What does the Bible tell us about the “third heaven”?

Q.  Paul mentions that he knew of a man caught up to the third heaven (which he proceeds to call a paradise). Is there more information about each of the seven heavens in the canonical books of the Bible? There is some information in  books not included in the canon (the book of Enoch, for example). How trustworthy is this information?

Nicolas Poussin, “The Ecstasy of St. Paul”

When he speaks of the “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians, Paul most likely means the place of God’s abode.  His language echoes the cosmology found throughout the Bible in which the “first heaven” is the firmament or sky, in which the sun shines and birds fly; the “second heaven” is the “waters above the firmament”; and the “third heaven” is the place of God’s throne:  according to Psalm 104, God “lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters” (i.e. the waters of the second heaven).  And so when Psalm 148 says “Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies,” it’s saying, in a poetic parallel, “Praise him, you third heaven, and you second heaven.”

But Paul doesn’t do much more than allude to this cosmology.  He does refer to the “third heaven” also as “paradise,” which could mean the blessed abode of departed souls.  But we can’t say for sure, because Paul quickly shuts down his story by saying that “no one is permitted to tell” about the things seen and heard there.

This single and simple New Testament account of a journey into heaven contrasts strikingly with other more highly elaborated accounts from this period.  The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes, “The reserve which leads [Paul] to make only a brief reference distinguishes his account from the fantastic descriptions of heavenly journeys by contemporary Hellenistic mystics and Jewish apocalyptists.”  One of these is found in the book of Enoch, which describes seven heavens, and there are similar descriptions in other apocalyptic works.

But I think we do well to take our cue from Paul’s reticence and not speculate about various “heavens” and what they might contain.  His real point in telling this story was that he had all the credentials of an apostle, including visions and revelations, but that even so he should be recognized as genuine by the way God’s power shone through his weakness.

That being the case, even someone today who was entrusted with a vision of heaven should probably be very reserved about how much of it they shared.  And we should probably be wary of the “fantastic descriptions of heavenly journeys” in books like Enoch.  If the Bible doesn’t want to tell us much about such things, then there are much better areas of inquiry that we can more profitably devote ourselves to.