Question: What is the third heaven mentioned by the apostle Paul?
2Cor. 12:2 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.
There are surprisingly several clues within the context of Paul’s mention of this “third heaven” that shed some light on the subject.
First, Paul uses the term without explanation, as if it were quite familiar to his contemporaries. This is because the “third heaven” was a familiar concept in Jewish circles, made popular by the book of 2 Enoch. While not Scripture, many of the concepts and terms were recognized as accurate and used by such New Testament authorities as Paul, Peter and Jude.
Second, “the third heaven” is experienced in this life through the portal of “visions and revelations” (v. 1). “Visions and revelations” is a very general expression, and Paul does not specify which of the two was the vehicle for his own experience, and he may not have been sure himself. God reveals Himself in many ways, and “visions” are just one form of such revelations (Heb. 1:1). Twice in the book of Revelation, the apostle John described how his own experience sometimes seemed to engage his physical senses:
Rev. 19:10 At this I fell at his feet to worship him.
Rev. 22:8 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me.
Third, the “third heaven” is identical to “paradise” (v. 4). “Paradise” is the biblical term describing where those who die in a righteous relationship with God enjoy life in His presence prior to their bodily resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (1Thess. 4:14-17; 1Cor. 15:52). Jesus promised the thief on the cross next to Him who professed his faith in Jesus as the Son of God that he would wake up in Paradise (the “third heaven”) that very day and see Jesus there (Lk. 23:43).
The “third heaven” could be experienced in both the physical and spiritual realm, even though Paul was not certain whether his own experience was “in the body or out of the body.” The book of Revelation supports this:
Rev. 2:7 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Likewise, in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus describes Paradise as a beautiful place whose residents, like Lazarus, are fully conscious that they have entered God’s presence after death, and they are aware of those who await Judgment Day in Hades (not Hell, yet) after death. Lazarus and the crucified thief both represent those who Paul describes as having “fallen asleep in” Jesus (1Thes. 4:14, 15).