CAUGHT UP TO THE THIRD HEAVEN
"I must boast; there is nothing to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 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, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise - whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows - and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter." (2 Cor 12:1-4)
This passage has been used in support of the unbiblical teaching that the real person is an "immortal soul", which can exist without the body. A further illogical extension then claims that since the man Paul speaks about went to "paradise", it is implied that the immortal souls of all the saved also go to Heaven at death .
Some even go so far as to speculate that Paul died when he was stoned at Lystra, and that this is his own vision, received at that time by his immortal soul, when it paid a visit to Heaven before he returned to life. Then with a step of remarkable circular logic, this claim is advanced as "proof" of the existence of Paul's immortal soul!
The first thing to notice here, is that Paul's subject in these verses is not "Life After Death". It is about "Visions and Revelations" received by the living!
Paul is addressing the problem of "False Prophets" and "False Apostles" in the Church at Corinth.
There were men at Corinth who had disguised themselves as "servants of righteousness". They were preaching a "Different Gospel", by which the Corinthians were being led astray from the truth. (2 Cor 11:1-15)
It is in this context that Paul wrote about the man who had been caught up to the third heaven, fourteen years previously. There was a pressing need to remind the Corinthians that Paul's own "spiritual experiences" were in no way inferior to those of the "false apostles".
WAS IT PAUL'S OWN VISION?
It seems more than possible that it is Paul's own vision ..... but it must be emphasised that this is a speculative conclusion. The evidence is not definite enough to be dogmatic.
WAS PAUL DEAD WHEN HE RECEIVED IT?
We have just said above that it cannot be proved beyond doubt that this is actually Paul's own vision.
However, even if it was, there is absolutely no Biblical connection at all, between the vision and Paul's stoning at Lystra! Nor can it be proved that Paul actually died in that incident. Indeed Luke's language might well suggest otherwise.
And if the man was not dead, the suggestion that Paul had a vision as a result of an "out of body experience", is repugnant to those who see such things in the same light as "Astral Travel" - forbidden by God!
THE THIRD HEAVEN
Some have invented the very speculative notion that there are three levels in Heaven. According to this theory, the Third Heaven is said to be the upper level which is the abode of God and His angels!
There is of course, absolutely no Biblical foundation for this fanciful theory.
However, Peter's second epistle offers a much more satisfactory possibility. There Peter actually writes about, not only three Heavens, but also three earths!
The First Heavens & Earth
"They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished." (2 Pet 3:5-6)
The Second Heavens & Earth
"But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men." (2 Pet 3:7)
The Third Heavens & Earth
"But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." (2 Pet 3:13)
The vision which Paul describes is most likely not a visit to the heaven where God lives. Instead, it is a vision of the Kingdom of God in the "Age to Come", after Jesus returns to the Earth.
The Third Heaven is third in time ..... not in place. It is the New Heaven in the new World Order, which will appear after the fiery destruction of this present evil system.
IN THE BODY OR OUT OF THE BODY?
"In the body" would mean simply that the man who had the vision was transported physically in time and space, to the Age to come.
"Out of the body" does not mean an "immortal soul operating independently"! In the "The RSV Interlinear Greek-English Text", the interlinear literal translation is "outside the body".
All this means is that the events of the vision were some other time and place than that in which the man was when he had the vision. He was not physically present. He saw them in vision only.
A free paraphrase of what Paul is actually saying would be something like, "The revelation was so real, that the man isn't sure whether he was really physically there, or just having a vision without actually being there."
It certainly does not say that the man's immortal soul went there without his body, while he was (temporarily) dead!
Peter experienced something similar when he was released from prison by an angel. "He did not know whether what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision." (Acts 12:9)
"The third heaven" and "Paradise" are used interchangeably in the passage.
The Greek word for "Paradise", is used in the Septuagint version to describe "The Garden Of Eden".
Jesus also used it when speaking to the Thief On The Cross, to describe His future Kingdom on Earth. It is used in the same way in Rev 2:7.
It never means "The Heaven where God and the angels live".
It takes a great deal of illogical speculation to infer that this passage can be a "proof" of the immortality of the soul. If we start from the correct Biblical position, the fallacy of that speculation becomes obvious.
The real truth is that in other places, the Scriptures plainly say that the dead are asleep without any conscious existence. (Daniel 12:2 & 1 Thess 4:13-15 & Eccl 9:5)
The popular concept of "immortal souls" going to Heaven at death, has no foundation in the Scriptures.
All hope of life after death depends entirely on God's promise of a future resurrection of the body. (1 Cor 15:12-21)