Question: Do the Latter-day Saint "Three Degrees of Glory" have a basis in the Bible?

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Question: Do the Latter-day Saint "Three Degrees of Glory" have a basis in the Bible?

It is clear that Joseph Smith went far beyond the information found in the Bible concerning the degrees of glory in the resurrection

It is claimed that the doctrine of three heavens has no basis in the Bible.

It is clear that Joseph Smith went far beyond the information found in the Bible concerning the degrees of glory in the resurrection. However, it is equally clear that many of those extra details he included are corroborated by the testimony of the early Christian writers—and this to such an extent that it is hard to explain the phenomenon as mere coincidence.[1]

The Bible makes clear that all mankind will be "judged. . . according to their works." (Revelation 20:12) And if so, won't everyone's rewards be different one from another? Jesus insisted that in His "Father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2), and Paul wrote that in the judgment a person's works might be added to his reward or burned up, but either way he might still be saved: "If any man's work abide which he hath built [upon the foundation of Jesus Christ], he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire." (1 Corinthians 3:14-15) Paul also indicated that he had seen a vision of "the third heaven." (2 Corinthians 12:2) Therefore, one might logically conclude from these passages that recipients of salvation will be allotted varying rewards within at least three different "heavens" or "degrees of glory." However, it must be admitted that this fact is not really made explicit in the Bible, so it is understandable that the Christian world has for many centuries been content with the doctrine of one heaven and one hell.

The Mormon doctrine of degrees of glory

While pondering the significance of certain of the aforementioned passages in the Bible, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were given a most striking vision of the fate of mankind after the general resurrection and judgment, which included a description of the three principal kingdoms of glory. (D&C 76) They found that the first kingdom, called the Celestial, will be inhabited by those who have overcome by faith in Jesus Christ (D&C 76:50-70, 92-96), including children who have died and those who would have accepted the gospel in this life, but were not given the chance until they reached the spirit world. (D&C 137:1-10) The second kingdom, called the Terrestrial, will be inhabited by good people who were just and kind, but were not valiant in their testimony of Jesus. Those who rejected the gospel in this life, but afterwards received it will be given a reward in this kingdom, as well. (D&C 76:71-80,91,97)[2] The third, or Telestial, kingdom will be given to the generally wicked masses of the earth who spent their entire residence in the Spirit World in Hell, and so were not worthy of any higher glory. (D&C 76:81-90,98-112)

Another distinction between these kingdoms is that those who receive Celestial glory will reside in the presence of the Father Himself, while those in the Terrestrial kingdom will receive the presence of the Son, and those in the Telestial will have the Holy Ghost to minister to them. (D&C 76:62,77,86)

Sun, Moon, and Stars as Types of the Degrees of Glory

What marvelous light this vision has thrown upon obscure Bible passages! For example, what good does it do to know that there are three heavens if one does not know anything about them? Another example of a passage illuminated by this revelation is Paul's description of the glory of the resurrected body:

There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. (1 Corinthians 15:40-42)

In the vision of the kingdoms of glory, the Lord revealed that this passage is not just a comparison of earthly bodies with heavenly, but also a reference to the fact that there are three different major levels of glory to which a body can be resurrected:

And the glory of the celestial is one, even as the glory of the sun is one. And the glory of the terrestrial is one, even as the glory of the moon is one. And the glory of the telestial is one, even as the glory of the stars is one; for as one star differeth from another star in glory, even so differs one from another in glory in the telestial world. (D&C 76:96-98)

Origen, in the early third century, revealed that the early Church interpreted this passage in essentially the same way:

Our understanding of the passage indeed is, that the Apostle, wishing to describe the great difference among those who rise again in glory, i.e., of the saints, borrowed a comparison from the heavenly bodies, saying, "One is the glory of the sun, another the glory of the moon, another the glory of the stars."[3]

He further explained that the highest of the three degrees is associated with the Father, and the second degree with the Son:

And some men are connected with the Father, being part of Him, and next to these, those whom our argument now brings into clearer light, those who have come to the Saviour and take their stand entirely in Him. And third are those of whom we spoke before, who reckon the sun and the moon and the stars to be gods, and take their stand by them. And in the fourth and last place those who submit to soulless and dead idols.[4]

We shall see that Origen's doctrine of a fourth degree for the very wicked is fairly consistent with LDS belief, as well.

