Today you will be with me in Paradise.
TODAY.How hard it is to imagine this. Today in paradise. Sometime in the distant future or, perhaps, sometime in the distant past, certainly. But today? Hardly. Of course, the Wise Thief is about to die, so that makes sense, right? Your going to die and you’ll be with me in paradise after you die. And the Greek does say that after a fashion. But what it really says is, “Today with me you will be in paradise.” It’s a subtle change, but it’s important. Not, “today you and I will be in paradise together” but rather “today, by means of me, you will be in paradise.” That’s an important change for two reasons:
First, I think we usually imagine this as being a change in “spiritual location” for both Jesus and the thief. Jesus is not saying we’ll be here (on earth) for a little while and then “we’ll go to heaven by and by when we die”. In fact, the Creed says Jesus descended from the cross into Hell. This is where the harrowing of hell takes place – from Friday at Sunset and through the course of the Holy Shabbat. Jesus is making a different promise to the thief here. The second reason this is important is related to modern soteriology: the Wise Thief is the only person promised anything like “paradise” after death. Look through the New Testament. Although there are lots of conversations about salvation, none of them talk about “going to heaven after you die”. None of the evangelists promise “life after death” as a way to get converts.
My final presentation in New Testament class was research on the Lake of Fire in St John’s Apocalypse. If it had been longer (my presentation timed at just under five minutes) it would have been called a “deep dive” but that pun would not have worked too well. How is the Lake of Fire linked with Jesus’ promise to be with him in Paradise?
The Lake of Fire is only mentioned four times in the Apocalypse:
- Revelation 19:20: The beast and the False Prophet are thrown in. No previous discussion or description happened.
- Revelation 20:10 The devil is cast in.
- Revelation 20:14–15 Then Death and Hades go in. Wait, hell goes into hell? Then “anyone not found written in the Book of Life.”
- Revelation 21:8 A list of sorts of people get tossed in as well. There are three classes of Christians and four classes of nonbelievers:
– cowardly. Are these people who walked away when persecution arose?
– faithless. People who walked away just because?
– detestable. Unclear – perhaps heretics?
– sexually immoral
The lake is described as burning with fire and brimstone or sulfur. I think that detail is important, but we’ll get back to that.
The first appearance of fire in the Apocalypse is as something flashing from Jesus’ eyes in 1:14: “His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire.” This description is repeated in 19:12 (His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns). Fire is, somehow (in some way) tried to Jesus here. But that link between God and fire is throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There are two words, a Hebrew one for most of the Old Testament and an Aramaic one for Daniel:
esh: a fire (Strong’s #784)
Original Word: אֵשׂ (Hebrew)
Part of Speech: Noun Feminine
Phonetic Spelling: (aysh)
Definition: a fire
nur: a fire (Strong’s #5135)
Original Word: נוּר (Aramaic)
Part of Speech: Noun
Phonetic Spelling: (noor)
Definition: a fire
Daniel uses his word 17 times. Most are talking about the “Firery Furnace” into which people have been tossed. The Hebrew word gets used 377 times. It’s a normal “fire” in Genesis 22:6, but of the first 17 times it’s used in Genesis and Exodus, 11 times it is the fire of God. 19 times in Deuteronomy it is the fire of God. This goes on! 2 Samuel 22:9, 2 Kings 2:11, 1 Chronicles 21:26, 2 Chronicles 7:1, Nehemiah 9:12… gracious. It’s constantly on fire here. There is a flaming torch (God) there is a flaming bush (God), there is a pillar of fire (God), a river of fire, a throne of fire, and wheels of fire. God shows up as fire. Flashes fire from the sky in Sodom, Egypt, and on the prophets of Baal. God has a fire that goes before him consuming foes (Psalms 97:3), and God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24). This last we hear repeated in Hebrews 12:29, which we might see as a bridge between the fires of the first testament and those of the second one.
Isaiah reports (33:14) The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? Indeed it is terrifying. Who of us can live in the consuming fire? Wait, why do we have to? Don’t we get a pass because of our baptism? Well, no. For the ones who dwell with “everlasting burnings” are exactly, “He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil” but suddenly the image changes and “they are the ones who will dwell on the heights, whose refuge will be the mountain fortress. Their bread will be supplied, and water will not fail them.”
Water? Food? Were we not discussing fire?
Time for another set of images.
Also in Heaven, there is a glassy sea. That may mean the sea is made of glass, but I’m going with “placid sea” because in other places in the Apocalypse there is an Ocean as well. There is a river of the water of life, there is the living water rising from within Jesus – and from within the believer. God is not only a pillar of fire, but also a pillar of cloud. There is the crucial clue, pardon the pun. It’s something to do with God being fire and water, qith God being either fire or water (bother, actually). Who can live in the consuming flames? Those who are just – who have been washed in the living waters.
