Paul describes a time when he was caught up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2–4). He mentions himself in the third person: “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. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.”
The word heavens can be used to refer to different realms. Heavens can refer to the sky and the earth’s atmosphere, making it the “first heaven” (Deuteronomy 11:11; Psalm 104:12; Isaiah 55:10). It can also refer to outer space, where the stars and planets are—the “second heaven” (Psalm 8:3; Isaiah 13:10). And it can refer to God’s dwelling place, which is beyond the other “heavens,” a place known as the “third heaven” (Psalm 33:13–14; Isaiah 66:1; Matthew 6:9; Hebrews 7:26; Revelation 11:19). When Paul says that he went to the third heaven, he means that he went to the place where God dwells.
Interestingly, Paul uses the phrase caught up to refer to how he was transported to heaven; it’s the same Greek word used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to refer to the rapture of the church. Following his list of “boasts” in 2 Corinthians 11:22–33, Paul further verifies his apostolic office by including his “visions and revelations from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 12:1). The apostle is unsure whether he was physically in the body or apart from the body when he experienced heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2–3). While there, he heard and saw things that he couldn’t describe and was forbidden to relate (verse 4). Some believe this event occurred during Paul’s first missionary journey, when he was stoned and left for dead in Lystra, but we can’t be sure. The privilege of seeing heaven no doubt gave Paul courage to face his later trials and suffering (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Christians today may have not seen the third heaven as Paul did, we can be just as confident of our future in heaven because we are in Christ. The Bible does not tell us everything we might like to know about heaven, but we know that it will be a wonderful place where we will dwell with Christ (John 14:3). Paul knew that being with Christ is far better than anything he could experience on earth (Philippians 1:21–23). Until the day we eternally enter God’s presence, we can state with confidence along with the apostle Paul, “For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:7–8).