What does the bible teach about paradise and heaven? Is it really about clouds, St Peter and a lot of singing? I looked at a story about Jesus on the cross and his interactions with two criminals being punished alongside him. For Christians, there is a lot in this story to find hope in.
You can watch the video below (I start talking at 37:35) or keep scrolling to read the script.
I wonder what you think of when I say the word paradise?
Maybe you think of something like the picture of Madang above… well that is my idea of Paradise, one of my favourite places in the world in Papua New Guinea where I was fortunate enough to grow up.
Similarly, I wonder what you think of when I say the word heaven?
Maybe you think of something like a picture of angels and clouds or people around a throne all kneeling and singing. It is likely to be something from another world, another realm – something, that if you are anything like me, is very difficult to find hope in because it seems too disconnected to what we see and know now.
Today we are going to be reading from a story many of you will be familiar with, especially if you have heard any stories around Easter. As the saying goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ and this is unfortunately the case with the commonly held ideas of heaven. I am going to be looking at one of the accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion and see what it means to have a hope that goes beyond death.
What is beyond death? How can we know?
The Christian faith centres on facts found in a creed that is dated to between 30 and 40 AD. Within a few years of Jesus’ death the first followers of Jesus would teach through creeds, short prayers and hymns that helped to remember what Jesus taught and why he died. The creed goes like this:
‘That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised and on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Greek for Peter) and then to the 12 [disciples].’
You can find this creed in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in chapter 15. Further on in the same chapter, Paul argues that if Christ was not raised then we have no hope beyond death and we might as well all go home. But if he HAS been raised then death has been conquered and we have hope beyond death. We have confidence in what is beyond death because we have confidence in Jesus and his resurrection.
It is important to start there, because much of what is going to be discussed from here on out may seem like wishful thinking, but it is only wishful thinking if Jesus has not been raised. I don’t have time to defend Jesus death and resurrection in a half hour talk, but I am confident for many reasons that it explains a multitude of historical facts better than any naturalistic or any other religion’s explanation.
We’re going to hear from Veronica who is going to read the passage for us.
'And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”' Luke 23:26-31
This might seem like a strange statement from Jesus in the middle of the crucifixion story. Generally, if something seems weird to you when you read the bible, it is a hint that you need to stop and do some digging. The bible was written several centuries ago in a different culture, we often need to work to find out what the meaning of the passage is.
In the 1st century, and in many countries today, hope and purpose is wrapped up in legacy. Memory lives on in the family line. In some cultures this can even impact your experience in the afterlife. The pressure on women to have children, specifically male children is keenly felt. Many women who could not bear a child would be seen as worthless, often divorced and shamed. Isaiah, a prophet in the Old Testament prophesied that there would be a time when God would honour the barren women, a symbol of all who would have been shamed. Jesus quotes Isaiah and says the days of hope for the shamed are coming despite what it looks like as he carries the cross.
In the very next breath though there is the warning of judgement: the calling out for the mountains to “fall on us” comes from Hosea 10 where the people would bear their guilt and be destroyed.
Verse 31 is another tough verse to dig into but if you read through Luke branches and trees are often connected to judgement and fire. Those that bear fruit would be green, they would not burn nor be ready for the fire, whereas the fruitless trees or branches would be cut down and burnt (Luke 3:9). Jesus is a green branch, one that doesn’t deserve the flames, but the judgement coming for those who judge the green branch are like dry wood and they will be burned up.
There is hope that God will lift up the despised and shamed in the world
There is a hope that God will judge those who bring death and suffering on others.
There is a hope that Jesus’ death has connected the two in some way…let's read on.
' Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” ' Luke 23:32-43
Sometimes when we get to a difficult verse like verse 31, it helps to read on. A green branch doesn’t deserve the fire of judgement and death but those who do not bear fruit, some might even call them a criminal, they do deserve their punishment. The criminal on the cross understood he deserved his sentence. He understood it better than most.
The world has been shocked to find that sin still exists in 2020. Over the last few weeks we have seen a rise in people protesting unjust deaths. The result has been people protesting that judgement would come to those who caused the deaths. Often times this anger is right, and the call is simply for law and justice to prevail. Other times it results in more injustice, violence, shootings and riots have followed. Sin not only led to the death of a man named George Floyd, it also led to the riots and violence. Racism is one aspect of sin that we see around us, but the impact of sin runs far deeper. What we find in it all is that everyone wants justice done, but very few want to see themselves as the problem.
The themes of the bible show that sin is a beast that is ready to devour that we as individuals need to master. We all face it and we all are responsible for our responses to it. We saw this last week when Stuart preached from John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Sin is also a power that is at work in systems, and societal structures that devour humanity. It is a power that forces people, with even the best of intentions, to hurt, prejudice, shame and exclude others.
We saw this as we went through the book of Daniel, this power was likened to beasts. We saw in Daniel 7 a promise that one would come who could defeat the beasts and as he did so he would be wounded by it. We the church must stand against these structures and bring change where we can even if we become social pariahs ourselves.
This image of life or death is vital for grasping the gospel.
Sin, the rejection of the God who gives us life, leads to death. Sin is when we continue to put ourselves, our lives, our careers, our families, our politics, our race, our sexuality, our money, our hopes and desires above God. Don't get me wrong all of these are good things but when placed above God they become warped and we get hurt and we hurt others. Sin's effect on us if we do not master it, leads to the death of hope, the death of relationships and it will lead to what the bible calls the second death under judgement if we continue in sin (click to see a seminar on judgement).
