Paradise means different things to different people, yet it most commonly refers to a (perfect) place (either on Earth, after death, or only in one’s imagination) and an ideal time, relationship, feeling, or state of mind when and where existence is positive, harmonious, and timeless. Many modern people today often associate idyllic islands, beautiful beaches, or majestic mountains with paradise. This was not always the case.
Although it eventually became associated with both the Biblical “Garden of Eden” and (a celestial) heaven, “paradise” is an extreme example of “amelioration”, the process by which a word comes to refer to something better than what it used to refer to. The word “paradise” originally referred to a (sometimes vast) walled estate or enclosure.
The recently “civilized” indigenous peoples of the Amazon still remember and speak of “Forest Time” – when they lived at home in nature. Many people today do not realize that 96% of the trees that once covered the earth are now gone! In place of where many trees once stood are deserts, farmers’ fields, sprawling cities, and busy roads.
In desert regions of the world, many an oasis has been carefully cultivated, nurtured, maintained, and preserved. So, too, were once many ancient Persian royal gardens, orchards, and (forest) parks – often filled with animals (to hunt). These (pleasure) preserves became known by the walls that enclosed and protected them: Paradise.
Many notions of Paradise are cross-cultural and descriptions are commonly laden with a preponderance of pastoral (or other natural) imagery – that may be “cosmogonical” (regarding origins), “eschatological” (regarding endings), or both. In an eschatological context, Paradise is often imagined as an abode of the dead – either for everyone, or more commonly just for the “virtuous” or otherwise “deserving” (with some other place after death reserved for those were not). Christian and Islamic interpretations tend to associate heaven as a paradisaical “relief” from (the misery of) life. For example, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a penitent criminal crucified alongside him that they would be together in “Paradise” that day (after they both died and left this world).
For many Native Americans, the other-world is an eternal (happy) hunting ground. In ancient Egyptian beliefs, the other-world was Aaru, reed-fields of ideal hunting and fishing grounds – where the dead lived after judgment. For the Celts, it was the Fortunate Isle of Mag Mell. For the “classical” Greeks, the Elysian fields was a paradisaical land of plenty where the heroic and righteous dead hoped to spend eternity. The Vedic Indians held that the physical body was destroyed (after death) by fire – but recreated and reunited in the Third Heaven in a state of bliss. In the Zoroastrian Avesta, “Best Existence” and the “House of Song” are places of the righteous dead. In all cases, the final “resting place” is thought of as desirable.
In cosmogonical contexts, “Paradise” most often refers to an idyllic world – before it was “tainted” by evil. For example, the Abrahamic faiths (of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) often associate Paradise with the Garden of Eden and the perfect state of the world – prior to human “sin”, “loss of innocence”, and “fall from grace”.
One of the most well-known representatives of the concept of Paradise as a “topos” (or place) is Paradise Lost by John Milton. In art and literature (particularly in the “pre-Enlightenment era”), Paradise is a conceptual counter-image to the miseries of human civilization. Paradise is associated with peace, prosperity, and happiness. Paradise is a place of contentment, but it is not necessarily a land of luxury and idleness. Paradise is often used in the same context as utopia – although utopia tends to be associated with an ideal alternative society as much as just a place.
On the left side of his painting The Last Judgment, Dominican friar and Renaissance artist “Fra Angelico portrayed Paradise as the Garden of Eden – with a gate of light (representing heaven). There is a tree of life (and another tree) and a circle dance of liberated souls. In the middle is a hole. In Muslim art, similar voids indicated the presence of the Prophet or divine beings – implying those there cannot be depicted.
Linguistic Roots, Meanings, and Associations
The word “paradise” most likely entered English from the French “paradis“, which was inherited from the Latin “paradisus“, as an adaption of the Greek “parádeisos” (παράδεισος), which originated from an Old Iranian root, attested in Avestan as “pairi.daêza“. The literal meaning of this Eastern Old Iranian language word was a “walled (enclosure)” – from “pairi” (around) + “diz” (to create, make).
By the 6th or 5th century BCE, the Old Iranian word had been adopted as Akkadian “pardesu“ and Elamite “partetas” (“domain”). The word became associated with, and was used to indicate, walled estates – especially the carefully tended Persian royal parks and menageries. The term first appeared in Greek as “ho parádeisos” (“park for animals”) in the Anabasis written by the early 4th century BCE Athenian gentleman-scholar Xenophon. Aramaic “pardaysa“ similarly reflects “royal park”.
The Hebrew word “pardes” (פרדס) appears three times in the Tanakh (or Jewish Bible) – in Song of Songs 4:13, Ecclesiastes 2:5, and Nehemiah 2:8. In those contexts it could be interpreted as a park, a garden, or an orchard. In the 3rd-1st century BCE Septuagint, the Greek “parádeisos“ was used to translate both Hebrew “pardes” (פרדס) and “gan” (גן) (garden). It is from this usage that the use of “paradise” to refer to the Garden of Eden derives. This usage also appears in Arabic “firdaws“.
