So what did Jesus mean when He said "You will be with me in paradise?" When you Google the phrase "Paradise" in the Bible, theologians almost unanimously say that Paradise is the place where the righteous go when they die.
There's some disagreement between exactly what this looks like. Here, I'm going to investigate four options for what Jesus could have meant by Paradise, and present my case for and against each interpretation. As a disclaimer: I don't claim to be an expert on Catholic/Orthodox/Judaic theology, and there may be many apocryphal/tamudic texts and traditions that I'm completely unaware of. In this article, I'll be relying primarily on the Bible to build my position for and against each viewpoint.
Paradise as Heaven Itself
Some interpret Paradise to be heaven itself, and that at death, the soul is brought up immediately into the pearly gates, and these individuals join the angels in heaven. This group takes inspiration from Paul's comment in Philippians 1:21-24, and from Paul's alleged vision of paradise and the third heaven.
However, if we believe that the thief was in heaven with Jesus on Good Friday, and presumably the Saturday the next day, then what Jesus said to Mary the next morning requires an explanation:
John 20:17 "Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God."
We are told in various places in the Gospel that Jesus was in the grave for three days, and then He ascended (Acts 2:31, Matthew 12:38-40, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
Paradise as God's Kingdom on Earth
I haven't seen much in the way of arguing that paradise is God's kingdom on earth, but for the sake of completeness, I'll briefly touch on it here. Remember that the thief's reqest was "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (Luke 23:42).
First, a few facts:
- Jesus told those who arrested Him in John 18:36 that His kingdom is not of this world. If His kingdom were of this world, His servants would fight. We know that Peter did put up some resistance, but Jesus may have instead been referring to legions of angels at His disposal that would have stepped in at any moment and delivered Jesus. He finishes by saying "but now, my kingdom is not from hence."
- Let's remember the last words of Jesus' disciples before Jesus ascended to heaven. They didn't sing a psalm of praise to Him, nor did they weep sore that He was about to leave them. Instead, they asked "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel" Acts 1:6.
- Neither Jesus nor the thief made it alive to the end of Friday. The Jews wanted to get the crucifixions over with, so the soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves (which usually meant suffocation within a few minutes on the victim's part), but found Jesus was already dead (John 19:33).
This present world as we know it, has not achieved the state that God wants for it. Although Christ is with His disciples through the Holy Spirit in a spiritual sense, the world still is full of sin and evil, and is awaiting judgment, and the final consummation of Jesus' second coming and restoration of the world.
Paradise as the Grave
Another version of Paradise describes it as a Elysian-fields Limbo-like temporary holding cell that souls wait in until the resurrection. They get this view mostly from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, taking inspiration from the somewhat vague description of Lazarus in Abraham's bosom being comforted while the rich man is tormented (Luke 16:23-24).
In the Hebrew understanding of death, when you die, you descend into a region known as "Sheol." It's the universal recepticle of the dead. So it makes perfect sense that Jesus and the thief would both go down to the grave.
But the Old Testament describes Sheol as being the destination of both the righteous (Genesis 37:35; Job 14:13, 17:13; Isaiah 38:10) and the wicked (Numbers 16:30-33, Psalms 9:17; 31:17) together (Psalms 89:48; Ecclesiastes 9:10). It would be hardly noteworthy therefore for Jesus to say that the thief would be with Him in the grave that Friday, since both thieves were dead by sunset.
To this, the view qualifies that Paradise is the good compartment of the grave. As supporting evidence, they provide Ephesians 4:8-10:
Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) Ephesians 4:8-10
The Old Testament foundation for this verse is found in Psalms 68:18-19.
Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them. Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits, even the God of our salvation. Selah. (Psalms 68:18-19)
The gifts here that Christ is presenting are presented daily. It's not a one-shot mass resurrection of the dead, but instead to be understood as the gifts of the spirit that he gives to men. It also says that God might dwell among them, including the rebellious. Yet Jesus only promised paradise to the repentant thief, not the rebellious thief.
As for the lower parts of the earth, there is scriptural evidence to interpret this as something other than hell. David writes that this ominous-sounding "lower parts of the earth" merely refers to pregnancy: "My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth." (Psalms 135:15).
Thus, perhaps a more accurate rendering of Ephesians 4:8-10 may be through the lens that Christ gave in John 3:13: "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven." Christ came down to live as a human, die as a human, and be the first-fruits (or the template) of our resurrection yet to come (Acts 26:23, Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 15:23, Colossians 1:18, Revelation 1:5).
Paradise as the Earth Made New
In this article, I'm going to share a novel take on what Jesus meant by paradise (and by novel, I mean I haven't seen anyone paint this particular version of Paradise in what I've read). This viewpoint I'm presenting does not represent the views of my church or denomination, and I am not asserting that you have to accept this blog article as truth to be saved. I'm just putting it online for you to read, and search the scriptures, and see if these things are so.
The English word for paradise comes from the French paradis, from the Latin paradisus, from the Latin paradisus, from the Persian paridayda, which meant a walled garden. The Hebrews had a word pardes, which meant "orchard." This came from the Hebrew root parad which means set-apart.
The Old Testament was translated into Greek during the Greek rule over Israel. The word παραδεισος (paradeisos) occurs numerous time in this translation, and frequently refers to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8, Ezekiel 36:35). In some other places, it referred to a garden in general (Song of Solomon 4:13, Ecclesiastes 2:5, Nehemiah 2:8).
