The original question was:
I have seen some teaching on the Third Heaven, and found a reference to it in 2 Corinthians 12:2, but I am not sure what it means. What are the other two Heavens? Is the third Heaven a restored earth, as some people teach?

Answer by Simon Turpin

The very first verse of the Bible tells us that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. The Hebrew word for heaven found here is shamayim. In biblical Hebrew, there is no specific word for our modern concept ‘universe’ so the combination of ‘heavens and earth’ is referring to the space and the matter God brought into existence on Day One. It pays to note that not all the universe was completed on Day One, as the sun, moon and stars were not created until Day Four.

Other passages that use this word for ‘heaven’ to refer to the space of the universe are Psalm 8:3 and Isaiah 13:10. Modern Hebrew has a word for Universe, Olam, but this word is not found in Genesis 1.

Another heaven that the Bible speaks about was created on Day Two of creation week. The term ‘heaven’ in Genesis 1:8 is shamyima and is the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 1:1 for ‘heaven’ but whereas in the first verse the word is in the plural form, in verse 8 it is in the singular form and refers to earth’s atmosphere (See also Deuteronomy 11:11 and I Kings 8:35). From these two examples we see that the word ‘heaven’ is referring to two different places: one is the general space for the universe and the other is more localised space of earth’s atmosphere. So what is the third heaven?

The Third Heaven

The only reference to the ‘third heaven’ in the Bible is found in 2 Corinthians 12:2 which says: 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.

Let’s look at this passage more closely I know a man in Christ – Here Paul, speaking in the third person, describes an experience in which of a human being taken up into the third heaven. Because Paul speaks in the third person some people think Paul may be speaking of someone else but a careful look at the context in verses 1, 5, 7 of the same chapter shows that Paul is speaking of his own experience. Who fourteen years ago – If we understand that 2 Corinthians was written about AD 55-56 then it places this vision several years after his conversion on the Damascus road.

Whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know – God knows – Since Paul never knew how this happened, then we can be quite sure that we can’t know. Nevertheless, the Bible sheds light on people being taken up in the body and out of the body. In the Old Testament both Enoch (Genesis 5:24) and Elijah (2 Kings: 2:9-12) were taken up in bodily form to heaven though it was permanent for both and not temporary. Yet even before Elijah was permanently taken up to heaven he was carried from place to place by the Spirit of the Lord (1 Kings 18:12).

Such a man was caught up to the third heaven – The word used for ‘caught up’ here is harpazo which is the same verb Paul uses in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to speak of the Christians who are alive and remain until Christ’s coming and who will be ‘caught up’ to meet him in the air. Paul was suddenly caught up into the third heaven, but what is the third heaven? Paul, as a good Hebrew speaking Jewish scholar, would have known that the Old Testament described both the universe and atmosphere/sky (in our modern language) as heavens, but he also knew that the word heaven in the Old Testament was additionally used to describe the LORD’s dwelling place (1 Kings 8:30; Psalm. 33:13-14).

Paul parallels the third heaven with the word ‘paradise’ (v4) which is only used in two other New Testament passages (Luke 23:43; Rev 2:7). If you look at these two passages, the word ‘paradise’ is clearly equated with heaven as Jesus tells the the man who was crucified next to him “today you will be with me in paradise”. Elsewhere, Revelation 2:7 talks about the “tree of life” being in “the paradise of God” which can also be found in Revelation 22:2, 14, 19 and is equated with Heaven.

Will earth remain forever and become Paradise?

This idea is part of modern day Restorationist teaching, which grew up in the 1970s & 80s, under the leadership of men such as Roger Forster, who stated “The job of the Church is to clean up the earth so that God can give it to Jesus for His eternal home” (see Roger Forster – Whose Earth? 1993). Forster’s teaching is simply a modified rephrasing of the older concepts of earth as heaven found in the Jehovah’s Witnesses belief that this earth will remain forever, and that all who fit into Jehovah’s purpose will inhabit this beautified earth as their eternal home. God’s eternal purpose for the earth, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, is to be a “paradise where humans will live forever”. One of the passages they use to support this idea is Luke 23:43. However, as we have seen, paradise in that context is clearly associated with Heaven, and notice that Jesus says “today you will be with me in paradise” which shows that the thief on the cross was with Jesus in paradise while the current earth remained.

Will this current earth last forever as both the Restorationist’s and the Jehovah’s Witnesses suggest?

Not according to the Biblical picture of the earth. In 2 Peter 3 we are told that this earth will be ‘burned up (v.10)’ because we are awaiting the promise of a ‘new heavens and earth (v.13)’. Revelation 21:1 also speaks of the “new heavens and earth for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away”. The reason for the ‘new heavens and earth’ is God’s “discarding” of earth thrown away like an old worn out piece of clothing and being replacing it with a far better one. (see Hebrews 1:10-12, which is in itself a quote from Psalm. 102:25-27) . These passages refer to this universe being discarded as the result of the sad result of sin and death (Genesis. 3) which has spoiled God’s original good creation and made it a place of rebellion and alienation. However, the good news is that God has planned a total replacement where there will be no more curse, no more death or mourning, and an eternal life in a good new body with neither crying nor pain A place where the joy of our praises will result from us seeing and being with Jesus our Creator and Saviour and God – face to face for all eternity!

Conclusion

Unlike many today who ‘claim’ personal death experience type trips to heaven and give many lucid and exciting details of what it was like, Paul gives no details of what took place in the Third Heaven, except that he heard “inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak”. Although the Bible gives us some minor details of what heaven will be like, the secret things of heaven will have to wait for us to experience before we can speak with accuracy, but it is no wonder that Paul’s desire after his experience was “to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Philippians 1:23).

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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About The Contributor

Simon Turpin