Paul's "Out of Body" Experience

Roman Columns in Jerash, JordanOf all of the New Testament writers, Paul was the most educated.  Attending the "universities" of his day he no doubt had many discussions with his professors and fellow students about the nature of mankind.  With Greek philosophy so prevalent in the culture, the issue would have most likely been a part of the curriculum.  No doubt some professors may have been concerned about how much influence the pagan Greek ideas were having on the belief-system of the Jews.

In this essay we are going to take a look at one of the more unusual statements of Paul that make it seem as though he might have flirted with the idea of Greek dualism.  For those who may not have read much about Greek philosophy, you should know that Plato and his students used to engage in the practice of “Out of Body” experiences.  Through forms of meditation they would, from their perception, leave their earthly bodies and travel to other planes of existence.  This kind of experience is not unique to Plato and his friends.  It is still practiced today by many indigenous people groups, Buddhists, Hindus, mystery religions, as well as practitioners of the New Age movements and the occult. Did Paul also experience an out of body experience (OBE)?

Paul says;

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows”  – 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4 (NIV)

Most commentators agree that Paul was talking about his own experience here, but said “I know a man”, so as not to appear as though he was boasting.

Well, what shall we make of this?  Did Paul have an “OBE”?  It would seem that not even Paul was sure about that.  He did experience something amazing!  He was caught up to the "third" heaven where he saw and heard things that were so incredible that he felt as though it may not even be appropriate to talk about them.

This seems to be one of those rare inspirational events that happens to God’s servants when they receive instruction in the way of a vision, or a vivid dream.  We might find parallels in the reports given by Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah and John, about how they also were seemingly whisked away to heaven, or some other vantage point, to see wondrous scenes.  Some might be shown things that would help Gods people understand important concepts for the here and now, others might see things that would not happen for thousands of years in the future.

While we may not know exactly what is happening to the Prophet during one of these vision-experiences, it can be fun to speculate.   Are they taken away bodily, to see with real physical eyes all of these wonders?  Probably not.  In one report that we have of Daniel going in to vision, he says this:

"I, Daniel, was the only one who saw the vision; those who were with me did not see it, but such terror overwhelmed them that they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone, gazing at this great vision; I had no strength left, my face turned deathly pale and I was helpless."  Daniel 10:7,8

Daniel's friends were in the room, they saw that something extraordinary was happening to Daniel.  But rather than Daniel disappearing before their eyes, he stands there, and they are the ones to run and hide from the presence of God.

Does the prophet, like Paul wonders, travel to heaven in some sort of spiritual form, having some kind of "out of body" experience like Plato talked about having?  Well, Paul is not sure about that himself, but it seems as though the experience is so real for him that he might be willing to allow for something like that, as an explanation of what happened, or at least use that popular concept as analogy as to what happened to him.

When Daniel describes the experience, the language that he uses seems to be that neither he nor his “spirit” goes to see things, but that the vision comes to him.  Not in the sense of a screen on the wall or a hologram in the room, because no one else can see the vision, only him.  With Daniel it seems to be more of a case of God communicating directly to his mind as he stands there, in some kind of trance-like state.

What can we say is most probably happening in reality?  Does the prophet actually go to heaven, do they actually travel into the future to see with their eyes things yet to come? Or is it more probable that God is communicating directly to the mind, but the experience is so vivid that it seems as though they are truly there!  

If God gave you a vision of heaven and showed you wondrous things of the future, and you woke up later in your bed, how would you describe what happened to you, when telling your friends?  If the experience was so real that you remember every single detail, with all five senses "hyper aware",  you probably wouldn’t know yourself what happened or how it happened. Were you really there bodily, was it just your "spirit" that was there, or did the vision come to you?  Did you go somewhere, or was it something that you just saw in your “mind’s eye”?

If you were living in the time of Daniel, you would probably describe the experience in the same kind of monistic language that he used. The vision came to your mind and you "gazed" at the vision.  If you were living in the culture of Paul's day you might make reference to an "out of body" experience, as this was very much part of the current vernacular.  But even if you used the language of the current pop culture, should I conclude that you have fully incorporated Plato's ideas into your life and actually believe that you have a spirit that can separate from the body?

