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What is the “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2?

In 2 Corinthians 12:2 the Apostle Paul was given a very vivid vision and revelation of the promised future kingdom rulership which will bring blessing to all people. This verse is complex so it is helpful to break things down to understand what is being said.

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven.”

2 Corinthians 2:12 

“I knew a man in Christ”

Paul is referring to himself and a vision he had seen more than 14 years prior. It becomes clear he is speaking of himself as “a man in Christ” as we read further in in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul speaks in this manner to avoid the appearance of boasting of the visions he was blessed to receive, and because of his own sense of humility.  2 Corinthians 12:5-6: (Philipps translation)

“I am honestly proud of an experience like that, but I have made up my mind not to boast of anything personal, except of what may be called my weaknesses. If I should want to boast I should certainly be no fool to be proud of my experiences, and I should be speaking nothing but the sober truth. Yet I am not going to do so, for I don’t want anyone to think more highly of me that his experience of me and what he hearts of me should warrant.”

2 Corinthians 12:7: (NASB) “And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself!” 

“fourteen years ago”

The Apostle Paul received many visions and revelations in his life. Another example of a vision also about 14 years in the past is recorded in Acts 22:17-18:  “And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance and saw the Lord saying to me, ‘Hurry up and get out of Jerusalem at once, because the people won’t accept your testimony about me.’”   

“whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know”

Paul did not know how to explain the experience of this vision. It was a miraculous experience and was absolutely real to him. It may have felt like he was in heaven, looking down on coming events, and yet he realizes he was still in his earthly body.

“caught up to the third heaven”

The Scriptures use the word “heaven” to describe three places, not just one.

We understand each to have symbolic significance as well, as different timeframes in the human experience. Each “heaven” refers to a period of time when the earth has been under different spiritual rulership.

A. The first heaven is the earth’s atmosphere where birds fly.

(Genesis 1:20, Jeremiah 4:25; 34:20, Lamentations 4:19, Zephaniah 1:3)

This Hebrew word shamayim is translated as “sky” in the scripture comparing Genesis 7:3, “fowls also of the air,” with Genesis 7:23, “fowl of the heaven.” The word “sky” and “heaven” are used interchangeably from the same Hebrew word (Psalm 8:8). So, the first heaven is synonymous with “heights” or “elevations.”

Symbolic interpretation:   

The first heaven – the earth before the flood was ruled by the angels and was destroyed by God for the wickedness of mankind and the descendants of the angels inhabiting the earth. Peter describes that world as having perished when the earth was overflowed with water at the time of the flood. 2 Peter 3:5-6

  1. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, when the sons of God came into the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown. “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” Genesis 6:4-7
  2. “For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water.” 2 Peter 3:6

B. The second heaven describes outer space where the planets and stars exist.

(Genesis 1:14-17; 15:5; 22:17; 26:4, Deuteronomy 1:10; 17:3; Psalm 8:3, Jeremiah 8:2; Matthew 24:29)

Symbolic interpretation:

The second heaven – this present evil world ruled by Satan. Satan has been permitted to exercise control over the affairs of earth for a fairly long period of time. In 2 Corinthians 4:4 he is referred to as the god of this world.  

  1. “So it will happen in that day, that the LORD will punish the host of heaven on high, and the kings of the earth on earth.” Isaiah 14:13
  2. “But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” 2 Peter 3:7

C. This third heaven is where God and the heavenly sanctuary exist (1 Peter 3:22). The third heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:2 is what Jesus calls his “Father’s house” (John 14:2), and what the Apostle Paul calls “paradise” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Revelation 2:7). 

Symbolic interpretation:

The third heaven – the future kingdom of God and Jesus “on earth as it is in heaven.”

  1. “Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our LORD and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 11:15
  2. “But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” 2 Peter 3:13

The third heaven refers to the spiritual rulership of Jesus and faithful Christians over earth (Revelation 20:6), the new government which is going to produce and rule over a new earth, a new social structure upon the earth. (2 Peter 3:13). This new heavens, this government of Jesus and His glorified Bride class is going to create the “paradise”—the new earth that Paul refers to in 2 Corinthians 4:4 was caught up into Paradise.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first [former] heaven and the first [former] earth passed away…And I saw the holy city new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. ” Revelation 21:1-2 

The end result of the reign of Jesus and his Bride is paradise on earth restored.  “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He shall dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be among them, and He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.'” (Revelation 21:3-4)