Paul’s Vision of the Third Heaven

Paul's Vision of the Third Heaven

I firmly believe that many of the modern perspectives on the scriptures, whether one is considering “inspiration” or “canonicity,” for example, can be deficient against one’s ability to both appreciate and understand them. In other words, what “place” they should occupy in our lives as Christians, along with how they are to be “viewed” by God’s people. When the scriptures are isolated from the liturgical life of the Church, they become a textbook for “study,” and are often emptied of a great deal of significance or even “power.” This can also, in turn, lead to a dissection of these writings that makes them little more than a textbook or manual of discipline, and one that is easily destroyed by the faithless (e.g. Bart Ehrman; cf. 2 Pet. 3:15-16).

As an Orthodox Christian, I have come to love both the beauty and complexity that underlies the various books of scripture: the many authors and their many perspectives, the different eras in which they are written, the different cultures, the multiple languages, the underlying philosophies, stories, and metaphors, etc. No one author of scripture is perhaps more complex than the apostle Paul, the essential bulwark of the apostolic Church and defender of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. No doubt moved by the Holy Spirit, the apostle weaves the narrative of his occasional and pastoral epistles with the mastery of an educated man, but also with the absolute conviction of a man who was dramatically “touched” by the light of Christ.

Underlying Saint Paul’s education, of course, was a familiarity with the texts and traditions of second temple Judaism (including their “broader” canon of scriptures), being a Pharisee of Pharisees. With this “base” of wisdom, the apostle makes both references and allusions to the writings and teachings of this way of thinking. There are many examples that could be cited, but for the sake of brevity, I will point out just one: the apostle’s experience of the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2-4):

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven. And I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up into Paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak.

Most would agree that this “man” is the apostle himself, and surely no lover of the scriptures would dare accuse the apostle of lying. So, if this experience was true, was it formed within a vacuum? Or was there Judæan precedent for this “third heaven” where “Paradise” is found?

The description of a “third heaven” is found, in fact, in the Book of the Secrets of Enoch or 2 Enoch (ca. late-1st century BC). This vision, as supposedly shared by the patriarch Enoch (Noah’s great-grandfather), comes from a time when he was taken up through the seven “levels” of heaven by two angels. It should not be surprising that Paul shows reverence for at least parts of this text, as another text attributed to Enoch (1 Enoch) is quoted directly by Jude in his epistle (Jude 14-15):

Now Enoch, the seventh in descent beginning with Adam, even prophesied of them, saying, “Look! The Lord is coming with thousands and thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all, and to convict every person of all their thoroughly ungodly deeds that they have committed, and of all the harsh words that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

Note that Jude precedes this quotation with “prophesied,” a term typically reserved for words that are “inspired” by God. If Jude is a part of scripture, then the idea that this portion of 1 Enoch is a result of “prophecy” should not be in question (and both Beta Israel and the Ethiopian Orthodox church hold 1 Enoch to be canonical scripture, broadly speaking). In the case of the apostle Paul, and his reference to 2 Enoch, there is not a direct quotation, but two themes from within that text are clearly referred (“third heaven” and “paradise”). The original passage in question reads:

And those men took me thence, and led me up on to the third heaven, and placed me there … And I saw all the sweet-flowering trees and beheld their fruits, which were sweet-smelling, and all the foods borne (by them) bubbling with fragrant exhalation. And in the midst of the trees, that of life, in that place whereon the Lord rests, when he goes up into paradise … Its root is in the garden at the earth’s end. And paradise is between corruptibility and incorruptibility. And two springs come out which send forth honey and milk, and their springs send forth oil and wine, and they separate into four parts, and go round with quiet course, and go down into the Paradise of Eden, between corruptibility and incorruptibility … And (there are) three hundred angels very bright, who keep the garden, and with incessant sweet singing and never-silent voices serve the Lord throughout all days and hours. And I said: How very sweet is this place, and those men said to me: This place, O Enoch, is prepared for the righteous, who endure all manner of offense from those that exasperate their souls, who avert their eyes from iniquity, and make righteous judgment, and give bread to the hungering, and cover the naked with clothing, and raise up the fallen, and help injured orphans, and who walk without fault before the face of the Lord, and serve him alone, and for them is prepared this place for eternal inheritance.

The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, Chs. 8-9

In the popular beliefs of second temple Judaism, it was thought that there were seven levels of heaven, and that, after the fall, the “paradise” of the “garden of Eden,” along with the “tree of life,” were assumed into the third heaven — there to wait until the restoration of the heavens and the earth in the resurrection, when paradise/Eden would again be on the earth, and when the Lord would “make all things new” (e.g. Rev. 21:1-5). The allegory and symbolism of the above passage is obviously connected to these themes of the resurrection and the “new Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:2) that comes from above.

The apostle Paul’s reference to the “third heaven” where “Paradise” exists is clearly linked with the description above from 2 Enoch. This does nothing to undermine the apostle’s writing, but rather serves as a reminder of the (sometimes veiled) beauty and complexity of scripture. And of this Paradise, one can rightly exclaim: Marana tha.

Vincent Gabriel

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