Second Corinthians is accepted by almost all scholars as being authentically written by Paul. There is a twist, however. There is evidence that suggests that 2 Corinthians isn’t one letter, but actually two letters that were later combined. Chapters 1-9 focus on harmony and reconciliation. The last four chapters focus on divisions occurring in Corinth. In fact, 2 Cor 2:4 mentions a “sorrowful letter” or “letter of tears” that Paul had written them. Several scholars believe that the chapters 10-13 of Second Corinthians are that sorrowful letter.
In chapters 2-6, Paul attempts to establish himself with the Corinthian Christians, explaining his authority compared to that of others who had arrived in Corinth with claims of authority from elsewhere. He has had a painful visit with them, and wants to show that his love for them is greater than the pain caused during the visit. Chapters 1 and 7 show Paul’s effort to reconcile with the saints in Corinth and to reestablish the gospel in its proper form.
In the “sorrowful letter” found in chapters 10-13, Paul discussed his sadness from a visit he made to Corinth, where he was humiliated by others who had obtained power in the church there. In fact, it becomes a polemic defense of his apostleship against those who attacked his authority.
So disconcerting is this letter that Paul has to strongly chastise the people for rejecting him and following others. He establishes that he never has taken money from them, but was provided by the churches in other areas, such as Macedonia. He warned the Corinthians:
“13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.
14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Cor 11).
They were deceived by pretenders, who came to town with forged letters of authority, who then gained power in Corinth and attempted to turn the members away from Paul and the real apostles of God. Paul told of his conversion and dedication to the gospel, as well as his call to preach by the apostles in Jerusalem. Why? To establish his authority once again among the Corinthians, as well as to help them reject the falsehoods that plagued the Christians there.
Paul’s Vision of the Heavens
2 Corinthians 12:2-4
Paul continued to explain his authority and power that God had given him through visions:
“2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
Most scholars agree that Paul is speaking about himself when he refers of “a man” who was caught up to heaven. Such an experience would show that Paul was worthy of being an apostle of God, and with knowledge of God to share with the people of Corinth.
These verses are perhaps the best in all scripture to denote a separation between paradise and heaven, and that there are levels of heaven. LDS belief is along these lines. For Mormons, Paradise is the place the spirits of the dead go to as they await the resurrection and final judgment of God. So, when Jesus told the thief on the cross, “today shalt thou be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) we get a better understanding of what was going on. Jesus went to the “spirits in prison” to preach to them (1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6) - obviously there are two sections to the world of Spirits (paradise and prison). The thief could not have been that day with Jesus in heaven, for Jesus told Mary Magdalene he had not yet ascended up to God (John 20:17).
Ancient Jews and Christians believed in three or more levels of heaven. Some think these statements referenced the Hebrew belief of a tripartite world: heavens above, earth, and Sheol or hell beneath. And while this may apply, there is definite evidence from early sources of levels within heaven itself, such as the Ascension of Isaiah.
There is an ancient Christian text entitled, “the Apocalypse of Paul”, wherein Paul ascends through the ten levels of heaven. Like Nephi, Moses, the apostle John, and others, Paul is caught up to an exceedingly high mountain. There, he is given a special guide to direct him through the vision. In this case, as with Nephi (1 Nephi 11), it is the Holy Spirit.
Paul tells us:
“Then the Holy Spirit who was speaking with him caught him up on high to the third heaven, and he passed beyond to the fourth heaven.”
The fourth heaven was filled with angels, presided over by the “toll collector” or sentinel. People were judged for their sins, with witnesses and books brought forth to judge them. With the Holy Spirit as his guide, Paul continued through the fifth and onto the sixth heavens.
“Then we went up to the sixth heaven. And I saw my fellow apostles going with me, and the Holy Spirit was leading me before them. And I gazed up on high and saw a great light shining down on the sixth heaven. I spoke, saying to the toll-collector who was in the sixth heaven, "Open to me and the Holy Spirit who is before me." He opened to me.
Then we went up to the seventh heaven, and I saw an old man [...] light and whose garment was white. His throne, which is in the seventh heaven, was brighter than the sun by seven times. The old man spoke, saying to me, "Where are you going, Paul? O blessed one and the one who was set apart from his mother`s womb." But I looked at the Spirit, and he was nodding his head, saying to me, "Speak with him!". And I replied, saying to the old man, "I am going to the place from which I came." And the old man responded to me, "Where are you from?" But I replied, saying, "I am going down to the world of the dead in order to lead captive the captivity that was led captive in the captivity of Babylon." The old man replied to me saying, "How will you be able to get away from me? Look and see the principalities and authorities." The Spirit spoke, saying, "Give him the sign that you have, and he will open for you." And then I gave him the sign. He turned his face downwards to his creation and to those who are his own authorities.
And then the
heaven opened and we went up to the Ogdoad. And I saw the twelve apostles. They greeted me, and we went up to the ninth heaven. I greeted all those who were in the ninth heaven, and we went up to the tenth heaven. And I greeted my fellow spirits.”
In this instance, we see there are ten levels or layers of heaven. At least some of them are guarded by sentinels, who question Paul concerning his purpose and require a sign before he is allowed to pass on to the next higher level.
While this series of events may seem strange to most Christians, they make perfect sense to Mormons, whose temple rites include practicing going through levels of heaven and returning back into the presence of God. Speaking of these rites, President Brigham Young stated:
"Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell." (Journal of Discourses 2:31).
Early Christian Writings on 2 Corinthians: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/2corinthians.html
Wikipedia on 2 Corinthians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Epistle_to_the_Corinthians
Bible.org’s Intro on 2 Corinthians: http://bible.org/article/introduction-second-corinthians
Ascension of Isaiah: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ascension.html
The Apocalypse of Paul: http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/ascp.html