Kentucky’s first commercial coal mine opened in Muhlenberg County in 1820, in what at the time was a village called Paradise. Paradise was John Prine’s ancestral home—he grew up spending summers on the Green River, where his grandfather ran the ferry.
In the 1970s, Muhlenbery County produced more coal per year than anywhere else in the world. By then, the ramping up of coal production had led to the Tennessee Valley Authority tearing down the village of Paradise—there were concerns about the effect of a nearby coal-burning electricity plant and its potential health impact on residents.
The type of mining used in the area is strip mining, which involves, rather than tunnels and caverns underground, the removal of the land above the coal seams. In the Appalachian Mountains, this often takes the form of mountaintop removal mining—a process that literally moves mountains in order to access the coal underneath.
The environmental impact goes far beyond the destruction visible to the naked eye, and that in and of itself is considerable. More than that, the human impact in areas where this mining method is practiced is enormous—shifts in the industry have left behind huge increases of unemployment, large numbers of people on disability, and a growing problem will addictions to painkillers that put West Virginia at the top of the nation in drug overdose deaths, with double the national average.
The reasons behind all of this are complex, but it gives us a glimpse into the many ways in which paradise has been and continues to be lost, both literally and metaphorically. Environmental degradation and climate change aren’t just bad for the earth—they’re bad for people, especially poor people. When the coal train hauls away Paradise, it devastates bodies, minds, spirits, and communities.
When Jesus says to the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” he uses the word paradeisos, meaning garden. Even as the thief asks Jesus to remember him, Jesus asks us to remember the garden of Eden, God’s first and best intention for creation and for humanity’s place in it.
When I was in seminary, I carried around a water bottle with a bumper sticker on it that said this: “God’s original plan was to hang out in a garden with some naked vegetarians.” Most of know how well that worked out—that original plan ended with disobedience, with fig leaves, with expulsion from the garden.
Being cast out of Eden was something the first humans brought on themselves, and the hauling away of Paradise today is still of our own doing. Adam and Eve had all they needed to enjoy and care for the garden, but they chose not to; so, too, we have all we need to enjoy and care for God’s good earth, but we often choose our own consumerist ideals above that original calling.
And so we come to the cross, where it seems that Paradise truly has been lost. In another garden, Jesus cried out to God to take this cup away from him, then accepted its bitter dregs as demanded. The image of three crosses on a hill, one holding the crucified God, looks nothing like paradise—and yet, in Jesus’ words from the cross, a window into that new garden is opened in the most improbable of places and times.
For that is the nature of God’s paradise, God’s kingdom—it is always and everywhere breaking through, even and especially when it seems utterly lost. It reminds me of something I heard recently about the exclusion zone around the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Impossibly, wildlife is thriving there, more so even than in other uncontaminated areas. The negative impact of that disaster on the environment is still being assessed, but it is a beautiful testament to the resilience of God’s creatures that even in a place given up for lost, new life always finds a way.
The book of Second Enoch is not considered Scripture but is probably a late Jewish text, what scholars call apocalyptic literature. We think of the apocalypse as the end of the world, and it is that, but in terms of writing it refers to a revelation, the uncovering of things that were hidden. Second Enoch has this rich description of the paradise that is to come:
And those men took me…and led me up on to the third heaven…I looked downwards, and saw the produce of these places, such as has never been known for goodness. And I saw all the sweet-flowering trees and beheld their fruits, which were sweet-smelling, and all the foods borne (by them) bubbling with fragrant exhalation. And in the midst of the trees that of life, in that place whereon the Lord rests, when he goes up into paradise; and this tree is of ineffable goodness and fragrance, and adorned more than every existing thing; and on all sides (it is) in form gold-looking and vermilion and fire-like and covers all, and it has produce from all fruits. Its root is in the garden at the earth’s end. … And two springs come out which send forth honey and milk, and their springs send forth oil and wine, and they separate into four parts, and go round with quiet course, and go down into the Paradise of Eden…
Jewish apocalyptic literature often characterizes the end as a return to the beginning. 2 Enoch has a more detailed account of what we find in the Book of Revelation—the tree of life in God’s paradise. The end—the heavenly garden where milk and honey flow—takes us back to the beginning. In the same way, Jesus’ death on the cross takes us back to that paradise lost, when through Adam death came to the human race. The end redeems the beginning and makes possible the writing of a new ending to a very old story.
One Biblical commentary I read about Luke 23 points out that both of the thieves crucified with Jesus ask him for salvation—but one does so mockingly, while the other does so with the plaintive cry for Jesus to “Remember.” That plea echoes throughout Scripture, throughout the stories of Joseph and Hannah and Nehemiah and Job and Jeremiah and the Israelites in Egypt. It is a plea to be re-membered, to be put back together, to have our broken bodies and communities and world reconstituted and made new.
Rather than simply granting the thief’s request, Jesus does much more than is asked of him, as is God’s way. Jesus tells him that not only will he be remembered, but he will be with Jesus in paradise. He will be re-membered, put back together, healed and made new, in the kingdom of God that has shaken the foundations of this hurting world.
Joni Mitchell wrote the song “Big Yellow Taxi” on her first trip to Hawaii. She describes opening her hotel windows and looking out over the beautiful green mountains—and then seeing a huge parking lot stretched out in front of them, what she called a “blight on paradise.”
The original blight on paradise was Adam and Eve’s sin—their insistence that they knew better than God how to care for and use the gifts of the garden they were given. Jesus comes to us as the new Adam—1 Corinthians tells us, in the words I know from the King James Version thanks to Handel’s Messiah: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Jesus’ promise of paradise to the thief on the cross is a promise of something old and something new, of a restoration to what once was and the recreation of something far better than any we have ever known.
What’s more, that promise is not for someday in the distant future—it is for “today.” The question is not when or where paradise is—it is here, and it is now, because in paradise, Jesus is with us, and he promised in the ascension to be with us always. The question is only whether we will have eyes to see and hands to care for the paradise that is all around us all the time.
The chorus of “Big Yellow Taxi” evokes the old adage, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” This was true of Jesus himself—the authorities denied his identity, even the disciples and those closest to him misunderstood. It is only upon his death that a centurion, of all people, cries, “Surely this was the Son of God.”
We have the benefit of hindsight—2,000 year’s worth. We know what we had on the cross and what we have to this day in Jesus’ enduring presence with us. So, too, we know what we have in the paradise that is to come and the paradise that is already here—so let us care for it as God commanded Adam and Eve, for it is here that Jesus is with us, today. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell