Patricia Hofer

Is Paul’s “third heaven” an intermediate place for all of us?

In the Biblical line of heritage, Enoch lived a few generations before Noah and long before Abraham. What he is most remembered for by Christians is found in this statement: “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Gen. 5:24). But Jewish tradition has preserved some writings that are sourced to him. In one of them, The Second Book of Enoch, he describes the “Third Heaven.”
This would have little interest at all to Christians except Paul also refers to what he called the “third heaven.” In his second letter to the Corinthians he wrote, “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” (NIV 12:1-4). Paul is generally considered to be talking about his own experience, something that likely happened during the years he spent in Arabia after his dramatic and life-changing encounter with the Lord on the road to Damascus.
“The man in Christ,” as Paul refers to himself, has not arrived in a final place but is in what Paul refers to as “paradise.” Enoch, whose existence is also mentioned briefly in the book of Jude, described “the Third Heaven” as a halfway place, a place “whereon the Lord rests, when he goes up into paradise” (Second Book of Enoch, chapter 8). That actually tends to match what Jesus said to the repentant man who was crucified next to him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (NIV Luke 23:43).
Augustine described Paul’s vision of the “third heaven” as a vision “granted only to him who in some way dies to this life, whether he quits the body entirely or is turned away and carried out of the bodily sense…” This vision, wrote Augustine, is superior to any other kind of vision because it is seen “by the mind after it has been so separated and removed and completely carried out of the senses and purified…” He considers this seeing to be a mystery that occurs “through the love of the Holy Spirit” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 55, 56 and 67).
So what do we get out of all of this? First, a “third heaven” supports the idea of an intermediate place, instead of a final place, after we die. These passages also draw a connection between that intermediate place and paradise. And they tell us that when we get there, the Lord will be there and so will other recognizable spiritual beings. Finally, Paul’s confusion about whether he was “in or out of the body” is not unlike some of the credible “near death experiences” (NDE’s) we read today. (“Can reincarnation and near death experiences be Christian?” ©️ 2019, 2021)

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