But as we see in John 3:16 and now we see in Luke 23:43 there is something to hope for beyond death. The hope is that through believing in the son we shall not perish but have eternal life. Jesus offers this to the criminal beside him.
There are three amazing things happening here that connect to what we saw at the start of the passage:
1. There is a hope that God will lift up those who are despised and ashamed. The cross was reserved for the lowest criminals, it was so humiliating. The criminal recognises that Jesus has done nothing to deserve the death that he is facing but there might just be hope that Jesus can remove the shame. Do you know who Jesus is? Keep searching…
2. There is a hope that God will bring judgement. The criminal sees judgement is coming and it is righteous – he deserves it. He cannot work himself out of the crimes he has done. He recognises his sin and he recognises his need for a saviour and he repents. ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ It is as simple as asking Jesus to rescue you and begin a life following his leading. Please get in touch if this is where you are at!
3. 1 and 2 are enough for Jesus to rescue the criminal from the death beyond death and offer him paradise.
What an amazing promise of salvation. You can do nothing to save yourself other than to turn to Jesus and put your trust in him!
I asked you what you think of paradise and heaven. I imagine you answered differently for both questions. But what if your first answer is actually a more accurate view of heaven?
Often times we read this passage and we think we know what paradise is. We say paradise is heaven. We might even think that that is what Christians hope for. Our thoughts might go along the lines of:
“That this earthly life is just a temporary holding point, a frustrating place of suffering and pain.”
“A body that grows up for 20 years and then declines for the rest of your life but don’t worry one day you’ll be in heaven, your body doesn’t matter.”
or we might think…
“Societies that seem to go well for a period of time and then destroy themselves – but don’t worry, one day we will be taken away from here to heaven.”
In this final part of this talk, I want to challenge those ideas and show you that there is an even more tangible hope than some spiritual realm we can’t imagine.
The hope of the Christian isn’t to be taken away from the earth. Paradise isn’t going to be another realm in the sense of flying babies with harps, bouncing around the clouds. The idea of the son of man coming on the clouds was a symbol of divine authority and power.
There are only two other times the word paradise is used in the New Testament. One is in 2 Corinthians 12:3 which is about a vision Paul had which wasn’t fully in this world. The other is in Revelation 2:7, at the end of the story when Jesus promises those who have remained faithful to him despite facing death and suffering access to the paradise of God where the tree of life is. When we rise we will see paradise in full. The tree of life isn’t another realm – the tree of life is first seen at the beginning of this creation. This world. It is the symbol of eternal life with God in this world.
At this point there is a comfort to be found in 2 Corinthians 12:3 that there is a space we don’t quite fully grasp where those who die in Christ are with him. The writer of Hebrews in chapter 12 says the spirits of the righteous made perfect are part of the throne-room of God. In Daniel 7 we see the son of man lifted up into the throne room of God, a reference seen throughout the gospels in reference to Jesus’ death.
Jesus promises that the criminal will be lifted up in paradise.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that the dead are waiting for when our bodies that have been buried like seeds will rise like trees.
They are waiting for when our mortal bodies will be made immortal.
Daniel 12:2 puts it like this:
“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
The real hope that we have comes from Isaiah and Revelation:
Isaiah 65:17 (click the link for more):
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind."
Revelation 21:1-4 echoes this,
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.
It continues to say that the city has the water of life and the tree of life in the middle of it.
We must grasp this hope. That this world will be made new. Our bodies will be made new. Isaiah 65 talks about us working without stress and ruling alongside God himself.
Pray this into your hearts - God promises that one day all things will be made new as they were meant to be in the garden!
This hope of the future can actually seen in part now! In this mess of racism, suffering, injustice and violence, the church is to be an outpost of God’s kingdom.
As Jesus walked in ancient Israel, He said the kingdom of God is near. After he rose he said I will leave my helper with you, go into all the nations baptising in the name of the father son and holy spirit. All authority is with him.
We are taught to pray that this will happen, your kingdom and will be done on earth as it is in heaven!
Where the kingdom is we should expect to see healing – that is literally what salvation means (salve) – physical and spiritual healings, the casting out of demons and people being reconciled to God and those around them. Anyone and everyone being welcomed in through the doors of our churches (or links of our online services) with the offer of meeting Jesus.
We should see the church preaching and standing up against systems that lead to the deaths, enslavement or abuse of humans even more loudly for those who are voiceless, vulnerable and even unborn.
As the church does what it is called to do, as you and I journey to be who we are called to be through the power of God’s spirit within us, we have purpose to bring God’s kingdom wherever we are. No matter who you are, whether you are a new Christian or been a Christian with a ‘boring’ testimony all of your life then your purpose is to be a part of God’s family, be the light in the darkness wherever you are. If you are not yet a Christian, this purpose and hope is waiting for you – follow the example of the criminal on the cross:
Recognise who Jesus is, ask him to rescue you, start to follow him.
Beyond the darkness of this world and the hopelessness many see in death we have a hope of eternal life in creation as it was meant to be. As 1 Corinthians 15 promises, we who are mortal will be clothed in immortality, the corruptible will become incorruptible and we will be changed. We will taunt death from the other side. Yes we have to travel through death to get there but we have a saviour who has travelled the path already. You can trust in him.
Hope matters and it changes everything.