In modern, Western, Christian conception, salvation occurs only after death. In their book Saving Paradise (Beacon Press, 2008), Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker write, "Theologians speak of sacred and profane time, of salvation history and of hope. They interpret the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise as the beginning of salvation history: the world runs along a hard arrow of time, beginning with human sin and culminating in a final New Age, kingdom of God, Second Coming or New Heaven and Earth."
Yet the early Christian church did not speak of salvation as something only in the future. Salvation had qualities of being not yet fully realized, but at the same time existed in the here and now. Brock and Parker write, "...in the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God." Paradise was a place of this earth and of this life, permeated with the goodness and loving spirit of God—a place available to all through the church.
In the 10th century, the Christian idea of paradise as an earthly abode changed with the launch of the first Crusade. As fighters in a war not only justified but sanctified by the church, crusaders were assured their place in paradise, not by right of baptism into the church, but upon their death in this holy war.
Champions of universal salvation, both ancient and modern, have challenged the theology of a wrathful God that withholds paradise as the future reward of an elected few. Some Universalists, such as Jane Leade, an English writer and mystic (1624-1704), saw paradise as a realm in this world. Clarence Skinner, in 20th-century Universalism, preached the creation of the Beloved Community or kingdom of God on earth through social engagement.
Early Universalist thought was deeply grounded in the Bible. One story, though likely apocryphal, tells that the 18th-century itinerant lay preacher Caleb Rich determined the truth of universal salvation by counting the number of biblical passages for and against it. The very fact that this story arose and was circulated shows the great value the Universalists placed on scripture. Orello Cone (1835-1905), a prominent biblical scholar and Universalist, helped shift understanding of the Bible from a literal to a metaphorical interpretation, promoting the use of modern biblical criticism.
Brock and Parker also highlight bilical passages that portray paradise as a dimension of existence, citing the books of the prophets and Leviticus, the Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Let's see if we too can identify the signs of earthly paradise in the Psalms.
(Leader: Pause here and facilitate small group discussions as described in Alternate Activity 1, Paradise Is Ours, Description.)
This is the way that Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker see paradise as described in the here and now:
The Psalms affirm that the gifts of paradise are tangible in this life. "O taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8). They speak of respite from weariness, pleasure in companionship, freedom from oppression, comfort in sorrow, delight in beauty, satisfaction of hunger, and protection from danger. Though these precious aspects of life can be lost or compromised, they are real dimensions of human experience on the earth, not imaginary ideals. This is what it means to say that paradise is in this world: the actual tastes, sights, fragrances, and textures of paradise touch our lives. They call us to resist the principalities and powers that deny the goodness of ordinary life, threaten to destroy it, or seek to secure its blessings for a few at the expense of many.