How Many Heavens?

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on July 8, 2008 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A visitor to our website writes:

The Bible talks about more than one heaven. Please help me to understand where the first heaven and second, third, fourth heavens are at.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear friend,

The passage of Scripture that I believe you’re drawing this question from is 2 Corinthians 12:1-6. Most New Testament scholars agree that Paul is speaking of himself in this passage; and is making reference to something that happened to him in which he was given a vision of heavenly glory. (I have often wondered if it was the stoning that he experienced in Acts 14:19-20; but since he doesn’t elaborate on it, perhaps its best not to speculate too much.) He was writing to the Corinthian church—seeking to defend his authority as an apostle to them; and so, it seems as if he writes in a sort of ‘back-handed’ kind of way. He writes;

It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me (2 Corinthians 12:1-6; NKJV; emphasis added).

In the original language of his letter, Paul writes here of being caught up to tritou ouranou (“third heaven”). The word “heaven” (ouranos) can have several different meanings; and the context is what determines which meaning is intended.

For example, ouranos can refer to the atmosphere above the ground and as distinguished from the surface of the earth. In Matthew 6:26, Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air . . .”; and the word used in the Greek for “air” is ouranos. In a similar sense, the word can be used of the “air” in a metaphoric sense. Jesus uses the word in this way in Matthew 11:23 when He says, “And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades . . .” In that case, the word is suggesting the idea of someone elevating themselves and boasting themselves up, as it were, into the sky over everyone else.

A second way this word can be used, broadly speaking, is in reference to what we today might call “space” in contrast to the earth—that is, that place far above the atmosphere in which the visible heavenly bodies (the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets) are to be found. The plural form of the word ouranos is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) in Psalm 8:3-4; “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?” I believe the same use of this word is intended in Psalm 19:1; “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork.”

A third, and probably the most obvious way that ouranos is used is as the transcendent abode of God from which He rules over His creation, and in which dwells the angels and the glorified spirits of His redeemed people. Jesus says, “But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool . . .” (Matthew 5:34-35). There may be some variations here or there; but mainly, those are the three different ways that the word ouranos is used: (1) in reference to the sky above the ground, (2) in reference to space, and (3) in reference to the spiritual realm in which God dwells.

In which sense, then, was Paul speaking of “heaven”?  I believe that what he meant is made clear to us by a couple of clues. First, note that he wasn’t sure whether the person he was speaking of (again, probably himself) was “in the body or out of the body”; so we can eliminate the concepts of “sky” and “space”. And second, note that in the sentence after mentioning “the third heaven”, he refers to the same place as “Paradise” (which basically means ‘an enclosed garden’, a place of beauty; but which here refers to the place of transcendent blessedness). Jesus told the thief on the cross who was dying next to Him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43); and this, of course, is a clear reference to heaven in the third sense—that is, the spiritual, transcendent realm into which Jesus was about to enter in glory.

Now; it isn’t likely that Paul is speaking of different levels of “heaven” in that third sense.  There are some ancient Jewish, non-biblical writings that suggest a multi-layered heaven; and our ideas today of such a thing (that is “a seventh heaven”) are drawn largely from fiction and poetry (such as that which came to us from Dante).  I believe, then, that (assuming that he was speaking of an experience he had) Paul was describing an experience in which he was given a view of heaven in that third sense (whether in the body or out of the body). Why did he call it “third” heaven? There’s a couple of possibilities that make sense. One would be that he was distinguishing this ouranos from the physical realms of the sky or space. Perhaps he was in a sense saying, “I was taken up to heaven”—not heaven #1 (the sky), or heaven #2 (outer space); but all the way up to heaven #3—the place we know as “Paradise”. Another possibility—and the one that I believe makes the most sense—is that he was saying “third heaven” as a way of saying “the most exalted, the most glorious, the highest all heavens”. The Bible sometimes uses the number “three” as a way of expressing the most exalted and perfect form of a thing (see Isaiah 6:3 for example; and the angelic cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts . . .”).

In closing, let me affirm that it can be the confident expectation of any man or woman who trusts in Jesus that they will one day be in this place called “third heaven”. That was the promise Jesus made to that thief on the cross; and that thief is there even now! We may wish we could have heard more about this wonderful place; but Paul could not tell us. He “heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter”. But those of us who have our faith in Jesus Christ know from the Scriptures that we have a hope laid up for us there (Colossians 1:5); and even now have our citizenship there (Philippians 3:20). What a glorious hope is ours in Christ—laid up for us in “the third heaven”!

Blessings in Jesus’ love,
Pastor Greg
Bethany Bible Church

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

  • Share/Bookmark
Site based on the Ministry Theme by eGrace Creative.