In ancient languages, including Persian, Babylonian, Hebrew, and Greek, the root for the word “paradise” means “garden.” The enclosed garden of antiquity suggested tranquility, and in many cultures symbolized innocence of consciousness, absence of shame and guilt, like the simplicity of a child, or the fragrant flowers within paradise. The idyllic paradise of these cultures was not heaven but an earthly place of rest. The Hebrew “sheol,” abode of the dead, was a deprecated paradise, a station of rest, however gloomy. Only consciousness, called by scriptural Genesis “the knowledge of good and evil,” disrupted and lost for humanity the inheritance of paradise, intended to be its permanent abode.
The sense of paradise as resting place is obliquely referenced in the canonical New Testament parable of the beggar Lazarus, who upon death dwells in “the bosom of Abraham.” More specifically, the New Testament cites the words of Jesus in the Passion wherein the crucified thief is assured that he will soon be with Jesus in paradise. As some Gnostic sources pointed out, Jesus would go to paradise (sheol?) upon his death because the spiritual abode of God was too distant to achieve and too distinct to accommodate material beings. To some Gnostics, heaven, the pleroma, could only be achieved with practiced knowledge, “gnosis.”
So while “sheol” may have become purgatory in Christianity, the concept of paradise lingered even through the Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that paradise was originally both a corporeal and a spiritual place, intended by God as a dwelling for immortal human beings, while heaven was the dwelling place of angels, not humans.
Dante’s adoption of the title “Paradiso” to describe the third book of his Divine Comedy adopts a misnomer based on his complicated version of cosmology. Dante’s heaven includes multiple heavens trasversed physically through the solar system, from purgatory through paradise, and on past moon, sun, planets and stars, to Empyrean. Earthly paradise is barely mentioned (only in Canto 1) as Dante and Beatrice quickly ascend like astronauts through the heavens, literally. Paradise is merely a sighting along the way, “that place, made for mankind as its true home.”
But humanity had lost that “true home” and fallen back to earth to live in fallen nature due to being conscious of good and evil. Again, some Gnostics, disbelieving that God was the creator of a universe of suffering, argued that Adam had to learn the truth about Ialdabaoth, the half-maker, the demiurge, the one responsible for creating this vale of tears. Eve, they argued, having informed Adam from what she learned from Ialdabaoth’s mother, was punished by the vindictive demiurge and, with Adam, cast out of the only safe place.
Paradise dramatically reappears in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is wholly constructed on the traditional Genesis account of the fall, highlighting the expulsion of Adam and Eve. At the epic poem’s finale, the archangel Michael offers compensation to the couple, telling them that they will “possess / A Paradise within thee, happier far.” And so
They hand in hand with wandering step and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
The image of paradise effectively animated apocalyptic movements of the past, such as the Zealots in the Jewish-Roman wars, on to medieval and early modern millennarian and peasant revolts in Christian Europe, to the emergence of Mahdis in the Islamic world and periphery, and messianic cults in the West.
Apocalypticism characterizes messianic and utopian uprisings intended to overthrow exploitative occupiers in order to establish a just state or conditions. Historical Jesus scholars carefully parse the perceptions of Jesus in this apocalyptic tradition, from traditional Messiah fulfilling Old Testament prophesy to what John Dominic Crossan calls “Mediterranean peasant cynic” pronoucing a decidedly different apocalype of the heart and the community. In this latter view, the on-going inspiration of Paradise is not distant and imaginary but recoverable in the utopian and intentional community movement, not simply Hesiod’s lost Golden Age but as a future and forthcoming realm, aspiring to a religious or secular kingdom of God or kingdom of heaven on earth. Historical apocalypticism has not always required the presence of God on earth, only a messianic personality, a guiding ideology, or communal effort.
Today apocalypticism only engenders wariness, as in the case of cults like Jonestown or evangelical dispensationalism, where apocalypse is Armageddon. These notions oppose the core apocalypticism of the historical Jesus and the notion of a kingdom of God within individual and the community, of a paradise here and now.