I know a person 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. And I know that such a person-whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows-was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. (II Corinthians 12:2-4 NRSV)The creation story of the first chapter of Genesis uses the word "heavens" in two different ways referring to (1) the atmosphere (where the birds fly) and (2) the placement of the celestial objects (the sun, moon, and stars). To these, a "third heaven" - a "heaven of heavens" or "highest heaven" - is mentioned in Genesis 28:12 and Deuteronomy 10:14. In this primitive worldview, the "highest heaven" seems to be the realm of God and his heavenly council.
The term "heaven of heavens" is a typical Hebrew superlative in which language - and the concepts it points to - intensifies and becomes all-inclusive. Apparently, this "highest heaven" points to all space above the earth - however vague, undefined, and immeasurable this may be.
It seems that is to this primitive concept that Paul refers to in his mystical - perhaps apocalyptic - journey to the realm of God himself in the passage above. This language is not intended to be scientific; nor is it to be understood literally. Rather, it means that Paul has had some sort of inexplicable, visionary, "out of the body," "caught away" experience that he perceived as a visit to the divine realm. Paul was clear that this experience was impossible to describe, consisting of things that mere mortals were not permitted to speak. [Clearly no commentator has the ability to expound on that which Paul himself found indescribable.]
It is important to remember that later, mature Hebrew theology - beginning with the Deuteronomist - struggled with any literal conception of God's dwelling place. In Solomon's dedicatory prayer for the new constructed Jerusalem temple, the Deuteronomist records Solomon's denunciation of the limiting language of the temple as God's abode or resting place.
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! (I Kings 8:27 NRSV)For the Deuteronomist, neither the temple, nor the Ark of the Covenant, nor the holy city of Jerusalem could "contain" God or rightfully be called his dwelling place. Consistently, the book of Deuteronomy offers a "name theology" in which only the "name of God," not God himself dwells in the central sanctuary. The transcendence of God disallows any primitive notion of a single place as God's abode.
Gerhard von Rad, in his Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel's Traditions, reports that ancient Israel pointed to a number of "places" as God's dwelling place: Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon's temple, Mount Zion (Jerusalem), and heaven. The multiplicity of these theologically significant, but mixed metaphors speak loudly (1) against any primitive cosmology of God's literal dwelling place and (2) to the mature conceptions of "God's separateness, transcendence, and limitlessness."