I’ve read and heard lots of discussions about 1st, 2nd and 3rd heaven. The basis of this, I assume, is Paul’s reference to being taken up to the third heaven.
Some think therefore that 1st heaven is the earthly realm (though why it should be called heaven is confusing), 2nd heaven is the spiritual realm and 3rd heaven is throne room of God. Is this correct and if so what is the biblical basis for this?
John was taken to heaven (“come up here”) but I don’t think he ever called it third heaven did he?
Was Paul referring to a Jewish/Hebraic way of thinking?
Here’s the reference:
2 Corinthians 12:1b-2 I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.
First, you have to remember that no-one in the ancient world had the scientific knowledge we now have. In this context, they had no idea what was just above the tops of the trees and hills – how far up did the “sky” go, and what was above it?
Since they lacked scientific terms to describe the universe, they attempted to describe it in visual terms, using things they were familiar with.
So they visualised the universe rather like an onion: lots of layers each surrounding another. They called each layer a “Shomayim”. This is translated as “firmament’ in the old Bible versions, but essentially it means a “layer including a sky”. The innermost shomayim was this earth, where we all live, and the sky that belongs to it.
Above that, reasoned the ancients, was a shomayim of water – where else could the rain come from? The stars moon and sun also inhabited this layer.
And above that was another layer, the “third shomayim”, which was the dwelling place of God. This is called the “Shemei Shomayim” – the “Heaven of Heavens” in Deut 10 14 and 1 Ki 8 27.
[NB. In the “Book of the Secrets of Enoch” (a book from Bible times which is not part of our Bible) the Third Heaven is described as containing not only Paradise, but also the Garden of Eden and a place of “torment”. This is difficult to square with our Christian ideas.]
Although this sounds very odd to our scientific ears, it wasn’t just the Jews who thought like this, there are plenty of other writings from other nations describing the same idea, some with three layers, many with as many as seven.
Indeed this view persisted right into the middle ages in the “western world”, and to this day it shows up in our colloquial speech, when we talk about someone who had enjoyed himself being in his “seventh heaven”.
So what was Paul referring to? Well for a start, he wasn’t trying to give a scientific description of the nature of the universe. Neither was he trying to give us an inspired account of how many heavens there are.
His point was simply that he was taken into the very presence of God. The fact that he described it in this way only shows that he lived, breathed and spoke in the language and culture of his day – with prescientific descriptions of the nature of the world.
So those people who talk about first, second and third heaven today what do you think, they think, they’re referring to?
I think they’re in danger of misjudging the language and culture of the time.
Of course, in a sense, there ARE different “layers” of the universe, there IS the surface of the earth where we all live. There IS what we would now call “outer space”, which the stars, planets, sun and moon inhabit.
Away from the physical world, there IS a spiritual world. It DOES, at its pinnacle, contain the dwelling place of God. At its lowest point, it DOES contain the space which fallen angels inhabit, and the abyss they will some day be consigned to.
Like it or not, the Bible, and the ancient world in general, is not totally clear about the exact way in which these real places relate to the number of “heavens”. The only consistent view is that the physical world usually corresponds to the lowest heaven, and God’s dwelling corresponds to the highest.
The difficulty is that if you’re going to be pedantic about it, both the rebellious part of the spiritual world, and the “outer space” part of the physical world still need allocating to a “heaven”, and we’ve only got one left, and somehow it doesn’t feel right to push them both in there together.
So I return to my view: that the three, or seven, “heavens” were a natural way to describe the appearance of the universe in an age where nobody could fly, or use a telescope. They are NOT to be regarded as dogmatically correct descriptions of the nature of the universe for us today, neither can we easily make the “geography” of the spiritual world match exactly the number of “heavens”
I ought to say one thing more. There are some who teach, accurately, the nature of the spiritual world, and the relation between the parts under the dominion and influence of satan, and those under the dominion of God.
These people may choose, for reasons of clarity, to assign names to these parts of the spiritual world. They may choose to use the “first, second and third heaven” concept to illustrate their teaching, naming the geography of the spiritual world after the “heavens”.
Now I happen to think that St Paul and the other ancients would not have recognised the correspondence between these parts of the spiritual world and the numbers of the heavens— BUT THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE TEACHING OF THESE PEOPLE ABOUT THE ACTUAL NATURE AND WORKING OF THE SPIRITUAL WORLD IS WRONG. It is just the naming, not the nature, which I would question.