The Bible reveals a lot about life after death, which is the hope of every follower of Jesus Christ. Heaven is a theme in the teachings of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the book of Revelation. Yet several other writers in the Old and New Testament also mention it. In one passage, Paul uses the phrase “the third heaven,” which many readers find curious.
The third heaven is the abode of God. In the Bible, it’s mostly called “heaven” without a modifier. Calling it the third heaven emphasizes its location in contrast to the first heaven, the realm of the sky and clouds, and the second heaven, which is the realm of the stars and planets.
Why does the Apostle Paul refer to the third heaven? Is the third heaven the same as paradise? Are there different levels in heaven? Where is the first heaven? Where is the second heaven? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
Also see How Many Heavens Are There? to learn more.
Why does the Apostle Paul refer to the third heaven?
Most Bible scholars believe Paul is referring to himself in the third person when he writes, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven— whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows” (2 Cor. 12:2, ESV). All major English translations render the phrase “third heaven” the same, including the NIV, NLT, NASB, KJV, and NKJV.
Like readers today who have questions about what Paul describes in this story, the Apostle seems to have had some, too. For example, he is sure he had an experience in the third heaven, but he doesn’t know if it was in-body or out-of-body. Nevertheless, he’s content that God knows the details of his visit.
Why doesn’t Paul use the word “heaven” without any modifiers? Paul likely says the “third” heaven in order to emphasize it over the other two. He’s telling an unusual story; in fact, he was reluctant to share (12:1). Yet he wants to ensure that his readers know that he’s not referring to the realm of the sky or the realm of space.
The paradise of the third heaven
In the next verse, Paul uses the word “paradise” to describe the same place. “And I know that this man was caught up into paradise— whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—” (2 Cor. 12:3, ESV). The table below shows the striking similarities between the verses. (Note: In some translations, the content of verse three continues into verse four.)
|Verse 2||Verse 3|
|I know a man in Christ||And I know that this man|
|who fourteen years ago||(no parallel)|
|was caught up to||was caught up into|
|the third heaven||paradise|
|whether in the body or out of the body I do not know||whether in the body or out of the body I do not know|
|God knows||God knows|
Jesus and John also use the word “paradise” to describe life after death with God. In Luke 23:43, Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” In Revelation 2:7, John writes, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”
Neither Jesus nor John was referring to the realm of the sky or the realm of space. “Paradise” is a description of the nature of heaven. The Greek word is paradeisos, meaning “a garden or park. Yet, in certain contexts, like Luke 23:43 and Revelation 2:7, it refer to heaven.
Are there different tiers or levels in heaven?
The Bible doesn’t teach that there are different levels in heaven, as in the place of life after death for Christians. The “third heaven” is distinct from the “heavens” meaning the realm of the sky, and “heavens” meaning the realm of space (see verses below). It isn’t distinct from two other levels of the abode of God or paradise.
“I would not give one moment of heaven for all the joy and riches of the world, even if it lasted for thousands and thousands of years.” – German Reformer, Martin Luther
Also see Why Was Lucifer Cast Out of Heaven? to learn more.
Where is the first heaven in the Bible?
The Bible often refers to the first “heaven” in the plural. “Heavens” refers to the location directly above the land and oceans on earth. This the abode of birds, clouds, and other atmospheric phenomena. Three examples that refer to the first “heaven” or “heavens” are:
- Genesis 8:2, “The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained.”
- Deuteronomy 11:11, “But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven.”
- 1 Kings 8:35, “When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them.”
These references don’t describe the abode of God in the afterlife. They also don’t refer to space phenomena like other verses do (see below).
“The best moment of a Christian’s life is his last one, because it is the one that is nearest heaven. And then it is that he begins to strike the keynote of the song which he shall sing to all eternity.” – C.H. Spurgeon
Also see Where Is Heaven? to learn more.
Where is the second heaven in the Bible?
The other place above the earth that “heavens” can refer to is beyond the birds and clouds. This place is not in the earth, but is the abode of stars, planets, and other celestial objects. Three examples that refer to the second “heaven’ and “heaven” are:
- Genesis 15:5, “And he brought him outside and said, Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. Then he said to him, So shall your offspring be.”
- Psalm 8:3, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place.”
- Isaiah 13:10, “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.”
“True belief in both heaven and hell radically changes the way we live on earth. We are encouraged by the hope of heaven, and we are compelled by the horror of hell. We know that this world is not all that exists. We know that every person on the planet is only here for a brief moment, and an eternity lies ahead of us all – an eternity that is either filled with ever-increasing delight or never-ending damnation.”  – David Platt
Also see What Will People Do In Heaven? to learn more.
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