Although I’m familiar with the view that the Apostle Paul is relating an “out of body experience” at the outset of 2 Corinthians 12, I’m pretty sure that he is not. That’s partly because I’m a physicalist and I don’t think that such things are even possible, but it’s also because the evidence for this claim about the meaning of this passage is pretty weak. – Glenn Peoples (http://www.beretta-online.com/wordpress/2010/2-corinthians-12-an-out-of-body-experience)
Dr. Peoples has his presuppositions out of whack. He discerns metaphysical possibility in virtue of physicalism rather than Scripture. He has it backwards. He is also confused about the exegesis of the passage in question.
1 I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. 6 Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
2 Cor 12:1-7 (ESV)
It is not necessarily the case that the Apostle Paul is relating an “out of body experience” in this text. The text clearly states that Paul could also be relating a bodily experience. Paul is not sure. What is important to note is that Paul believes it is possible that he had an “out of body experience.” To put it more plainly; Paul believes that temporary disembodied existence is possible.
Let’s be clear that Paul is talking about himself. Paul was boasting concerning himself in the previous chapter (2 Cor 11.30). He continues in chapter 12. Paul goes on boasting (v. 1). He mentions that he has had visions and revelations from God. No surprise there. But it is Paul who boasts. He boasts on behalf of “this man” (v. 5). But unless this man is Paul verse 1 does not make any sense. Again, it was Paul who states that he will go on boasting just prior to boasting on behalf of this man in Christ. Yet Paul also claims that he will not boast on his own behalf (v. 5). Thus Paul is speaking in the third person concerning himself. The objection may be raised that Paul most emphatically declares that he will not boast on his own behalf, but this is not a correct understanding of what Paul is communicating, for Paul has already started his boast in the previous chapter, said in verse 1 that he will continue to boast, and in verse 5 says again that he will boast, though he will boast in his weaknesses. What would such weaknesses include? For one thing, Paul had a thorn in the flesh (v. 7). (“What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?” It was a messenger of Satan.) What was its purpose? To keep Paul from becoming conceited (v. 7). Why would Paul become conceited? Because “of the surpassing greatness of the revelations.” What revelations? Well, the ones he received when he was caught up into the third heaven (v. 1, 4). Presumably the messenger of Satan will harass Paul all the more should he conceitedly boast about the revelations, the visions, the things he heard (v. 1, 4). The text states that Paul speaks in the manner that he does, “so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me,” though if he wished to boast he “would not be a fool,” for he, “would be speaking the truth” (v. 6).
Paul is not merely describing a vision. This theory is precluded by the possibility that Paul was “in the body” as opposed to “out of the body” (v. 2, 3). It is also precluded by Paul’s insistence that he was caught up to the third heaven or paradise (v. 2, 3). The revelations and visions are in the plural; they do not refer to this singular event of a man being caught up into heaven (v. 1, 7). Paul is relating an account of how he received these revelations and visions; he “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” while he was in the third heaven or paradise (v. 4). Contrary to Peoples, it is not that Paul had a vision of another man being caught up to heaven, but that Paul was caught up to heaven and had visions.
Now, I have a lot of other qualms with what Peoples tells his readers about this text. For example, Peoples mentions Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus several times, but Paul dates this experience to “fourteen years ago,” which is years after what took place with Paul on the road to Damascus when Paul was “in Christ” (v. 2). Peoples also describes Paradise as a physical place existing in the future but conveniently neglects to mention the words of Jesus to the criminal on the cross concerning it. (I realize that Peoples would probably take a non-traditional understanding of the aforementioned account as well, but he could have at least referenced it.) Peoples even quotes from the, “New Testament translated from Aramaic sources” and attempts to support its translation with…the Greek?…no, the KJV! (I wish I were making that up.) So those are just three problems I have with what Peoples has written. There are others as well, but I do not consider any of them overly important to my case.
Peoples summarizes as follows:
- First, most believe that Paul was speaking of himself and his Damascus road experience, in which case this was not an out of body experience.
As I already pointed out, this account cannot refer to the Damascus road experience.
- Second, Paul tells people that this is possibly a vision. That should be sufficient to end the matter.
Except that Paul says no such thing.
- Third, the reference to “paradise” lends weight to the above, since that word is used in the Scripture to refer to a state of final restoration, a state that has not yet happened.
Scripture also uses the term to refer to the place where the criminal on the cross would go the day that he and Jesus died.
- Fourth, “third heaven.” Yeah, what’s up with that? I’m not sure, but it might offer support for the thesis that this was a vision of the future.
References to the “third heaven” exist in some extrabiblical sources, but Peoples does not interact with them, and there is no need for me to address his wishful thinking here.
- Fifth, and taking the discussion in a whole new direction, those versions that imply that this man was caught up to heaven but possibly out of his body have badly mistranslated this passage. The underlying Greek text refers to no such thing, nor do the most literal English translations.
Peoples did not go to the Greek, but to the KJV, to support his reading this passage from his “Aramaic version.”
What Peoples would have us to believe is that the Apostle Paul was boasting that he had a vision of a man that he may or may not have known in the body who was caught up into heaven in the future. Have fun trying to get that random mess to make sense in the context. You won’t. Peoples is an able philosopher. I wish I could say the same for him as an exegete, but I can’t. He has rejected the perfectly sensible exegesis of the text that I provided above – one that fits with the majority interpretation of the passage – and substituted an irrelevant chunk of strange data that neither fits the context nor appears to make sense even to Peoples. His summary is even worse, as Peoples leaps to some conclusions that are not warranted even if his exegesis were sound.
So what’s the problem? It’s that Peoples has approached the text with bad presuppositions. Peoples admits that he is a physicalist. He has to cut the text up however he can in order to make it fit with his philosophical views. If that means running off to questionable translations of Scripture and winding up with an interpretation that goes against the grain of the text and the majority of commentators on the passage then so be it! Here is the alternative:
If Paul believes that temporary disembodied existence is metaphysically possible, then Paul believes that physicalism is false.
Paul believes that temporary disembodied existence is metaphysically possible (2 Cor 12.2-3).
Therefore, Paul believes that physicalism is false.
But it would seem to follow that Paul believes some sort of dualism is the case. And if Paul is a dualist, then we should read his writings in light of that fact.
And that means Dr. Peoples has a lot of splainin’ to do.