Within traditional Christianity, common conceptions of the afterlife have posited a binary eternal fate for the dead, consisting of either Heaven, for those who obtain salvation in Christ, or Hell, for the unsaved who go on to face the wrath and punishment of God. In the face of this widespread belief regarding the fate of the dead, Latter-day Saint theology—which espouses a tripartite view of heaven— has at times been a subject of ridicule or misunderstanding. Belief in multiple heavens may strike some as being both alien to the historical religious traditions they associate themselves with. A review of the relevant literature however, strongly suggests the very opposite as true.
Though the Mormon view of the afterlife has been developed further through various passages of modern scripture, one of several biblical texts which Latter-day Saints have looked to in support of a tripartite heaven includes that of 2 Corinthians 12:2, which reads:
“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. 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—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” (RSV)
In this passage, the apostle Paul is referring back to a previous mystical vision he experienced wherein he was snatched up to the presence of God; recounting this spiritual anecdote as a part of his larger argument against several opposing personalities who are actively questioning his own apostolic authority. Paul’s purpose in doing so is to employ several common rhetorical devices against them, ultimately boasting in his own weakness and thereby, humorously rebutting their concerns. Though his reference to his own heavenly ascension (spoken of in the third-person) represents just a portion of his larger argument, Paul’s statement reflects the beliefs of multiple heavens which was common to his own surrounding religious environment of Second Temple Judaism.
Below, I have gathered twenty quotations from various reputable non-Mormon academic sources on the subject, demonstrating that at least historically, the Latter-day Saint conception of a tripartite afterlife and multiple heavens is readily supported within the context of Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity.
“Because the Persian loanword “paradise” meant “garden,” it applied well to the garden in Eden (Gen 2:8–3:24 LXX; Josephus Ant. 1.37). Jewish people spoke of paradise as in heaven (T. Ab. 20:14 A; 3 Bar. 4:6) and expected a new paradise or Eden in the future (4 Ezra 7:36; 8:52; 2 Bar. 51:11). Jewish texts placed paradise, the new Eden, on earth in the coming age, but in heaven at the present. Jewish texts ranged from 3 to 365 in the number of heavens they imagined; the most common numbers were three (T. Levi 2–3) and seven. Texts often placed paradise in one of these (in the third in 2 En. 8:1; Apoc. Mos. 37:5; 40:1); the lowest of “heavens” was the lower atmosphere. Paul presumably envisions paradise as in the third of three heavens.
Visions of paradise appear commonly in apocalyptic texts (L.A.E. 25:3). Later rabbis often retold the story of the four rabbis who achieved a vision of paradise, in which only Akiba escaped unharmed (t. Hag. 2:3–4; b. Hag. 14b–15b).”
Keener, Craig S. “1-2 Corinthians: New Cambridge Bible Commentary” (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 239.
“The picture, then, seems to be very clear. Paul shared a common belief that there were several heavens; he had even experienced a heavenly journey to the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4). More to the point he shared what was presumable also a common belief that the lower heavens were populated by various hostile powers or that the hostile heavenly powers mounted a kind of roadblock to prevent access to the higher heavens (paradise being in the third heaven — 2 Cor. 12.3). If this meant that they also hindered or could even prevent access to God (cf. Rom. 8.38-39), that would be serious indeed.”
Dunn, James D. G. “The Theology of Paul the Apostle” (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 108.
“The Bible clearly portrays a plurality of heavens. Though the exact number of heavens is not stated explicitly in the Scriptures, Jewish tradition varies from three to ten. As color classifications of a rainbow vary, so also might the delineation of the heavenly realms. A threefold arrangement of lower, middle, and upper heavens preserves plurality while allowing for the possibility of further dissection.
Within this plural framework, the heavens are also described in the Scriptures as continuous, meaning there are no hard delineations between them. They are the abode of birds (Gen. 1:20; 2:19; Dan. 2:38); of clouds, rain, and thunder (Gen. 8:2; Job 38:29; Isa. 55:10); of sun, moon, and stars (Gen. 1:14–18; Deut. 4:19; Ps. 8:3); of idols, spirits, and powers (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 3:24; Isa. 24:21); and of God himself (Deut. 26:15; 1 Kings 8:30; Ps. 2:4). All of these things function together in the heavens, and there are no clear lines of distinction between them. There are delineations between different areas of the heavens, as Paul distinguishes the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2), but there is not a substantial change of existence between these regions….
