Does the Bible Promise an Earthly Paradise?
“PARADISE is a name for heaven,” says The World Book Encyclopedia. “Jesus used the word in this sense when He spoke to the dying thief upon the cross.”
But did Jesus Christ actually promise a heavenly paradise to the dying thief? Or did he promise an earthly Paradise?
Promise of Heavenly Life
There can be no question that Jesus held out the hope of heavenly life to his faithful apostles. The night before his execution, he promised: “In the house of my Father there are many abodes. . . . I am going my way to prepare a place for you. Also, if I go my way and prepare a place for you, I am coming again and will receive you home to myself, that where I am you also may be.” What a grand promise of heavenly life!—John 14:2, 3.
Jesus will rule in heaven as King of God’s Kingdom. And God has been selecting from among humankind persons to rule with him. The Bible tells what Christ does with these selected ones: “You made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God, and they are to rule as kings over the earth.”—Revelation 5:10; 2 Timothy 2:11, 12.
The apostle John said that those who are “bought from the earth” to rule in heaven with Christ would number 144,000. They would be a “little flock” compared with all those who receive everlasting life. (Revelation 14:1-3; Luke 12:32; John 10:16) To such ones who had the hope of being received into heaven, Christ promised: “To him that conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” (Revelation 2:7; John 16:33; 1 John 5:4) This figurative “paradise of God” is in the invisible heavens.
However, is it correct to assume that heaven is the only paradise set before all of Jesus’ followers? Since the sympathetic evildoer did not conquer the world by pursuing a course of faithfulness to God but was justly being put to death for his wicked deeds, what Paradise did Christ promise him?
What Paradise Promised to the Evildoer?
One of the evildoers hanging next to Jesus said: “You are the Christ, are you not? Save yourself and us.” Yet the sympathetic evildoer rebuked him. Then, turning to Jesus, he said: “Remember me when you get into your kingdom.” At that Jesus made the remarkable promise: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.”—Luke 23:39-43.
Where is this promised Paradise? The way this verse is rendered in numerous Bible translations has influenced the view of many people regarding this. Most Bibles read as does the Revised Standard Version: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Thus, according to such translations, on the very day that Jesus and the evildoer died they went to Paradise. Yet, how could that be, since the Bible says that Jesus went to Hades, or Sheol, at death? The apostle Peter, in telling about His resurrection from there three days later, said: “Neither was he forsaken in Hades [Sheol, in Hebrew] . . . This Jesus God resurrected.”—Acts 2:31, 32; Psalm 16:10.
Since Jesus clearly was in Sheol, or Hades (the common grave of mankind), prior to his resurrection, the Commentary on the Holy Scriptures by J. P. Lange says: “We have, however, by this Paradise to understand not the heavenly Paradise . . . but that part of Sheol which is opposed to Gehenna, and which was also named Paradise.”
D. D. Whedon in his Commentary on the Gospels provides some background regarding this view of Paradise, explaining: “The name [Paradise] was transferred by the Jewish Church [from the original Paradise in Eden] to the blessed section of Hades, or the intermediate state between death and the resurrection. Beyond all doubt it was the intention of Jesus to designate this, by the term Paradise, to the dying thief.”
Paradise a “blessed section of Hades”? This was apparently a view that originated with Jewish teachers; it certainly is not something taught in the sacred Hebrew Scriptures. Most churchmen today do not accept the view that Paradise is a section of Hades. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes: “According to the prevailing interpretation of Catholic theologians and commentators, paradise in this instance is used as a synonym for the heaven of the blessed to which the thief would accompany the Saviour.”
Many Protestant writers agree with this view held by Catholics. J. G. Butler, in his commentary The Bible-Work, exclaims: “What a day to that dying man! Its morning saw him a culprit condemned before the bar of earthly judgment; before evening shadowed the hill of Zion he stood accepted at the bar of heaven.”
But wait! We have seen that, according to the Bible, Jesus went to Sheol, or Hades, when he died, not to heaven. He was dead for three days, unconscious in the common grave of humankind. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) So he could not have gone to heaven. The Bible says that Jesus returned to heaven 40 days after his resurrection.—Acts 1:3, 6-11.
Clearly, Jesus was promising the evildoer simply that he would be resurrected into Paradise; Jesus was not saying he would live in Paradise that very day. Therefore the correct translation of Jesus’ words is: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” A number of Bible translations read this way, one of which (Lamsa) says in its footnote: “Ancient texts were not punctuated. The comma could come before or after today.”
