‘This present paradise’

Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna

For almost 1,000 years, the Christian church emphasized paradise, not Crucifixion. How Christianity took a disastrous turn, and how we can rediscover paradise today.

Image: This fifth-century mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, shows Jesus as the Good Shepherd. (Public domain)

Public domain/Wiki Commons


Images of Jesus’s Crucifixion did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? This question set us off on a five-year pilgrimage. Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. The crucified Christ was too important to Western Christ­ianity. How could it be that images of Jesus’ suffering and death were absent from early churches?

After we finished our book Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us seven years ago, we traveled to the Mediterranean in search of the dead body of Jesus. We had learned in church—and in graduate school—that Christians believed the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ saved the world and that this idea was the core of Christian faith. In Proverbs of Ashes, we challenged this idea because we saw that it contributed to sanctioning intimate violence and war: The doctrine of substitutionary atonement uses Jesus’s death as the supreme model of self-sacrificing love, placing victims of violence in harm’s way and absolving perpetrators of their responsibility for unethical behavior. The idea deeply troubled us, but we never questioned its centrality to Christianity.

In the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God.

We were unprepared for the possibility that Christians did not focus on the death of Jesus for a thousand years. As we visited ancient sites, consulted with art historians, and read ancient texts, we stepped back, astonished at the weight of the reality: Jesus’s dead body was just not there. We could not find it in the catacombs or Rome’s early churches, in Istanbul’s great sixth-century cathedral Hagia Sophia, in the monastery churches in northeastern Turkey, or in Ravenna’s mosaics. And as we realized that the Crucifixion was absent, we began to pay attention to what was present in early Christian art.

Paradise, we realized, was the dominant image of early Christian sanctuaries. And to our surprise and delight, we discovered that early Christian paradise was something other than “heaven” or the afterlife. In the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. Images of paradise in Rome and Ravenna captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, and teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and delightful.

Nearly everything we had previously understood about Christian history, theology, and ritual began to shift as we delved deeper into the meaning of paradise. Our new book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, reaches back nearly four thousand years to explore how the ancient people of West Asia imagined paradise. It shows how the Bible’s Hebrew prophets invoked the Garden of Eden to challenge the exploitation and carnage of empires. It shows how Jesus’s teachings and the practices of the early church affirmed life in this world as the place of salvation. Within their church communities, Christians in the first millennium sought to help life flourish in the face of imperial power, violence, and death.

As the paradise of early Christianity entered our vision and seeped into our consciousness, Crucifixion-centered Christianity seemed increasingly strange to us. We wondered what had happened to the understanding of this world as paradise. When and why did Christianity shift to an obsession with atoning death and redemption through violence? What led Western Christianity to replace resurrection and life with a Crucifixion-centered salvation and to relegate paradise to a distant afterlife? In short, the needs of empire—and theologies that justified and then sanctified violence and war—transformed Christianity and alienated Western Christians from a world they had once perceived as paradise.

And yet a life-giving, life-affirming Christianity has survived despite many attempts to repress or destroy it and despite theological shifts that have betrayed it. Paradise is not wholly lost. As inheritors of Western Christianity, we believe we must stand again at the open doors of paradise and bless this world as sacred soil, as holy ground, and as a home that all must learn to inhabit together.

Paradise in the early church

As soon as congregants entered ancient churches, they stood in a three-tiered sacred cosmos. A starry night sky or multihued clouds represented the first tier, the heavens, where celestial beings hovered; from this mysterious realm, the right hand of God emerged to bless the world. The second tier was an intermediary space over which the living Christ presided. The departed saints stood with him in the meadows of paradise and visited to bless the living. The third tier was the floor of the church where worshippers stood in God’s garden on earth.

