What is paradise? We all know it’s the place where the spirits of the righteous go. (Alma 40:12-14) The word comes out of the New Testament where there are three references. At least one of these, Rev 2:7, ties it to the Garden of Eden where one eats of the tree of life which is in the midsts of paradise. The other is Paul talking of someone (usually assumed to be Paul himself) “caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words…” (2 Corinthians 12:4) This is very much like accounts in apocalypses and heavenly ascents where the third heaven is often equated with Eden.
So are Eden and paradise as the land of righteous spirits the same? At least as commonly believed by the authors of ancient scripture?
There’s some interesting background there. The Hebrew word pardes as orchard appears three times in the Old Testament. All three of these (Song of Songs 4:13, Ecclesiastes 2:5 and Nehemiah 2:8) are post-exilic in origin. Each of them clearly is referring to a fruit orchard. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament in use at Christ’s time) translated both parades and gan or garden — typically the Garden of Eden — as the Greek paradeisos. (See Gen 2:8-3:24; Joel 2:3; Isa 51:3; Ezek 28:13; 31:8-9) It’s from this Septuagint use that the tradition of equating paradise and Eden probably originates.
In this hellenistic era we also find a developing use in apocalypses tied to heavenly ascents. 2 Enoch (8:1-8) has paradise as Eden and located in the third heaven, much as with Paul. (2 Corinthians 12:1-10) The Apocalypse of Moses has Eden as the location of the spirits of the dead in this third heaven. Sometimes in these pseudopigrapha the garden is on earth and other times in heaven. When it is on earth it’s typically associated with the temple or temple like situations. This is true in the broader rabbinical tradition as well. Earthly gardens are typically associated with the Temple of Solomon. There’s a famous legend of four scholars who entered paradise, an other worldly garden. The Exodus Rbbah (2:2) says that those who follow the Torah will enter the Garden of Eden while those who don’t are destined for Gehennom.
Since Nephi is writing before the exile, it’s worth asking how these later traditions would affect him. The most obvious way we might get confused is if the translator used paradise to make the same equation that took place at the time of Christ. That is the translation may be interpretive and adding things to the text Nephi didn’t consider. We do have passages like Alma 40 but also 2 Nephi 9:13 and others where paradise is the place of the spirits of the righteous while they await their immortality. Whether those reflect later Hellenistic evolution or actual Nephite belief isn’t quite clear. It’s also possible that later views, especially in the Enochian tradition, had their origins in earlier conceptions of paradise. This of course gets into the more controversial topic of what early Jewish views of death were like. Many scholars, as opposed to the Book of Mormon, think that Jews didn’t have a conception of the resurrection. It does seem clear that at least a major position in pre-exilic Judaism is the idea of spirits that persist after death. Contacting the dead is attested to in the Old Testament in various places.
To my eyes it seems clear that within the Book of Mormon that paradise is Eden. Not only are the descriptions similar to later rabbinical tradition there are allusions to the garden story in places like 2 Nephi 9. There the souls of the righteous are taken out of paradise for a restoration “having a perfect knowledge like unto us in the flesh.” The reference appears to be to the knowledge of good and evil from the Adam story. It’s worth noting that 2 Ne 9:6 makes explicit reference to the garden story and fall. Verse 14 references recognizing our nakedness, much like Adam and Eve did. It also talks about being clothed, again an allusion to the garden story. Even the straight and narrow path seems wrapped up in seeing Lehi’s vision as a return to the Eden where the tree of life is located.
Lehi’s vision makes tons of use of Adamic imagery. The dark and dreary wilderness or waste was where Adam was cast out of the garden. The tree is explicitly the tree of life with fruit. The river appears to be the river out of Eden often traditionally tied to coming from the tree of life. There’s many other Enochian imagery associated with Lehi’s dream. (See “Lehi’s Dream and the Garden of Eden” for more ties between the two) While the vision is just that, a symbolic vision and not necessarily a visit to real places, the place of the tree of life suggests that Lehi and Nephi are equating paradise with the Garden of Eden.
What are the implications of all this? For those who adopt a “literalistic” reading of scripture, a common view is that the entire Garden of Eden fell with Adam. I think there are deep problems with such a reading, even if it was a common 20th century reading. However the biggest one is that if paradise is Eden, then we have a clear indication that Eden didn’t fall.