Recent days have seen a rise in controversy over supposed celestial journeys. Not surprisingly, they have proved to lack authenticity.
But there was one individual who did experience a trip to heaven that was authentic. Nearly 2000 years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote, speaking of himself:
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).
Without seeking it out, the Apostle saw the real heaven; the dwelling place of God, angels, the exalted Christ, and those who trust in him as Lord and Savior. This truly was a supernatural experience beyond imagination; something of the extraordinary. And it really happened.
Moreover, we find the description of the event recorded in Scripture. If nothing else, we can learn that Scripture is sufficient (as opposed to 6-year olds, for example) on matters of heaven, and the like. And, what else can we learn from the Apostle’s experience? How did he speak about it after it happened? What did he say? What can we learn from him?
From the Apostle’s genuine experience, we can learn several things on how to speak of a visit to heaven. Here are a few observations from the way in which Paul described his unmatched and unrepeatable visit:
- An avoidance of hunting for the experience.
The Apostle did not attend a crusade, conference, or prayer meeting for the purpose of seeking or attaining the experience. He wasn’t going to a miracle school or taking vision training for it. It just happened to him, as one untimely born.
- The experience was only mentioned to defend the apostolic office.
Among other things, the occasion for which Paul wrote 2 Corinthians was a defense of his apostolic authenticity. False apostles came shrouded in Satan’s light (cf. 2 Cor 11:14). Their tactic was an apostolic sleight of hand through which they slandered Paul and led the Corinthians astray. They fabricated stories of visions and revelations in order to platform themselves and amass applause.
They kicked Paul under the bus, as if to say, “See, he’s a no-apostle, we are uber-apostles.” To make it worse, many in the church were being hypnotized by them because they were fascinated by these supposed supernatural visions and revelations about which they bragged.
Since Paul greatly loved this rambunctious church, he had to act. Thus, he reluctantly broke out this very rare weapon for a higher goal: to herd the hearts of the Corinthians back into the safety of Christ’s pasture using his unmatched heavenly visit (cf. 2 Cor 11:1-3).
He did what he did not want to do: speak of the true revelations he experienced. But it was painful for him because he feared that it might appear as if he was bragging. He did not want to take the false apostles’ tactic.
So, to keep the church from being led astray by these false teachers, Paul takes their tactic (boasting). However, instead of using it for self-glory and self-exaltation, he uses it for God’s glory and God’s exaltation. He speaks about this surpassingly great revelation which, unlike the false apostles’, really happened.
- A reluctance to speak about the experience.
As a preface to describing the event, the Apostle says, “Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord” (2 Cor 12:1). He was hesitant, not eager, to mention the journey to heaven. The only reason he did was to defend his unique apostleship so as to protect the ravaged Corinthian church from the false apostles.
Additionally, Paul said, “[I] heard inexpressible words which a man is not permitted to speak” (2 Cor 12:4). Apparently, God forbade him from saying what he heard. So, when he talks about it to others in this letter, he devotes a few quick verses to the event and never talks about it again. He only brings it up as a rebuke to the false apostles who concocted false visions and revelations (which some in the church believed) in order to solicit applause. Paul says, in effect, “Your supernatural experiences are both false and inferior to mine. And I’m only talking about them to answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
Paul’s approach is that it’s not even something to talk about. Then, he will brag about his weakness and suffering, to ensure God alone gets the glory from his life. The brilliance of that tactic is only exceeded by the humility of it.
The Apostle Paul certainly did not want to promote his celestial trip, write a novel or make a movie about it, or promote it in any way, shape or form. The experience was neither used to create a conference or crusade. He was reluctant to speak about it at all.
- A reluctance to dissect and analyze the experience.
In v. 2, the Apostle says of his experience, “…whether in the body I do not know or out of the body I do not know, God knows…” (2 Cor 12:2), then speaks similarly in v. 3. It’s as if he is saying, “Look, I don’t know if my body was literally taken up or if I was simply given a vision in my mind by Christ. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t need to exegete the event. God knows. Let’s move on and avoid analyzing it.”