There is a way where the presence of God is as refreshing as living water for some and as deadly as a fiery furnace for others. Better, using the images from Daniel: the fires of the divine furnace are somehow bedewed by the presence of one like the Son of Man walking with us.
I mentioned this story in an earlier post on Hebrews (where God is a consuming fire): Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, insofar as I can, I say my prayers, I keep my little fast, and I pray and meditate… Now what more shall I do?” The elder stood up and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame, and he said to him, “If you wish, become all fire.” Here, the fire is within us, God’s fire becomes us.
And that’s what it means to be in Paradise: to be in the presence of God and to not be destroyed by the fires.
Unfortunately, for all most all Americans, Christian or not, to be saved means “going to heaven.” There is no scriptural reason to hold that meaning. None. At all. Period. Nothing in the Bible makes any sense if that’s all that “paradise” means. Where is paradise? Where is hell? Is there anywhere an omnipresent God is not?
There is only one eternity – equally true for me, for you, for Ivan the Terrible, for Adolf Hitler, for Mother Theresa, and for your great-grandma Mae. The answer is totally the same for everyone:
We will all spend Eternity with God. Eternity is that omega point where our human, fear-based self-shielding mechanisms of time, space, sin, self-interest, ignorance, and doubt all collapse into the event horizon of God’s very beingness, from whom nothing can escape, by whom all things are known, and in whom all things live and move and have their fullest being. We discover that the very fire in our being that animates us is our participation in God – as it is for the demons. They know this already and it burns them even as they live. We will see it fully then… will it burn? Or will we burn alive?
There is no place else to go, nowhere to run in eternity where God is not. There is no place to run here in Space-Time, either, if you really want to know. It is our delusions that allow us to think that we’re safe from him. We can ignore him for a few minutes, hiding behind fig leaves, as he walks in the evening crying out, “Earthling, where are you?”
Eternity with God is not “salvation” though, except in the abstract: certainly Jesus didn’t send Bartimaeus there when he said “you’ve been σῴζωed – sozoed.” Nor did he send anyone else to “the Gold Streets of Glory, halleluia!” when he said to the woman at his feet, the lepers, the bleeding woman, the Syrophoenician woman, the Centurion, “Your faith has sozoed you.” Neither is it what St Paul and the other Apostles mean when they say, preaching, “You and your whole household can be sozoed this night…”
In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, σῴζω – sozo is used for the word הושִׁיעַ, hoshia. Both mean “to save”. And the Hebrew is related to Jesus’ own name, Yeshua. There is our clue, really: think of it that way for just a moment and it will make sense:
Being “saved” means being “made more like Jesus”.
No one will be excluded from God’s presence – but to see God is to be plunged into what? “Our God is a Consuming Fire.” The only Human who can be there is Jesus, who is God, himself. To be saved… to be brought into communion-via-likeness with Jesus… is to stand alive in the Fountain of Life itself, to be made like the Burning Bush: raised to a fullness of Beauty unimagined, burning and yet not consumed.
Dante takes us so close to heaven:
This heaven has no other where than this:
the mind of God, in which are kindled both
the love that turns it and the force it rains.
As in a circle, light and love enclose it,
as it surrounds the rest and that enclosing,
only He who encloses understands.
Like sudden lightning scattering the spirits
of sight so that the eye is then too weak
to act on other things it would perceive,
such was the living light encircling me,
leaving me so enveloped by its veil
of radiance that I could see no thing.
As he is ending his glorious quest Dante links heaven with us here, on earth: we are being made ready, turned…
The Love that calms this heaven always welcomes
into Itself with such a salutation,
to make the candle ready for its flame
But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.
We want seriously to think that “I’ve found the only way into heaven”. We want to think “We can keep out the wrong sort of people.” I know one pastor who keeps a gun in his pulpit because he thinks the wrong sort of people will try to stop him from getting into heaven. Even Dante put the wrong sort of people in other places. But that was humorous and educational. We need to stop imagining heaven like an old Simpsons Episode:
Oh, my friends, I have no doubt that God will call all men to himself – he is doing so now. Not everyone will want to be there. We have to be saved – to be made as much like Jesus as possible. We are working out our salvation here, now – working out our transformation into Jesus. When the opening of our presence to God’s Being is at the fullest, some of us will have been prepared and some will fight it off. In that Divine Light our only defence will be to self-destruct as we burn. Or we can live there forever – only if we, even now, are being turned like a wheel, being brought up to speed, by the Love which moved the Sun and other stars.
(Part was cribbed from a post from back in 2016.)