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Did St. Paul Have a Near-Death Experience? NDEs of the Bible

Have you every thought about Near-Death experiences (NDEs) occurring in the Bible? I have! When you start looking, you realize they are all over the Bible.

I've been working on this a lot for a new book I have coming out through Sophia Institute Press entitled Catholic Near-Death Experiences: Accounts of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory from Priests, Popes, and Saints.

This article explores the following questions: Did St. Paul actually die and resurrect in the Bible? If so, was St. Paul's account of the "third heaven" a description of his Near-Death Experience?

 

Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) of the Bible

There is so much unexplored territory when it comes to NDEs. First off, almost all books on this subject are not Catholic. 

Second, most NDE books only describes recent, contemporary accounts of near-death experiences. There is a long history of Catholic NDEs that goes back to the first centuries of the Church and Biblical times, as well.

This will be the first in a series of posts about Catholic and Biblical NDEs, all fruit of my research for my new book :) 

Now, let's return to the question of St. Paul's NDE ... 

What if St. Paul's Near-Death Experience was connected to that of another disciple? One that St. Paul had a hand in killing ...

   

Did St. Stephen the Martyr have a Near-Death Experience? 

One somewhat obvious NDE in Scripture, once you start digging, is that of St. Stephen, the first martyr. St. Stephen was stoned to death, but just before his death, he experienced a theophany. That is, he saw and spoke of God.

This is how St. Stephen’s theophany is described in the Book of Acts.[1]

But [St. Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him.

Now, remember who assisted in the stoning of St. Stephen? Saul, the future St. Paul.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if St. Paul, who was so intimately involved in bringing St. Stephen “near” his death, also experienced a near-death experience? And, what if St. Paul’s NDE, like St. Stephen’s, occurred as a result of a stoning?

That level of coincidence and symmetry would really have to be the work of God, right? 

The Stoning and NDE of St. Stephen
Figure 1: The Death of Stephen, Bible Illustration by Gustave Doré, 1866

Did St. Paul Survive Stoning? Or Not? 

If St. Paul had a near-death experience, he would need to be near-death, right? St. Paul was actually frequently near death. 

If the Bible recounted every time St. Paul was killed, almost killed, going to be killed, or a crowd attempted to kill him, the zippers of our leather Bible carrying cases would burst. We would need wheelbarrows to carry around our Bibles.

That is to say, St. Paul was so often near-death that this near-death experience could have happened at any point from the road to Damascus onward.  

Nevertheless, St. Paul does provide a clue in this mysterious passage from the Book of Acts:

But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium; and having persuaded the people, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city; and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. (Acts 14:19–20)

St. Paul survived stoning. Wait a second, St. Paul survived stoning. 

Let’s sit with this point for a moment. This is an incredible statement.


The act of stoning a person is so monstrously violent that nobody survives stoning. In fact, St. Paul is the only person in the Bible known to have survived a stoning.

Let’s say that again.

St. Paul is the only person in the Bible that survived stoning.

It doesn’t take many large stones thrown or brought down on a person’s head to seriously injure them. The reason you keep going, the reason you keep throwing stones, is not to kill them. The reason you keep going is to kill them quickly, to end their hideous suffering. The victim of a stoning is a dead man from the beginning.

Also note that St. Paul isn’t running out of Lystra in a hail of stones: “They stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.” 

First, they stoned him. Then, they dragged his lifeless body out of the city.

What Happened After St. Paul's Stoning? Was St. Paul Resurrected?

That leaves us with a question. Did St. Paul survive stoning? Or did St. Paul actually die and then resurrect?

How do we know? The actions of the disciples give us an important insight. Look at this next verse carefully:

But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up.

The “disciples gathered about him.” Why are the disciples gathering around St. Paul? Is it to gawk at his mangled body? 

I will answer this question with an example from my own experience.

I Witnessed a Real-Life Stoning While a Missionary in Kenya 

While a missionary in Nairobi, I once came upon the bodies of men who were stoned to death. It was a grizzly sight, one I will not soon forget. It was also a pitiable sight. The poor men!

These were not innocent men, mind you. But after such a death, it is natural to pity the men’s poor, crumpled forms.

What did I do? I immediately stopped and began praying for them. It felt like the most natural thing to do.

 

 


Why Did the Disciples Gather Around St. Paul's Dead Body? And What Happened?

Praying also seems like the most natural reaction for the disciples, too. Upon seeing the ruined body of their friend, Paul, the disciples prayed. I saw strangers, even violent criminals, and I prayed. The disciples saw their brother. You better believe they were praying!

The disciples formed a prayer circle around St. Paul's dead body. The disciples “gathered about him” either to pray for the repose of St. Paul’s soul or for his healing. And at this point, healing means resurrection.

