For Almost 1,000 Years, The Christian Church emphasized Paradise, Not Crucifixion

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.

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.

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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 (see facing page). 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.

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.

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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.

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?

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