And he “…heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.” It’s often speculated, “What did he hear?” But there’s no point in asking or speculating because the content was “inexpressible words.” The Apostle had no desire that he, or anyone, would unpack the experience or speculate on it any further.
- A presence of suffering and temptation to sin as a consequence of the experience.
Too often there is an urge to brag about one’s supposed supernatural experience, make it a badge of godliness, or seek it over and over. Instead Paul speaks with a note of caution. Instead of providing spiritual nourishment, the event tempted him towards pride and self-aggrandizement. If anything, then, the experience became a trial since it could be a tool for self-promotion. And that was the last thing Paul wanted to do.
Due to that temptation, he needed provision to prevent his own promotion. Knowing that, the Lord protected his own glory by giving Paul the flesh-thorn. In amazing humility, then, the gifted Apostle centers our focus on his physical weakness, his inabilities, his rejection from people, and his suffering brought about by his ministry. That’s what he brags about, and hopes that the discerning reader will join him in doing so.
- An avoidance of creating a doctrine or belief out of it.
The biblical content of Paul’s experience is descriptive, not prescriptive. He merely describes it, and makes no “therefore-you-should-do-this-too” statement. If anything, an implicit “therefore” might be, “Stay away from seeking out this kind of thing, because it will not happen to you since you are not an Apostle. And even if it did, it would not be something that you should discuss, dissect, or doctrinize.”
He does not deny that the event happened. But neither does he recognize it as a doctrine which should be formulated and propagated for the upbuilding of the church. If Paul was going to make a doctrine out of it, this would be the place. But he did not.
- An avoidance of encouraging others to seek out the experience.
Nowhere does Paul encourage the Corinthian church to repeat or seek after what happened to him. Likely, he did not suppose that others could authentically experience what he did.
So, if, for example, a believer in that day were to go to Paul and say, “Paul, you wouldn’t believe what cool supernatural thing/vision/dream I had,” he probably would respond in two ways. First, as he did here, Paul might wonder if you were a servant of Satan. Then, he might say, “Ok, you better brace yourself because God will be sending you a thorn in the flesh to keep you humble.”
Instead of encouraging others to seek out heavenly experiences, he called on God’s people to go searching and praying for personal godliness and adherence to biblical doctrine through the sufficient Scripture.
- An experience which was used for the greater purpose of completing the canon.
If we claim to have had such an experience, and we are an Apostle and the canon of Scripture remains unfinished, then we might have something to discuss with Paul on this matter. However, we are not an Apostle and our great God has blessed us with a complete canon since the close of the first century.
Further, the apostolic thinking with respect to supernatural experiences was that they were inferior to Scripture for matters of life and godliness, as Peter attests:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty… So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:16, 19-21).
So, back to the more-sure-thing (Scripture) we go for all things pertaining to life above, life below, and everything in between.
- The experience was not relied upon for inspiration or personal spiritual strength.
Nowhere, for example, does Paul conclude, “That celestial visit is strengthening me in life and my trials, and hopefully it does that for you, too.” As mentioned, it was more of a temptation to sin rather than an invigoration to succeed.
Instead, he reveals something far more tangible and helpful, both for himself and everyone thereafter: “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness’” (2 Cor 12:9). It was the universally available, endless supply of Christ’s grace, not the apostolic available, scarce supply of supernatural experience, which empowered Paul for endurance in the Christian life.
Though the Apostle experienced the most incredible heavenly journey of any human being, he was hesitant to discuss it or divulge it as a source of strength. It was not his go-to for building up the church of Christ, but his rebuke for clearing out false apostles.
If we are going to speak about heaven, or any other subject on life and godliness, we need travel no further than the Bible. And even then, we can learn something from the way in which the Apostle Paul spoke of his experience.