QUESTION: People make wide claims of their experience in heaven when near death. Considering 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, what should we believe? “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” –2 Corinthians 12:2-4 NKJV

ANSWER: We do well not to be deceived by claims of near-death experiences made outside of the Word of God. When we read this Scripture passage in its setting we see how carefully the apostle speaks of this near-death or after-death experience. Going back to the previous chapter we find Paul defending his ministry against the attacks of “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ” (11:13) who were seeking to discredit him and his ministry. He does not want to boast about himself, but led by the Holy Spirit, he spoke about what he had suffered for the Lord’s sake up to that point – a list of sufferings at which we marvel.

Paul went on to say, “If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity” (v.30). He spoke first of the humiliation of having had to be lowered in a basket through a window in the wall of Damascus to escape arrest. Then he came to the subject of visions and revelations of the Lord. He spoke very carefully, referring to himself simply as “a man in Christ.” Fourteen years earlier, probably at Lystra where he had been stoned (v.25; Acts 14:8-20), he had had the marvelous experience mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12. He could not say whether he had been in the body or out of the body – God knew; but this man in Christ had been caught up to the third heaven – the abode, or dwelling place, of God. There he “heard unspeakable things said which it is not allowed to man to utter” (JND).

Unlike those who today claim to have had wonderful near-death experiences, we do not find the apostle Paul mentioning his experience until 14 years later. Contrary to such claimants, what this “man in Christ” heard he was neither able nor was he allowed to express in words. In fact, to keep him from being puffed up by his experiences, he says he was given “a thorn in the flesh” to buffet him (v.7). This was evidently a painful humbling physical ailment or weakness of some kind, the nature of which is not told us. It was from Satan, but Satan can only go as far as God permits him to go against God’s people. It may well have been one of the things others pointed to as they attacked Paul, seeking to belittle him.

Paul wrote that he had prayed three times, pleading with the Lord that it might depart from him. The Lord did not take the problem away. Instead He had told His suffering servant, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (v.9 NKJV). This the apostle found precious. As a result he said he would gladly boast in his infirmities that the power of Christ would rest upon him. He went on to say, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (v.10).

Paul’s experience when caught up to the third heaven was not a cause for boastfulness on his part. What he experienced there he was not able or allowed to speak about. Has God changed His ways or His principles since then? Should we now accept the claims of those who profess to have made beautiful near-death experiences? Are they believers? We cannot deny that God is able to give His children wonderful experiences, but for what purpose: to boast, make money, write books about heaven or surpass the apostle Paul?

In these chapters in 2 Corinthians Paul pointed out that Satan transforms himself into an angel of light and that Satan’s servants similarly try to pass as ministers of righteousness. When unsaved people make claims about their near-death experiences, these experiences are usually presented as wonderful scenes of light, beauty and serenity. God’s Word does not speak of such scenes as the future of the unsaved. These experiences doubtless come from another source altogether, from the father of lies who transforms himself into an angel of light.

We have little understanding of how great his power of deception is, but God’s Word makes plain that Satan’s power surpasses our understanding. Our Lord Jesus defeated the Devil at Calvary, but this Evil One still has power in this world. Only God can set the limits beyond which he cannot go. Let’s remember too that God forbade His earthly people Israel to have anything to do with the realm of spirits. Such things are dangerous for Christians as well.

Again, Paul did not seek to capitalize on his experience. He was humbled by it and the consequences which God saw necessary to keep him from prideful exaltation thereafter. But he also gained the precious experience of learning that God’s strength was made perfect in his weakness. God has placed this experience of the apostle Paul in His Word that we might learn from it and be kept from getting occupied with satanic deceptions – no matter how alluring they may appear to be.

Answered by Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.

Author: Sebastien

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