Is paradise heaven?

Yesterday here at Douai we celebrated the solemn feast of our patron saint, the young martyr King Edmund. Today all the Church celebrates the solemn feast of the King of kings, Christ our Lord. This year the gospel passage set for Mass was the scene on Calvary in St Luke’s Gospel in which the Good Thief asks the Lord on the Cross to remember him in his kingdom; our Lord answers him, “Today you will be with me in paradise”.

I heard today someone assert publicly that the meaning of this gospel passage is that our Lord was moved by the Good Thief’s repentance to forgive him everything so that he did not need to go to Purgatory but could join our Lord in heaven that very day. This indeed might be the interpretation of most people who read this passage of scripture. However it has two major flaws.

The first was addressed in the post earlier this month about Purgatory and praying for the dead. To recapitulate briefly, for God to forgive us does not necessarily mean we are spared Purgatory. Forgiveness spares us hell and gains us heaven, but for some of us, most in fact I suspect, we must be prepared for heaven, to dwell in the presence of the All-Holy, by being filled with holiness ourselves, the holiness without which no one can see God (Hebrews 12:14). Those in Purgatory, that state of preparation for heaven, have all been forgiven already, but need the deformations in them caused by sin to be repaired, their imperfections to be made perfect (in human terms) for we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Forgiveness does not in itself spare us the process of Purgatory.

But is being spared Purgatory even the point in this gospel passage? When our Lord promises Dismas, the Good Thief, that he will be with him that day in paradise, is our Lord in fact promising Dismas immediate entry into heaven? Is paradise heaven?

In the creed we profess that when Christ died he was buried and “descended to the dead (and) on the third day he rose again”. And for another 40 days after his resurrection our Lord remained on earth. He did not enter haven until the Ascension, when he went to the right hand of the Father. So if paradise is the same as heaven, then it seems our Lord must have told poor Dismas the thief a lie when he would be with him there that very day, since Christ did not return to God for another 43 days!

Obviously our Lord did not lie. Where, then, did Dismas go with our Lord that day of their deaths? The creed says that our Lord, and so Dismas with him, descended to the dead. This realm of the dead, which in older versions of the creed is somewhat unhelpfully termed “hell”, was the place, or state, where the souls of the dead awaited redemption by Christ. Until that redemption was gained through Christ’s blood then heaven was closed. Yet they were not damned to hell or eternal punishment, as were the souls who were sent to the place of torment, Gehenna in Hebrew, which we would in today’s usage call hell. This abode of the just who had died was a sort of waiting room for Christ, neither heaven nor hell. The Jews called it Sheol in Hebrew, or in Greek Hades. Thus the Psalmist, for example, often spoke of it as a place of silence: “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any that go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).

In the Gospel of St Luke, in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Christ says that poor Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham”, while the rich and selfish Dives goes to the torments of Gehenna. The bosom of Abraham is Sheol, shown here, in contrast to Gehenna, as a place of relative comfort and peace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #633, offers some teaching on this. In the early Church the bosom of Abraham, Sheol, was identified with “paradise” and as distinct from heaven either as (1) a place of purely natural bliss for those worthy neither of heaven nor hell (in other words, limbo), as for example in St Irenaeus’ Against Heresies; or (2) as a place of preparation for heaven (much like our developed concept of Purgatory), as in Origen’s De Principiis.

To cut to the chase, paradise was not heaven itself, not in this biblical context. For all that, our Lord was obviously promising Dismas something wonderful. He was certainly promising to take Dismas with him to the realm of the dead who awaited him, and whom he would lead from there into glory. I guess we might say that Dismas was promised a brief Purgatory that would lead inevitably into heavenly glory. More marvellously, he was promised that he would be with Jesus. In this sense our Lord’s descent to the dead made of Sheol a paradise by his very presence there after his death, and his proclamation of redemption to the souls who waited there. In effect, in his body our Lord brought heaven into Sheol, to make of it a bud that would flower into heaven.

So the bottom line is the same for all the technical complexities – Dismas is promised glory, though not “today” as such, but certainly. We could say that Christ himself canonised the Good Thief, which is why Christian tradition from earliest times gave him a name, Dismas, and prefixed it with “Saint”.

May St Dismas pray for us who yet await paradise; and may Christ our King reign in our world and in our hearts.

6 thoughts on “Is paradise heaven?

  1. Great stuff. Here are a few other thoughts to throw around:

    * It’s kinda tricky to nail down the exactly chronology after death, as well as the presence of a triune God.

    * As I understand it, the grammar of the Greek is somewhat unclear. In the English, it all depends upon where you put the comma:

    “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”


    “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise”

    So this makes the difference between today Jesus promising the thief something wonderful, or Jesus promising that the thief will receive something wonderful today!

    * The word “paradise” comes from a Persian word which means “garden”. With that in mind, it’s hard not to let your mind wander back to another garden described at the beginning of the Bible. That garden contained the “Tree of life” (Gen. 2:9) which is referred to again later in the Bible (Rev. 2:7).


  2. Pilgrim, your thinking cap is well and truly on, I see. Taking your points in order:

    * Indeed, it is not an easy task to determine the timing of supernatural events after anyone’s death. Nevertheless scripture and tradition give us some clear guides. Particular (or individual) judgment comes before the general one; our ultimate and eternal destination is either heaven or hell; those not fully ready to bear the divine presence in heaven will go to purgatory; at the general judgment we will again have a physicality to complement our spirituality.

