PAUL’S EXPERIENCE IN PARADISE
BY Frank G. Allen
“I must needs glory, though it is not expedient; but I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knoweth, such a one caught up even to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or apart from the body, I know not; God knoweth,) how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).
This is a peculiar statement of Holy Writ. Its main lesson is in that which is “written between the lines.” That is, its special interest and importance consist in that which is necessarily implied, rather than in that which is verbally expressed. It is the most singular experience on record. That Paul refers to himself as the one who had it, there can be no reasonable doubt. This is evident from the seventh verse. The fact of his having such an experience had been kept a secret for these fourteen years, and now it is referred to only when his authority as an Apostle is called in question. So far as we can see, he had made no use of it; and it had resulted in his “thorn in the flesh,” which God gave him, lest he should be unduly exalted by his wonderful experience.
In answer to the question, “for what purpose did God give him this experience?” different theories have been advanced. Of these I have seen nothing satisfactory. That it was to give him additional information for his work as an Apostle, is contradicted by the fact that what he heard could not be repeated. It was impossible to utter the words heard, and unlawful to reveal the things experienced in that hour. Hence it could be of no service to Paul in this respect. Besides, he needed nothing of this kind. He was fully inspired for his work, and guided into all necessary knowledge and truth by the Holy Spirit.
It is generally argued, and with more plausibility, that this experience was given Paul to encourage him in his life of trial, on whose severities he was then just entering. But against this there are insurmountable objections. It was not necessary. Christ encouraged Paul when necessary, in a more simple way. When he was in prison in Jerusalem and his life in great danger from the excited multitudes, “the Lord stood by him [at night,]and said: be of good cheer: for as thou hast testified concerning me at Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome” (Acts 23:11). Thus was Paul assured that God would preserve him and bring him to his long-desired destination. So at various times, when necessary, was he encouraged in like manner. Hence such an experience was unnecessary, and God does not to unnecessary things. In addition to this, God had to give him a severe thorn in the flesh to keep him from being unduly exalted by this experience. It is unreasonable to conclude that God would give him a thing for is encouragement and then punish him the rest of his life to prevent his being injured by it. Other objections might be urged, but these are sufficient to compel a rejection of the theory. My judgment is, that the failures to find a reason for this experience are due to the fact that it was an incidental rather than a divinely planned thing. The lessons of wondrous interest and value incidentally growing out of it, furnish a better reason for the revelation than all the reasons combined that we have seen presented as God’s special purpose in giving it. This will be manifest as we observe the teaching of the lesson.
The Jews had three heavens. First, the atmospheric regions around us. “And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament heaven” (Genesis 1:608). Second, regions of the heavenly bodies: “And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth” (Genesis 1:14-1). Third, the dwelling place of Jehovah. “Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people Israel” (Deuteronomy 26:15). Scores of passages might be given including each of the above ideas; but this is unnecessary. One clear statement of God’s word establishes any thing. The strength of God’s testimony is not dependent on the multiplication table. But on this point we beg to offer a statement of the distinguished Doctor Macknight. He says: “In the language of the Jews, the third heaven is the seat of God, and of the holy angels, into which Christ ascended after his resurrection, but which is not the object of man’s senses as the other heavens are.” It follows, then, that Paul was caught up into the presence of God, to the place of his holy habitation. Whether in the body or out of it, he was taken to the headquarters of heaven. The word implies that he was snatched away suddenly. It was a sudden and unexpected transaction.
The transaction is covered by the terms “vision” and “revelation.” Revelation as here used, primarily means an uncovering. Just as you would remove the cover and see that was hid thereby, so Paul had the cover removed, and he saw the things of the “third heaven” as they are hid behind the vail.