…So Paul references the heavenly paradise: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. . . . 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—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Cor. 12:2–4).
Paul’s third-heaven experience was not unfamiliar in his day, and by no means would anyone have questioned the reality of a paradise in the height of the heavens. It was common knowledge, since deities were understood to dwell in “garden-temples.” Most of the ancient world believed the gods dwelled in some sort of idyllic paradise above.”
Harrigan, John P. “The Gospel of Christ Crucified: A Theology of Suffering Before Glory” (Paroikos Publishing, 2019), 74; 83.
“Paul describes the experience as rapture. He was caught up to the third heaven. Apart from 1 Thess. 4:17, Paul uses the verb “snatched up” only in verses 2 and 4. The passive voice indicates that Paul’s being caught up into heaven was a divine action. The apostle shares with many of his contemporaries the idea that there were several levels of heaven. He says that he was caught up to the third heaven. Most likely that third heaven is in paradise. In 2 Enoch, the longer version of which begins, “The story of Enoch, how the Lord took him to heaven,” Enoch says, “And the men took me from there, and they brought me up to the third heaven, and they placed me in the midst of Paradise” (2 En. [A] 8.1). The Apocalypse of Moses says that God instructed the archangel Michael to take Adam “up into Paradise, to the third heaven” (L.A.E. 37.5).
Seemingly overwhelmed by his experience, Paul immediately repeats him- self. And I know such a person—whether in body or outside the body I do not know, God knows—that he was snatched up to paradise (12:3–4a). Some older commentators, among whom Alfred Plummer (1915, 344) should be named, take the apparent repetition as describing a sequential action on the part of God. Paul would have experienced rapture to the third heaven and then rapture from the third heaven to paradise. In light of the cited parallels in Jewish apocalyptic literature and the Semitic literary device of synonymous parallelism in which a separate phrase repeats and slightly moves the thought of the first sentence forward, it is best to take verses 2 and 3a as synonymous. “Paradise” is a synonym for the third heaven, which is in paradise.”
Collins, Raymond F. “Second Corinthians” (Baker Academic, 2013), 237-238.
“By the Second Temple period…it was common to conceive of heaven as having multiple levels or layers. The Pseudepigrapha in particular contains many references to multiple heavens, seven being the most common notion (2 Enoch, Ascension of Isaiah). In the NT, Paul says that he knows someone (though many scholars suspect he is speaking of himself) who was “caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2).”
Collins, Adela Yarboro “Heaven” in “The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary: Revised and Updated, 3rd Edition” ed. Powell, Mark Allan (HarperOne, 2011)
“Postexilic Jewish literature manifests an intense curiosity about the contents of heaven. Various writings describe heavenly visions or journeys of revered individuals such as Enoch, Abraham, and Baruch (1 Enoch, 2 Enoch, Testament of Abraham, 3 Baruch). The topography of heaven, the inhabitants of heaven, the places of judgment, as well as other heavenly secrets are revealed to these persons. Many of these writings describe heaven as containing various levels, referred to as different heavens. The most popular number of heavens was seven. (Compare Paul‘s statement in 2 Cor 12:2 concerning the third heaven.) The various heavens contain not only the throne room of God, paradise (the intermediate reward for the righteous), and the eternal abode of the righteous, but in many cases one or more of the heavens also contain the places of punishment for the wicked.”
Reddish, Mitchell G. “Heaven” in “Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary” Freedman, David N. ed. (Yale University Press, 1992)
3.2 Cor. 12:2 speaks of “the third heaven”. Some have seen allusion here to a Jewish conception of seven heavens (Test. Lev. 2, 3; Sl. Enoch 3-21). This explanation is questionable: Paul would seem to imply that he was carried to the highest heaven, not to a lower place in a hierarchy of heavens. Nor is it clear that the largely Gentile Corinthians would have understood this kind of Jewish speculation. “Paradise”, however, mentioned in 2 Cor. 12:4, was linked with the “third heaven” of the series (~Heaven; ~ Paradise).
Hemer, C. J. “τρίτος” in “The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Vol. I” Brown, Collin ed. (Zondervan, 1975), 688.