So where will the Paradise be that Jesus promised the evildoer? And when will it be enjoyed?
An Earthly Paradise
Remember, we spoke earlier about God’s creation of the original Paradise in Eden right here on earth. Obviously it was God’s purpose to have an earthly Paradise in which humankind would enjoy everlasting life in peace and security. Do you think that God will permit this purpose of his to go unfulfilled? Never! “Everything that is my delight I shall do,” he says. “I have even spoken it; I shall also bring it in.” (Isaiah 46:10, 11) Yes, God will do what he purposes! And his promise is: “The righteous themselves will possess the earth, and they will reside forever upon it.”—Psalm 37:29.
So when we read Jesus’ promise of Paradise to the evildoer, we should picture in our minds this entire earth made into a beautiful place in which to live, like a fruitful garden, for that is what the word “paradise” means. Will Jesus be right here on earth with the former evildoer in Paradise? No, Jesus will be in heaven ruling as King over the earthly Paradise. He will be with that man in the sense that He will raise him from the dead and care for his needs, both physical and spiritual.
The evildoer obviously was not a faithful Christian conqueror who qualified for life as a coruler in heaven with Christ. He did wicked things, even as did millions of other people whom Jesus will resurrect. (Acts 24:15) But they did these wicked things because they were ignorant of God’s will. So in Paradise they will be taught what God’s will is, and they will have the opportunity to prove that they really do love God by doing his will.
A Picture of Paradise
Though it draws the conclusion that Paradise is “a place distinct from the earth,” the New Catholic Encyclopedia says: “The peace and ideal justice to be procured by the messianic king will be like those of Paradise in Is[aiah] 11.6-11.” Consider the beautiful Paradise described there. After telling about the rulership of the Messianic King, Jesus Christ, this heart-stirring prophecy in Isaiah chapter 11 goes on to say in Isa 11 verses 6 to 9:
“The wolf will actually reside for a while with the male lamb, and with the kid the leopard itself will lie down, and the calf and the maned young lion and the well-fed animal all together; and a mere little boy will be leader over them. And the cow and the bear themselves will feed; together their young ones will lie down. And even the lion will eat straw just like the bull. And the sucking child will certainly play upon the hole of the cobra; and upon the light aperture of a poisonous snake will a weaned child actually put his own hand. They will not do any harm or cause any ruin in all my holy mountain; because the earth will certainly be filled with the knowledge of Jehovah as the waters are covering the very sea.”
Where will the Paradise conditions here so beautifully described be fulfilled? Religious teachers of Christendom do not believe they will actually be fulfilled on earth. “All the traits of the picture painted by Isaiah bear the stamp of the existing earthly corporality,” acknowledges Professor J. P. Lange. But he adds: “In this sphere the prophecy cannot be realized. We must suppose a new basis of spiritual, glorified corporality made for this fulfilment.”
Yet is this prophecy figuratively describing the peace and security people will enjoy in a heavenly paradise? Not at all! It is describing conditions right here on earth. Already today within the organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses earth wide a condition of spiritual prosperity, peace and security exists, as depicted in such a beautiful way by God’s prophet Isaiah. However, will such paradise conditions in due course be extended so as to be fulfilled in a literal way?
True, most teachers of religion in Christendom may scoff at the idea that God will cause animals to be at peace with one another and with humans. But we can have confidence that Almighty God will bring about such marvelous changes in the animal realm. As one Bible commentator noted regarding this Bible prophecy: “If all is merely figurative, what is the point of such detailed statements concerning the change in animals? It would appear also that we have here a parallelism or comparison with the condition before the fall of man into sin. Before the entrance of sin into the world the animals were the helps of man and were named by him. All that God had made was good. Hostility between man and the animals, at least, was unknown.”
Truly, what beautiful parallelisms there are between this prophetic description in Isaiah of the Messiah’s rule and the conditions that existed in the garden of Eden! There, “the knowledge of Jehovah” abounded, as God no doubt communed with his perfect earthly son, Adam. The Bible specifically says that then animals were given “all green vegetation for food.” They did not eat other animals. (Genesis 1:30) And the animals were in subjection to man, obeying the command to appear before him to be named.—Genesis 2:19, 20.
How grand it will be to see such a situation of harmony and security restored earth wide! What a privilege it will be to enjoy a glorious earthly Paradise in which all people love one another and where this grand peace among humans is even reflected in the cessation of hostilities in the animal realm! Indeed, the Bible does promise an earthly Paradise!
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Will these conditions really prevail on earth?