The connotation of Paradise being a garden-like setting is corroborated by John's use of the word παραδεισος in Revelation 2:7. It seems like God's ultimate goal is for mankind to have access to, and perhaps even live in a garden.
This comes as no surprise to those of us who take Genesis 1-3 to be literal, historical events. God spent five days in the creation week preparing a garden utopia/paradise to place our first parents in. His original career plan for our human family were to be keepers of the garden (Gen 2:15). Even in Revelation, God still takes caring for the Earth very seriously with a curse for those who harm it (Revelation 11:18). We know that Christ was quite fond of gardens himself. He frequently retreated to pray in a garden (John 18:1-2), was buried in a Garden (John 19:41), and was mistaken for a Gardener when he rose from the dead (John 20:15).
Thus, at the beginning, the end, and at the crux of Scripture we find Christ wanting to spend time with His people in a Garden.
So why isn't this happening right now? Part of the reason why Christ has yet to return is that Satan's grand experiment of rebellion needs to play through to the very end. And the name of Satan's experiment is called Babylon. We can see a miniature version of what's going on in God's promise to Abraham for the promised land (which flowed with milk and honey, two things that connote lushious farming and gardening grounds)
Genesis 15:13-16 "And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full."
In Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14, the authors allude to the origin of Satan's rebellion in heaven. Because Satan coveted God's throne, and wanted to be ruler over heaven himself, Satan led away a rebel band of one third of the angelic host. Their mission: prove that they could run things better than God could.
To this end, God cast them out of the heavenly paradise that God had created for the angels (Ezekiel 28:13), and Satan entered into the paradise of Eden to try to run his experiment on Earth. Had our first parents remained faithful, Satan could have been cast out of our paradise as well, but our first parents, not 33% but 100% sided with Satan, and as a result, we ourselves were cast out of our Edenic home.
Satan, was now the ruler of this world (Job 1:6-7, Matthew 4:8-9, John 12:31, 2 Cor 4:4) and made the world his experiment. To this end, God created a clean slate, so that Lucifer had to build the earth up from nothing after the flood.
There are several key things that happened during the flood. In Ezekiel 28:17, God tells Lucier that He will be cast before kings, that they may behold thee. In the ancient worldview, the casting before kings was an act of judgment (compare to how the Jews cast the woman caught in adultery before Jesus in John 8:1-11). To this end, we see that Satan's grand experiment was put on show-and-tell before the universe at the time that the windows of heaven were opened up during the flood (Gen 7:11, 1 Cor 4:9, Hebrews 10:33 Hebrew 12:1).
Satan immediately started his experiment with the Tower of Babel, which became the foundation for Babylon (Gen 11:1-9). Although Babylon fell to the Medo-Persian empire in 539 BCE, the systems of government that followed thereafter continued to be referred to in apocalyptic literature as Babylon.
Finally, at the close of scripture, we see the judgment of the Babylon, and all those who support the system of government that Satan had setup. During this time, the clouds of heaven are rolled up together as if to say that the story of Satan's rebellion has just finished its final chapter (Revelation 6:14, 34:4), and the Earth ceased to be Satan's show-and-tell.
After this, John writes in Revelation 21:1-4
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
Translators in the time of the King James version interpreted this "first heaven" and the "first earth" that passed away as the pre-flood earth and heaven that were destroyed by the deluge in Noah's day (see Genesis 9:11). Under this interpretation, the second earth and the second heaven would be the dirt we're standing on right now, and the sky that's outside of my window as I write this article. What God creates in Revelation 21:1 is the third earth, and the third heaven.
It is also interesting to note that there is no more sea in this new earth. We know from Genesis 2:5-6 that there was no rain before the flood. Some have speculated that there was no single large ocean before the flood, but networks of shallow seas. The basis for this, however, is not Biblical, but comes from the argument that most of the water in the flood came up from underground fountains and the canopy of heaven, and that there was very little water on the earth's surface. If this is true that there was no single large ocean before the flood, then Revelation 21:4 is also an allusion to the restoration of a pre-flood environment.
What I find so interesting about this whole hypothesis is that it puts an entirely new light onto 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. All of the explanations for the paradise and third heaven mentioned here fall back to apocryphal writings and speculation, which give heaven a rather mystical aura. This new interpretation however, suggests that Paul saw what John saw in Revelation 21-22. Perhaps what Paul describes as words that were not lawful for a man to utter, perhaps he received a similar instruction as was given in Revelation 10:4. Or perhaps it is possible that what Paul was wanting to write what was to be sealed up until the end time (Daniel 12:4, 9). Or, perhaps it was something that only those who had been redeemed from the earth could learn (Revelation 14:3).
In any case, this new earth that comes down from the sky to rest on earth is the location where God dwells with man (Rev 21:3, Psalm 115:16). Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and God himself shall be with them. Although Jesus promises His disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 that He will be with them always, even to the end of the age, we see a full, physical consummation of what Paul looks forward to in Phillipians 1:21-24 in this passage here.
This interpretation of paradise is the closest and most biblical explanation I have come up with to explain what Jesus had in mind when He promised the thief on the cross that He would be with Him. This interpretation harmonizes with the Rahab narrative in the first six chapters of Joshua, and it also harmonizes with the greater Great Controversy narrative between Christ and Satan. It also harmonizes with the greater canon of scripture, and what it has to say about death and resurrection.
What do you think? Am I off the mark? Did I push a metaphor too far by claiming that the windows of heaven opening at the flood was the beginning of the show-and-tell of Lucifer's kingdom? If so, please write below in the comments section.