The Development of the Notion of Paradise
Why do most
people desire to go to paradise? What are their understandings of
it? Is the paradise that they indicate the same one? Where is
paradise from? Where is it now? How can we get there? What are
issues regarding paradise that modern people are concerned with the
most? All these
questions are worthy to be explored not only because almost all
people (including non-believers and especially the elderly) may have
ever concerned with questions about paradise and have tried to know
or seek it but also because many people have misunderstood and/or
misuse it in some ways and degree.
The Origin of Paradise
According to the Oxford dictionary, the word ¡§paradise¡¨ basically means an ideal, perfect, and delightful place. Although many dictionaries do not mention where paradise is, many modern people always think that it is in heaven. Likewise, this word does not make any reference to religious implication originally, but many people believe that paradise is the place prepared by the divine for religious people.
Also, many modern people believe that the word paradise and its meaning derive either from the creation story (the Garden of Eden) in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, or from Christian belief (the heavenly paradise). However, this word ultimately originates from the Avestan (Old Persian) word ¡§pairi-daēza¡¨ and denotes a ¡§park¡¨ originally.
Achaemenid Persia (the first of the Persian Empires, ruling over
significant portions of modern-day Iran), the term was not just
applied to a ¡§landscaped garden¡¨ but especially to a royal hunting
ground, the earliest form of wildlife reserve, destined for hunting
as a sport. In various cultures in contact with nature, paradise is
portrayed as an eternal hunting ground, not just in relatively
primitive cultures (e.g. native American) but also in more advanced,
essentially agricultural civilizations (e.g. the Egyptian Reed
fields and the Greek Elysian fields).
The Transformation of the Notion of Paradise
But how can a word originally mean an earthly park but later denote a heavenly place for religious people? Where do those added notions and meanings come from? The transformation of the notion of paradise begins with the creation story in chapter 2 and 3 of Genesis.
Gen 2: 8-15 tells us that God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man he had formed; and from the ground God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food. In this story, the word ¡§garden (pardēs)¡¨ in the Hebrew text means an enclosed area for cultivation or a park surrounded by a hedge. This word simply indicates a geographical place in the earth and has only the secular meaning.
Nevertheless, when the translators of the Hebrew Bible¡¦s Greek version (Septuagint) used the Persian loanword ¡§paradise¡¨ to convey ¡§garden¡¨ in the Greek translation, its notion was transformed. The primary context for this notion¡¦s transformation is that, about the 3rd or 2nd century B.C.E., many Jewish people began to believe that the abode of the righteous after their resurrection from death would be in ¡§paradise,¡¨ a place of uninterrupted bliss and life with God forever. Henceforth, the meaning of paradise had gradually transformed to denote this place which is prepared by God for the righteous. The Septuagint¡¦s translators adopted this belief and applied the new meaning of paradise into the creation story by using the word paradise (£k£\£lά£_£`£d£m£jς) to refer to the Garden of Eden. The notion of paradise thus signifies the garden of God, instead of a park. Then the shift of paradise¡¦s notion from secular to religious meaning was completed.
Christians accepted the Jewish notion of paradise from the very beginning of Christianity. Some New Testament writers used the word paradise to refer to the Garden of Eden (e.g. Rev 2:7) while others used it to name the place where believers are with the divine after death (e.g. Lk 23:43). Yet, some Christian writers even go further. They situated paradise in heaven (e.g. 2 Cor 5:1-4; Phil 1:21-24; Heb 11:13-16). For them, paradise must be (situated) in heaven since the profane world has filled with sins and wicked people and thus cannot be the land for paradise. Moreover, because Christians believe in the bodily resurrection at the time of Jesus Christ¡¦s second coming to the world (Parousia), a place where the believers¡¦ souls can stay after physical death and before resurrection is needed in this belief. As the result, paradise also becomes an intermediate resting place for the souls awaiting Parousia.
meaning of paradise has clearly transformed from the garden of God
to the heavenly place which is prepared by God for believers to live
with the divine after death. This new notion of paradise then has
prevailed from the 1st century C.E. to the present, especially in
the Christian community and the western world.
Views on Paradise Presented by Art
Western art works which entitled ¡§Paradise¡¨ are also able to manifest popular views on paradise. Many pieces have illustrated paradise as the Garden of Eden which is based on the creation story in Genesis. The art works done by Herri met de Bles (an artist in the 15th century), Hieronymus Bosch (15th), Lucas the Elder Cranach (16th), and Jan the Elder Bruegel (16th) could be regarded as the representatives of this kind of view (see Painting No. 01- 04 in Appendix).
Menabuoi (14th) portrays paradise as a heavenly place where the Lord
is in the middle with many choirs of angels and the saints around
him in many circles. In this piece, the paradise is not a garden but
a gathering place for the saints to hear the Lord¡¦s teaching
Jean Colombe (15th) depicts paradise as a heavenly place where the
crowned Virgin sits on the Lord¡¦s right under a beautiful canopy
with the saints around it. Obviously, Colombe¡¦s view on paradise
corresponds with Giusto¡¦s (Painting No.6).
