Can a Christian have an out-of-body experience?
Question: Some people believe that a human being's soul or spirit can separate from the body and travel to far distant places beyond the body's reach. This is not just a "New Age" or "Eastern religion" idea; even some who call themselves Christians believe in "astral projection" or "out-of-body experiences." Does the Bible teach in 2 Corinthians 12:2–4 that a human being's soul or spirit can operate outside the body?
Answer: Many people have told stories of having an "out-of-body experience" during surgery, or of practicing "astral projection" (in which the soul supposedly travels to faraway places while the body stays behind). Was the Apostle Paul describing a similar experience? The answer may surprise you!
In 2 Corinthians 12:2–4, as in the two previous chapters, Paul was describing his own experiences as a minister of the true Gospel. He wrote: "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter."
It is important to notice that in the previous verse (v. 1), Paul explained that he will come to "visions and revelations" of the Lord. The word translated as "visions" is the Greek optasia, meaning "a sight or vision presented to one, whether asleep or awake." The word translated as "revelations" is the Greek apokalupsis, meaning "laying bare, making naked a disclosure of truth, instruction concerning things previously unknown." In these verses, Paul acknowledges that he was not recounting physical experiences.
But was Paul describing an out-of-body experience? He tells us that his physical experience was so intense that he could not tell whether it was a mere vision within his mind, or whether he had actually been taken to heaven. Though Paul was plainly talking about visions at the start of 2 Corinthians 12, this particular vision felt so real that he was unable to explain what had happened, except that he had felt as if he were "out of the body." Paul did not draw his own conclusion, though. He said plainly—twice—that "God [not Paul] knows" the nature of his spiritual vision of Paradise. Those who wish to claim that the Bible definitively declares that Paul had an "out-of-body experience" are being far more dogmatic than even Paul, himself, was.
Another similar passage may help us appreciate Paul's phrasing in its proper context. He wrote to the Colossians, "For though I am absent in the flesh, yet I am with you in spirit" (Colossians 2:5). Was Paul telling the Colossians that he had left his body to be with them? Of course not!
Scripture helps us understand, in part, what Paul's vision was not. The Apostle John reports Jesus' words: "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven" (John 3:13). Though Jesus spoke those words before His resurrection, later the Apostle Peter affirmed that they remain true even after His resurrection, pointing to King David's tomb as an example of the uniqueness of Jesus' ascent to heaven (Acts 2:29, 34). Instead, Paul experienced a vision, akin to the vision recounted in Matthew 17:1–9. In that passage, the word Jesus uses for "vision" is horama—a sight divinely granted in an ecstasy or in a sleep. Remember: when the disciples had this experience, neither Moses nor Elijah had ascended to heaven. Like Paul's experience, this was clearly a vision, not a mystical visit from two dead people!
Therefore, just as Peter, James and John did not actually ascend to heaven during their vision of the transfigured Jesus with Moses and Elijah, we can understand that Paul did not ascend to heaven. Similarly, people today may feel that they have had an "out-of-body experience" that seems real to them, but the Bible reveals that they are mistaken.