Paradise is Not Heaven

Posted November 19, 2013

Gospel passage: Luke 23:43

A young priest boasted to his pastor, “I feel that my sermon was really anointed today. I had the people glued to their seats.”

“Well,” said the Monsignor, “I guess that’s one way to hold an audience.”

One time, as a young priest, I foolishly tried to “hold an audience” by subsuming the persona of Bishop Sheen, impersonating him and quoting him almost verbatim, from a recorded sermon he gave on the gospel about Christ the King, whose great mercy was dispensed from his Calvary throne to the repentant thief traditionally known as Dismas. Theatrically aping Bishop Sheen, I even quoted his description of Jesus as “our Merciful Monarch,” and Dismas as “the thief who stole paradise.” In a climactic flourish, I rhapsodized Bishop Sheen’s insight dramatically: “If this be the spark, dear God, what be the flame?”

All theatrics aside, the thrust of that spark-to-flame epithet was to show God’s infinite merciful love (mentioned more than 400 times in the Bible) could be conveyed by a single sentence of forgiveness—like a wildfire hidden in an igniting spark, or an embryonic oak tree in an acorn.

The Jesus-Dismas dialog on Calvary lends itself to the consideration of an aspect of theology called soteriology–the study of  the two-sided coin of redemption-salvation. Redemption is God’s action of giving (“redemptio” means payment); salvation is the human act of receiving the paid-for gift of heavenly reward, conditioned, of course, on repentance).

Christ as King often spoke of heaven as the kingdom of heaven, but when Dismas asks to be remembered in Christ’s kingdom, Jesus doesn’t speak of heaven but only “paradise,” which was not heaven. Why? Because heaven is centered on the direct “face-to-face beatific vision” of God, mentioned in 1 Cor. 13. In paradise God was known only obscurely, as in our present earthly state, that is—to use Paul’s words—“as in a mirror” ancient mirrors consisted of polished metal, which of course reflected images obscurely.)

Jesus’ words, “this day with me in paradise” could not have referred to heaven, for Jesus would not arrive there until his ascension, 40 days later, when heaven would be opened to all worthy pre-Christian souls, ransomed by Jesus’ death. In Hebrews 9 it says that Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, died to remit the sins of those under the old covenant. Those “old covenant sinners” resided in a most blissful state which Paul himself briefly experienced (2 Cor. 12), when he was “caught up into paradise.” In Luke 16 Jesus himself refers to this “paradise,” this abode of blessedness, as the “bosom of Abraham”— the premiere saint of God’s deceased people, who awaited their future eternal reward. This paradise, often referred to as the “limbo of the patriarchs,” was an “abode of the righteous”;  it provided limited but blissful fulfillment for all heaven-bound souls waiting for the gates of heaven to be opened by Jesus later–at the time of his ascension, 40 days after his resurrection.

Jesus descended before he ascended; the classic Apostles’ Creed says that “he descended into “hell”—that is, Hades, the general term for the abode of the dead—certainly not the hell of the damned (Tartaros). This non-heaven “hell” called paradise had no resemblance to the infernal hell, except for the souls’ non-access to heaven (temporarily), and the absence of the direct vision of God (temporarily). St. Thomas, in his Catena Aurea, says that Christ’s separated soul and entombed body both encased his divinity, yet in neither one could heaven’s Beatific Vision be seen. Hence, Dismas did not directly see Christ’s divinity in paradise, but he did encounter the created human soul of Christ, who “descended” there to visit its occupants sometime between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Because souls in this “limbo” paradise lacked heaven’s complete fulfillment by the “beatific vision” of God, the first pope (1 Peter 3:19) refers to this restricted place as the “prison” into which Jesus’ “spirit” descended (that is, his human soul, separated by death from his entombed body). In this excursion Jesus evangelized its denizens, for Hebrews 2:3 reminds us that they had not been evangelized. Peter then describes Jesus’ mission as teaching these souls about salvation, and about baptism as the normative means of implementing it. Thus, that encounter of divine mercy was by way of a glorious evangelizing enlightenment!

Of course this paradise, known as the “limbo of the patriarchs” no longer exists; after this earthly life, only heaven, hell and purgatory are open to all human beings–even though, in our imprecise use of language, we often refer to heaven itself as “paradise.”

The Jesus-Dismas dialog on Calvary is one of a trilogy of episodes of mercy exercised by our merciful Monarch: his mercy extended implicitly to the living, to the dying and even to the dead. First, he forgave the living—the brutal soldiers and “rulers” who challenged his royal kingship: “Father, forgive them.”  Second, he forgave the dying Dismas, with a promise of immediate bliss in the “limbo-paradise”; and third, mercy to the dead already in that “paradise,” exciting their hope of soon being “transferred to the kingdom of God’s Son” (Col. 1:13). This would later occur after his post-Resurrection sojourn of a few weeks on earth before his Ascension, when he would “lead out the prisoners with singing” (Ps. 68:6) from their confined place of limited joy into the beatific vision of God in the ultimate joy of the eternal “paradise” more commonly called heaven.

Fr. John H. Hampsch, cmf