The word Paradise comes from the greek paradeisos (παράδεισος) which itself comes from the hebrew Paredès (פַּרְדֵּס) found in Song of songs 4,13 or Ecclesiastes 2,5. It means orchard or grove. Let’s have a look at a few passages of the NT from different literary genres using this word paradise: Luke 23,39-43 is very often entitled: « the good thief »1; it mentions paradise:
43And he [Jesus] said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.:
It is not clear what Jesus means by paradise here unless we introduce our subjectivity. But we may have clues in other passages: Revelation 2,7 can be interpreted in many ways; it is placed in Jesus mouth who says:
7To the one who conquers, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
1/ It can be interpreted as "going back into Eden" since it refers to the tree of life which is a clear reference to Genesis 2-3. The problem with such an interpretation is that Eden was not part of the underworld. And also it implies that after we die we go back to a previous state of humanity as if the plan of God was a cycle2, which is a typical Greek thought.
It is interesting that in in Genesis 2,8-10.15-16 the word for garden is gan (גַּן) and not Paredès3. It is interesting because it shows that it may not be the same garden we are talking about, and so our goal is not to go back to the garden (gan) of Eden as our goal in life is not to go back to our mothers womb (even if we’d like to — John 3,4) but in an other place, a grove that is a new creation, not an old one.
2/ The best way to understand this apocalyptic passage is on the spiritual level: Jesus does not say we will be like Adam and Eve in their previous state before the fall otherwise there would be a risk of… a new fall (and then of a new cycle). He says that the tree of life, that was forbidden at first, will not be forbidden any more. But remember that, in the New Jerusalem of Revelations 22,2 the tree of life will be there, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. If this tree seems not planted in a single location it is because it is a metaphor for the life Jesus gives. But to be able to eat from it we have to be winners (2,7); but winners of what? In the immediate context of the verse: it is overcoming the false doctrine of Nicolaitans; in the broader context of the book of Revelations: it is about repentance (Revelations 2,5).
Can we find any other clue about paradise? Paul is using the word in 2Corinthians 12,4 but he warns his hearers that what he has seen cannot be understood by those who did not have the same experience. It is not a good passage to get more information about paradise.
To complement our investigation, we can have a look to a passage that does not use the word paradise and that would not be sufficient by itself to elaborate a conviction. The parable of the poor Lazarus and the rich found in Luke 16,19-31 may tell us something however. It is true that many commentators criticize the use of the details of parables to make a biblical point. Of course we should not base our doctrine on such details. But when Jesus tells this story, he has in his mind a mental view of the afterlife, and it seems that this view is shared with his audience as something commonly obvious. Let us read this passage:
19“There was a rich man who would dress in purple and fine linen, feasting lavishly every day. 20But a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, was lying at his gate. 21He longed to be filled with what fell from the rich man’s table, but instead the dogs would come and lick his sores.
22One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side.
24‘Father Abraham!’ he called out, ‘Have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this flame!’
25“ ‘Son,’ Abraham said, ‘remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony. 26Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to pass over from here to you cannot; neither can those from there cross over to us.’
27“ ‘Father,’ he said, ‘then I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28because I have five brothers—to warn them, so that they won’t also come to this place of torment.’
29“But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’
30“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said. ‘But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31“But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’ ”
In this picture, "Abraham’s side" is opposed to a place of torments. And being carried away by the angels is opposed to be buried. Lazarus4 and Abraham are far away from the anonymous rich guy and separated from him by a great chasm (an abyss). So they are still alive in the same world as they can communicate and see one another (in order to see Abraham and Lazarus, the rich must look up) but not in the same part of this world. This world can be considered to be Hades; the two parts can be understood as Paradise on one side and Gehenna on the other.
This parable is different from any others in many ways. Normally a parable correspond to one specific teaching. Here, there are multiple teachings. Of course the climax of the story is to be found in the fact that what matters is to be confident in God and not in wealth but also that listening to God requires understanding the scriptures (and especially resurrection must be understood through them). It is also about a reversed order of things: the rich enjoyed (earthly) life, now it is Lazarus that enjoys being with Abraham. It is not about the structure of Hades. But it is useful to complete the clues we needed to understand how first century people and even Jesus himself were mentally thinking the immediate afterlife.
As we are in an analogical study of scripture combining clues that different passages reveal, we can consider at this point a difficult passage in 2Peter 2. This chapter talks about the judgement of false teachers.
We have seen that Sodom and Gomorrah were undergoing a sort of eternal fire. And we just considered that in Hades the order of things is restored to justice compared to what happens on earth. With those two ideas in mind it is interesting to consider the torments of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah described in 2Peter 2,6-9 for if things are reversed in Hades so Lot may be in peace now when Sodom and Gomorrah’s people may suffer the same torments Lot suffered on earth: they are distressed by contemplating their own depraved behavior and they know (now) that they choose to become creatures of instinct born to be caught and destroyed (v12). Being in torments in Hades may well be knowing what is awaiting those who chose to reject the Lordship of the Lord (v10).
The same passage often astonishes commentators who rightly notice a problem in v9:
9then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgement (CSB)5
Here the word rescue is well translated to avoid the synonymous save6 as if the definitive salvation has still to be performed but more important is the fact that the unrighteous seems to be already punished before the day of judgement. If we consider that in both letter, the concept of conscience is important (see v8 as a close example) so it is not impossible that, as we have seen that in She’ol it is too late to change your mind, people are suffering to realize the bad choices they have done in lawless deeds.
1 Even if many Bible editors do not put a title for this specific sequence which is often included into a pericope called « The crucifixion of Jesus » (NIV) or « crucified between two criminals » (CSB) or simply « the crucifixion » (NASB2020).
2 This is quite important to realize that the goal for God is not to make a cycle of life. Typically a biblical cycle would go through the following steps: perfection - fall - redemption - return to perfection. Similar cyclic views of life are found in most pagan religions.
3 Even if the hebrew gan of Genesis has been translated by the greek paradeisos in the LXX which has led to confusion.
4 It is the only parable in which the character is named. is twice ironic on the part of Jesus 1/ to name the poor man: in general we remember the name of the rich people 2/ to have called his character Lazarus since it comes from an Hebrew name: Eleazar (אֶלְעָזָר) which means "God helps".
5 ἀδίκους δὲ εἰς ἡμέραν κρίσεως κολαζομένους τηρεῖν - Literally: unrighteous for a day of judgement being punished to keep
6 Hruomai (ῥύομαι) to rescue carries a different idea than sôizô (σῴζω) to save.