A vision, in its New Testament use, is seeing with a supernatural sight what would be seen by the natural eye, if it were there; and the one corresponds precisely to the other. It is remarkable how closely a vision corresponded to the reality. Consider one out of a number of cases. Peter was cast into prison in Jerusalem. It was during the Passover, and Herod intended after the feast was over “to bring him forth to the people.” He was putting disciples to death to please the Jews. The church regarded Peter’s case as next to hopeless; and they were all earnestly engaged in prayer for him. The night before Herod was to bring him forth, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains; and guards stood before the door. That night the angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shined in the cell. And the angel smote Peter on the side, waked him up, and said: get up quickly. Then his chains fell off. And the angel said: gird yourself, put on your sandals, gather your outer garment about you, and follow me. And Peter quickly and quietly complied. He got up from between the two soldiers, to whom he was chained, and left them sleeping. Following the angel he passed out of the prison, went through the guards that stood before the door, passed through the first and the second wards, through the iron gate leading into the city, that opened to them of its own accord, passed through one of the principal streets; and then the angel left him. During all this time Peter was wide awake and intensely concerned. He was in no drowsy, dreamy mood. Yet he mistook the grand reality of the whole thing for a vision. “He knew not that it was true which was done by the angel, but thought he saw a vision.” Here was a man accustomed to having visions. He knew what a vision was. And yet a striking reality, varied and numerous in its parts, done under his direct observation, in which he was the most active and interested party, was mistaken for a vision. It follows, therefore, that the correspondence of the one to the other is perfect. Consequently, whether this experience of Paul was a vision or a reality, it amounts to the same, since the one precisely corresponds to the other.
Paul says he did not whether at the time of the experience he was in the body or out of it. It was in one of three ways. It was a vision; or he was caught up bodily into heaven; or it was a separation of the spirit from the body, just as is the case in death, and the spirit was taken to the third heaven while the body remained on the earth. If in either of the two former, he was in the body. If in the latter, he was out of the body. He could not tell at the time whether he was in the one condition or the other. And he did not know even at the time of writing that Epistle. This necessarily implies a number of very interesting and valuable things to which your attention will be directed.
This experience occurred fourteen years before the time of the writing of that Epistle. There is no authority for the word “above,” as found in the common version. According to Bishop Usher’s chronology, this was the time he was stoned in the city of Lystra. My judgment is that the time of his stoning was the time of this experience. I do not assert this dogmatically, but I give it as an opinion. I will give you a few reasons for so thinking. (1.) It corresponds to the time, according to the best chronology I can obtain. (2.) Men have entirely failed to give a satisfactory reason for it, which favors the idea that it was largely accidental, and not previously planned for a purpose. (3.) The recovery of Paul from the stoning was miraculous. He rose up from a condition supposed, at least, to be death, and went immediately back into the city, and entered again upon his work. He had been stoned till life seemed to be extinct. Then he was dragged along the streets as if he had been a dead beast. They dragged him out of the city and left him surrounded by his companions on the outside commons. While they wept around him, mourning him as dead, he suddenly rose up and went back to his work. Here was no gradual resuscitation; no convalescence from the deep bruises and lacerations of his body. His restoration was clearly miraculous. Hence actual death, or temporary suspension of vitality, could have been overcome by the power actually exerted, just as well as not. Death is but a destruction of the vital functions, caused by the separation of the spirit from the body. Nor are they instantly destroyed. Destruction is the result of continued suspension. Hence all that was necessary to the experience, out of the body, at the time of the stoning, was a temporary suspension of the vital forces. This was necessary at any time, if it was out of the body; and Paul says that it may have been. (4.) We find no other event in his life within the range of time indicated that would suggest any thing of the kind. And for it to have been given apart from any incident to a certain extent producing it, would imply the giving of it for some special purpose, and we are not only without a hint that this was so; but, so far, the world has failed to harmonize such purpose with the revealed facts. For these and other reasons that might be given, I regard this as the most probable time of the experience. Of course this question is not to be settled definitely. For Paul did not know whether he was in the body or out when he had it, and we may not hope to be wiser than he.
It may be well to add here that the word “suppose” – “supposing that he was dead” does not necessarily preclude the idea that he was. It is used several times in the New Testament where the thing supposed was true. Hence it may have been so used here. In such cased the historian simply record the matter as it appeared to them, without regard to the correctness or incorrectness of their supposition.