We saw this sacred cosmos in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy. Built around 430 to commemorate St. Lawrence, the interior central dome displays a midnight blue sky that teems with gold stars. A simple Latin cross marks the center apex of the sky, and the winged creatures of Ezekiel’s heavenly vision—a lion, ox, eagle, and man—emerge from red and white clouds in the corners of the dome. Below the celestial heavens, arches frame half-moon lunettes that depict paradise: spiraling grape and acanthus vines grow abundantly, bushes are laden with fruit, deer and doves drink at fountains and pools, and saints stand in green meadows. In one lunette, Christ appears as a good shepherd, the last existing early image of him as a shepherd. He sits on a pile of stones in a shrub-covered, rugged landscape. His beardless, boyish face, framed by wavy shoulder-length hair, turns across his right shoulder toward a sheep that gazes at him on the rocky outcroppings. With his left hand, he holds a shepherd’s staff in the form of a cross-shaped labarum, and his right hand extends to touch the uplifted face of a sheep. Ancient visitors to this shrine would have stood, as we did, one level below on the stone floor looking up at the canopy of the heavens, and around at the paradise that was home to Christ and the departed saints.

In this three-tiered universe, paradise had both a “here” and “not here” quality. Christians taught that paradise had always been here on earth. Sin had once closed its portals, but Jesus Christ had reopened them for the living. While Christians could taste, see, and feel the traces of it in ordinary life, they arrived most fully in paradise in community worship. With its art and buildings, the church created a space that united the living on earth with the heavenly beings and departed saints who surrounded and blessed the living. The risen Christ and clouds of witnesses embraced this life and lifted it to touch the heavens at every Eucharist. In that holy ritual, the community stood within the sacred cosmos, blessed by the fruits of the earth and the power of the saints.

The death of Jesus, it seemed, was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion, not a ritual symbol of faith for the Christians who worshipped among Ravenna’s glittering mosaics.

What congregants did not see, however, was a depiction of Jesus’s death. In the sixth-century Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Church in Ravenna, twenty-six rectangular mosaics near the ceiling of the nave tell the life story of Jesus. On the right wall near the chancel, an image of the Last Supper began the thirteen scenes of his Passion. At panel ten we encountered Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross for Jesus to Golgotha. We expected to see the Crucifixion on panel eleven. Instead, we were confronted by an angel who sat before a tomb. The apparition spoke to two women swaying forward like Gospel choir singers. We too leaned forward in astonishment and remembered what the angel had said: “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here” (Matt. 28:5–6).

We found no Crucifixions in any of Ravenna’s early churches. The death of Jesus, it seemed, was not a key to meaning, not an image of devotion, not a ritual symbol of faith for the Christians who worshipped among the churches’ glittering mosaics. The Christ they saw was the incarnate, risen Christ, the child of baptism, the healer of the sick, the teacher of his friends, and the one who defeated death and transfigured the world with the Spirit of life. This transfigured world is our world, paradise reopened.

The Eucharist in ancient churches was celebrated as the feast of life, not as the reenactment of a death. As the leaders prepared, the people greeted one another in peace and reconciliation by clasping hands, embracing, or kissing. Then the great offertory processional began. Members brought gifts to support the church and offered foods for the Eucharist meal. Bread was universally served, but so were other fruits of the harvest. Bishop Hippolytus of Rome (170–236) explained, “In offering fruits, roses and lilies, the believer was celebrating the goodness of God who had given them to him. He read the names of God in the fruits of the earth, and God read the homage of love in the heart of the offerer.” Some churches included olive oil, olives, fresh milk, cheese curds dressed with honey, grilled fish, salt, water, or wine as well. Red meat was universally banned, reflecting a Christian desire to avoid associations with Roman animal sacrifices. When the Eucharist liturgies referred to sacrifice, they called it “bloodless,” which meant that prayer was their holy sacrifice.

After blessing the offerings, the bishop called the people to “lift up their hearts” and recited the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, the Eucharist (literally, the giving thanks). The prayer celebrated the divine origin, the goodness, and the beauty of the cosmos, and it told the story of humanity in paradise before the Fall. The prayer recited God’s many acts of redemption and named many prophets and saints, including members of the church’s own community who had died. Then the Great Thanksgiving prayer moved to its climax, and the bishop gave thanks for Christ’s incarnation, teachings, and miraculous assistance to those in need. The bishop then prayed for the descent of the Holy Spirit. This prayer of consecration called the Spirit down into the food on the table and into the entire community, asking that the fire of Spirit sanctify everyone and everything with the blessing of the divine presence.

