As expected, in his little commentary on 1-2Thessalonians, John Walvoord expends considerable time (comparatively speaking) unfolding a rather minor detail in 1Thess 4–a detail that even Paul himself tucks away in the paraenesis. As expected, though not explicitly stated, the reasons for committing such time are a loyalty to and a defense of the Dispensational system of interpretation. As expected, in unfolding the details of the passage a number of questionable hermeneutical moves are made (e.g. reading the passage through the lens of [at least] two unsupported/unproven presuppositions), yet such moves are necessary in order to sustain the system. And as expected, the end result of Walvoord’s efforts is something that would cause people like Darby, Scofield, and Chafer to stand up a cheer.
But what was totally unexpected (at least for me) was a comment made in a paragraph that was doing the expected:
The Thessalonian passage [i.e. 4.13-18] continues with another tremendous revelation. “The dead in Christ shall first first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [i.e. the raised dead] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” This Scripture does not reveal where we are to go with the Lord, but, as has been already indicated, John 14 tells us plainly that when Christ comes for us He will take us to the Father’s house in heaven. When we meet the Lord in the air, we shall assemble in the atmospheric heaven and from there go to the third heaven, which is the immediate presence of the Father. This is indicated in the last part of the preceding chapter where Paul speaks of our being in the presence of God Father, unblamable in holiness.”
–J. Walvoord, The Thessalonian Epistles (1967), 44-45–emphasis added
For a text that doesn’t specifically reveal anything about the destination of where resurrected and “raptured” saints go, Walvoord seems fairly confident (if not definitive) about the text’s intended reference. But that aside (and the logical and theological flaws within his argument), Walvoord’s assertion that the saints go with Christ “to the third heaven” and that this place “is the immediate presence of the Father” was a bit out of the blue and admittedly strange.
Is Walvoord thinking in terms of some ancient views, where the “third heaven” is the highest level in a layered created universe and thus the place of the God and the angelic hosts–separated and undefiled? If so, all I can say is: Seriously? You’re going to advocate a cosmology that, when applied to the biblical text today, winds up sounding like a revived Gnosticism? Or is Walvoord thinking in terms of Second-Temple (and later) Jewish notions of heaven as tiered? If so, it worth mentioning that three is only one of several supposed layers. Moreover, while three is fairly common (cf. T.Levi 2.7-10), so is seven (cf. Apoc.Abr. 19.1-9; T.Levi 3.1-4). And there are certainly other suggested options beyond three and seven. In fact, they number as many as 365. So, Walvoord, which cosmology are you following and why? Are you using “three” because it’s the most convenient for your argument, or because Paul uses it?
Thus: is Walvoord thinking of the only time Paul uses the phrase, “the third heaven” (2Cor 12.2), which he then relabels as “Paradise” (2Cor 12.4),¹ which can then be linked with Jesus’ promise to where the thief on the cross will be after death (cf. Lk 23.39-43)–since both texts use the same term? Thus, “Paradise” is “the third heaven”, or at least a part of it, which is attested in other Jewish sources (cf. Adam and Eve, 40.1; 2En 8.1-6). This would seem to make the best sense, at least for Walvoord’s argument, for the promise given by Jesus to the thief reflects the promised hope articulated in Walvoord’s description–i.e. the third heaven as “the immediate presence of the Father.”² If this is the view Walvoord has in mind, we have a few problems:
- Descriptions about “the third heaven” are somewhat varied with respect to its nature. Sometimes it is the place of God’s throne room; sometimes it is the Garden of Eden redux, where the righteous saints reside; sometimes it is a type of angelic barracks, where warriors angels wait to do battle at the final judgment; sometimes it is the abode of an evil dragon, who brings havoc upon the earth and feasts on wicked people; and sometimes it is the location of Hell.
- While “Paradise” is sometimes synonymous with “the third heaven”–as the very presence of God–sometimes it’s not. In fact, as Margaret Thrall points out, 2Enoch indicates a distinction between “Paradise” and God’s primary abode–i.e. 2En 8.3 shows God walking in “Paradise” (=the Garden redux), but 2En 20-22 show God’s primary abode as in the seventh heaven (cf. Thrall, 2 Corinthians, 2.789). Thus, on this reading, “Paradise”/”the third heaven” is not the immediate presence of the Father; it is only the place he frequents from time to time.
- Moreover, “Paradise” is not only portrayed as a heavenly locale (T.Abr. 20.14; 3Bar 4.6) but also described as on earth in the eschaton. This would seem to create problems for Walvoord’s view and his specific claim that once “raptured” off this earth and whisked away to heaven (thank you very much, neo-Gnosticism), that heavenly abode in Paradise/third heaven is where we/believers “shall…ever be with the Lord.” Unless, of course, he means to say: eternal existence in the presence of the Father is unhindered, even when Paradise is brought to earth. If that was his point, he should have made it more clear.
- The idea of the (now) heavenly Paradise being populated by the righteous dead (cf. 3Bar 10.5; 2Esd 3.5-11; 2En 9.1; T.Levi 18.10-11) would also seem to create problems for Walvoord–especially his Dispenationalism. According to these (extra-biblical) sources, the righteous dead are essentially Jewish; but according to Dispensationalism, the (secret) rapture and (partial) resurrection only includes saints of the church–i.e. Christians (=non-Jewish folk). Thus, in the Dispensational system, Paradise is populated by Christians while the earth (for seven years) is populated by pagans and Jews–both of whom are about to receive an intense divine butt-kicking.
- On a slightly different note, but equally problematic, there is the decision to use extra-biblical Jewish sources to substantiate an idea that is otherwise ambiguous in what Walvoord would certainly see as the only and truly inspired revelation of God–i.e. the (Protestant) canonical Bible. I say “ambiguous” because “Paradise” is only mentioned three times in the entire NT (i.e. Lk 23.43; 2Cor 12.4; Rev 2.7), and not one of these references–let alone all three of them together–is able to offer the picture Walvoord desires.
¹ Or should we follow Ambrosiaster, who saw the two references in 2Cor 12 as two separate “raptures” and thus two different places?
² I’ll overlook (=ignore) the rather odd Trinitarian view that results from joining these two promises. Prima facie, it looks like Modalism.