In the event that this was the time of Paul’s experience, then there was a temporary suspension of the vital functions while he was stoned into unconsciousness. The spirit took a temporary flight from the body and reveled in the bliss of heaven while his body was dishonored as the body of a beast. While the body was dragged along the streets of Lystra and lay on the commons as the body of a brute, his companions standing around him and mourning the fall of their leader, his soul was drinking in the joys of the eternal world; his ears were hearing words impossible for human lips to utter; the grand realities of the “third heaven,” the dwelling place of God, were seen and felt and enjoyed. What was true in this case is true in every other case of the separation of body and spirit of a child of God. When we stand around the lifeless body of one who has departed to be with the Lord, while our souls are filled with grief at the thought of our separation, their souls are filled with heavenly rapture. They are taking in, in their new experience, the first impressions and joys of their presence with the Lord. Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Then the child of God is present with the Lord while we weep around his lifeless body ere it is laid away to rest. This fact should be very consoling to us when we are called upon to lay away the bodies of our loved ones till they shall be wakened in the last day by the trump of God, and clothed in the image of Jesus. To know that they are with the Lord, experiencing all the joys of that eternal state; that their present home is one of grand reality, where they will be “clothed upon with their house which is from heaven,” till their glorified bodies are given back to them, fills our soul with resignation and joy. And when we contemplate our own departure, realizing that the time is at hand, it robs death of its gloom, and fills us with a longing to be free from the pains and sorrows of life, and to be at home with the Lord.
While we give it as our judgment that this experience of Paul was at the time of his stoning – a temporary separation of body and spirit – the lessons which we derive from the incident do not depend on that. They are equally true, following as necessary consequences, in any view of the case. Whether he was in the body or out, whether it was produced by a separation of body and spirit, or whether he was caught up bodily, or whether it was a vision, the lessons taught are the same. I wish this distinctly born in mind. Our theory about it does not affect its teaching. And I now invite your attention to some things clearly and necessarily established by the brief statements in the passage.
- It refutes Materialism. This phase of infidelity holds that man is all matter. That when he dies all there is of him dies. That there is no life apart from the body. The “soul-sleeping” class of materialists hold that the spirit does not exist apart from the body. Hence it sleeps as unconscious as the body till the last day; then it will be created again and united to the resurrected and glorified body. Every phase of materialism is refuted by this experience. Paul says that at the time it occurred and even at the time of writing the Epistle, he did not know whether he was in the body or out. Since he did not know whether he was in or out, he may have been out. If such an experience is not possible to one out of the body, the Paul would have known that he was not out of the body. But since he did not know whether he was in the body or not, it follows that one may have such an experience out of the body. Hence existence, with seeing, hearing and realizing such life-like and wonderful things as Paul realized in the third heaven, may be enjoyed by one out of the body. Therefore life does not depend on the body. It continues apart from the body. But when one is “out of the body,” he is what the world calls dead. Hence life after death is clearly established, and materialism clearly refuted, by this experience. Thus this soulless, cheerless, gloomy theory of religion (?) is incidentally and completely overturned in a way not susceptible of refutation. I am satisfied that the best attempt within human power to break its force and show its want of human conclusiveness, would only be laughable for its puerility. This much may be considered settled.
- It refutes another modern form of infidelity known as Spiritualism. This claims to communicate with the spirits of the departed. It is the opposite extreme from Materialism in some respects. They claim that the imparting of information to the living by the spirits of the dead, is not only extensively practiced, but meets the divine approbation. But Paul’s experiences may have been out of the body. What is true of it, therefore, is true of one out of the body. For if anything connected with it could not be true of one out of the body, then Paul would have known that he was not out of the body. Hence what is true in this case is true in every case where one is out of the body. But Paul says it was unlawful for him to reveal the things heard at that time. Not only were the words heard unutterable; their repetition to men was also unlawful. This was doubtless the reason why Paul had never mentioned the\is wonderful event in his life during the fourteen intervening years. And now, while he refers to the fact, he reveals nothing of the experience. Being unlawful in this case, it is unlawful in any case. For, since he did not know whether he was apart from the body or not, it only expresses what would have been the result had he been apart from the body. And expressing what would have been the result had he been apart from the body in that case, he expresses this result in every case. It follows, therefore, that it is unlawful in any case for those to reveal to the living what they experience while absent from the body, even where they have the opportunity of so doing. According to the teaching of the Bible, none have had this opportunity except those who have been called back to a life in the body, and with these revelation was unlawful. It follows, therefore, that if there should now be any communication with the living on the part of the dead, it is in violation of divine law. The parties are lawbreakers; hence in rebellion against God. Being in rebellion against Him, they are under His condemnation. Hence, if there be any such communication, it is engaged in only by the wicked. It is therefore the work of Satan, and not the work of God. Being the work of the wicked under the lead of Satan, it is a lie; for he was a liar from the beginning, and all his works deceptive. With Christian people, therefore, it should have no respect. We believe there is no reality about it; that the whole thing is a delusion and a snare of the devil. But if there be anything in it, it is contrary to God’s will, is engaged in only by the wicked, and is all the work of Satan.