Cyril of Jerusalem taught that the Spirit’s descent reopened paradise. The communicants received the power of divinity in their own flesh, just as a body received energy from food. Cyril explained that in partaking of the sacrament, “we become Christ-bearers, as his body and blood are spread around our limbs.” Augustine, explaining the Eucharist to the newly baptized, said, “You are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that lies here upon the table of the Lord, and it is your own mystery you receive. . . . It is what you are yourselves.”

The beautiful feast of life returned the senses to an open, joyous experience of the world; it was an encounter with divine presence infusing physical life. The Eucharist thus bound humanity to the glory of divine life in “this present paradise,” and through its Eucharists, the church cultivated responsiveness to the power of holy presence in the world. Its beauty was a spiritual path that opened the heart.

Paradise crucified

Tragically, in Christianity’s second millennium the Crucifixion expelled paradise from earth. After searching in vain for images of Jesus’s dead body in the ancient churches of the Mediterranean, we found the corpse of Jesus in northern Europe, in a side chapel of the enormous Gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany. There, among the mottled light and shadows, hangs the Gero Cross, the earliest surviving crucifix, sculpted from oak in Saxony around 965.

The life-size work presents the crucified Christ nearly naked. His gaunt legs are pushed up and turned at an angle from his splayed feet, which are nailed to a block at the base of the cross. His slack hands are nailed to wide planks of wood, and his distended arms strain with the downward weight of his thin, sagging body. His hips pull away from the cross, twisting his torso into an S-shaped slump, his belly protruding over the top of his loincloth. His bare head hangs on his chest, and his long hair is spread in waves across his shoulders. From below, we could look up into his face. Beneath heavy brows, his eyes are closed. His mouth gapes open. Deep lines scar his sunken face.

How did images of terror, torture, and the desolation of the earth come to permeate the religious imagination of Western Christianity?

Depictions of the crucified Christ proliferated in Europe in the eleventh century and became increasingly grotesque and bloody. By the end of the medieval period, Jesus was routinely displayed being tortured in a grim landscape. Saints became co-sufferers, burned alive, disemboweled, pierced with arrows, or mauled by wild beasts. At the threshold of nearly every Gothic cathedral, worshippers passed under a carving depicting the end of time. A stern Christ sat enthroned in judgment, presiding over a graveyard from which he divided the saved from the damned. Heaven was a walled city. Hell was a huge serpent swallowing its human prey, a grinding machine, or a raging fire into which demons armed with pitchforks tossed anguished souls.

What brought about these changes? Why did Christians turn from a vision of paradise in this life to a focus on the Crucifixion and final judgment? How did images of terror, torture, and the desolation of the earth come to permeate the religious imagination of Western Christianity?

A thousand years after Jesus, the brutal logic of empire twisted the celebration of his life into a perpetual reenactment of his death. The Gero Cross was carved by descendents of the Saxons, baptized against their will by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne during a three-decade campaign of terror. Charlemagne’s armies slaughtered all who resisted, destroyed shrines representing the Saxons’ tree of life, and deported 10,000 Saxons from their land. Pressed by violence into Christian obedience, the Saxons produced art that bore the marks of their baptism in blood.

Charlemagne also im­posed a Roman Eucharistic rite on Europe, replacing an earlier rite that celebrated the creation of human beings in the image of God with one that spoke of Christ as “pure victim, a holy victim, an unspotted victim.” In 830, the Carolingian theologian Paschasius Radbertus laid out an unprecedented interpretation: the consecrated elements were the material, historical body of Christ, and the bread and cup made the crucified blood and flesh of the Lord present. Theologians in Saxony countered with the traditional doctrine: the glorified, resurrected body—not the crucified body—was present in the ritual. Archbishop Hincmar (806–882) further elaborated Paschasius’s ideas, suggesting that the Mass was a reenactment of Christ’s execution.

The Paschasian view of the Eucharist would become established doctrine in Europe. Denying this view would be heresy. This interpretation of the Eucharist defined every Christian who looked on the Crucifixion, either in images of the dead Christ or unveiled in the Eucharist, in precisely the same way: as someone who had crucified Christ and was judged by the blood of the cross.

A new age began—one in which the execution of Jesus would become a sacrifice to be repeated, first on the Eucharistic altar and then in the ravages of a full-blown holy war.