John Chrysostom was another witness to the fact that the early Church considered this passage to be a reference to degrees of reward in the afterlife:

And having said this, he ascends again to the heaven, saying, "There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon." For as in the earthly bodies there is a difference, so also in the heavenly; and that difference no ordinary one, but reaching even to the uttermost: there being not only a difference between sun and moon, and stars, but also between stars and stars. For what though they be all in the heaven? yet some have a larger, others a less share of glory. What do we learn from hence? That although they be all in God's kingdom, all shall not enjoy the same reward; and though all sinners be in hell, all shall not endure the same punishment.[5]

More Ancient Witnesses to the Three Degrees of Glory

This doctrine goes back much further than Origen and Chrysostom, however. Irenaeus preserved the same tradition which had supposedly come from the elders who knew the Apostles. Many think he received it from Papias:

And as the presbyters say, Then those who are deemed worthy of an abode in heaven shall go there, others shall enjoy the delights of paradise, and others shall possess the splendour of the city; for everywhere the Saviour shall be seen according as they who see Him shall be worthy. [They say, moreover], that there is this distinction between the habitation of those who produce an hundred-fold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold: for the first will be taken up into the heavens, the second will dwell in paradise, the last will inhabit the city; and that was on this account the Lord declared, "In My Father's house are many mansions." For all things belong to God, who supplies all with a suitable dwelling-place; even as His Word says, that a share is allotted to all by the Father, according as each person is or shall be worthy. And this is the couch on which the guests shall recline, having been invited to the wedding. The presbyters, the disciples of the Apostles, affirm that this is the gradation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance through steps of this nature; also that they ascend through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father, and that in due time the Son will yield up His work to the Father, even as it is said by the Apostle, "For He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."[6]

Clement of Alexandria also expressed belief in the three degrees, and echoed the Lord's revelation to Joseph Smith that those in the highest degree "are gods, even the sons of God." (D&C 76:58)

Conformably, therefore, there are various abodes, according to the worth of those who have believed . . . . These chosen abodes, which are three, are indicated by the numbers in the Gospel--the thirty, the sixty, the hundred. And the perfect inheritance belongs to those who attain to "a perfect man," according to the image of the Lord . . . . To the likeness of God, then, he that is introduced into adoption and the friendship of God, to the just inheritance of the lords and gods is brought; if he be perfected, according to the Gospel, as the Lord Himself taught.[7]

Clement also preached that the three gradations of glory are procured by virtue of three types of actions:

[Clement of Alexandria] reckons three kinds of actions, the first of which is . . . right or perfect action, which is characteristic of the perfect man and Gnostic alone, and raises him to the height of glory. The second is the class of . . . medium, or intermediate actions, which are done by less perfect believers, and procure a lower grade of glory. In the third place he reckons sinful actions, which are done by those who fall away from salvation.[8]

Other Systems of Multiple Heavens

Actually, there were several schemes for the structure of the heavens, with different numbers of heavens which varied also in their contents.[9] But even where three degrees were not specifically mentioned, it was maintained that various gradations of the elect exist. For example, Similitude 8 in the Pastor of Hermas discusses various types of elect. The editors of one collection of early Christian documents preface the chapter with this summary: "That there are many kinds of elect, and of repenting sinners: and how all of them shall receive a reward proportionable to the measure of their repentance and good works."[10]

Jesus, in the Epistle of the Apostles, made a distinction between the "elect" and "most elect."[11] And consistent with this, the Jewish Christian Clementine Recognitions reduced the number of heavens to two.[12]

One of the most popular schemes was that of seven heavens. Daniélou asserts that the idea of seven heavens was first introduced by certain Jewish Christian groups and "derives from oriental, Irano-Babylonian influences," while the older Jewish apocalyptic tradition and many other early Christian groups held to the three heavens scheme.[13] However, it appears that the seven heavens may originally have been consistent with the three heavens doctrine. For example, we have seen that Irenaeus preserved Papias's doctrine of three heavens, but in another passage he asserted that "the earth is encompassed by seven heavens, in which dwell Powers and Angels and Archangels, giving homage to the Almighty God who created all things . . . ."[14] As Daniélou points out, since the seven heavens were the dwelling places of angels, they probably were thought to have been gradations within the second of the three principal heavens.[15]

Outer Darkness

As we noted in the discussion of the nature of the spirit world, both the Latter-day Saints and the early Christians have taught that the "hell" associated with the spirit world will have an end. It should be noted here, however, that there will be an everlasting hell after the resurrection, and the promise of eternal punishment is very real for those who in this life and the next not only reject Christ and His Kingdom, but who consciously fight against it once they have received a witness of its truth. The Lord revealed to the Prophet that those who deny the Holy Ghost, and thus committing the unpardonable sin, will be given a kingdom of totally without glory called "outer darkness":

