From the Epistle lesson for Thursday in the week of Proper 5B (Pentecost 2, 2015)
2 I know a person 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.
3 And I know that such a person – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows –
4 was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
OK. “Third heaven?” This is one of those “don’t read the Bible from a 21st Century point of view” passages. Paul’s cosmology is 1st Century; specifically, it is 1st Century Jewish. The Jews of Jesus’ and Paul’s day conceived of “the heavens” as being three-layered. The “first heaven” was the earth’s atmosphere where birds and wingéd things flew about, where the wind blew, where storms brewed. The “second heaven” was the realm of the planets, stars, and celestial bodies. The “third heaven” was where God lived; presumably, this is the realm to which Jesus was understood to have “ascended.” It’s not a scientific world view, which is not surprising in a pre-scientific world. If we read Paul’s account of “one person’s” experience – Who does he think he’s kidding, by the way? This is the old “Doctor, I have a friend . . . .” ploy! We know he’s talking about himself. – as a scientific description of an actual physical event, we’re going to consider Paul bonkers and, with him, everything he’s written (i.e., most of the New Testament). If, however, we read this as a spiritual experience, described in terms of the prevailing cosmology of his society, it makes a good deal more sense. We may choose not to believe that this experience has any value or validity, but we can’t simply dismiss it out of hand because of scientific inaccuracy; it was never intended to be scientifically accurate! ~ Nonetheless, I do have to admit that being “caught up to the third heaven” sounds pretty trippy!