What happens next is critical to our understanding of this entire episode. Prayer is the cause—what is the effect?



St. Paul "Rose Up" -- Does That Mean Resurrection?

St. Paul “rose up.” Whatever the disciples were doing when they gathered around St. Paul’s body, the effect was that St. Paul “rose up.” This another interesting phrase: “rose up.”

Does this phrase signify a resurrection?

Interestingly, these two phrases “gathered about him” and “rose up” occur together only in one other location in the New Testament. This is at Mark 5, the account of Jesus and Jairus’ daughter.

Yes, that Jairus—the one whose daughter was resurrected by Jesus. These two phrases describing St. Paul’s resurrection also coincide at the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter.[2]

At Mark 5:41, Jesus takes the girl by the hand and says to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” “Arise” or “cumi” is the word that the Word of God, Himself, uses to resurrect the twelve-year-old girl.[3] 

This is not the only time that God uses this particular word for resurrection. This also occurred with Jonah -- this is the "Sign of Jonah" that Jesus references at Matthew 12:39-41. You can read all about that in this article I wrote on the Sign of Jonah:

Jonah Near-Death Experience NDE, Sign of Jonah



 

What Happened to St. Paul When He Died? Did St. Paul Describe His NDE?

If St. Paul was indeed stoned to death, died, and was resurrected, what happened in the intervening time? What did St. Paul see? That is to say, did St. Paul have a near-death experience? And if so, what did St. Paul see?

The above passage from the Acts of the Apostles does not tell us much. As we just saw, if we read it too fast, we can easily gloss over the fact that St. Paul died and resurrected.

This must have been an important moment in St. Paul’s life, though St. Paul’s life was obviously filled with important moments. Nevertheless, even after two thousand years, St. Paul can count the amount of times he died and resurrected on only two fingers.


Did St. Paul Ever Describe His NDE?

St. Paul relates the following experience at 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. St. Pauls seems almost bashful about his experience, at first ascribing it to a "man he knew":

know a man 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 this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

That’s straightforward, right? A man “caught up to the third heaven,” “out of the body,” and “heard things that cannot be told.” That’s the basic formula for a near-death experience right in the middle of 2 Corinthians.

Let’s unpack these verses a bit.

Who did this happen to? St. Paul says “I know a man in Christ” who had this experience. It is generally accepted that St. Paul is referring to himself. The “I know a man” paraphrasing was a form of personal modesty in ancient times. St. Paul also confirms that he is referring to himself at verse 7, when St. Paul says “and to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh.”

Not only does verse 7 confirm that St. Paul is telling us about his own experience, it also tells us that St. Paul was truly overwhelmed by the experience of Paradise and Third Heaven. 



What is the "Third Heaven" St. Paul Describes? 

Does this mean there are three different Heavens? No.

The Hebrew word for heaven, shamayim, is actually a plural. Heavens, not Heaven. This would suggest at least two heavens or even a multiplicity of heavens. Some ancient sources speak of up to ten heavens.

There is even the expression “seventh heaven,” meaning a “state of extreme joy,”[4] not to mention the television show, Seventh Heaven, about a family with seven kids.

What does all this mean? Are there multiple spiritual realms?

In Hebrew, the words for heaven are also the words for sky or lofty. It may be that Paul’s count includes the physical heavens, the skies and clouds we can see. This would be First Heaven.

If First Heaven is the blue sky of white clouds, birds, and rainbows, what is Second Heaven? This would be the “celestial” heaven of stars and other planets.

The Third Heaven would then be the “empyrean” heaven, the dwelling place of God.

When St. Paul speaks of being “caught up to the third heaven,” he is not describing multiple spiritual realms. He means he entered the presence of God.

St. Paul confirms this in the following verse, when he reiterates his experience. This time, he says he was “caught up into Paradise.” St. Paul describes “third heaven” and “Paradise” as synonymous.


Was Third Heaven a Near-Death Experience?

The phrasing of Third Heaven indicates a passage through the Heavens, that St. Paul passes from earth to First Heaven to Second Heaven to Third Heaven, sequentially.

This tracks with the “tunnel experience” of passing spatially from this place to the next. Even the phrase “caught up” indicates the rapid flight of the soul “out of the body.” 

If not near-death, St. Paul’s Third Heaven experience was an out of-body experience. How do we know this? Because St. Paul said it himself in the passage quoted above from 2 Corinthians 12. At verse 3, he says “whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.”

But was St. Paul’s out-of-body experience also a near-death experience?

