Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:2, 3 that he was not certain whether he went to the third heaven “in the body” or “out of the body.” Is he suggesting that his “spirit” could leave the body and visit other places?
It is useful, in answering your question, to take into consideration the biblical teaching on human nature. The idea that humans are formed by two entities, a soul/spirit plus a physical body that can exist separately from each other (usually called dualism), is foreign to biblical thought. Any exemption to that teaching must be clearly grounded on the context and linguistic analysis of the passage.
Paul wrote: “I know a man . . . who . . . 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—was caught up to paradise” (2 Cor. 12:2-4).*
1. Contextual Considerations: The topic in this passage is clearly introduced in verse 1, namely, visions and revelations. He knows a man (Paul himself) who was caught up to heaven. Notice that it was not his spirit that was taken to Paradise, but the man himself. There is no dualism in the text, and we should not introduce it into the passage unless there are good reasons. Paul is simply stating that he does not have a clear understanding of the nature of his supernatural experience.
2. Outside/Apart From or in the Body: This language has led some to conclude that Paul believed the spirit could leave the body for a period of time. The first phrase, “in the body,” is not problematic, since it simply means that he was not sure whether during his vision or revelation he was bodily taken to heaven, that is to say, whether he was in fact there. The other option he presents is that he might have been there, not in his actual physical body, but outside/apart from the body.
We should not introduce into the discussion the term spirit, because Paul does not use it here. The phrase “outside the body” is employed only once more by Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6:18, in the context of his discussion on the nature of fornication: “All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.” Certainly Paul is not saying that sins are committed by a bodiless entity who resides inside the body. The body is always involved in our sinning. Paul’s argument is that there are sins in which the body is not involved in the trespass to the same extent it is involved in the case of fornication. “Outside the body” does not mean without the body but a condition in which the body is not as involved as in other cases.
Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 12 that he is not sure whether during his supernatural experience he was physically taken to heaven or whether he had a spiritual experience, a vision, during which the body was not as involved as it would have been had he actually been taken to Paradise.
That same idea is expressed in verse 3, where instead of “outside the body” Paul wrote “apart from the body.” His experience may not have been connected to a physical translation to heaven; he may have been there only in a visionary experience.
3. Biblical Antecedents: Our understanding of the passage is confirmed by examining the ministry of other prophets who had experiences similar to Paul’s. Philip baptized the Ethiopian, and then “the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again” (Acts 8:39). Clearly the Spirit can physically transport a prophet to another place. Sometimes the prophet was taken in a vision to a specific place to receive a revelation from God. Ezekiel says that the Spirit, “in visions of God,” “took me to Jerusalem” (Eze. 8:3). He was not physically there but only in a vision (see Eze. 11:24). Paul states that he was not certain whether that was what happened to him.
So the answer to your question is “No.” *Scripture references are from the New International Version.