Thus saith the Lord concerning all those who know my power, and have been made partakers thereof, and suffered themselves through the power of the devil to be overcome, and to deny the truth and defy my power--They are they who are the sons of perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born; For they are vessels of wrath, doomed to suffer the wrath of God, with the devil and his angels in eternity; Concerning whom I have said there is no forgiveness in this world nor in the world to come--Having denied the Holy Spirit after having received it, and having denied the Only Begotten Son of the Father, having crucified him unto themselves and put him to an open shame. (D&C 76:31-35)

Similarly, both the gnostic Christian Gospel of Philip and the Pastor of Hermas describe the denizens of "outer darkness" as those who have made a conscious and specific choice to rebel against God:

An Apostolic man in a vision saw some people shut up in a house of fire and bound with fiery chains, lying in flaming ointment . . . . And he said to them, "[Why are they not able] to be saved? [They answered], "They did not desire it. They received [this place as] punishment, what is called 'the [outer] darkness,' because he is [thrown] out (into it)."[16]

From the first mountain, which was black, they that believed are the following: apostates and blasphemers against the Lord, and betrayers of the servants of God. To these repentance is not open; but death lies before them, and on this account also are they black, for their race is a lawless one.[17]

Origen taught that the wicked in outer darkness would be devoid of intelligence, and possessed of bodies stripped of all glory.

But the outer darkness, in my judgment, is to be understood not so much of some dark atmosphere without any light, as of those persons who, being plunged in the darkness of profound ignorance, have been placed beyond the reach of any light of the understanding . . . . The wicked also, who in this life have loved the darkness of error and the night of ignorance, may be clothed with dark and black bodies after the resurrection . . . .[18]

Finally, the Lord told Joseph Smith that He never fully reveals to men the punishments of outer darkness, but only brief visions thereof. Consider the wording of this revelation as compared to that used by Jesus in the apocryphal Gospel of Bartholomew:

And the end thereof, neither the place thereof, nor their torment, no man knows; Neither was it revealed, neither is, neither will be revealed unto man, except to them who are made partakers thereof; Nevertheless, I, the Lord, show it by vision unto many, but straightway shut it up again; Wherefore, the end, the width, the height, the depth, and the misery thereof, they understand not, neither any man except those who are ordained unto this condemnation. (D&C 76:45-48)

And the earth was rolled up like a volume of a book and the deep [hell] was revealed unto them. And when the Apostles saw it, they fell on their faces upon the earth. But Jesus raised them up, saying: Said I not unto you, "It is not good for you to see the deep." And again he beckoned unto the angels, and the deep was covered up.[19]

The Loss of the Doctrine of Degrees of Glory

We have seen that the doctrine of degrees of glory was soon confused so that a number of schemes, notably that of seven heavens, were adopted, but it was always clear to everyone that there were different degrees of glory in the heavens. So how was this enlightening doctrine lost? Its fate is not completely clear, but the example of Jovinian, a monk from Milan who preached around the turn of the fifth century, may be instructive. Clark describes Jovinian's teaching, and Jerome's reaction to it: "Jovinian's view, that there are only two categories, the saved and the damned, is assessed by Jerome as more akin to the philosophy of the Old Stoics than that of Christians."[20] Therefore, once again an older Christian doctrine was replaced by the speculations of a Greek philosophical school.

List of Scholars that Support that Paul Believed in Multiple Heavens

Latter-day Saints have most often appealed to 2 Corinthians 12:2 in order to support the idea of multiple heavens in ancient Christian thought. Below we list a collection of twenty different non-Latter-day Saint, academic sources that support this interpretation. This demonstrates that belief in multiple heavens, and more particularly three heavens with the third being the highest, is firmly rooted in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity.[21]

  • William Baird: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).”[22]
  • Hans Bietenhard and Colin Brown: “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.”[23]
  • Adela Collins: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).”[24]
  • James H. Charlesworth: "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)[25]
  • Raymond F. Collins: “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 himself. 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.[26]
  • James D.G. Dunn: “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.”[27]
  • Neal Elliot: “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.'”[28]
  • Matthew Emerson: “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.”[29]
  • Thomas Francis Glasson: “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.“[30]
  • John P. Harrigan: “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.”[31]
  • Matthew Goff: "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)."[32]
  • C.J. Hemer: "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)."[33]
  • Craig S. Keener: “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).”[34]
  • Steven Mason and Tom Robinson: "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."[35]
  • Frank J. Matera: "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."[36]
  • C.R.A. Morray Jones: “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 employed by Paul.“[37]
  • Mitchell G. Reddish: “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.”[38]
  • James D. Tabor: “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.”[39]
  • James Buchanan Wallace: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.”[40]
  • N.T. Wright: “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.”[41]


