Unlocking the mystery of Jesus' reference to paradise on the cross
Paradise in Persian origins
The question of paradise - whether there is such a place, in the physical realm or otherwise – is in many peoples minds even if it is not often discussed. Christians and Muslims, in so far as the afterlife is concerned, have unanswered questions as to the exact place or state of such afterlife.
Christians believe in a Second Coming of Christ - known as the Parousia in the New Testament - and a Final Judgment. This marks the end-time. There is, however, less consensus as to the intermediate time between the death of an individual and that Judgment Day. Catholics believe in Purgatory as the intermediate place while most Protestants do not have a defined position on it.
Furthermore, while Christians believe, according to the Apostles' Creed, in the resurrection of the body, there is still some confusion with regard to the body in the afterlife.
In any case, in the Gospel of Luke 23:43, as Jesus hung on the cross, he said to one of the criminals hung with him: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise". That statement is the basis of this discussion. What exactly did he mean by that promise? Where is this place called paradise?
Let us note from the outset, that Jesus never mentioned paradise during his ministry. In all his teachings and sayings, the only time he mentioned paradise was this one time, on the cross. Does this lack of mention in his teachings offer any clues?
We will defer the answer for later. Our task is to find the origin of “paradise” and trace its development to the time and Jesus and after.
Paradise has its origins in Persian. However, it comes to us in Greek, as paradeison and paradeisos which mean, a garden or a grove, a well watered shady ground, a park, or even an enclosed pleasure park with animals.
It is most likely that the term was introduced into Greek usage by the Greek general and writer, Xenophon (app.430 – 355 BCE), after his return from Cyrus the Younger's expedition to Babylon.
In the Hebrew Bible:
There are three references to paradise in the Hebrew Bible, all of them in the third part, known as Writings, or Kethuvim. The English translations in these references are from The Jewish Bible by the Jewish Publication Society.
1.Nehemiah 2:8: “...likewise, a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the King's Park...”.Nehemiah was in need of timber to take to Judah and rebuild the temple. Paradise in this verse is translated as “king's park”. Actually, NIV translates it as “king's forest”.
2. Song of Songs 4:13: “Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates...” So, that is paradise, an orchard.
3. Ecclesiastes 2:5: “I laid out gardens and groves, in which I planted every kind of fruit tree”. In this usage, paradise in fact translates into plural, gardens and groves.
We can see from these three usages in the Hebrew Bible, that paradise has the same meaning as in its original Persian.
It is in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament (dating to the 4th century BCE) that the word “paradise” gets to be used extensively. It appears in seven different places. The English translations in these references are from the NIV.
1.Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”. The reference here is not to a generic place, but specific.
2. Genesis 3:23: “So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken”. This is the same meaning, only that God reversed the action he had taken.
3. Genesis 13:10: “Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt toward Zoar”. What is translated as “the garden of the Lord” in this verse is “paradise” in the LXX. In other words, the Jordan Valley is likened to paradise.
4. Ezekiel 31:8-9: “The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor could the pine trees equal its boughs...I made it beautiful with abundant branches, the envy of all the trees of Eden in the garden of God”. In both verses, paradise is translated as the “garden of God”.
The background of this passage is the Assyrian empire; its might and splendor. This picture is used as a warning to the Egyptian Pharaoh that even he is no match to God.
5. Ezekiel 28:13: “You were in Eden, the garden of God...”
6. Isaiah 51:3: “...He will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord”.
7. Joel 2:3: “Before them the fire devours, behind them a flame blazes. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, behind them, a desert waste...”
There is one obvious conclusion from these seven references. The LXX has introduced paradise as the “garden of Eden” and the “garden of God”. The meaning has shifted from a tangible, physical place to an idealized place connected with God.
Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical Writings:
The picture we get of paradise in these writings is spiritualized, confusing and even conflicting. Jews had the concepts of Sheol and Gehenna. According to 1 Enoch 18:9-16; 51:1, Sheol was an interim location for the dead. It was separate from the place of final judgment.
In 4 Ezra 7:36 and also 2 Apocalypse. Bar. 59:10, the place of final punishment was located in the Valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem. In Hebrew it is known as GeHinnom. In 2 Esdras 2:29 we learn that it was known as Gehenna in Greek.
That is one picture. Another one is portrayed in Enoch 102:15 where Sheol is depicted with four divisions: one for martyrs of righteousness, one for sinners who paid their penalties, one for the just but did not suffer martyrdom and one for sinners who had not paid penalties.
There was still another divergent view by Alexandrian Jews who, according to Wisdom of Solomon 3:14; 4:10; 5:5,17 held the view that there was no interim place. Upon death, the separation between sinners and the righteous was immediate. In Josephus' Antiquities xviii.1, 3; and Jewish Wars II, VIII, 14 we find views similar to the Alexandrian.
Paradise in the New Testament:
We already noted that Jesus used the word only that one time on the cross. In some of his parables, he alluded to a place of rest, but did not use the term paradise. For example, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, in Luke 16: 19-31, Jesus says, upon their death, the rich man was tormented in Hades (v.23), and Lazarus was carried by angels to Abraham's bosom – according to the Greek (v.22).
In the parable about banquet guests, Jesus advised host host to include the poor in his list. “Although they cannot repay you”, he said, “you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.(Luke 14:14) . This indicates a period between death and the resurrection, yet he did not indicate where the dead are reposed while awaiting the resurrection.
There is still another example in the parable of the wedding guests. When the host spotted a guest without proper attire, he instructed his servant to “tie him hand and feet, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 22:13). Such a place is obviously contrasts the previous, but, again, where is it?
That is as much as we can learn from Jesus, about paradise, Sheol, and Hades. He never mentioned them directly in his teachings, but he alluded to places that qualify as such. The only time he mentioned paradise specifically was on the cross.
Paul also mentions paradise once in 2 Corinthians 12:4 where he says he “was caught up in paradise”. He did not know if he “was in the body or out of the body”.This suggests an experience similar to Jewish mysticism which saw heaven in several stages or layers. Indeed, in verse 2 Paul indicates that paradise was “in the third heaven”.
Finally, in Revelation 2:7 we read, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”. The tree of life is reminiscent of the Genesis accounts we already discussed, and so also is the paradise of God.
Paradise, in its Persian origin, meant a garden, a grove, a forest, or an enclosed area like a park. It was a physical place and not at all special or unique. As the term found its way into the Hebrew Bible, it became synonymous with the garden of Eden as described in Genesis. The Septuagint, the Apocrypha, and Pseudepigrapha spiritualized the term and transformed it to an intermediate place between death and resurrection and final judgment.
Throughout the New Testament, paradise is spiritualized as a place of rest in contrast to the place of suffering and agony. That appears to be the sense in which it was used by Jesus on the cross.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha.
The Jewish Bible, TANAKH, The New JPS Translation.
Theological Dictionary of the Bible, edited by Walter A. Elwell.
Recommended additional reading
- PARADISE in the Bible Encyclopedia - ISBE (Bible History Online)
This is a good source of additional information about Jesus' use of paradise on the cross