The "Third Heaven"
2 Corinthians 12:2 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.
The idea of "the third heaven" is a strange concept to us today that raises all sorts of questions. Are there different levels of heaven? Do different levels of heaven correspond to how how well one has lived; more good works the higher the level, with "death bed" conversions being at the bottom? What exactly is "the third heaven"?
These are understandable questions for modern people. This verse is a good example of how 2,000 years and a different culture can come between the text and our understanding of it. If we were a part of Jewish culture 2,000 years ago this sentence would have made more sense than it does to us today.
First, most students of Scripture accept that Paul is writing this verse about himself, and that he is referring to his own visionary experience on the road to Damascus some years earlier (Acts 9:1-9, 22:6-11). It was this experience that caused Paul to claim in another letter that he had seen the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:1-10, cf. Gal 1:12). His half-hearted attempt at modesty in addressing the Corinthians led him to claim rather weakly that he knew a man who had this experience. Well, that man was Paul. He was not trying to be deceitful or evasive, but used this method of writing as a means of getting his point across in the letter.
Remember that there was a group in Corinth, maybe even the majority, who were questioning the authority of Paul (1 Cor 9:1-14, 2 Cor 10-11). This group was following the lead of some who were claiming higher knowledge due to some special powers or ecstatic experience (1 Cor 12; cf. 1 Cor 3:21, 4:6-7). It could be that after diminishing the importance of these "powers" that Paul did not want to use his own special experience to claim authority for himself, even though he admits just a few verses later that he was this man (12:7). His point was to establish his authority as an apostle without boasting about his own spiritual experiences to do so (cf. 12:5). This all simply suggests that the answer to this question will come from within this text and its historical context and not from our own later theological ideas.
Jews of that time did not have the scientific knowledge that we take for granted, so they did not think of the world in scientific terms or descriptions. Instead they attempted to conceptualize the world in terms of what they knew, and usually described it visually. So, when they conceived of the universe, they constructed a multi-layered world, sort of like a large onion composed of various layers with the physical world in which human beings lived at the center. These layers were called "firmament" or shamayim (heavens or sky) in the Old Testament or "heavens" in the New Testament era. There are many other non-Biblical books and writings that also describe these layers. This model was still in use in the Middle Ages (1400s AD) when Dante wrote of the various levels of heaven and hell.
Most often this model contained seven heavens but in a few writings there were only three layers. Even though the number of layers was different these models of the universe shared some common traits. The lowest heaven, the core of the "onion," is the visible physical world that all people can see. In most of these models the second heaven is composed of water, a great sea, a firmament dividing the earth from the heavenly beings. This water that surrounded the earth became a common symbol for chaos and disorder that threatened to engulf the world (cf. Gen 6; see Speaking the Language of Canaan for a discussion of the symbolism of the cosmic waters). So often, these waters were understood to be gathered to await the coming day of judgment when they would once again be loosed to destroy the unrighteous. However, the third heaven was beyond the sight of human beings. It was the dwelling place of God and his attendant heavenly beings whom he would send to protect Israel and the righteous. So when Paul claims to have seen the risen Christ he is describing his experience in terms that he, and others, would readily understand. In that cultural context, he would have assumed that God had taken him to the region where it was possible to see spiritual beings, and the risen Christ.
Understanding this takes nothing away from Paul’s own testimony of an encounter with God. It simply acknowledges that Paul was a child of his day, that he lived in a pre-scientific world that had its own views of expressing and depicting the makeup of the physical world. So Paul described his experiences in the only way that he had at hand. His point was not to tell us how many levels of heaven there might really be. His point was to tell us that he had powerfully encountered the presence of God, in fact that he had physically seen the risen Christ. That fact is not directly related to the manner in which Paul tells us about that experience; the point is that it happened and it made a pivotal difference in Paul’s life.