“Ancient cosmology pictured three, five, seven, ten and various numbers of heavens, though three was a commonly accepted number (SB III 531 ff.). Paul’s use of either this term or that of paradise gives no clear indication of his cosmological views. He may be doing no more than using a commonly accepted image to suggest what by his own account is ineffable (cf. v. 4), though possibly the number three may imply perfection (—> Number, art. treis). Sl. Enoch 8 placed the third heaven in paradise, and Apc. Mos. 37: 5 pictures God commanding Michael to lift Adam up into paradise, the third heaven, and leave him there until the day of judgment.”
H. Bietenhard and C. Brown “Paradise” in “The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Vol. I” Brown, Colin ed. (Zondervan, 1975), 763.
12. 2 the third heaven: In ancient cosmologies the earth was seen as more or less flat, with ascending levels of heaven above. Paul apparently shares this view; see 1 Thess. 4:13–18.
Mason, Steve and Robinson, Tom in “Early Christian Reader: Christian Texts from the First and Second Centuries in Contemporary English Translations Including the New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament” (Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 104.
“In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul mentions an ecstatic experience that he had “fourteen years ago” in which he was taken up into the heavenly realms, and even entered paradise, seeing and hearing things that were so extraordinary he was not permitted to reveal them… The idea of ascending to the third, or highest, level of heaven and gazing upon the glory of God was viewed within the mystical Jewish circles of Paul’s day as the highest and most extraordinary experience a human could have. Moses alone had been allowed to ascend Mount Sinai and communicate directly with God and Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a fiery heavenly chariot (Exodus 24:15–18; 2 Kings 2:11–12). In the two centuries before Paul’s time, texts like the Similitudes of Enoch, 2 (Slavonic) Enoch, and the Ascension of Isaiah, in which Enoch and Isaiah ascend to the highest heaven, gaze upon God’s throne, and experience a transformed glorification, were widely circulated.”
Tabor, James D. “Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity” (Simon & Schuster, 2010), 190-191
“The second reference to paradise in the New Testament comes in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, when Paul describes his out-of-body experience. Here, he refers to the place of the righteous dead, where Christ now dwells bodily, as both paradise and “the third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2). The spatial description of paradise shifts from the underworld to the third heaven, not because it has been physically moved (it is a spiritual, not physical, realm) but because its spiritual reality has changed. While it is not yet the paradise of the new heavens and new earth, the restored Eden, the ultimate paradise, it is nevertheless the place where Christ dwells bodily… Thus the descent once again confirms this three-tiered thinking of the biblical writers and their sociocultural context, but it also inaugurates a shift in cosmography. Paradise, because of the descent and the coming resurrection and ascension, experiences a shift in its reality. It is no longer full of the righteous dead waiting for the Messiah but is now a place where the resurrected and ascended Messiah dwells with his people.”
Emerson, Matthew Y. “He Descended to the Dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday” (IVP Academic, 2019), 169-170.
“What about the praxis we vaguely call ‘mysticism’? Paul – we assume he is talking autobiographically, albeit obliquely – had on some occasion found himself being taken, as we now say, ‘into a different space’; each generation, no doubt, develops metaphors for saying something for which we otherwise have no speech, waiting for the time when we shall be tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. Just as the Corinthians dragged out of him practical life-experiences of which otherwise we would know nothing (those other shipwrecks, for instance; what happened to Sanders’s pack-animals in those circumstances, and to the tools of Paul’s trade?), so they finally compel him to reveal one secret at least of what we call his own private ‘spiritual experience’: caught up into the third heaven (the only time he speaks of multiple heavens), hearing unrepeatable words and seeing indescribable sights.”
Wright, N. T. “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” (Fortress Press, 2013), e-book location 1,023-1,024.
“Alan F. Segal understood Paul’s visionary experience of Christ in the context of the apocalyptic-mystical tradition in early Judaism. Indeed, Segal demonstrated in Paul the Convert that Paul was our earliest and best (because first-person) witness to that tradition. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul described an unnamed man’s visionary journey into “the third heaven,” a passage that is generally recognized to be an oblique reference to his own ecstatic experience. Segal argued that this experience was probably not an isolated event. Rather, here “Paul reveals modestly that he has had several ecstatic meetings with Christ over the previous fourteen years.” Participants in Jewish mysticism, “and perhaps apocalypticism as well, sought out visions and developed special practices to achieve them. Thus, we can assume that Paul had a number of ecstatic experiences in his life, [and] that his conversion may have been one such experience.” Hardly “incompatible” with Judaism in Paul’s day, as language of a “rupture” or “irruption” implies, such an experience “parallels ecstatic ascents to the divine throne in other apocalyptic and merkabah mystical traditions.” While those parallel sources are later than Paul, the close similarity of themes and terminology convinced Segal that Paul was indeed an early participant in a wider stream of mystical-ecstatic experience that included those later sources as well. Indeed, “Paul alone demonstrates that such traditions existed as early as the first century.””