The ninth century’s new focus on the crucified Christ coincided with a shift in the Christian prohibition against the shedding of human blood. For centuries, the church had taught that participation in warfare was evil, that killing broke the fifth commandment, and that soldiers were to perform penance to cleanse their souls from the stain of blood. At the dawn of the Holy Roman Empire, Christianity began to lose its grip on the sinfulness of killing. A new age began—one in which the execution of Jesus would become a sacrifice to be repeated, first on the Eucharistic altar and then in the ravages of a full-blown holy war.

The decisive turning point came in 1095 when Pope Urban II called the First Crusade. Urban summoned nobles, bishops, monks, and laity from across Europe to Clermont, France, where he urged them to take up arms and journey to Jerusalem to attack the “bastard Turks.” Urban told them, “Your own blood-brothers, your companions . . . are flogged and exiled as slaves for sale in their own land. Christian blood, redeemed by the blood of Christ, has been shed, and Christian flesh, akin to the flesh of Christ, has been subjected to unspeakable degradation and servitude.”

Urban then pronounced the ultimate incentive: “Whoever goes on the journey to free the church of God in Jerusalem . . . can substitute the journey for all penance for sin.” With these words, he reversed nearly a thousand years of Christian teaching about the sin of shedding human blood. War ceased being a sin and became a way to atone for sin. Killing became a mode of penance, a pathway to paradise.

Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury completed the eleventh-century theological developments that led to the Crusades—and to the new doctrine of substitutionary atonement—in a treatise published in 1098. He drew his analogies of sin and recompense from an emerging monetary system that, for many, resulted in crushing debt and the desperate struggle to pay it off. God, for Anselm, was like a feudal lord who willed only what was just. Those who do not honor God with obedience dishonor God, and thus they sin. The sinner must “repay what he has plundered,” Anselm wrote, and must “give back more than he took away.” Sinners bore both the burden of repayment for their sins and the original sinfulness of human nature. Anselm believed God would punish human beings and bar them from heaven unless they had performed sufficient penance to fulfill their debt, but humanity’s level of debt for sin was beyond any human capacity to repay it. Nonethe­less, unless it was paid, none could enter heaven; all would go to hell. To override this double bind, God paid humanity’s debt. He became incarnate in Christ Jesus to die on the cross, offering the gift of his death to pay for humanity’s crimes.

“The gift of death,” not the gift of life, was the greatest gift that God could give. God took pleasure in this death. As a recompense for sin, the Cruci­fixion returned humanity’s debt beyond any repayment due to God. Like money in the bank, surplus grace went retroactively to pay for Adam and Eve and forward to redeem future sinners. What then, Anselm asked, could humanity offer in gratitude that would be of sufficient value to repay such grace? By his gift of death, Christ gave “an example of dying for the sake of justice.” Anselm went on: “[M]an absolutely cannot give himself more fully to God than when he commits himself to death for God’s honor.”

With Anselm’s theology of atonement, the Incarnation’s sole purpose was to drive relentlessly to the act of dying. Though he forbade his own monks from joining the Crusades, Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement gave support for holy war. Christians were exhorted to imitate Christ’s self-offering in the cause of God’s justice. When authorities in the church called for vengeance, they did so on God’s behalf.

Such theologies functioned as war propaganda. To kill or be killed for God became the fastest route to paradise. The Communion meal became a reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. His death—not his birth—became the passageway into salvation. Humanity was divided into the saved and the damned. Apocalyptic imagination intensified, leading to the notion that the redemption of this world could only be accomplished by destruction of this world.

With the advent of Crucifixion-centered theologies, paradise was lost. It was no longer tasted and felt as a spiritual realm to be entered in this life. It was postponed to the hereafter, or secularized, as a land to be conquered. When Christopher Columbus set sail, he was looking for paradise for its fabled gold and jewels. Colonization, with its exploitation of peoples and lands, evolved from the loss of paradise. Materialism filled the spiritual void. We live now—within the dominant culture of the West—in the aftermath of the closing of paradise. We live with the legacy of militarism, racism, and exploitation of the earth and its peoples that has put paradise at risk.

Universalism’s paradise

And yet there is some whiff of paradise that still reaches us. Walking through the woods in the early morning, we catch glimpses of it. Singing in church, we hear strains of its harmonies. Cooking supper for friends, garlic and basil simmering in olive oil, the fragrance of paradise touches our senses. We lift a child into our arms and dance. In our twirling we feel paradise in our limbs.

