“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43.
The word Paradise feels medieval. When do we use it anymore? “Paradise” sounds like the name of a cheesy hotel, or a South Pacific-themed dance club. Or a word to be found in the sales text of a travel brochure. When I think of paradise, I can’t escape the Meat Loaf album from the 1970s, Paradise by the Dashboard Light. That title says it all; we have so used up the word that we can’t think of it without some irony or diminishment.
But at one time the word meant something more. In the Judeo-Christian world, paradise originally meant the garden of Adam and Eve. Jesus used the word to emphasize the fulfillment his ministry brought to the promises of the Old Testament. In other words, Adam and Eve had a paradise, and it was in the past. Jesus replaces it with a new paradise, and it lies in the future.
One of the reasons we can’t pump any meaning out of paradise any longer is because modern humans are no longer forward thinking. Yes, we talk about the future and we write science fiction novels. Every modern politician who ever delivered a stump speech spares a few words of hope for future generations. But we are really bad at this. We build houses and public buildings and have no expectation that they will last more than 50 years. Take a walk down your street or, better yet, if you work in the city, take a walk down the street where you work and ask yourself if the people who built those strip malls and glass buildings expect them to still be standing in 500 years. Medieval people and ancient people, when they built a structure, intended it to last for generations. I doubt a single person who helped build the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris thought the building would ever be knocked down or replaced. Those were forward thinking people.
These days, our ideas about paradise are diminished, not only because the afterlife is so difficult to believe in, but because we are so buried in our temporary existence, dreams of quick money and instant pleasures, that the future seems impossible. Being focussed on now is not a bad thing if we are deeply engaged with the joys of the present, but we aren’t. Our joys of the present are things like cable TV, the Internet, sex, food — hollow pleasures that pass in and out of our lives so quickly that we do not have the time to relish them.
If we were up to our necks in the present and focussed fully on the now, our lack of interest in paradise would be more excusable. But because we do not bother to linger over the pleasures in front of us, instead gobbling our meals in our cars as we race towards the next titillation, we are in even worse shape than that. Our materialism has stripped away our future and given us a present so filled with distraction that the now moment has no meaning to us.
The classic modern activity, eating dinner in front of the TV, is a perfect example. We are not enjoying our meal, we are watching TV. And we are not fully watching TV because we are distracted by the stuffing of food into our mouths. We eat, we watch, but pay full attention to neither. Where are we?
It is no wonder modern people are terrified of death. Our present is empty, the future beyond death is unknown. We ought to be terrified. We have no meaning in the present, are doubtful about the future, and death stands ready to strip whatever shred of value that remains between the two right out of our hands. There is much to fear.
Context for this Last Word: Jesus is hanging on the cross, and two criminals who have also been sentenced to death hang on each side. One of the criminals mocks Jesus. The other, sometimes known as the Good Thief, asks for Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What is interesting here is that the Good Thief does not ask for heaven, or redemption. All he asks is to be remembered, a very simple and vague request. Jesus’ answer, to offer him Paradise, is like responding to a request for spare change for coffee by handing over a winning lottery ticket. What Christ offers is so far beyond what is asked that the two cannot be compared.
I personally doubt that Jesus, hanging on the cross, had a clear view of what he was offering. His next Last Word, “Why have you forsaken me?” implies that as a human Jesus had not yet fully come into the vision of resurrection. But he knows God offers something beyond death, and he knows this something will be offered to the Good Thief, should he be open to accepting it.
In his book Practicing Catholic, James Carroll tells the story of visiting a friend who was enduring a terrible tragedy. The friend asks Carroll if he believes there is a heaven. Carroll responds by saying he has no idea what lies beyond death, but he does know who lies beyond death — God. And he trusts God.
Today, one of the reasons we do not trust God to deliver on his promises for the future is because we do not even make the lesser effort to find the truth in the present. We are so obsessed with, as Wordsworth put it, “getting and spending,” that we know nothing of the simple truths of life. Living in the moment is the beginning of finding these truths, and thus the basis of our relationship with God.
As C.S. Lewis put it, the present moment is the best understanding of eternity that we have. Jesus and the Good Thief may have been suffering enormously, but they were living in the moment. In particular, the Good Thief, who is the easier of the two (at least for me) to identify with, found truth in a moment of great suffering. And when he reached out to Jesus to share it, he found Paradise as well.
For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.