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?


4 Answers 4


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...


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.


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.

  • 2
    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, 2011 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". Dec 13, 2011 at 5:44

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.


The Book of Enoch provides some clues about Paul's "third heaven," which he also seems to call "paradise."

I know that this person (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter.

Enoch's book is not accepted by Catholics or Protestants but it is considered scripture by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and was apparently paraphrased in the Letter of Jude. (1:6,14) I presume that it influenced 1st c. Jewish culture generally and Paul was familiar with it. Here is one of several relevant passages:

He answered me, saying: “This high mountain, which you saw, whose summit is like the Throne of the Lord, is the throne where the Holy and Great One, the Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, will sit, when he comes down to visit the Earth for good. 4 And this beautiful and fragrant tree, and no creature of flesh has authority to touch it until the great judgment, when he will take vengeance on all and bring everything to a consummation forever, this will be given to the righteous and the humble. 5 From its fruit, life will be given to the chosen; towards the north it will be planted, in a Holy place, by the house of the Lord, the Eternal King." (Enoch 25)

Readers of the Book of Revelation may notice a similarity between this passage and Revelation 2:7 - “To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.”

Conclusion: Paul considered the things he (or his friend) saw/heard to be unutterable, perhaps because he Paul did not want to boast too much (vss. 1,6). But the Book of Enoch and the Book of Revelation seem to have attempted to describe them more directly.