Rediscovering paradise and recommitting ourselves to the ethics of paradise is just what we need now. Western culture needs to stand again at the open doors of paradise and find its way to re-enter this world as a sacred site, as holy ground. The Universalist part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage can help show the way.

Universalism tells us that we can come to know the world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth.

Challenges to a theology of redemptive violence began with the Universalists, whose roots extend back into seventeenth-century England. Leaders such as the mystic and church founder Jane Leade (1624–1704) laid the groundwork. In her journals, published in 1697, Leade offered a spiritual vision of paradise as a realm in which humanity’s “beautiful diversity” flourished. Salvation was “accomplished through the life-giving power of God’s love which embraced all people,” she taught. In the church she founded, Leade preached that people’s senses could be ecstatically opened to tasting, seeing, and hearing the beauty that is within, among, and all around us.

For Leade, entering paradise meant being spiritually transformed into a person rooted in love, who was growing and unfolding as a plant in the Garden of God. She told people they could become trees springing up from the rich loam of wisdom and goodness, drawing sustenance from the river of life, yielding fruits of compassion, generosity, and healing. Paradise could be now, she taught, and our own lives could be part of the renewal of paradise.

Leade addressed God as Mother, and as Sophia—Wisdom—and she reimagined salvation. For her, salvation was not the gift of a crucified savior whose death pleased a wrathful God and freed people from punishment. Instead, salvation was the re-opening of the Garden of Eden, and the restoration of humanity’s dignity, creativity, and responsibility—in splendid diversity. She said we could experience the presence of the divine in “the burning bush of our humanity,” and called humanity’s “beautiful diversity” a testimony to the fecundity of God’s generative presence. In her journals, she reports that Jesus appeared to her in a vision and said, “Heretofore, I was particularly manifested to the world in the Singularity, but now henceforward expect me to appear in Plurality.” The world needs this Univer­salist affirmation of pluralism. The garden of paradise is not monocultural.

Though Jane Leade remains virtually unknown, later Universalists carried forward her themes. In 1805, the American Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou said heaven and hell are not to be found in the afterlife, but in the life we create here and now for one another, and he categorically rejected violent doctrines of the atonement. Paradise was also available here and now, manifest in beauty and marked by relationships of justice and care. Jesus’s Crucifixion did not save us, Ballou taught; Jesus’s embodiment of creative love and justice did. The world needs this Universalist vision of salvation without violence.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Rev. Clarence Skinner emphasized the social ethics of Universalist theology. He wrote in 1915:

We accept the world for the joyous place it was meant to be. We like it, despite the fact that belated theologians look upon it with inherited suspicion. It is no longer “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” but “the world, the flesh, and God.” . . . Modern religion must sanctify the world . . . The dominant motive is no longer to escape from earthly existence, but to make earthly existence as abundant and happy as it can be made.

The world needs this Universalist passion for counter-oppressive work and reverence for life.

Universalism tells us that we can come to know the world as paradise when our hearts and souls are reborn through the arduous and tender task of living rightly with one another and the earth. Generosity, nonviolence, and care for one another are the pathways into transformed awareness. Knowing that paradise is here and now is a gift that comes to those who practice the ethics of paradise. This way of living is not Utopian. It does not spring simply from the imagination of a better world but from a profound embrace of this world. It does not begin with knowledge or hope. It begins with love.

Paradise is human life restored to its divinely infused dignity and capacity, and it is a place of struggle with evil and injustice, requiring the development of wisdom, love, nonviolence, and responsible uses of power. Power can be experienced as spiritual illumination of the heart, mind, and senses felt in moments of religious ecstasy, and it can be known in ordinary life lived with reverence and responsibility. Paradise is not a place free from suffering or conflict, but it is a place in which Spirit is present and love is possible.

Entering paradise in this life is not an individual achievement but is the gift of communities that train perception and teach ethical grace. Paradise provides deep reservoirs for resistance and joy. It calls us to embrace life’s aching tragedies and persistent beauties, to labor for justice and peace, to honor one another’s dignity, and to root our lives in the soil of this good and difficult earth.

Adapted with permission from Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, © 2008 by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker (Beacon Press).

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