He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ Luke 23.43 (www.biblegateway.com NRSVA)
When Jesus tells the man hanging beside him on the Cross that they will be together in Paradise he’s talking about the dwelling place of God. He means that nothing, not even a terrible death, can separate them both from God’s love.
In Islam Paradise is a second Eden, a place of sensual delight and happiness. I think that for the Prophet Muhammad that’s just a vivid way of describing the same thing, a state of blessedness with God. But there is sufficient ambiguity in the Qur’anic picture of Paradise to allow readers to translate the same word either as ‘juicy raisins’ or as ‘virgins’, suggesting a state of sexual rather than spiritual gratification which has spurred on some people, with an incomplete grasp of Islam, to entirely the wrong kind of commitment, liberally laced with self-centredness and self-gratification.
And so that same image, Paradise, has inspired the most terrible acts of hatred and destructiveness but also the most selfless acts of generosity and love.
When people find themselves in a hard place - like the doctors, nurses and carers who must go to work not knowing for certain that they will always come back - there is still the promise that nothing can separate them from God’s love. But the most amazing thing is that the man hanging beside Jesus gets to share in that same promise of blessedness, even though it is almost undeserved. And we can all share in the same promise of Paradise so long as we put our trust in the words of Jesus to the penitent thief.