Paul says it was unlawful for him to utter the things which he heard, and that he may have been absent from the body when he heard them. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, every case, he tells us, as well as in this case. He does not say that God specially forbade him to utter the things he then heard, making this a special case; but that it was unlawful. He was restrained by the general law governing the case, and not by specific inhibition. Hence we find the same law governing all cases of which we have any account in the word of God. Of all those who had been absent from the body, and for any reason were recalled, not one of them ever uttered a word in revelation of his experience in Paradise. Lazarus was in the grave four days. He was dead perhaps five. During this time he was absent from the body. He was in paradise. What an experience he had! How eagerly would his friends listen to his recital of what he saw and heard during his trip to the spirit land! What a theme for a lecture in modern times! Think of a fluent talker traveling over the land, telling the people his five days’ experience in paradise! What flaming head-lines! What a theme – Five Days in Paradise!! The country would go wild. Knowing that he was actually dead for that length of time, and that his body decayed under the hand of death, the interest to know what he experienced during his absence from the body would absorb every other. You can see at a glance the wisdom of God in putting His veto on every thing of that sort. Hence Lazarus never intimated a thing of what he saw or heard or felt while his body was in the grave. The same is true of all others whom Christ or the Apostles brought back from the spirit land. Not even the Son of God himself said a word, during the forty days, concerning His trip to paradise while His body was in the grave. God has set His veto on any revelation of that nature. We may not be able to know all the reasons why, but some of them are very evident.
From the beginning God designed that men should be saved on the great principle of justification by faith. This has held good in all ages. God has never permitted anything that conflicted with it. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” Hence God ties us down to His book in order to the faith that He requires. He has given men but one book, and He intends that they shall honor it. He intends that they shall never become independent of it. He has made it the source and the limit of our information concerning the other world. Had the dead the power and the privilege of communicating with the living, of what use would be the Bible? Why go back to the writings of men two thousand years old to learn what we can get direct from headquarters by those whom we know and love? It would be like giving up the express and the telegraph for the stagecoach of half a century ago. With such communications the world would soon have no more use for the Bible than we have for a last year’s almanac. The word of the Lord is to abide forever. God intends that men shall honor it in all ages, and be dependent upon it for the faith that saves the soul and the knowledge that makes one wise unto salvation. Hence He has put His veto on the revelation of anything experienced by one while absent from the body.
3.Paul asserts that he was caught up into the third heaven, and then asserts that this was paradise. It follows, therefore, that paradise, at that time, was in the third heaven. The third heaven was the dwelling-place of God.
Previous to the ascension and coronation of Christ, paradise was in hades. It was the abode of the righteous in hades. Hades included all the dead, and paradise was its department for the righteous. When Christ died He went to hades. The Apostle Peter, on the day of Pentecost, said that the prophecy of David (see Acts 2:25-32)—
“Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hades,
Neither wilt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption”—
referred to Christ; and argued that His soul was not left in hades; that death had no power to hold Him, and that they were witnesses of the fact that He came forth from the dead. But while He was in hades during the time that his body was in the grave, He was also in paradise; for He said to the penitent thief, “This day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). When Lazarus, the beggar, died, he was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom – which was but another expression for paradise – and the rich man went to hades. Other scriptures might be given to show that paradise was then a department of hades; but these are sufficient. No amount of testimony could make it clearer or stronger. But when Paul had this experience, he found that paradise was in the third heaven. It had, therefore, been moved from hades to the dwelling-place of Jehovah. To this the whole New Testament record strictly corresponds. Till the coronation of Jesus, all references to paradise put it in hades. After that time we have no further intimation of its existence in hades. From this time on, Paul says that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord. Hence Stephen, in the moment of death, looked up and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Hence he went to the presence of the Lord, and the Lord was in the presence of God. Previous to the ascension of Jesus there were reasons necessitating the location of paradise in hades. When He was coronated, became our High Priest, and made the atonement, these reasons ceased to exist, and paradise was removed from hades. These reasons are fully given in the sermon on “The State of the Righteous Dead”; hence they will not be repeated here. The New Testament, as I understand it, had previously taught that paradise was removed from hades to the presence of God, and in his experience Paul found this to be a fact.