As described above, St. Paul seemed to always be near-death. Look at St. Paul’s own account of his beatings and dangers, described at 2 Corinthians 11:23-29: 

... with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

Did you catch that? St. Paul actually uses the phrase “near-death” (above in bold) to describe his many violent experiences, most of which happened multiple times … except stoning. An ordeal of such unique magnitude that he experienced it only once. 

If that’s not enough, these two passages from St. Paul in which he describes being “near-death” then his “out-of-body” experience occur right next to another: 2 Corinthians, the end of chapter 11 and the beginning of chapter 12.

Given the proximity of these passages, we are left to understand that St. Paul had a “near death” “out-of-body” experience.

The term “near-death experience” was derived from a French phrase expĂ©rience de mort imminente or “experience of imminent death.” The phrase was first coined by French psychologist and epistemologist Victor Egger the 1890s.

Nevertheless, it appears that both phrases—“out-of-body” and “near death” experiences—originated in the Bible.   

Yet the question remains …


What Did St. Paul Experience?

St. Paul, by his own account—by his own words—had a “near death” experience. But do we have any idea what he saw? Do we have any details or description of what he experienced? Did St. Paul see a tunnel, too? Did he see just Heaven or other places, too?

Fortunate for us, St. Paul did provide us with some description. It is not much, but it is poignant, nonetheless.

St. Paul describes his near-death experience at 2 Corinthians 12:4: 

... and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

St. Paul was asked to do more with the human language than perhaps any previous human to have ever lived. He described the God-man to atheistic philosophers. He taught Christianity to pagans. He wrote the most famous letters in human history.

And yet, what St. Paul saw in Third Heaven “cannot be told,” even by him.

Why is this? Why does even St. Paul fall short of describing the glory of God and the ineffable beauty of Heaven?

There is a clue in the second half of St. Paul’s description, above: “Man may not utter.” It is not merely that he is at a loss for words. There seems to be some kind of limitation placed on him from above.

The phrase “cannot be told” (arreta remata) means either (1) cannot be expressed because it goes beyond human ability; or (2) cannot be expressed because it is holy. [5] The second meaning fits better with the second phrase “may not utter” (ouk exon … lalesai) uses a word that means “unauthorized” or “not permitted”.[6] 

Either man is forbidden or not allowed to “utter” a description of the place, or he is simply incapable of describing it, due to the limitations of his human nature.


We may also look to other, similar statements in Scripture. Ezekiel, for example, describes God’s voice coming through the mediation of angels, in particular through the sound of their wings.[7]

Take, for example, Ezekiel 1:24-25:

I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of many waters, like the thunder of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of a host; when they stood still, they let down their wings. And there came a voice from above the firmament over their heads; when they stood still, they let down their wings.

The sound of the angels’ wings makes a distinctive sound, yet Ezekiel cannot describe it without likening it something very un-feather-like: “many waters.” Ezekiel has a vision of God’s glory that he cannot explain, except by “likeness” and “appearance”. Through Ezekiel’s visions, he hears God’s voice through the Cherubim’s wings, in the clapping of the wings together or passing through them.

St. Paul likewise saw something that he cannot explain or put to words. He may have heard the heavenly dialect in ways similar to Ezekiel, i.e. the language of wings.


Did St. Paul Have a Tunnel Experience?

What about the tunnel experience? Did St. Paul enter Third Heaven by the tunnel?

He said he was “snatched up” and went to the “third heaven.” The language of snatching (Gk. arpagenta) and “up to the third heaven” (Gk. eos tritou ouranou) describe an upward ascent.



There's so much more to read about St. Paul's NDE and other Biblical Accounts of Near-Death Experiences! 

My new book, Catholic Near-Death Experiences: Accounts of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory from Priests, Popes, and Saints, will be out this Easter ... stay tuned!





Did St. Paul Have a Near-Death Experience (NDE)? Footnotes

[1] Acts 7:55-57

[2] These two phrases occur at Mark 5:21, “a great crowd gathered about him,” and Mark 5:41, “Taking her by the hand he said to her, ‘Talitha cumi’; which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise.’”  

[3] There is another interesting connection between the account of St. Paul’s resurrection and Mark 5 that involves the chronological span of twelve years. In Mark 5, Jesus heals two people linked by a span of twelve years, which represents the duration of the woman’s illness (5:25) and the age of the young girl (5:42). Like Jairus’ daughter, St. Paul is also something of a twelve-year-old when he is stoned to death. Depending on how you count the years, St. Paul’s conversion to Christianity—his rebirth as a Christian—on the road to Damascus occurred twelve years prior to his stoning at Lystra.  

[4] Merriam-Webster.

[5] Bauer–Danker–Arndt–Gingrich (BDAG), English-Greek Lexicon, 134.

[6] Ibid., 348.

[7] Ezek 1, 3, 10

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