Skip to main content


By Karen Garst of ~

Where did the concept of heaven or paradise come from?

One of the major promises of virtually all religions is that after you die here on earth, you will be taken to a paradise in heaven where everything will be perfect forever. Of course, you have to do everything the religion requires you to do to qualify. In some cases that is separating your dishes that have had meat in them versus dairy, suffering through genital mutilation, tithing 10% of your income, etc. The concept of heaven or paradise is and has been a strong motivator for religions to keep people from leaving the flock. But where did this concept arise in the Abrahamic tradition? Was it there from the beginning or did it get added later?

Most people who were raised religiously might start their explanation with the story of the Garden of Eden. They would say that until Eve took a bite of that pesky apple, everything was hunky dory. So let’s start there. The story of the Garden of Eden in the Bible has been interpreted in many ways. In the text itself, Eve is tempted by a snake. This snake is not yet Satan, the devil, or an evil force. It is simply a snake.

“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” Genesis 3:13

One can assume from this passage that the snake at one time had arms and legs and could talk. Another interpretation from this story is that the Garden of Eden was paradise where you didn’t have to work, wear clothes, or do much of anything. Obviously that all changed with the punishments meted out by god to Adam (till the ground, work hard) and Eve (pain in childbirth, obey your husband) after that fateful day.

The sources behind this story come from many different areas. The symbol of the goddess in many cultures was a snake because of its regenerative powers. Asherah, a Canaanite goddess was also associated with worship in nature. Juris Zarins, an anthropology professor, posits that an area in modern day Iraq served as the basis for the story of the Garden of Eden. There are four rivers mentioned in the story and he believes that they can be traced to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates in Iraq. An ancient civilization, the Sumerians, existed just north of the Persian gulf from approximately 2800 to 1600 BCE, long before the Hebrew tribes came into Canaan. Interestingly, in the Sumerian myth, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu falls from immortality to mortality after a “hapless sinful union with a fallen woman.” Sound familiar? Zarins also believes that the flooding and receding of the waters of the Persian Gulf made the area alternately wet or dry. Beginning in 6000 BCE the area was once fertile again. He has an interesting hypothesis that there may have been a clash as hunter-gatherers returned to this area only to be met by the newly minted agriculturalists. In addition to the geological work that supports his thesis, the word Eden existed in Sumerian, the first written language and meant fertile plain with the word Adam meaning something like “settlement on the plain.” The word paradise comes from the Old Iranian word for exceptional gardens, pairi-daeza, which in later years was shortened to parideiza and then to paridiz.[1]

But this paradise was still on earth, not yet in heaven. That concept came in much later to the Hebrew mythology and is strongly influenced by the Persians. Long after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the Southern Kingdom, Judah, was conquered by the Babylonians in 598 BCE. The scribes, priests, and elites were carted off to Babylon where they could be watched over. In 539 BCE, one of the kings of Persia, Cyrus the Great or Darius, allowed them to return and rebuild the temple when Persia conquered Babylonia. Whew! There was a lot of conquering going on then. The Persians, through their beliefs known as Zoroastrianism, were one of the first civilizations to develop the dual concept of good and evil. Zoroaster in Greek or Zarathustra in Persian was the priest. At the age of thirty, he had a revelation that led to his belief in the “one true god.”[2]  He had formerly been a polytheist. Prior to this influence, the Hebrews attributed the powers of good and evil to their one god, Yahweh.

“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.”  Isaiah 45:7

This passage may have even be an attempt to counter the Persian duality and affirm that there was just one god. While the Persians had one god, they also had a counterforce for evil. The good was known as Ahura Mazda and the evil force Angra Mainyu. Eventually this concept of duality crept into the writings of the Hebrews and the beginnings of the notions of heaven and hell came into being for them.

“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.” Daniel 12:2

But this paradise was still on earth, not yet in heaven. That concept came in much later to the Hebrew mythology and is strongly influenced by the Persians.Even then, the Hebrews didn’t have a strong notion of heaven as a place where you went when you died. The book of Daniel is attributed to a fairly late period in the creation of the Old Testament, around 200 BCE. Daniel replaced the old notion of Shoel where everyone went when they died no matter what they did on earth to an idea approaching the current notion of heaven and hell.

But it is Christianity that developed the strongest notion of heaven and hell. It is the New Testament that takes the snake from the Genesis story and creates the evil force known as the devil. Elaine Pagels, in her book, The Origin of Satan, gives her explanation of the elevation of this force of evil called the devil.

“How, after all, could anyone claim that a man betrayed by one of his own followers, and brutally executed on charges of treason against Rome, not only was but still is God’s appointed Messiah, unless his capture and death were, as the gospels insist, not a final defeat but only a preliminary skirmish in a vast cosmic conflict now enveloping the universe?”[3]

Mark, who deviated from mainstream Jewish tradition, starts his gospel (likely the first gospel written) with Jesus being tempted by the devil. The book of Revelations has the most interesting depiction of the devil whose portrayal later incorporates the cloven hooves of the Greek god Pan and the talon feet of the dragon.

And what better way to explain the disasters, disease, wars, hunger, etc. that has befallen man since the beginning of time? It has always intrigued me that an omniscient and all powerful god could not get rid of a pesky devil.