Some might say, “OK, so Paul doesn’t know if he saw heaven by body or by mind, but the very fact that he allows for the possibility that he might have been there, “out of the body”, shows that he must have believed that he had a soul that was capable of separating from his body and be in a conscious state in heaven, and must have therefore been a dualist!”  The point is well taken.  However, given that when Paul later writes about the doctrine of the afterlife, he writes as a staunch monist, that insists on the Resurrection as the only way to get life after death, I believe that we should at least consider a possible alternative to what may be happening here.

There is a very good chance that Paul here may have been speaking metaphorically or colloquially.  We do it all the time.  We might even put this language in our emails and letters.  Even within my own faith-tradition, which is very monistic, I might hear people say things like, “Pastor, your sermon today really touched my soul.” Or, “When I heard the choir sing today it really lifted my spirits”.   Some might even say, “When I heard the choir sing today I was lifted up into heaven!” Or, we might hear things like, “He was out of his mind, with jealousy”, “she has found her soul-mate”, “our hearts go out to you”, or, “it’s nice to feed the poor and homeless, but we should be doing more to save their souls”. 

Should I come to the conclusion that all my friends have become duelists overnight?  No, it’s just language; it is just a way to be emphatic or dramatic, or speak loosely, using the common street language of our culture, without giving a lot of thought about the bigger implications of what our words could mean.  Everyone in the room knows what we mean. If I were to corner my friends and ask them what they believed about the Body/Soul question, most of them would likely be able to assure me that they are still monistic in their thinking. They might even look at me a little funny and wonder why I asked.  "Don’t you know it is just a 'figure of speech'”?

What if I were to write down what my friends said in a journal and someone found that diary 2000 years from now and translated it into another language?  What conclusions might the people of that day, culture, language and worldview, make about my friends?  Unless I had made some very specific qualifications in my journal, I fear that my church friends would be seen as, "dyed in the wool", dualists!

In the same way I believe that it may have been possible that Paul was so confident that his audience understood that he embraced the monistic position of the Jewish culture that he could feel free and open enough to make a statement like he did here, without the fear of being misunderstood.  This, after all was a very unusual experience!  It deserved a little linguistic punch! He was there, in heaven, in a much more vivid way then my friend who heard the choir sing! Intellectually, he probably realized that his body was still on Earth…. and yet in a very real sense, he had visited heaven!  How can you describe something like that, especially if you are a monist?  Even if God was simply communicating directly to the nerves of His brain, showing him all of these things, it sure seemed as though he was right there, experiencing everything with all five senses!  This was real! You might just have to borrow some common "street talk" to get the idea across of just how vivid this was!  There may have even been a hint of irony, satire or humor in his linguistic nod to Greek philosophy.

Paul had no doubt shared his experience many times as he talked to people on his different missionary trips.  We can assume that since Plato's writings were so common to the culture, people must have asked Paul many times if his experience was like what Plato had experienced.  As he writes about this to his friends at Corinth, he anticipates that the people who will read his letter will ask the same question.  He basically says, "I don't know, only God knows"

Did this amazing experience change Paul's theology?  No.  Should his description of this experience change our theology, or the theology of the New Testament?  No.  The vision-experience had happened 14 years earlier. Even after hinting that his experience might have possibly been something like Plato's journeys, he still speaks confidently of life after death coming only through the resurrection of the physical body, and that this only happens at the end of time, when Jesus comes.  When the Corinthians write him asking him about what was going to happen to their loved ones who had passed away before Jesus came back, Paul talks only of the Resurrection.  1 Corinthians 15

He does not say, “You people live in the very heart of the Greek world and philosophy and you need to write and ask me about these things?  Don’t you know that we all have immortal souls that go directly to heaven when we die?” 

He does not share his “out of body” experience, as evidence that everyone has a soul that has the ability to travel to heaven and be conscious of all that goes on.

Instead he launches into a presentation about how they can have hope, because of the resurrection of the body that will take place when Jesus returns.

Given the weight and length of Paul’s statements on the resurrection, here and elsewhere, I believe that the only real safe course is to accept this as Paul’s real position on the question of the Body/Soul, and try and understand his vision-account, and a couple of other unusual statements, in some other way.  Sometimes when the Bible appears to contradict itself, the best course of action is to go with the overwhelming weight of evidence.  Don't get caught out on a theological limb with one or two texts backing up your doctrine!  This is how people start baptizing for the dead!

In a future article we will take a closer look at the resurrection doctrine of Paul, and discuss a possible "hidden gem" within it that might resolve all of the issues!