; this very one was caught up to the third heaven. And I still know this man, but whether in the body or whether out of the body, I cannot tell; God knows; How that he was caught up to paradise and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a person, I will boast; but of myself, I will not boast, except in my weaknesses.
I have highlighted the part that really leapt out at me. “What? That’s not what it says!” I said to myself. I knew what this verse was supposed to say, or so I thought. I consulted my NIV, which confirmed my previous belief about what it said. It’s supposed to say that Paul knew a man fourteen years ago, and this man was caught up to heaven, and Paul doesn’t know if that event was in the body or out of the body. This is why I highlighted some words in my quotation of this passage from the NIV, because those words stress that this is what the translators meant to convey.
Then I did something that can be life changing. I checked. I did not expect what I found. I first checked the King James Version, just because I knew that it took a very literal approach to translation, and literal wording was the crucial factor here. And lo and behold, the very first version I checked sided against the NIV, as follows:
It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
You should immediately spot the difference. Just as with the Lamsa translation, the KJV likewise never even suggests that the man’s experience might have been out of the body. No, the phrase “without the body” is used to describe the way in which Paul knew this man. I had to check more versions – those versions with a literal approach to translations. So I checked the American Standard version: “I must needs glory, though it is not expedient; but I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up even to the third heaven…” Another one! I tried Young’s Literal Version: “I have known a man in Christ, fourteen years ago—whether in the body I have not known, whether out of the body I have not known, God hath known—such an one being caught away unto the third heaven…” I checked my interlinear Greek English New Testament. Sure enough, these literal translations were giving what is essentially a word for word translation of this passage. The NIV was wrong.
What exactly does the text mean? I think Lamsa was right. Now, Lamsa added in a couple of words to make a strange sentence seem clearer. The text says “whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know…” whereas Lamsa says “but whether I knew him in the body or out of the body, I do not know.” Given the structure of what is said here, however, this makes sense, and I think it fairly represents the idea being expressed. But what does it mean? It’s not crystal clear. What does it mean to know someone “in the body” or “without the body”? One possibility is that Paul knows of the person, but isn’t sure if it is someone that he has met “in the flesh,” so to speak, or if it’s a friend of a friend. I would not dogmatize about what the phrase means, because it’s not clear. Drawing an uncertain conclusion in such circumstances is quite acceptable.
What is not acceptable, however, is to make phrases clear by changing their subject, which is effectively what the NIV has done. The subject is Paul’s knowledge of this man, not the experience of the man seeing paradise. Unfortunately, even my current regular translation, the ESV, falls prey to the same temptation. It reads, “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…” The order of phrases is changed and the word “who” is added, shifting the meaning, just as with the NIV. What we have now is phrasing that is clear English, but which has given up its original meaning altogether.
I’ll draw this to a close here. To recap:
- First, most believe that Paul was speaking of himself and his Damascus road experience, in which case this was not an out of body experience.
- Second, Paul tells people that this is possibly a vision. That should be sufficient to end the matter.
- Third, the reference to “paradise” lends weight to the above, since that word is used in the Scripture to refer to a state of final restoration, a state that has not yet happened.
- Fourth, the “third heaven.” What is that? I’m not sure, but it might offer support for the thesis that this was a vision of the future.
- Fifth, and taking the discussion in a whole new direction, those versions that imply that this man was caught up to heaven but possibly out of his body have badly mistranslated this passage. The underlying Greek text refers to no such thing, nor do the most literal English translations.
Whatever we have here, there is no good evidence that Paul is talking about an out-of-body experience. In fact, the wider biblical picture of human beings presents us in a unified way, creatures of the earth, breathing the breath of life. We can no more escape our bodies than we can escape ourselves. We’re not looking forward to going to heaven (whether the third heaven or another one!). We will return to the earth when God takes our life back, and we will fall asleep in the hope of the resurrection of the dead.