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2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (NASB):

2 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. 3 And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak

Can we rightly conclude from this passage that Paul believed in out-of-body experiences (OBE) as something that could actually happen?

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    Seems pretty clear that he's hedging on what exactly happened - the manner of the vision wasn't important, just the content.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 2 at 23:32
  • Paul is stating he does not know whether the man he refers to was in the body or out of the body. This question becomes a matter of opinion. That is to say an opinion as to what Paul did not express an opinion about . (!).
    – Nigel J
    Mar 3 at 6:47
  • The man that visited the third heaven might have been somebody else than Paul. John the Revelator could, for example, have been the person Paul was referring to. Jul 19 at 22:36
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+50

In 1 Corinthians 5:3-4, Paul writes about being present with the Corinthians when they assemble, albeit, in "spirit".

1 Corinthians 5:3-4 (ESV),

3 For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. 4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus...

I realize we have adopted similar language in our time and reference, that is, to be with someone "in spirit", and mean it only metaphorically or symbolically, not literally. But that is how we use it, in our time and reference.

How did Paul mean it, in his time and reference?

We have to remember something about Paul, something Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossman (among others) brought out, particularly in their book The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon, namely, that Paul was a "Jewish Christ Mystic" (p. 19).

Paul often had what we would call mystical or ecstatic experiences. They continue:

An ecstatic experience, as the roots of the Greek word suggest, is a nonordinary [sic] state of consciousness. One is "out of" or "beyond" ordinary consciousness and in this state has an overwhelming sense of experiencing God. God becomes an experiential reality. In this sense, mystics know God (emphasis theirs).

It is interesting that they mention the roots of the Greek word ecstasy, because, Biblically, it refers to a "displacement", something an out of body experience dovetails with perfectly.

Here is a partial list of Paul's ecstatic experiences:

Considering this substantial list, not to mention all the other supernatural events that occurred in Paul's life, it is proper to state that Borg's and Crossman's assessment of Paul as a Jewish Christ Mystic is correct.

So, then, should we add out of body experiences to the list, at least for Paul?

I think so, yes. What Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 5:3-4 is not given to us as a metaphor or symbol. Paul unequivocally stated he was present "in spirit" with the Corinthians, and was able to judge the matter regarding the fornication occurring in the assembly at Corinth. But he writes even more. He orders them to certify their expulsion of the transgressive brother, not only in the name of the Lord Jesus, but also with his spirit present. In some mystical way that we perhaps do not, or even cannot understand in our modern day and age, Paul, through His union with God as a Christ Mystic, was able to be present with the Corinthians when they rendered judgment.

I realize an objection occurs here, that Paul was present with them "in spirit" in the sense that his words and authorization on the action would be with the Corinthians in the form of the letter only, and therefore, no real "out of body" experience took place.

But that to me, is anachronistic eisegesis. We've come, over the centuries, to take for granted the supernatural experiences of the Apostles, and so, have euphemized their words in order to adopt them culturally into our vernacular.

Jesus is our example from the Scriptures. He consistently claimed that His Father was in heaven, and yet, said He was in the Father, and the Father was in Him, all the while present physically upon the Earth (John 14:10). In this sense, Jesus Himself was, so to speak, in two places at once. He was 1.) literally on earth in body and form, but also 2.) in heaven with the Father.

The same with the Christian believer, according to Paul:

Ephesians 2:6 (ESV),

6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus...

Undoubtedly, this is a mystery, and cannot easily be explained or realized, only received and believed.

But, if it is so that Christian believers the world over can literally and physically live and exist upon the Earth, and yet, spiritually, mystically, sit with Christ Jesus in heavenly places, then it is not any harder to believe that Paul could, through the Holy Spirit, "transport", as it were, his spirit supernaturally to other locations, such that he could and did write, that he was present with other people while being hundreds of miles away, and mean it, and it be true.

And, he could also, therefore, have an out of body experience that took him to the "third heaven", where he heard things he wasn't allowed to repeat, which accounts for his "visions and revelations" and the mystery of the gospel, the mystery of the kingdom, which is to say, the mystery of God that is in Christ, that Paul received and could write about, but never fully explain or articulate, hence why he consistently called it a mystery.

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You asked ...”Can we rightly conclude from this passage that Paul believed in out-of-body experiences (OBE) as something that could actually happen?

Yes! And not just ‘could’ happen, but would happen - to all believers.

2 COR 5:1** *For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

When Paul talks about his ‘earthly tent’ (skēnos - tabernacle, metaph. of the human body), according to ‘Strongs’ this refers to your [physical] body. Paul talks about the makeup of ‘man’ in Thessalonians...

1 THESS 5:23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ

And, further down in 2 Corinthians 5 he describes an ‘out of body experience’

2 COR 5:6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.

But that one day we will be with the Lord, therefore we will be out of this body.(v10)

2 COR 5:9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

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The idea is that there is a deeper spiritual world all around us that our physical senses ("in the body") can't perceive, but we can can perceive "in the spirit".

For example, Numbers 22.31.

Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.