Hans Memling (15th) illustrates paradise as a heavenly grand
cathedral guarded by angles. The uniqueness of Memling¡¦s view on
paradise is that he presents paradise as a place inside a building
in heaven (Painting No.7).
Geographical Location of Paradise
In modern times, three issues concerning paradise attract much attention. While Scholars usually try to discover the geographical location of paradise, believers always try to seek the features of paradise and the way to get there.
scholars, to explore the location of paradise is to find the
geographical site of the Garden of Eden. They have suggested two
possible locations. The first one, based on the narrative of Gen
2:10-14, is at some common point of the origin of the Tigris,
Euphrates, Nile (which is Gihon in the Hebrew Bible), and Indus or
Gangen (which is Pishon in the Hebrew Bible). The second possible
place is in Dilmun of Sumer, near the head of the Persian Gulf.
Unfortunately, these two locations are speculative and, thus
scholars have never verified the real location of the Garden of
Features of Paradise
The primary reason why most people desire to go to paradise correlates with features of paradise. Many people, including some scholars, recognize the following descriptions as the main features of paradise. First, the writer of the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible describes paradise as a place that ¡§The wolf shall dwell with the lamb; the leopard lie down with the kid; the calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together with a little boy to herd them; the cow and the bear shall graze; A baby shall play over a viper¡¦s hole, and a infant pass his hand over an adder¡¦s den. Nothing evil or vile shall be done; for the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea¡¨ (Isa.11: 6-9, JSB). ¡§Never again shall be heard there the sound of weeping and wailing.¡¨ ¡§Before they pray, God will answer.¡¨ ¡§The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox¡¨ (Isa.65:19b, 24a, 25a).
of The Apocalypse of Ezra, a book in Jewish Pseudepigrapha, portrays
paradise in this way: ¡§For you Paradise is open, the Tree of Life
planted, the future age and abundance are prepared, rest appointed,
good words established, and wisdom defined. Evil roots are sealed up
from you, and sickness extinguished from your path. Death is
concealed; Hades fled; corruption sinks in oblivion; sorrow is gone,
and in the end the gold of immortality is manifest¡¨ (The Apocalypse
of Ezra, 8:52). Since paradise has been understood as a peaceful,
delightful, and blissful place where people can live eternally
without pain and death, it is no doubt that most people desire to go
The Way to Paradise
Both Judaism and Christianity have presented their beliefs in how people can enter into paradise. Their views have some differences as well as similarities. For example, Judaism suggests that the way to paradise is to obey and practice God¡¦s Law, but Christianity claims that the only way to there is through Jesus Christ. Secondly, for Judaism, paradise is prepared for the righteous, but for Christianity, all believers, not merely the righteous, can go to there. Thirdly, Judaism regards paradise as the place where residents live with God, but Christianity asserts that residents dwell with God as well as the Lord, Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, both Judaism and Christianity agree with each other in the following views on this issue. First, the way to get to paradise is primarily by religious practice. Second, on the last day of the world, it is not the righteous or believers ascending to paradise from the earth, but is paradise coming down to the earth from the heaven. At that time, paradise will be called the ¡§New Heavens and New Earth,¡¨ ¡§New Jerusalem,¡¨ or ¡§Holy City¡¨ (Isa.65:17, Rev. 21:2).
Third and mostly importantly, for most Jewish people and Christians, the destination of life is not death, but is paradise. This ultimate goal of their lives not only orientates their lives but also provide them great hope, especially when they are suffering and dying. In this belief, they find the way toward the future and strength toward death.
The word paradise and its original notion (i.e. a park) derive from ancient Persian thought, rather than from the Bible or Christian thought. In the Jewish and Christian community, the notion of paradise has been transformed from a park, through a garden of God, to a heavenly place. While most scholars see paradise as a geographical location in the earth, most of the religious regard it as a promised land in heaven which is prepared by God for the righteous or believers to dwell with the divine blissfully and eternally afterlife. Therefore, most people may be not interested in knowing where paradise is, but in seeking the way to get there.
Paintings entitled ¡§Paradise¡¨
01-- Paradise, (about 1450) by Herri met de Bles
02-a & 02-b -- Paradise, (about 1500) by Hieronymus Bosch
03-a & 03-b -- Paradise, (about 1530) by Lucas the Elder Cranach
04-a & 04-b -- Paradise, (about 1568) by Jan the Elder Bruegel
05 -- Paradise, (about 1376) by Giusto de' Menabuoi
06 -- Paradise, (about 1485) by Jean Colombe
07-a -- Paradise, (about 1467) by Hans Memling
This piece is located in the left wing of a triptych entitled ¡§the Last Judgment.¡¨
07-b -- Paradise, (about 1467) by Hans Memling
07-c -- Paradise, (about 1467) by Hans Memling