    Why throw in the Trinity so casually? I think we can safely say that to behold the fullness of the Godhead, which must entail the revelation of the Trinity as fully as we can bear, is set for heaven and no other place or time. However I think it can be argued that judgment, and purgatory, involve a definitive encounter with God in Christ.

    * The manuscripts do differ, and do so according to their theological interpretation, most likely, and not vice versa. Ultimately where “today” goes does not matter. Today + paradise is fine, because paradise is not heaven in this context; today + I tell you is also fine for the same reason.

    Ether way Jesus is promising Dismas something wonderful, and that wonderful thing will at least begin “today” as he crosses the boundary from earthly life into eternal life, in the particular company of Jesus, indeed we might even say, with Jesus as his guide.

    * I did not want to get into the whole “garden” thing as it would have made a long entry longer and muddied the issue. Yes Paradise and Eden are synonymous in many contexts; but Eden was not heaven – it was a created place wherein God deigned to “walk”. I consider the whole “garden” issue a help to the argument but an unnecessary one given space constraints.

    Remember also, however, that the Old Testament prefigurings were always fulfilled in a greater way in the New. The Second Adam was greater than the first; the Second Eve was greater than the first; the Cross was greater than the tree of Life. That makes an interesting topic to mull over in the context of paradise: the paradise regained must be greater than the paradise lost – but to what extent and in what way?



  3. What you describe here is the process after death rather than strict chronology (and for good reason). I was making the point that since time in the afterlife doesn’t apply in the same way as it does here on earth, then the whole meaning of “today” is possibly open to wider interpretation.

    I didn’t mean to throw the Trinity in casually, I was just making the point that, as a mystery, our exact understanding of how people dwell with the triune God (in Sheol, Purgatory or Heaven) is always going to fall somewhat short.

    The typology at work in the OT here is indeed fascinating, particularly when one considers the link between the Garden of Eden, the Jerusalem Temple and John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation. The desire for the garden is also found in the prophets Isaiah (51:3) and Ezekiel (36:35). Even Paul describes a vision where he was caught up into “paradise” (2 Cor 12:3). Perhaps another time 😉


    1. Spot on about time in eternity, which is time-less, though there is a chronology of sorts we can fix on and must, e.g. individual judgment before general. That said, maybe “chronological” is just too anachronistic a term and we should use “logical”. Thus, there is a logical sequence after death of what will happen, which has been revealed.

      How we dwell with God is indeed a mystery, but we can know that the Trinity will not be in purgatory, for example, and will arguably not be at individual judgment, in the sense that judgment has been given to the Son and will be an encounter with him rather than the Trinity per se. But for every assertion we can confidently make, there are 100 hundred more we cannot.

      You have discerned that “paradise” can change its meaning, which is why I was careful to use “in this context” when talking of the scene at Calvary. Your example of 2 Cor 12:3 is an interesting one and rather supports my position. You need to look at the verse before which mentions the “third heaven”. Now this man who was caught up into the third heaven and paradise (not, n.b., Paul himself) has had a mystical experience of what? Heaven? Not as Christians understand it. Judaism had a very complex and fluid cosmology of various levels of afterlife, which such Jews as the Sadducees would not have accepted. But Paul, a former Pharisee, would have grown up with this complex cosmology and here he resorts to the former terminology. There is no third or seventh etc heaven as such in Christianity. I suspect this man’s vision was of judgment, and for this reason unspeakable. This paradise would thus be consistent with the place to which the just go before heaven, and where they are judged in an encounter with Christ.


  4. You mention that the old creeds used to say that after Jesus died he descended into Hell. I had that in one of my prayer books. If Jesus did not descend into Hell, but rather descended into Sheol after his death, why was the word ‘Hell’ chosen when the old creeds were written?


    1. That is a good question! The problem is one of translation. It seems for a long time in English any post-death destination that was not heaven was called hell. It is no longer a helpful translation for us. Hell in Christian terms is a place/state of (1) eternal punishment from which there is no escape, the main punishment being that (2) God is not there. So hell is the everlasting separation from God.

      So if this was the hell that Christ went to after death, then it ceased to be hell because (1) Christ, being also God, was there and (2) he led the souls of the just out of it, so it was not eternal.

      Biblically speaking Hebrew was clearer: Sheol was the waiting room of the dead; Gehenna was hell as we would use the word today. Christ went to Sheol not Gehenna. Thus paradise is not inappropriate as an alternative because Sheol – purgatory is ultimately a state that leads to God for eternity.

      Hans Urs von Balthasar, a great modern theologian, expressed a theory that Christ did indeed go to Gehenna, the realm of the damned, in order to experience to the full the sufferings of the fall of man which his death redeemed. This is ultimately inconsistent with the Catholic faith, not only logically (it would have ceased to be hell if Christ was there!) but theologically, since after his death Christ cannot have suffered any more. This theory probably reflects von Balthasar’s not so secret hope that all men would ultimately be saved and that hell would be empty – emptied indeed because Christ had already been there, he would say, and so made it no longer hell at all. But hell exists and will exist for ever, irregardless of how many people are there. That is a dogma of the faith and must be believed.

      So in the creed, the best translation would be something like “he descended to the dead”.

      As to our use in English of “hell”, we need to keep in mind that the word itself has changed meaning somewhat. It derives from the Anglo-Saxon and Old English word “hel” or “helle” which referred to the realm of the dead according to its pagan mythology. In this early sense it clearly parallels Sheol in Hebrew. In Christianity we have developed a greater understanding of our possible post-death destinations, but English did not keep pace with it and “hell” remained in use for anything after death that was not heaven.


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