In 2 Corinthians 12:2, the Apostle Paul writes, “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;), such an one caught up to the third heaven.” What is the third heaven?
The best way to answer a question like this is to let the Bible be its own interpreter. In verse 4, we notice that the “third heaven” is also called “paradise.” Paul is not speaking about two separate visions. “The third heaven” and “paradise” are both the same place. This is not the paradise of Eden before the fall, but Heaven itself. Revelation 2:7 says the tree of life is in Paradise, and Revelation 22:14 says that Paradise is Heaven.
Since there is a “third” heaven, there must also be a first and second heaven.
Searching the Scriptures leads us to discover that the word “heaven” is used to speak of three different places. First of all, the word “heaven” can mean the atmospheric heavens, the heavens of the clouds, wind and rain. Genesis 8:2 states: “The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained.”
The word “heaven” is also used of the region of the planets and stars, what we would call “outer space.” In Isaiah 13:10 we read: “For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light.” In the Book of Genesis, God told Abram that he would have a great number of descendants. Genesis 15:5 says, “Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them.”
But there is also the third heaven, the dwelling place of God. In 1 Kings 8:30, Solomon is dedicating the newly-constructed temple, and he is praying to the Lord. “And hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant, and of they people Israel … and hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place.” When Paul speaks about this individual who was caught up to the third heaven, the apostle is speaking about the highest heaven, the Heaven that is the dwelling place of God. It is there that he heard “unspeakable words, which is not lawful for a man to utter” (vs. 4).
But who is this man who was caught up to the dwelling place of God?
I think it was the Apostle Paul himself. The apostle is here speaking of his own experience, but is modestly referring to himself in the third person instead of in the first person. Paul is not denying that he was caught up to the third heaven. He simply says: “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago.”
If the reference is not to Paul, then who could it be? The whole context is about Paul. Verse 1 says, “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.” Relating the experiences of another man would not strengthen the apostle’s claim to apostleship. Paul was the one who was caught up to the third heaven.