How about making our lives better on this earth?  What if all the riches of the Catholic Church were liquidated and the money was used to build permanent housing for people around the world? What if people who tithe 10% to the church would devote this money to helping out those less fortunate than them? Wouldn’t we start the path to creating a paradise here on earth? Where everyone had enough food, shelter, and medical care to live a long and fruitful life? Where everyone could be fully employed? Yes, it sounds like pie in the sky, but look at where we spend our money now – 54% of discretionary spending in the United States is spent on the military. And what has been the major theme for our wars over the last 2000 years? Religion would undoubtedly win. It is time to face the reality that this is our life, this one, right here on earth and we’d better do something now to make it better.

[2] Rodney Stark, Discovering God (New York, NY: Harper One, 2007), 162.
[3] Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995), 12.


Popular posts from this blog

Are You an Atheist Success Story?

By Avangelism Project ~ F acts don’t spread. Stories do. It’s how (good) marketing works, it’s how elections (unfortunately) are won and lost, and it’s how (all) religion spreads. Proselytization isn’t accomplished with better arguments. It’s accomplished with better stories and it’s time we atheists catch up. It’s not like atheists don’t love a good story. Head over to the atheist reddit and take a look if you don’t believe me. We’re all over stories painting religion in a bad light. Nothing wrong with that, but we ignore the value of a story or a testimonial when we’re dealing with Christians. We can’t be so proud to argue the semantics of whether atheism is a belief or deconversion is actually proselytization. When we become more interested in defining our terms than in affecting people, we’ve relegated ourselves to irrelevance preferring to be smug in our minority, but semantically correct, nonbelief. Results Determine Reality The thing is when we opt to bury our

So Just How Dumb Were Jesus’ Disciples? The Resurrection, Part VII.

By Robert Conner ~ T he first mention of Jesus’ resurrection comes from a letter written by Paul of Tarsus. Paul appears to have had no interest whatsoever in the “historical” Jesus: “even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, we know him so no longer.” ( 2 Corinthians 5:16 ) Paul’s surviving letters never once mention any of Jesus’ many exorcisms and healings, the raising of Lazarus, or Jesus’ virgin birth, and barely allude to Jesus’ teaching. For Paul, Jesus only gets interesting after he’s dead, but even here Paul’s attention to detail is sketchy at best. For instance, Paul says Jesus “was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” ( 1 Corinthians 15:4 ), but there are no scriptures that foretell the Jewish Messiah would at long last appear only to die at the hands of Gentiles, much less that the Messiah would then be raised from the dead after three days. After his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus—an event Paul never mentions in his lette

Christian TV presenter reads out Star Wars plot as story of salvation

An email prankster tricked the host of a Christian TV show into reading out the plots of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Star Wars in the belief they were stories of personal salvation. The unsuspecting host read out most of the opening rap to The Fresh Prince, a 1990s US sitcom starring Will Smith , apparently unaware that it was not a genuine testimony of faith. The prankster had slightly adapted the lyrics but the references to a misspent youth playing basketball in West Philadelphia would have been instantly familiar to most viewers. The lines read out by the DJ included: "One day a couple of guys who were up to no good starting making trouble in my living area. I ended up getting into a fight, which terrified my mother." The presenter on Genesis TV , a British Christian channel, eventually realised that he was being pranked and cut the story short – only to move on to another spoof email based on the plot of the Star Wars films. It began: &quo


By David Andrew Dugle ~   S ettle down now children, here's the story from the Book of David called The Parable of the Bent Cross. In the land Southeast of Eden –  Eden, Minnesota that is – between two rivers called the Big Miami and the Little Miami, in the name of Saint Gertrude there was once built a church. Here next to it was also built a fine parochial school. The congregation thrived and after a multitude of years, a new, bigger church was erected, well made with clean straight lines and a high steeple topped with a tall, thin cross of gold. The faithful felt proud, but now very low was their money. Their Sunday offerings and school fees did not suffice. Anon, they decided to raise money in an unclean way. One fine summer day the faithful erected tents in the chariot lot between the two buildings. In the tents they set up all manner of games – ring toss, bingo, little mechanical racing horses and roulette wheels – then all who lived in the land between the two rivers we

Morality is not a Good Argument for Christianity

By austinrohm ~ I wrote this article as I was deconverting in my own head: I never talked with anyone about it, but it was a letter I wrote as if I was writing to all the Christians in my life who constantly brought up how morality was the best argument for Christianity. No Christian has read this so far, but it is written from the point of view of a frustrated closeted atheist whose only outlet was organizing his thoughts on the keyboard. A common phrase used with non-Christians is: “Well without God, there isn’t a foundation of morality. If God is not real, then you could go around killing and raping.” There are a few things which must be addressed. 1. Show me objective morality. Define it and show me an example. Different Christians have different moral standards depending on how they interpret the Bible. Often times, they will just find what they believe, then go back into scripture and find a way to validate it. Conversely, many feel a particular action is not

On Living Virtuously

By Webmdave ~  A s a Christian, living virtuously meant living in a manner that pleased God. Pleasing god (or living virtuously) was explained as: Praying for forgiveness for sins  Accepting Christ as Savior  Frequently reading the Bible  Memorizing Bible verses Being baptized (subject to church rules)  Attending church services  Partaking of the Lord’s Supper  Tithing  Resisting temptations to lie, steal, smoke, drink, party, have lustful thoughts, have sex (outside of marriage) masturbate, etc.  Boldly sharing the Gospel of Salvation with unbelievers The list of virtuous values and expectations grew over time. Once the initial foundational values were safely under the belt, “more virtues'' were introduced. Newer introductions included (among others) harsh condemnation of “worldly” music, homosexuality and abortion Eventually the list of values grew ponderous, and these ideals were not just personal for us Christians. These virtues were used to condemn and disrespect fro