During a stay in a 4-star downtown hotel in Dallas one weekend, my wife and I pressed a “PH” button in the elevator, thinking it stood for “pool house.” It turned out it stood for “Penthouse,” a lavish room on the topmost floor fitted with the finest luxuries and best view. We weren’t supposed to have access to the room, but there was an error with the elevator, and since the elevator door opened right into the room, we were able to catch a glimpse of the best room in the building. To say it was nice would be an understatement. While we loved our room, it suddenly seemed somewhat mediocre.
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul seems to say heaven is like a hotel that includes standard rooms, deluxe rooms, and Penthouse suites: “I know a man … who was caught up to the third heaven” (1 Cor 12:2). The “third heaven,” some say, is the best of three possible levels. The first and second levels, while great, aren’t as nice as the third level.
The key factor in this passage is how Paul understood the term “heaven.” The Bible uses the term “heaven” in various ways, ways to which Paul would have been privy. On several occasions “heaven” is used to refer to the sky, or earth’s direct atmosphere (Gen 8:2; Deut 11:11; 1 Kn 8:35), the solar system (Gen 15:5; Ps 8:3; Is 13:10), and finally God’s abode (Job 22:12a; 1 Kn 8:30; Ps 123:1). The Hebrew term samayim is used interchangeably in these instances, and so context is vital to determine which “heaven” the author means.
Therefore, from a biblical viewpoint, there might be three heavens, that is, locales above earth, but only one heaven, that is, the abode of God. Paul’s use of “third heaven” is a reference to God’s abode, not a reference to a level of heaven. Contextually, Paul describes this experience where he was “caught up” to God’s abode because his apostleship was in question (2 Cor 11, 12:1), and Paul wanted his audience to know he has conversed with God both on earth (Acts 9) and in heaven (2 Cor 12). Paul says he heard “inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak” (5). These are evidences Paul visited God’s abode, not evidence of a prominent level of heaven.
One major reason heaven is sometimes thought to exist in levels is Dante’s Divine Comedy, a 14th century poem that tells of Dante, a prolific poet of the time, traveling through the afterlife, which includes Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. The Divine Comedy is considered one of the greatest works of world literature, and therefore has impacted what several believe about heaven.
While Dante tells of three different locations in the afterlife, Paradise is his description of heaven. Dante’s Paradise consists of nine celestial spheres, which are unique locations of heaven reserved for people who struggled with a certain virtue. For example, Venus contained those who were virtuous lovers, but who had directed their love towards someone other than God. Likewise, Mercury contained those who were strongly ambitious, but whose ambition caused them to lack justice.
Dante's poem is an allegory for one’s journey towards God in the afterlife, but it asserts heaven is more like a hotel with various levels of rooms than one big mansion, where everyone is in the same abode. The Scriptures explicitly teach the current epoch of heaven is more like a mansion than a hotel (John 14:1-6), and the descriptions of the other epochs of heaven operate in likened fashion. God’s abode is always described as one single abode, where all of the saved are located. Whether it is Abraham’s Bosom, or the intermediate heaven, or the kingdom of God, every epoch is one single heaven. Dante’s Divine Comedy, while a beautiful piece of literature, is poor theology. God does not make us work for a top lair of heaven after our time on earth. Jesus did the work for us on the cross, and we gain heaven as an inheritance because of his death and resurrection.
From a biblical viewpoint, there are three “heavens,” which include the sky where the clouds and birds are, outer space where the moon, the sun, and the stars reside, and then God’s abode, which is the one true “heaven.”