Paradise: the Garden or the Grave
By Ian Thomason
The Revival Centres International (RCI) has long promoted the position that Jesus' 'paradise' (see Luke 23:43) ought to be viewed as the physical grave of humanity. RCI theologians offer this view in defence of the doctrine of 'soul-sleep': the position which teaches that the spirits of human beings enter into an unconscious state at death, to be later revived at the consummation (the return of Jesus Christ). If it can be concretely demonstrated that Jesus meant what is outwardly implied by his words spoken whilst on the cross, then it follows that the RCI position on the intermediate state of humans would require significant revision.
This short essay will seek to demonstrate, conclusively, that Jesus' understanding of the implications of 'paradise', and the RCI understanding of the same, are poles removed from each other. It will be identified that the RCI's position on this subject results more from a philosophical bias than it does from a fair and accurate interpretation of the biblical data. To this end, then, it will be shown that the position on 'paradise' promoted by the Revival Centres International is un-Scriptural.
The Persian Connection
The English expression 'paradise' derives from the ancient Persian (Iranian) word pairidaeza, which simply described an enclosed, or protected garden 1. Importantly, pairidaeza identified the place where humans could find peace and tranquility - conditions that sustained life, not those that served to enclose death. From Persia, the word was later incorporated into the Aramaic language of northern Palestine, as pardesa ?, then into Hebrew as pardes, and finally into Greek as paradeisos
The Septuagint, the Greek-language version of the Old Testament, that version which formed the Scriptures of the original Church, translates gan ba 'eden ('[the] garden, Eden') of Genesis 2:8, 9, 10, 15 and 16 with the word paradeisos. This, of course, is precisely the same word that we find Jesus uttering on the cross. Equally worthy of note is that all three instances where the word paradeisos is found in the New Testament (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:4, and Revelation 2:7), involve the direct presence or realm of God. And God, we are reminded, is "...not the God of the dead but the living." (Matthew 22:32)
It is likely that Lloyd R. Longfield erred, by his associating the image of an 'English garden cemetery' with the rather unique position on 'paradise' that he read into Jesus' words to the crucified rebel. As a rule, the Persians, Hebrews and Greeks did not bury their dead in 'gardens'. All three cultures practiced the entombing of human remains in 'desert' places (dry, lifeless areas), areas set apart specifically for such a purpose. It is due to this that Jewish superstition associated Azazel - the demon of the desert, the one for whom the scapegoat was dispatched on the Day of Atonement each year - with graveyards.
Since the paradise of Eden was the place of happiness that mankind forfeited by consequence of sin, the Rabbinical literature of post-Second Temple Judaism consistently uses the term 'paradise' to identify that region where the righteous dead dwell (the so-called 'bosom of Abraham' that is described in the KJV's rendering of Luke 16:22). This abode, quite naturally, was sharply contrasted with that of Gehenna, the place of eternal torment and woe.
Whether or not 'paradise' is strictly co-terminus with 'heaven' is not completely clear. However, one point is. The biblical 'Paradise' is not the grave of 'non-existence'; rather, it is the place where fellowship with God is re-established and enjoyed.
Excursus - Where Did Jesus Go?
A comprehensive discussion on the intermediate state would be too lengthy for this essay, and so needs be addressed in a subsequent article. However, it is important to reconcile what, outwardly at least, appear to be contradictory statements from the mouth of Jesus himself.
"For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40, NIV).
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43, NIV).
In the first passage we note Jesus prophesying of his death and burial, indicating the period of time he would be in the tomb. However, to the rebel on the cross, Jesus declares he would be in paradise that very same day. How do we 'square' the two statements? Do they even 'square'?
The answer, I propose, is not that difficult to determine.
Jews, as with Christians, have historically understood the person to be, essentially, a 'unity'. In unity, however, we note a 'duality' - body and soul/spirit. Jesus' body spent three days in the tomb awaiting his resurrection, whilst his soul/spirit was committed to God in paradise. The Christian resurrection is, principally, a physical one. Whilst the soul/spirit departs "...to be at home with the Lord..." (see 2 Corinthians 5:8); it must, eventually, reunite with the body (see 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). The two combined, body and soul/spirit, help to define us as human.
The question might then be asked, "...well, if Jesus' body was in the tomb, and his soul/spirit with the Father, then what of the curious statement in First Peter chapter three, verse nineteen?"
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water... (1 Peter 3:18-20, NIV).
Several things we note. First, it was through the Spirit that he preached to the 'spirits in prison'. The word translated 'preached', is ekerixen in the Greek, which properly means to "...herald openly something that has been done or achieved." Christ descended, in Spirit, to declare to the disobedient, those who had rebelled at the time of Noah (perhaps the 'Nephilim'?) that he had triumphed. We are not, however, told when this proclamation occurred. It may have been at the time his body rested in the tomb, it may have been long after his ascension. The truth is that we really don't know and cannot make dogmatic statements about it, one way or the other. Assuming for the sake of the argument that this did occur during the 'three days' period, we should not lose sight of the fact that Jesus Christ is, in his very nature, fully God. One of the attributes of God, which defines him as 'God', is omnipresence - the ability to be everywhere simultaneously. During the 'three days' period, Jesus' deity was not 'limited' by his humanity. His humanity, at this time, comprised a pierced 'shell' lying on a hewn ledge in a Jewish tomb.
The ultimate answer that I offer for consideration, however, is even simpler. If 'paradise' is the place where one communes intimately with God, then 'paradise' is wherever God chooses to be. Ipso facto, paradise was where Jesus was during the 'three days' period, irrespective of where he was during that time.
1 The Persian 'paradise' is found in the 'Teachings of Zarathustra'. We read of Angra Mainyu's rebellion against Ahura Mazda, and of his plotting to tempt the primordal couple to sin. This epic parallels the Creation account of Genesis, and we find 'paradise' used to describe the garden, 'Eden'.