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2 Corinthians 12:2 (NIV)

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.

What is the "third heaven" that Paul mentions in this verse?

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Background (mostly based on non-canonical sources): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_Heaven –  Muke Tever Dec 12 '11 at 13:37
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FWIW, if you're an LDS believer, this is a reference to the celestial kingdom and different degrees of glory –  Richard Dec 13 '11 at 16:00
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3 Answers

Two viable and not necessary mutually exclusive interpretations can be offered which result in the same theological conclusion.

Sky, Space, Heaven

I heard R.C. Sproul suggest that first heaven would denote the sky, second heaven deep space, and third heaven the presence of God. Ted Donnelly takes this interpretation in his book Biblical Teachings on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell:

  1. The word heaven

    refers first of all to the atmosphere: the air above us which envelops this planet. 'The rain comes down ad the snow from heaven' (Isa. 55:10). 'The dew of heaven' (Dan. 4:15) is so called because it comes down from the sky, from the air. We also read of the 'birds of the heavens' (Jer. 4:25). The frost, the wind, the clouds and the vapours, the thunder and the hail, all of these come from heaven. (Donnelly 71)

  2. In the second usage "heaven" is sometimes conjoined with "firmament" or "expanse," e.g. Genesis 1:14, Psalm 19:1 (Donnelly 72).
  3. This is termed "third heaven," in 2 Corinthians 12:2, "heaven itself," in Hebrews 9:24, and "highest heaven/heaven of heavens" in 2 Chronicles 2:6 (Donnelly 73).
A possible objection is that the distinction between sky/space is an anachronism, the distinction having arisen from our increased understanding of astronomy. However, both from the linguistic differences noted above (the usage of "firmament" for sense 2) and simply from the commonsense observation that probably no one has ever thought that birds regularly alight on the stars, no matter what their conception of the heavens, the charges of anachronism are refuted.

Three is Perfect

Three is a number of perfection because of the Trinity (e.g. Isaiah 6:3) and so Paul may very well mean it to be taken in a qualitative rather than quantitative sense—i.e. not indicating that there are multiple heavens but saying something to the effect of the heaven of perfection. Calvin says in his commentary on this verse:

He does not here distinguish between the different heavens in the manner of the philosophers, so as to assign to each planet its own heaven. On the other hand, the number three is made use of (κατ᾿ ἐζοχὴν) by way of eminence, to denote what is highest and most complete. Nay more, the term heaven, taken by itself, denotes here the blessed and glorious kingdom of God...

Conclusion

Either way, the safest way to understand this phrase in 2 Corinthians 12:2 is that third heaven indicates an immediate revelation of the presence of the Triune God.

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In Gen 1.1 'heavens' is a dual form of the word. God created two heavens and one earth. These are heavens 1 and 2 as listed above. They are created heavens.

The third heaven is referred to as the heaven of heavens:

2Ch 6:18 But will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth? behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!

Even the heaven of heavens cannot contain God. There is no container larger than God. Even this third heaven is within God himself. Since those going there have an 'out of body' type experience, it is suggested that it exists in a spiritual realm.

The Jewish sages tell us that when God created, he created the void within himself, since there was no place outside of himself. Then he created what we see, within and from the void.

With this model, the third heaven is outside of the void and within God himself. While we exist in the void, there is a separation from the essential nature of God. In the third heaven, His essential nature is experienced without separation.

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I cannot provide the exact cultural implications at the moment, but the third heaven has traditionally been taken as "into the very presence of God." This certainly was the position advocated by Aquinas as well as Augustine.

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I've looked at both references twice and I'm still not sure what subset of those passages you are referring to. Would you mind adding quotations from them to your answer? –  Kazark Dec 13 '11 at 1:02
    
Well, if you go to the next paragraph on the Aquinas link he references the trinity as being the supreme, superseding two different interpretations of what the "first" and "second" could be. In Augustine the link shows that he equates "third heaven" and "paradise". –  cwallenpoole Dec 13 '11 at 5:44
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