Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Third Heaven

The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:2ff, writes:
2 I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven 14 years ago. Whether he was in the body or out of the body, I don't know; God knows. 3 I know that this man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 was caught up into paradise. He heard inexpressible words, which a man is not allowed to speak....
Much mental effort has been expended trying to figure out how many levels of heaven there are, and what those levels are.

But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that we make a mistake to approach this issue from a Western mindset. I don't believe Paul is telling us that he's been to Level 3 of 7 levels, or 3 of 28, or whatever.

If you search Biblegateway for the term "heaven", and try to figure out what the terms mean as you look at each reference found, you'll find there's a lot of crossover between usages. Sometimes the heavens are eternal; sometimes they're temporary. Sometimes God dwells in the highest heaven; sometimes He dwells above the highest heaven. Sometimes the stars are in heaven, sometimes rain comes from heaven. In other words, there's no Western-thought-type consistency in what/where heaven is, and we damage the text to try and force-fit an Eastern text into a Western mindset.

Instead, ask yourself what the number three meant to an Eastern mind of the time.

The number 1 usually referred to God ("God is One"), and the number 2 usually referred to humanity (Adam and Eve), so the number 3 referred to the union of God and Humanity (1 + 2 = 3).

From another angle, animals had a body of flesh (1 - Gen 6:17), and the breath of life (2 - Gen 6:17), just as humans did. But humans also had the image of God (3 - Gen 1:26), so again, 3 refers to the union of the worldly image with God's image.

When Paul writes of the third heaven, it seems to me that he's saying he went to a place beyond the two heavens where the birds fly and the stars dwell; he went to the place where God receives human visitors. He went to God's guest parlor, so to speak.

I'm no expert in Eastern thinking, by any stretch. But I seriously doubt that Paul's reference is correctly approached from a Western way of thinking.

I may be wrong.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why would you be wrong? Our ways are not God's ways and our thoughts are not always God's thoughts. Thinking in a eastern way is better than stuck in a western worldly manner. John the revelator often appeared to be "between" two types of heavens. In one place he saw the world Christ now dwells in and he and the angels praised the Lord from the place John viewed him from. I don't think John was still on the isle called Patmos when he viewed the host and the Lord or actually in the heaven to come either. L:)