I grew up fifteen miles from Paradise, Pennsylvania. It, like Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, and other strangely named south-central Pennsylvania towns was a gorgeous bucolic setting with rolling hills and farmland as far as the eye can see. Because I was brought up in that area, I can’t help but picture it every time I hear Jesus tell the thief who repented “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” It might be a boring piece of God’s creation, but there are far worse places than Paradise, PA to spend eternity.
This is, of course, said tongue in cheek, but I do wonder what the average person in the pew thinks when they hear Jesus say these words. I mean, our understanding of heaven and hell is so skewed by Dante and popular culture, that it is really hard to even begin to give a real thought to what Jesus had in mind as he promised the thief entrance into his kingdom in that most holy hour.
The English word “paradise” is basically a transliteration of the Greek “paradeisos,” but it has roots that are even more ancient. Originally, the word comes from the Avestan language, an Eastern Iranian dialect that is known to us only through the scriptures of Zoroastrianism. In Avestan, the word is “pairidaeza” and it means a grand enclosure or park. By the time it came into Greek, the word carried a royal connotation. It is the park of the king’s palace. In Judaism, it was the portion of Hades set apart for pious souls to wait for the resurrection. Others thought it was the paradise of heaven. By the time of the Church Fathers, Paradise was thought to be the Garden in which Adam and Eve first lived; a place that didn’t exist either in heaven or on earth, but outside of both.
This promise of Jesus makes for interesting theological discussion. Did Jesus mean that the thief would be with him in heaven? Was there, as many early thinkers have suggested, another place of waiting for the righteous? If when we die, we no longer exist inside the confines of space and time, does this place of waiting really exist at all? Can’t we skip immediately to the final judgment? What did Jesus have in mind?
In light of this lesson being read on the Feast of Christ the King, what strikes me over and above all these “how many angels fit on the head of a pin” debates is the fact that even in his final moments and in the face of a shocking amount of doubt and derision, Jesus was able to assert his kingship by welcoming this outsider, this criminal, into his kingdom based on only one criteria: faith. This unnamed criminal had faith that Jesus was who he said he was, and that was all he needed to gain entrance into the Kingdom. His faith was exercised in a moment of great pain and terror. Would that we might be able to show such faith in times of crisis, or even in our moments of relative comfort. Jesus, the King of kings, invites us to join him in Paradise. Will you enter?