The Zohar (or Book of Splendor), the most famous Kabbalistic text, gives the Hebrew word “pardes” (פרדס) a mystical interpretation, and associates it with the four kinds of Biblical exegesis: peshat (literal), remez (allusion), derash (anagogical), and sod (mystic) meanings. The initial letters of those four words form the acronym word PaRDeS (פָּרְדֵּס) – which was in turn felt to represent the fourfold interpretation of the Torah (in which sod – the “secret”, hidden, mystical interpretation – ranks highest).
Common Contemporary Connotations
The English word paradise entered European languages from the Persian root word(s) “pairidiz”, which originally referred to a beautiful garden enclosed between walls. In this sense, “Paradise” existed on earth – as a place that uplifted the human spirit. Over time, Paradise started to mean Heaven – which implied a non-earthly place that could only be reached by the common person after death. Some philosophers have interpreted longing for paradise as an escape method from reality. Paradise has been described as a idealistic perfect place, tailored by individuals and societies.
The original pairidiz gardens could be enjoyed fully by live humans – with no need for a physical death of the body. Images of Heaven were formed and influenced by what humans saw and actually experienced on this beautiful planet. Perhaps the idea of an outside paradise entered the minds of those who either were not close to, or not able to enter, a real earthly garden Pairidiz. Maybe they longed for its reputed or imagined beauty, peace, and happiness – and hoped that one day, in some way, they would get to enter, enjoy, and perhaps even stay, in the kind of (heavenly) garden (experience) they knew existed, but did not access and enjoy during their life. Many people pondered the possibility of (going to) idyllic gardens in the sky – as a reward for how they lived. Although an experience of paradise on Earth is (still) possible, many people believe that (after death) their souls will find their way to beautiful sky gardens that are even more spectacular than the original “pairidiz” garden(s) or anything else in this world.
In the New Testament, paradise may imply a paradise (restored) on Earth – similar to what the Garden of Eden was originally meant to be. In Matthew 5:5, “the meek shall inherit the earth”. Certain sects, like the nudist Adamites. actually attempted to recreate the Garden of Eden. There are three other (actual or implied) references to Paradise in the New Testament. On the torture stake, Jesus told Dismas that he would be with him in paradeisos (in Luke 23:43); there are things beyond human expression (in 2nd Corinthians 12:4); and there is a tree of life (in Revelations 2:7).
In the 2nd century AD, Irenaeus distinguished “paradise” from “heaven“. In Against Heresies, he wrote that only those deemed “worthy” would inherit a home in heaven, while others would enjoy paradise, and the rest would live in the restored Jerusalem. Origen also distinguished paradise from heaven, describing paradise as the earthly “school” for souls of the righteous dead, preparing them for their ascent through the celestial spheres to heaven.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that God’s purpose, from the start, was, and is, to have the earth filled with the offspring of Adam and Eve as caretakers of a global paradise divinely designed for human habitation, however, when Adam and Eve rebelled against Jehovah, they were banished from the Garden of Eden Paradise. Jehovah’s Witnesses also believe that wicked people will be destroyed at Armageddon and that many of the righteous (who remain faithful and obedient to Jehovah) will live eternally in an earthly Paradise. (Psalms 37:9, 10, 29; Proverbs 2:21, 22). Joining the survivors will be resurrected righteous and unrighteous people who died prior to Armageddon (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15). The latter are brought back because they paid for their sins by their death, and/or also because they lacked opportunity to learn of Jehovah’s requirements prior to dying (Romans 6:23). These will be judged on the basis of their post-resurrection obedience to instructions revealed in new “scrolls” (Revelations 20:12). This provision does not apply to those that Jehovah deems to have sinned against his holy spirit (Matthew 12:31, Luke 12:5). One of Jesus’ last recorded statements before he died were the words to an evildoer hanging alongside him on a torture stake: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.”—Luke 23:43. Notice the placement of the comma is after the word ‘today’, indicating that there are two separate phrases, 1. ‘I tell you today’ and 2. ‘You will be with me in Paradise’. This distinction differs from other Christian understanding of this verse where they read it as 1. ‘I tell you’ and 2. ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’. Some scriptures that Jehovah’s Witnesses use to support their belief are (John 3:13-15); (Acts 24:15)
In Latter Day Saint theology, paradise usually refers to the spirit world – as in the place where spirits dwell following death and awaiting the resurrection. In that context, “paradise” is the state of the righteous after death. In contrast, the wicked and those who have not yet learned the gospel of Jesus Christ await the resurrection in spirit prison. After the universal resurrection, all persons will be assigned to a particular kingdom or degree of glory. This may also be termed “paradise”.
In the Qur’an, Paradise is denoted as “Jannat” or Garden, with the highest level being called “Firdous”, the etymologically equivalent word derived from the original Avestan counterpart, and used instead of Heaven to describe the ultimate pleasurable place after death, accessible by those who pray, donate to charity, and read the Qur’an. Heaven in Islam is used to describe the Universe. It is also used in the Qur’an to describe skies in the literal sense, i.e., above earth.
The Urantia Book:
The Urantia Book portrays Paradise as the beginning of all things and the dwelling place of God.