Hey, Father! What happened to the souls that died before Jesus? What is this ‘third heaven?’

What happened to all the souls that died before the coming of Christ? In 2 Corinthians 12:2, St. Paul says that he was caught up in the “third heaven.” What does that mean? I didn’t know there were two more!

 – Michael in Effingham

Michael, your questions are good ones, so thank you for sending them in! As we pray in the Creed every Sunday, our Catholic faith teaches us that Christ “descended into hell” before rising to life on the third day. What was this descent into hell?

What the Church means to emphasize in that affirmation is that Christ truly died a death like ours. His death was no pretense or feigning what we experience. Rather, in the days between His crucifixion and resurrection, He sojourned in the realm of the dead. This is not the same as the hell of the damned, but prior to Christ’s resurrection, the gates of paradise were not yet opened, so the souls of all the dead, whether righteous or unrighteous, dwelt in the abode of the dead (aka “hell”), where they were deprived of the vision of God.

When Jesus visits this realm of the dead, then, He does so to bring His victory over death and sin, exonerating all the holy souls who waited for the time of His coming. In Christian theology, we call this the “harrowing of hell” (which I can only guess was as epic to experience as it sounds), when Christ, at long last, preaches the Gospel of the Kingdom to the dead, exonerating the just of God and bringing into eternal life all those who hoped and longed for Him. Jesus did not enter the realm of the dead to deliver the damned, but to save the righteous, and so we believe that those faithful souls who died before the coming of Christ were brought into their eternal reward that fateful Holy Saturday.

In reference to the second part of your question, when St. Paul refers cagily to his own experience of receiving “visions and revelations of God,” as you note, he describes it as being “caught up to the third heaven” (see 2Cor12:2). By comparison to what Paul says a couple of verses later, we can see that this third heaven is “Paradise” (cf. 2Cor12:4), so we can say pretty confidently, and without doing violence to the text mind you, that what Paul means to communicate is the concept of heaven, the dwelling place of God.

So why does he talk about a “third” heaven? One possible observation that may help us enter into Paul’s mind is to note that the term for heaven in Hebrew (or sky, which is the same word) is shamayim, a dual plural, suggesting the presence of two heavens. Without wading too much into Hebrew cosmology, you could think of the skies (see, even we use the plural sometimes!) as divided into different realms, with perhaps the first heaven being earth’s atmosphere (where the birds fly) and the second being comprised of stars and the celestial bodies. Even in the Our Father, the Gospels use the word ouranoi (a plural) for the dwelling the place of the Father (literally, Our Father, who is “in the heavens”). So rather than reading it as literally the “third heaven,” we can understand that what Paul is referring to is the heaven that is beyond the earth and sky, beyond even thefurthest reaches of the stars, the place where God Himself abides, the “highest heavens.”

From this, however, we can extrapolate that there are in fact different “realms” of heaven, such that all will receive a deeper participation in the life of God depending on how well they have cooperated with God’s grace in this life. This is also the age-old teaching of the Church.

For our part now, though, we might all strive to live our lives presently as though we want to experience the highest heaven our souls were made for — the deepest life of God, in the highest realms of heaven!

Father Michael Friedel is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Decatur and is an associate vocation director for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.