The Meaning of "Paradise"

What did Jesus promise the thief on the cross in response to his dying request, "Remember me when you come in your kingdom."?

What did Jesus promise the thief on the cross in response to his dying request,

"Remember me when you come in your kingdom."?

Jesus assured the man,

"You shall be with me in Paradise."

Many use this passage to document their belief that heaven is the reward of the righteous. But is this what Jesus meant? Just what is "Paradise?" Let's take a closer look at this classic section of Scripture to find out what it really means.

We should note that Jesus did not answer him directly. Contrast this with his detailed reply to Peter regarding the disciples' status in the kingdom (Matthew 19:27ff). Although Peter's question was similar in nature to the request of the thief on the cross, the circumstances were obviously quite different. In the former case, Jesus was teaching men who were given the opportunity to understand and participate in the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:11, Mark 4:10-11). In the latter case he was confronted with the dying request of a convicted criminal. It is certainly not uncommon for a dying person (especially criminals) to express concern about the hereafter, even if they had not been religiously inclined in their lifetime. Many of us in the ministry have doubtless encountered examples of this. Clearly, the right response on such occasions is encouragement, not judgment. Likewise, despite his own suffering, Jesus lovingly perceived that this was a time for reassurance not a theological lecture. So he used a term that was very familiar in the religious culture of the day without attempting to correct or clarify the meaning. The following quotes trace the development of the traditional meaning of "paradise."

Used in later Jewish and Christian thought, it appears in religious language as God's garden, where man was placed at first by his Creator. Lost or hidden since the Fall, it will be regained at the end, whilst it may already mean, in the intermediate era, the abode of the blessed dead (Dictionary of the Bible, Revised Edition, by Hastings, article "paradise").

The actual word . . . is nowhere used in the Old Testament in an eschatological sense, which meaning developed in the later Jewish world (The New Bible Dictionary by J. D. Douglas, article "paradise").

The shift from the secular to the religious sense appears more largely in the Greek Bible (LXX). "Paradeisos" is used there more than thirty times, especially in Genesis, where it means God's garden or Eden. The tendency to idealize grows in the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings (Dictionary of the Bible, Revised Edition, by Hastings, article "paradise").

While speculation flourished, there was a growing consensus that the abode of the righteous after their resurrection would be the Garden of Eden, or, as some called it, "Paradise" (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, article "paradise").

"Paradeisos" developed into a specific eschatological concept in the apocalyptic literature. The starting point for all Jewish thinking about paradise, under the influence of the LXX, was the garden of Eden (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article "paradise").

"Paradeisos" shortly became a technical term. This idea that the future paradise is identical with the original paradise led to the further notion that paradise must exist now. Thus paradise was seen not only as a future home for the righteous, but as existing in the present, between creation and the final age, although now in hidden form . . . . There are three stages of the one paradise: the ancient garden, the present paradise which is hidden, and the future paradise (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article "paradise").

The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible makes a most interesting point which can shed light on the passage in question. There was a notable lack of agreement as to the geographical location of Paradise during the second and third stages. For some it was on earth, for others in heaven (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, article "paradise").

Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that in later Judaism of the New Testament Period, "The site of reopened Paradise is almost without exception the earth" (vol. 5, page 767). Under the heading "The Return of Paradise in the Last Age," It continues, "The belief in resurrection gave assurance that all the righteous, even those who are dead, would have a share in the reopened paradise" (vol. 5, page 767).

Philo of Alexandria was the first to allegorize the Genesis account of Eden. Many "church fathers" followed his allegorical method on this and other subjects. McClintock & Strong's Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature has a long article which traces the development of many mystical interpretations that grew out of this allegorization method, identifying "paradise" with heaven. Thus, "paradeisos" is used in two New Testament passages to refer to "the third heaven" (II Corinthians 12:4) and "the Paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7), which Revelation 21-22 identifies as "a new heaven and a new earth." Many therefore assume that heaven is the meaning of "paradise" in Luke 23:43. However, Jesus' usage of the term obviously preceded the later writings of Paul and John, so these two passages should not be used to interpret the meaning of paradise in Luke 23:43. Jesus' usage related rather to the Jewish concept, which was rooted in the Old Testament and corrupted over time by allegorization by the time the term found its way into the apocalyptic literature of the apocrypha. It is therefore instructive to examine the Old Testament references which the later Jewish and patristic concepts grew out of.

As we have seen, the Septuagint rendering of "garden" as "paradeisos" in Genesis 2 and 3 established the precedent for later meanings of the term. Similarly, in Ezekiel 28:13, Eden is referred to as "the paradise of God." An earthly paradise is clearly indicated, as is the case in other occurrences of the term. Two other passages are especially instructive. Isaiah 51:3 poetically describes the endtime restoration of the land:

"For the LORD will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden (LXX, "paradeisos") of the LORD."

Again in Ezekiel 36:35,

"So they will say, 'This land that was desolate has become like the garden (LXX, "paradeisos")of Eden . . . ."

Ezekiel 37 continues the story of the ultimate restoration of all Israel via the post-millennial general resurrection. Obviously, the earthly paradise that began during the millennium will be "in full bloom" during this time when the bulk of mankind will be raised to physical life. Could Jesus have had this in mind when he promised the thief on the cross that he would be with him in "paradise?" Although the term later came to be used to refer to "the third heaven," the original Old Testament scriptures from which the later meaning evolved obviously refer to the Edenic beauty of the earth under the righteous rulership of Jesus Christ in the kingdom of God. Even though the thief undoubtedly understood "paradise" in terms of the mystical meaning of the apocryphal writings, did Jesus' promise actually promise the man that he would be with him in a beautifully restored earth at the time of the second resurrection, when he would have an opportunity to learn and live the way of God for a lifetime in the presence of Jesus Christ? This would have given a truthful yet reassuring answer without introducing theological issues that would have been neither productive nor appropriate during the final hours of the man's life. It is simply a case of "What he didn't know didn't hurt him." It would seem that Jesus' brief, diplomatic answer might suggest this conclusion. If this is the correct meaning, the man will learn soon after he comes back to life the precious truth that we are now privileged to understand.

In the movie Field of Dreams, one of the baseball players who comes back to life to play on the field asked, "Is this heaven?" The lead character responds, "No, it's Iowa." When the man describes heaven, the lead character says, "Then maybe this is heaven." Likewise, "heaven on earth" would certainly be an apt description of the beauty of the earth in the millennium and beyond--the New Heavens and New Earth, which will literally be "heaven on earth."

Of course it is not for us to determine whether or not the thief on the cross (or anyone else, for that matter) will be in the first resurrection. Only God knows.


Written by: Larry J. Walker