But at the same time, God can appear directly to us "in the body" (all such appearances would be of Christ), e.g. Judges 13.3-22:

The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son. [...] Manoah got up and followed his wife. When he came to the man, he said, “Are you the man who talked to my wife?”

“I am,” he said.

So Manoah asked him, “When your words are fulfilled, what is to be the rule that governs the boy’s life and work?” [..] 15 Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, “We would like you to stay until we prepare a young goat for you.”

16 The angel of the Lord replied, “Even though you detain me, I will not eat any of your food. But if you prepare a burnt offering, offer it to the Lord.” (Manoah did not realize that it was the angel of the Lord.)

17 Then Manoah inquired of the angel of the Lord, “What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?”

18 He replied, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.[a]” 19 Then Manoah took a young goat, together with the grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the Lord. And the Lord did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: 20 As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground. 21 When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord.

22 “We are doomed to die!” he said to his wife. “We have seen God!”

And in this case, Paul is saying that the experience was so realistic that he could not distinguish between these two cases.

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"Apart from the body" could potentially mean either:

  1. The soul/spirit departing the body and having experiences in heaven. This is what is loosely described as "OBE" as per the OP.
  2. The man being given a vision of heaven and thus his experiences were independent or "apart" from the body.

The first meaning is difficult to sustain as it would be unique in the whole Bible. The second meaning makes it parallel to experiences of other prophets such as John (Rev 1:10, 4:2, 17:3, 21:10, etc)

Ellicott describes it this way:

Whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell.—No words can describe more accurately the phenomena of consciousness in the state of trance or ecstasy. It is dead to the outer world. The body remains, sometimes standing, sometimes recumbent, but, in either case, motionless. The man may well doubt, on his return to the normal condition of his life, whether his spirit has actually passed into unknown regions in a separate and disembodied condition, or whether the body itself has been also a sharer in its experiences of the unseen. We, with our wider knowledge, have no hesitation in accepting the former alternative, or, perhaps, in reducing the whole revelation to an impression on the brain and the phenomena known as cataleptic. St. Paul, however, would naturally turn to such records as those of Ezekiel’s journey, in the visions of God, from the banks of Chebar to Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8:3; Ezekiel 11:1), and find in them the analogue, though, as he admits, not the solution, of his own experience.

Benson observes:

Whether in the body — And by the intervention of its senses; or out of the body — And without any such intervention, the things which I saw and heard were communicated to me; I know not — It is equally possible with God to present distant things to the imagination in the body, as if the soul were absent from it, and present with them, as seems to have been the case with Ezekiel in the visions mentioned Ezekiel 11:24, and Ezekiel 37:1; and with John in those recorded Revelation 17:3; Revelation 21:10; or, as the Spirit caught away Philip, (Acts 8:39,) to transport both soul and body for what time he pleases to heaven

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  • (Rev 1:10, 4:2, 17:3, 21:10, etc) None of these state that John was in, or out of, the body. They are visions. Imagery is used to express spiritual (immaterial) realities. Eyes cannot see what is immaterial. Therefore there is no need to be 'transported'. The vision is brought to the recipient. And the imagery is written on the page for all to be edified. We are all to be 'in the Spirit', not just the seer.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 3 at 8:22
  • @NigelJ - correct - that is the point!!
    – Dottard
    Mar 3 at 8:27
  • Am baffled by the downvote. +1 to undo.
    – Robert
    Jul 19 at 19:35
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What on earth is "out of body experience"?! Experience is experience and it is very difficult to distinguish between bodily experience and spiritual experience, or when there is a mixture of the two, as for instance, when we embrace a beloved woman (I speak about men), it is both bodily and spiritual experience indivisibly. Yet, when we read Shakespeare's "Coward dies many times" - the shameful feeling that arises in us, for seeing that it is we who are such cowards, and at the same time, the remote prospect, arising from this soul-benefiting shame, that we can also one time become those valiants who die but once, this is already a spiritual experience, far less connected with body than the embracing of a beloved woman, and also, far more noble and sublime than this embracing.

My boxing partner hits me during a boxing contest and nearly breaks my jaw, still remaining my dear friend, while I am writhing in pain; yet when he betrays me, I feel nowhere pain in parts of my body, but I feel pain far greater than when he almost broke my jaw, in that part of my essence which no computer tomography can notice or fathom, in my soul. So, is it extra-bodily experience? Or non-bodily experience within body? It is difficult to say. And good that Paul does not specify.

So, unless one distinguishes clearly between the two experiences, bodily and supra-bodily, and I doubt we have now a philosopher of Plato's caliber who can do this, this question is moot and impossible to be answered. Even if we consider a traditional belief of Catholic and Orthodox Christians - which I believe is the true belief - that souls of deceased persons care and feel for their yet living beloved people and pray for them, still this care and feeling of those blessed souls is not totally bodiless, for they do care for bodily concerns of their beloved, their bodily illness, for instance, also, according to the traditional belief of billions of Catholics, Orthodox and also a faction of Protestants, which I believe is a true belief.

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