Paradise: The nicer part of the afterlife.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 August

Where Christians go when we die… and why we prefer other ideas to that of paradise.

Paradise /'pɛr.ə.daɪs/ n. In the afterlife, the place of the blessed. [Usually equated with heaven.]
2. The garden of Eden.
3. An ideal, happy, peaceful, or picturesque place or state.
[Paradisal /pɛr.ə'daɪz.əl/ adj.]

Perdís was an ancient Persian word for “a park.” Persian parks were particularly known for their decorative, ornamental gardens.

Both Hebrew and Greek borrowed the word. Late Biblical Hebrew turned it into pardés, which is found in the bible thrice. Sg 4.13, Ec 2.5, Ne 2.8 Ancient Greek turned it into parádeisos, also found thrice. Lk 23.43, 2Co 12.4, Rv 2.7 It’s where we get our English word paradise.

Of course in English a paradise refers to any nice place. I tend to hear it describe tropical beaches, which are hardly garden-like. But the Pharisees grew to use it primarily to describe Eden, the place of the first humans. And the afterlife.

Like Ecclesiastes commented, nobody really knew what happened to a human’s spirit after death. Ec 3.21 But they speculated. To them, once the body was in sh’ól/“the grave,” once the neféš/“soul, lifeforce” was extinguished, the spirit would go elsewhere and await resurrection. In the Old Testament, “elsewhere” was the same for both the righteous and the wicked. Ec 9.10 They didn’t imagine it as a place of reward nor punishment. It was simply where the dead went.

No, that’s not a pleasant idea. That’s why over time the Pharisees came to believe God sorted people in the “elsewhere” for reward and punishment, before resurrection. Different parts of the afterlife. A restful part, and a hellish part.

Y’know that story Jesus told of Lazarus and the rich man? Lk 16.19-31 Like that. The rich man’s torment, the Pharisees designated ge-Henna, after the burning landfill outside Jerusalem. Lazarus’s comfort, in contrast, was designated paradise, as if the LORD had teleported Eden into the afterlife, and let the ghosts of the deceased wander around there. (Not sure what they’d do with the fruit trees, though.) Yeah, both these terms are metaphors. Torment wasn’t literally a burning garbage fire, although it was mighty bad. Comfort wasn’t literally Eden.

Now, here’s the problem: Is this what our afterlife is gonna consist of? ’Cause for most Christians, this simply won’t be good enough. Our preachers promised us mansions in heaven. We want that. We don’t wanna lounge around with Abraham and await Jesus’s return; we wanna see our dead relatives and friends, then find Jesus and give him a big ol’ hug (and maybe weep on his toga for a bit), then run into the fields and play with our childhood pets which died years ago. We don’t just want comfort; we want our eternal reward. Right away.

So we wanna hear Jesus has significantly changed things since bible times. Here’s the problem: Bible doesn’t say he’s changed a thing. But Christian mythology sure does, and that’s the story Christians prefer.

“That’s not how the afterlife works!”

Hence whenever I teach on the afterlife, I get a lot of annoyed reactions and odd looks from Christians who grew up with, and prefer, the mythology.

Here’s how Jesus described the afterlife in Luke.

Luke 16.19-31 KWL
19 “A certain person was wealthy, dressed in purple and fine linen, every day just brilliant.
20 A certain poor person named Lazarus, covered in whip-marks, was thrown at his gate.
21 Lazarus wanted to eat what fell from the wealthy man’s table,
but only the dogs emerged; they licked his wounds.
22 Poor Lazarus died, and was carried off by the angels to Abraham’s fold.
The wealthy man died, was buried… 23 and lifting his eyes in hades, his torture beginning,
he saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his fold.
24 He shouted to him, ‘Father Abraham! Have mercy on me!
Send Lazarus, so he can dip his fingertip in water and cool my tongue.
I’m tortured by this fire!’
25 Abraham said, ‘Child, remember: You received your good in your lifetime. Lazarus, likewise, evil.
Now here, he receives comfort, and you, torture.
26 In any case, there’s a vast chasm fixed between us and you:
Those who want to cross over there to any of you, can’t. Nor can any of you cross over here to us.’
27 The wealthy man said, ‘Then I ask you this, Father.
Send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so he can testify about this,
so they won’t also come to this place of torture.’
29 Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. Listen to them.’
30 The wealthy man said, ‘No, Father Abraham!
When someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’
31 Abraham told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets,
they won’t be persuaded even when someone rises from the dead.’ ”

Jesus never updated this description. Not in the gospels; not in Revelation. As far as we can tell, this is what happens.