4 .Paul’s experience proves that heaven is a world of reality; of literal and rational life; and not a visionary, mythical state. He was in heaven. He was in the presence of heavenly bodies. Who spoke the words that he could not lawfully repeat; we are not informed. They were men, angels, or Christ; some or all. But with these heavenly intelligences, with all he saw, and with all he heard; with the glorious experiences of that hour; so wonderful as to require a thorn in the flesh the rest of life, lest he should be “exalted above measure” – in the experiencing of all this, he did not know whether he was in the body or out of it. Not only the things that he saw and heard on the part of others, but in contemplating himself – his own personality, his identity – he found nothing different from what it would have been had been in the body. Hence it was all literal and life-like. There was nothing of himself different from what it would have been had he been in the body. For if so, then he would have known that he was out of the body. It follows, then, that the third heaven, the dwelling-place of God and of our blessed Savior, the home of the redeemed with the angels that have ever been messengers of love and mercy to men – this land of light and love and heavenly associations, is so real, so literal, so life-like, that one can not tell whether he is in the body or out. Hence it is a place and a life of reality, of substance, corresponding to the substance and reality of this. The heaven, then, to which we go, is not a world of myth and shadow. It is not a visionary, unreal place; but is substantial and real and life-like in all its features as the life and world which we now enjoy.
5. The experience confirms the fact of our future knowledge and recognition. The New Testament abundantly teaches that we shall carry with us to the other world our knowledge of this, and that we shall know each other there; and this experience of Paul confirms it. In other words, he found it just as it is taught. When he considered himself – his own identity, his personality – externally and internally, he could not tell whether he was in the body or out. He may have been out. But if so it was just the same as if he had been in. Consequently, if he did not have his body of flesh, he had one so perfectly corresponded to it that he could not tell the difference. For it he could have told the difference between his old body and the one he had in its place if he was out of it, then he would have known whether he was in or out of the old body. But this he did not know. Hence there was no perceptible difference between the two.
Paul says to these brethren in the same Epistle: “For we know that if our earth louse of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For verily in this we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our habitation which is from heaven” (2 Corinthians 5:1-2). Our earthly tabernacle, which falls into decay, is our body. In this we suffer. In this we groan, longing to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven. The house not made with hands awaiting us, that we will get in exchange for this, is ours when this earthly one is dissolved. In the same connection Paul says: “Whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord . . . but we are willing rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6). The body, then, is our “home” here, and when we leave it we have a “home” with the Lord. We do not go naked into the presence of God. We are “clothed upon with our habitation which is from heaven.” In this heavenly clothing we continue till we get back from the grave our glorified bodies. As there is no perceptible difference between this body and the old one left behind, recognition is a necessity; as much so as it is in this life. If two friends meet in heaven, and neither can see any thing in himself by which he can determine whether he is in the old body or out of it, he certainly can not so distinguish anything of the kind in his friend. It follows, therefore, that he is compelled to recognize him as his friend, just as if the meeting were in the body.
Then when one can make no internal distinction; when he can discover nothing in thought, in knowledge, in emotions, by which he can determine whether he is in the old body or out, it follows that mental recourses and operations are the same. Hence he carries with him to the eternal world all his knowledge this and all the dear things associated with it. But as that theme is specially treated elsewhere, its further notice is not necessary here,
It follows, then, that heaven, as experienced by Paul, is a world of grand reality, a world, one hour’s experience of which would exalt one above measure for life in this world, unless counteracted; a world of life-likeness and substantial joy, where we shall know as we are known, and into the realities and joys of which we enter the moment we depart from the body to dwell forever with the Lord