Elliot, Neal “The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew” as featured in “Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle” ed. by Nanos, Mark D. and Zetterholm, Mangus (Fortress Press, 2015), 218-219. See also: Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 36.
“The third heaven: As Bousset recognized, the three heaven cosmology most likely predated the more elaborate schemas of the heavens. Even 1 Enoch, which has but a single heaven, divides this heaven into three sections. The earliest stratum of T. Levi contains a three heaven cosmology. Although evidence exists for the seven heaven cosmology before 70 C.E., only after 70 does this cosmology became dominant, and even then, it is not the only possibility. Ultimately, internal evidence must provide the final decision, but the evidence favors three.
Paradise: In most cases, Paradise serves as the final abode of the righteous, where they will enjoy the immediate presence of God. In some cases it is on earth, though it appears several times to be a place in the third heaven. Internal evidence will support the tentative conclusion that Paul, too, either equates the third heaven with Paradise or considers Paradise to be a locale within the third heaven.”
Wallace, James Buchanan “Snatched into Paradise (2 Cor. 12:1-10): Paul’s Heavenly Journey in the Context of Early Christian Experience” (De Gruyter, 2011), 164-165.
“The relationship between the “third heaven” of 2 Cor 12:2 and the “paradise” of 2 Cor 12:4 requires consideration. Are verses 2 and 3-4 to be understood sequentially or in parallel? If a seven-heaven cosmology is assumed, either interpretation is theoretically possible, but it seems most unlikely that Paul would have based his claim to apostolic authority on an ascent merely to the third of seven heavens, which would hardly qualify as an “exceptional” revelation (2 Cor 12:7a). Moreover, our analysis of the Jewish mystical tradition has shown that pardes was a term for the celestial Holy of Holies in the uppermost heaven. The seven-heaven model must, then, imply a “two-stage” ascent, first to the third heaven and subsequently to paradise in the seventh. There is, however, no parallel for this in apocalyptic or Jewish mystical literature. Normally, the ascent through all six lower levels to the seventh is described (or at least mentioned) unless (as at Rev 4:1-2, for example) the visionary proceeds directly to the highest heaven without mention of intervening levels. Nowhere, to my knowledge, does the elevator stop, so to speak, on only one intermediate floor. Since there is evidence for an alternative, and probably earlier, three-heaven cosmology, it seems most natural to assume that this is the model em- ployed by Paul.“
Morray-Jones, C.R.A. “Paradise Revisited (2 Cor 12: 1 12): The Jewish Mystical Background of Paul’s Apostolate—Part 2: Paul’s Heavenly Ascent and its Significance” (The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 86. No. 3, July,. 1993), 277-278.
“This means that for Paul the third heaven and paradise are the same place, or that paradise is located in the third heaven. Here Paul’s perception of the celestial order is in harmony with the cosmology of 2 Enoch (8:1-8) and the Apocalypse of Moses (40:2). For Paul, the third heaven may be the highest, though the tendency in later apocalyptic literature is to add heavens. In paradise, Paul should have viewed the final abode of the souls of the righteous (2 Esdr 8:51-52, Luke 23:43); and in the highest heaven, he should have seen cosmic paraphernalia, angelic beings, and the radiant throne of God (2 Enoch 20:1-4; T. Levi 3:1-8; 3 Apoc. Bar. 11:1-9).”
Baird, William “Visions, Revelation, and Ministry: Reflections on 2 Cor 12:1-5 and Gal 1:11-17” (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 104, No. 4, Dec., 1985), 655.