But like I said, that’s not good enough for impatient Christians. So the new story, popularly called “The Harrowing of Hell,” is that when Jesus died—when he “descended to the dead,” as the creeds put it—he staged a massive prison break. It’s found in the Gospel of Nicodemus, a fourth-century work which claims Jesus invaded hades, had Satan tied up, freed all the Old Testament saints from the afterlife, and took them with him to heaven.

To this day, it’s how various Christians have chosen to interpret Ephesians 4.7-10. They claim it describes Jesus doing just this.

Ephesians 4.7-10 KWL
7 Each one of us was given grace, according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
8 Hence the scripture says, “Going up into the high place,
he took prisoners to prison. He gave gifts to people.” Ps 68.18
9 That he went up—what’s this, if not that he also came down to the lower parts of the earth?
10 He who came down is also he who went up—far above every heaven, so he could fill everything.

In context, the Psalm 68 quote is about the LORD coming to the temple, leading the people he’d conquered in battle. Ps 68.17-20 Not leading freed saints from the afterlife. But like I said, people wanna read into it what they wanna read into it.

So they believe what popular culture teaches: When Christians die, we go straight to heaven. We don’t wait in any afterlife for resurrection; we go directly to the throne of God, the angelic choir, to all the stuff we see in Revelation 4. Never mind those martyrs under God’s throne-room altar who were told to wait a little longer—

Revelation 6.9-11 KWL
9 When he broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar:
The lives of those slaughtered because of God’s word, because of the witness they had.
10 They called out in a loud voice, saying, “Our holy true lord,
how long till you judge?—till you avenge our blood upon the earth’s inhabitants?”
11 Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told it’ll stop in a little while:
Once they were full. Their fellow servants, their brothers, were about to be killed just like them.

Somehow these Christians are in some waiting place. But the rest of us Christians expect to jump ahead of ’em in line, and go directly to heaven.

The fact is, the scriptures—the canonical scriptures, not fanfiction like the Gospel of Nicodemus—do tell us Jesus has the keys to the aferlife. Rv 1.18 That he’s gonna do away with it once and for all. But he hasn’t yet.

What do we know? Not a lot.

Two reasons Christians know very little about the afterlife. First, the scriptures tell us very little, so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to fill in some of the blanks. Sometimes with Christian mythology, like Nicodemus, or the Divine Comedy, or even C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Sometimes with people’s stories of their near-death experiences. Frequently with wishful thinking.

The other reason, of course, is Christians in denial. Instead of talking about the afterlife, we skip over it entirely and talk about resurrection. At funerals we repeat Jesus’s statement, “I’m the resurrection and the life,” Jn 11.25 and talk about coming back from death. We don’t talk about what happens in the meanwhile. In fact some of us (namely Roman Catholics) insist we’re resurrected in heaven, so there is no afterlife; just eternal life in the next world.

So when this happened—

Luke 23.42 KWL
The thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus said, “Amen! I promise you’ll be with me in paradise today.”

—to their minds paradise means heaven, and (after a brief raid on the underworld) that’s where they really went.

Okay, let’s step away from Christian mythology and briefly look at Pharisee mythology. In the Pharisees’ book 2 Enoch (a non-canonical book which Jude actually quoted Ju 1.14-15), angels took Enoch ben Jared Ge 5.18-23 on a tour through the 10 heavens. In each of them he found:

  1. The 200 angels who supervise stars, snow, and dew.
  2. Those angels which had rebelled against God, and were kept in the second heaven as punishment. Possibly this is the “outer darkness” of Matthew 8.12.
  3. Paradise. The Garden of Eden, kept “between corruptibility and incorruptibility,” 2En 8.5 for the dead to live in. On its north side was a place for the wicked; this is apparently what Jesus described in his Lazarus story. Lk 16.23-31
  4. The sun, the moon, 8,000 stars, and 150,000 angels. (But only 1,000 angels are there at night. Not sure why. Maybe they sleep.)
  5. The iyrím/“watchers” which had rebelled against God. In Pharisee myth, watchers were sent to teach humanity the Law before Noah’s flood had ever taken place—thus explaining how Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean animals. Ge 7.2 But these “sons of God” had instead chosen to interbreed with humans. Ge 6.1-4 Supposedly Enoch was the one who told God on them, so God rewarded him with this trip through the heavens. (That, or being transformed into Metatrón, God’s chief angel.) This is the spirit-prison Jesus visited to proclaim the gospel to. 1Pe 3.19-20
  6. Archangels.
  7. Other scary angels.
  8. The seasons and times of the year, which were unleashed when their time came.
  9. The constellations of the zodiac.
  10. God himself.

As you notice, paradise is in the third heaven. Yep, that third heaven. You might remember Paul mentioned it.

2 Corinthians 12.1-5 KWL
1 It’s necessary to emphasize—but this isn’t productive,
so I’ll come to visions and the Master’s revelations.
2 I know a person in Christ, 14 years ago—
whether in the body I don’t know, whether out of the body I don’t know; God knows—
who experienced some kind of rapture to the third heaven.
3 I know this person—whether in the body, whether without a body, I don’t know; God knows—
4 who was raptured into paradise, who heard unutterable words which aren’t right for people to speak.
5 I can emphasize such a person.
I don’t emphasize myself, other than about my weaknesses.

Various Christians suspect Paul was actually writing about himself, though if that’s true, verse 5 is a lie. Anyway, because they don’t know about the Pharisees’ 10 heavens, a popular interpretation has been circulating that people of Paul’s day only believed in three heavens: The sky, outer space, and God’s domain. I haven’t been able to track down the source of that teaching, but I haven’t found anyone teach it before the 1800s. The Divine Comedy describes 10 heavens, and while they don’t match the Pharisees’ descriptions, it seems 10 was the usual number of heavens in Judeo-Christian mythology until Protestants, who neither knew nor cared about Catholic and Pharisee myths, invented their own theory.

Paul may have written about what we nowadays call a near-death experience. Lots of people, when they die or are near death, see visions of the afterlife. (I don’t consider NDEs to be reliable because too many pagans have seen visions of their religions’ afterlives. I believe God obviously can grant such visions if he chooses to, but not all these visions come from God.) Since this person with the NDE couldn’t share details—either because they couldn’t remember them, or weren’t permitted to reveal them—it didn’t give the apostles, nor us, anything to go on. Paul mentioned it only because he figured it confirmed his belief in the third heaven. It’s something to emphasize.

Other Pharisees described paradise as part of sh’ól, or as they also called it, avaddón/“destruction.” Ps 88.11, Pr 15.11, 27.20 Sometimes the Pharisees even referred to Avaddón as a person; in Revelation John described it as an angel, the king of the Abyss—the bottomless pit, the spirits’ prison. Rv 9.11 In the Pharisee book 4 Ezra, also called 2 Esdras, God informed Ezra that the “pit of torment” and “furnace of hell” sits opposite the “place of rest,” the “paradise of delight.” 2Es 7.36 NRSV So according to the Pharisees, paradise isn’t above, but below.

Yeah, mythology isn’t the most reliable source of information. It’s why Ecclesiastes is skeptical about all of it:

Ecclesiastes 3.20-21 KWL
20 They all go to one place:
All come from the dust, all return to dust.
21 Who knows whether Adam’s children’s spirits go up to heaven,
whereas animal spirits go down to the underworld?

We don’t know. And that’s a real hangup for a lot of Christians. We wanna know. We want certainty about what’s gonna happen to us after we die. There’s a paradise? That’s kinda nice, but we want details. Where is it? What’s it consist of? What’ll we be doing there? Are our loved ones there? Is Jesus?—it won’t be much of a paradise unless Jesus is there. Will we have bodies, or will we be ghosts? Will we feel stuff?—probably, ’cause the rich man sure felt torment.

Our knowledge about the afterlife is so inadequate, it stands to reason why Christians are eager to jump all over the idea that we bypass it and go to heaven instead. I get that. But I don’t teach it, ’cause it’s not what we have in the scriptures. Sorry.

I’ll only leave you with this: Jesus called it paradise. He thought it a valid word for the place. That’ll have to do us for now.