With all the depressing talk of hell recently it seems a good idea to turn our minds in a more positive direction and give some thought to what the alternative might be. My view is that the New Testament does not make “heaven” the normal destination for those who are saved. What we have is essentially a limited “martyr theology”, worked out within a broader “meta-narrative” about the renewal of creation.
The argument goes roughly—very roughly—like this. The restoration of Israel is brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is a “new creation” event, an “ontological novelty”. There is as yet, however, no “new creation”, no “new heavens and new earth”, in which to accommodate the resurrected Jesus, so he is exalted to the right hand of the Father, as Israel’s king, from where he will reign throughout the coming ages until such time as this authority to rule may be handed back to the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24)—the point being that the security and integrity of the people of God can be maintained only by the Lamb who was slain.
So the resurrected Jesus “goes to heaven”. The martyr theology of the New Testament, however, also envisages the direct participation of others in the painful narrative of this Son of Man, who took up his cross, suffered, was killed, was raised, was exalted to the right hand of God, and was given dominion and glory and authority. At numerous points in the New Testament argument, from Matthew through to Revelation, the early church, as it confronted first Jewish and then pagan hostility, is assimilated—not least through apocalyptic myth-making (terms subject to qualification; please read the small print)—into the drama of the Christ, so that he was not alone but the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). So following the judgment on the supreme pagan enemy, Rome, John sees a “first resurrection” of the martyrs, who “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4-5).
So the suffering church also “goes to heaven”. What, then, about the rest of us? Well, it seems to me that we have a long wait in the grave—”asleep” if we cannot bear the thought of just being dead—until the final resurrection of all the dead to be judged before the throne of God (Rev. 20:11-15), followed by the final renewal of creation.
But this is all just a preamble to the consideration of a text that is sometimes cited as evidence that Christians go to heaven when they die.
When the second “evil-doer” (kakourgos) crucified alongside Jesus says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). It is a peculiar statement. What does Jesus mean by it?
The word paradeisos is of Persian origin and generally means an enclosed garden or orchard. It is used in the Septuagint and elsewhere in Hellenistic Jewish writings for the garden of Eden (cf. Gen. 2:8-10; Ezek. 28:13). It may then naturally be used as an image for Israel: the “orchard (paradeisōi) of God” is compared somewhat unfavourably to the mighty cypress tree of Assyria, in whose branches the birds of the air nest and in whose shade “all the multitude of nations lived” (Ezek. 31:3-9). Isaiah describes the restoration of Israel following the judgment of the exile as a re-pristination of the microcosm—the wilderness of desolated Israel is made like Eden again:
Hear me, you that pursue what is righteous, and seek the Lord. Look to the solid rock that you hewed and to the hole of the pit that you dug. Look to Abraam your father and to Sarra who bore you; because he was but one, then I called him and blessed him and loved him and multiplied him. And I will comfort you now, Sion; I comforted all her desolate places, and I will make her desolate places like the garden (paradeison) of the Lord; in her they will find joy and gladness, confession and the voice of praise. (Isaiah 51:1-3 LXX)
That image may have some bearing on Jesus’ use of the term: he may mean that through his death God is restoring his people, out of faithfulness to the promise made to Abraham. But I think that there is a more relevant aspect to be brought out.
Nolland argues against finding a Jewish martyr theology in Jesus’ statement, pointing out, on the one hand, that the word “paradise” is not found in such passages as Wisdom 3:1-9 which speak of a heavenly destiny as a reward for suffering, and on the other, that the “criminal” was not a martyr.1
Fair enough. But in Revelation the exalted Son of Man, who has “the keys of death and Hades”, assures those who are suffering patiently in Ephesus that “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise (paradeisōi) of God” (Rev. 2:7). To “conquer” in this context is to overcome persecution and ultimately death; the exceptional reward for these martyrs is to “eat of the tree of life”.
In this light, we may suppose that on Jesus’ lips “paradise” is not simply a destination, equivalent to heaven, but a figure for the life that is given to those who overcome death. He includes the “criminal” in that hope in much the same way that sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes who reach out in trust are told that they will be included in the coming celebration of the kingdom of God. It is a sign of the spontaneous, extravagant and deeply controversial grace of God at work in this eschatological transformation.
So I suggest that the “paradise” of which Jesus speaks in this passage is a symbolic location that stands for the reward of the martyrs in much the same way that transportation to “Abraham’s side” in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) stands for the inclusion of this much abused Jew in the restored people of God.
- 1J. Nolland, Luke 18:35-24:53, 1152.