Second Corinthians resonates powerfully with Enochic ascent traditions in other ways. Paul was taken up to paradise and the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). In 2 Enoch paradise, the ultimate abode of the righteous, designed after the garden of Eden, is likewise in the third heaven. In 3 Enoch, the visionary who journeys to heaven is not Enoch, but Rabbi Ishmael. He speaks with Enoch/Metatron in heaven. He reveals divine knowledge to the rabbi. Ishmael’s goal is “to behold the vision of the chariot” (3 En. 1:1). 3 Enoch is an important example of merkabah mysticism, a late antique phenomenon in the context of which rabbis devised various ecstatic techniques one could use to obtain a vision of the “chariot,” a reference to God seated upon his heavenly throne. Paul may have used some of these practices to attain the vision mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12 . . . Paul’s assertion about his vision can also be helpfully interpreted in relation to ancient Jewish accounts of heavenly ascents (2 Cor. 12:6). One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, entitled the Self-Glorification Hymn (4Q491c), contains an account of someone claiming to have had some sort of experience in heaven that transformed him. He asserts that he is now among the angels. He boasts about his transformed status. He asks “Who is comparable to me in my glory?” (line 8) Moreover, the speaker claims that because of this experience, he is able to endure sorrow and suffering as no one else can (line 9).
Goff, Matthew “Heavenly Mysteries and Otherwordly Journeys Interpreting 1 and 2 Corinthians in Relation to Jewish Apocalypticism” in Gabriele Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia, eds. “Paul the Jew: Rereading the Apostle Paul as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism” (Fortress Press, 2016), 142-143.
According to 2 Corinthians, Paul describes “revelations of the Lord” that he has experienced. Note his description and caution:
“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. 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—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” (2 Cor. 12:2-4; RSV)
Paul is certain that he was taken up into the third heaven, saw paradise, and heard things that can never be revealed. These three concepts are developed within the Jewish apocalypses and apocalyptic writings. Ascension dominates in many apocalypses. Two Jewish apocalyptic compositions place paradise in the third heaven; the most important one is 2 Enoch. And within the apocalypses, there are revealed insights that can be communicated only to the elect ones, if at all. Paul could have known the traditions that were later incorporated into 2 Enoch:
“And the men took me from there. They brought me up to the third heaven. And they placed me in the midst of Paradise. And that place has an appearance of pleasantness that has never been seen. Every tree was in full flower. Every fruit was ripe, every food was in yield profusely; ever fragrance was pleasant. And the four rivers were flowing past with gentle movement, with every kind of garden producing every kind of good food. And the tree of life is in that place, under which the LORD takes a rest when the LORD takes a walk in Paradise. And that tree is indescribable for pleasantness of fragrance.” (2 En. 8:1-3; recension A58)
Charlesworth, James H. “Paul, the Jewish Apocalypses, and Apocalyptic Eschatology” in Gabriele Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia, eds. “Paul the Jew: Rereading the Apostle Paul as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism” (Fortress Press, 2016), 96.
The mention of the “third heaven” indicates that Paul like many of his contemporaries, thought of heaven as comprising multiple levels. But how many? Expressions such as “heaven and the heaven of heavens” (Deut 10:14) and “heaven and the highest heaven” (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chr 2:6; 6:18) imply that there are at least two levels of heaven, a notion also found in 1 En. 71:5. Certain intertestamental writings, however, reckon with even more levels. The Testament of Levi (chap. 3), for example, refers to three heavens: the first contains the spirits that will carry out God’s judgement; the second holds the armies of God that are prepared for the day of judgment; and in the third the great glory of God dwells in the Holy of Holies. In Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah (7-11), however, Isaiah journeys through seven heavens, and when he arrives at the seventh, he sees a wonderful light, innumerable angels, and all the righteous. Finally, the J Recension of 2 Enoch speaks of ten heavens, identifying the tenth as the place where Enoch views the face of the Lord that is not to be talked about since it was so marvelous (chap. 22). Since Paul is intent upon showing the surpassing character of his own ecstatic experience, and since he appears to identify the third heaven with paradise, he likely thinks of the third heaven as the highest heaven, the place where God dwells. Unlike the writers of the intertestamental books, however, he steadfastly refuses to describe the different levels of heaven or his journeys through them.
Matera, Frank J. “II Corinthians” (New Testament Library; Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), 280.
“Some of the noncanonical writings give detailed descriptions of multiple heavens, up to seven more more [,] Paul was not necessarily thinking of these when he wrote of his mystical transport into the third Heaven (2 Cor. 12.2); an alternate explanation is that the expression indicates a high degree of spiritual exaltation.“
Glasson, Thomas Francis “Heaven,” in “Oxford Companion to the Bible” Metzger, Bruce M. and Coogan, Michael D. eds. (Oxford University Press, 1993), 271.