  1. This response is originally from Barry R. Bickmore, "Salvation History and Requirements," in Restoring the Ancient Church: Joseph Smith and Early Christianity (Redding, CA: Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, 1999). It may have been added to or modified since, by nature of a wiki project.
  2. Note also that the paradise of Adam and Eve was in a Terrestrial state, and translated beings dwell in this sphere awaiting the resurrection, as well. See Chapter Note 2.
  3. Origen, De Principiis 2:10:2, in ANF 4:294.
  4. Origen, Commentary on John 2:3, in ANF 10:324-325.
  5. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians 41:4, in NPNF Series 1, 12:251.
  6. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:36:1-2, in ANF 1:567, brackets in original.
  7. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6:14, in ANF 2:506.
  8. ANF 2:506.
  9. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 179.
  10. The Lost Books of the Bible (New York: Bell Publishing Company, 1979), 240.
  11. Epistula Apostolorum, in NTA 1:210.
  12. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 174; However, it is clear from the passages which mention two heavens in the Recognitions that the two heavens spoken of are the visible heaven, which men can see, and the invisible, where the angels, etc., dwell. See Clementine Recognitions 9:3, in ANF 8:183; Clementine Recognitions 3:27, in ANF 8:121; Clementine Recognitions 2:68, in ANF 8:116. There is no mention of any division in the invisible heaven, but the following passage may be an oblique reference to the three degrees: "Be this therefore the first step to you of three; which step brings forth thirty commands, and the second sixty, and the third a hundred, as we shall expound more fully to you at another time." Peter, in Clementine Recognitions 4:36, in ANF 8:143. The footnote to this passage makes clear that whatever it referred to was most likely part of the esoteric tradition.
  13. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 174.
  14. Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 9, in ACW 16:53.
  15. Daniélou, The Theology of Jewish Christianity, 176.
  16. The Gospel of Philip, in , James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), 140, brackets in original.
  17. The Pastor of Hermas, Sim. 9:19, in ANF 2:50.
  18. Origen, De Principiis 2:10:8, in ANF 4:296.
  19. The Gospel of Bartholomew, in ANT, 173.
  20. Clark, The Origenist Controversy, 131.
  21. FairMormon thanks Jaxon Washburn for his compilation of these sources.
  22. William Baird, “Visions, Revelation, and Ministry: Reflections on 2 Cor 12:1-5 and Gal 1:11-17,” Journal of Biblical Literature 104, No. 4 (December 1985): 655.
  23. Hans Bietenhard and C. Brown, “Paradise,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Collin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 1:763.
  24. Adela Yarboro Collins, “Heaven,” The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, rev. and ed. Mark Allan Powell, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011)
  25. James H. Charlesworth, “Paul, the Jewish Apocalypses, and Apocalyptic Eschatology,” Paul the Jew: Rereading the Apostle Paul as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism, ed. Gabriele Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 96.
  26. Raymond F. Collins, Second Corinthians (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 237–238.
  27. James D.G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 108.
  28. Neal Elliot, “The Question of Politics: Paul as a Diaspora Jew,” Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle, ed. Mark D. Nanos and Mangus Zeiterholm (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2015), 218–219. Citing Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 36.
  29. Matthew Y. Emerson, He Descended to the Dead: An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 169–170.
  30. Thomas Francis Glasson, “Heaven,” Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 271.
  31. John P. Harrigan, The Gospel of Christ Crucified: A Theology of Suffering Before Glory (N.P.: Paroikos Publishing, 2019), 74; 83.
  32. Matthew Goff, “Heavenly Mysteries and Otherwordly Journeys Interpreting 1 and 2 Corinthians in Relation to Jewish Apocalypticism,” Paul the Jew: Rereading the Apostle Paul as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism, ed. Gabriele Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 142–143.
  33. C.J. Hemer, “τρίτος,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology ed. Collin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 1:688.
  34. Craig S. Keener, 1-2 Corinthians: New Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 239.
  35. Steve Mason and Tom Robinson, 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 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 104.
  36. Frank J. Matera, II Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 280.
  37. C.R.A. Morray-Jones, “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 86, No. 3 (July 1993): 277–278.
  38. Michael G. Reddish, “Heaven,” Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992).
  39. James D. Tabor, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 190–191.
  40. James Buchanan Wallace, Snatched into Paradise (2 Cor. 12:1-10): Paul’s Heavenly Journey in the Context of Early Christian Experience (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011), 164–165.
  41. N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), e-book location 1,023–1,024.