A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Who invented paradise?

February 1, 2002

Dear Cecil:

I enjoyed your commentary on the Islamic concept of paradise as it is described in the Koran. Your generalizations are acceptable except for the statement that "Christianity, after all, invented the idea of paradise in the first place." Paradise is a Zoroastrian concept. It was borrowed by Jews from the Persians beginning about 500 BCE, when Yehud was a Persian province. Zoroastrianism was a Persian state religion that appears to have evolved in the century before 500 BCE. The concept of paradise, though, has even more ancient Indo-Iranian religious roots. Zoroastrian concepts continued to infiltrate into Jewish thought during Hellenistic times, and some are found in such late-written books as Daniel. They are more prominent in Jewish literature produced after about 100 BCE, especially in the writing of those Jews whose traditions later evolved into Christianity.

Cecil replies:

Damn Zoroastrians. But no sense blaming them — I figured somebody would call me on that line. I've been in tight spots before, though, and I bet I can talk my way out of this one too.

Little is known with certainty about early Zoroastrianism, even such basic facts as when Zoroaster, the founder of the religion, lived. Tradition suggests he was born in 628 BC and died in 551 BC, but linguistic evidence in the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scriptures, indicates that he was on the scene much earlier. Most of Zoroaster's writings were destroyed in ancient times; what we have today was pieced together later from fragments.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonably clear that Zoroastrianism, not Christianity, originated not only the idea of paradise in the sense of heavenly reward but also hell in the sense of punishment. (The word paradise derives from a Persian term meaning hunting park.) What's more, Zoroastrianism seems to be the source, in outline anyway, of most Christian eschatology, or thinking about the last days. When you die, Zoroaster tells us, you're judged on the basis of your life conduct and either admitted to paradise or cast into the pit. At the end of the world the dead will be resurrected and the last judgment will separate the sheep from the goats, after which the chosen will enjoy eternal bliss. I should probably mention that while Zoroastrianism is not, strictly speaking, a monotheistic religion, a supreme deity named Ahura Mazda ("Wise Lord") runs the show.

OK, so I gave Christianity too much credit. Still, it brought a new ingredient to the table, namely the element of faith as a prerequisite to salvation. Although Zoroastrianism offered a credo of sorts, I see nothing to suggest that one had to believe to be saved. Salvation was simply a matter of leading a virtuous life. Christianity, on the other hand, demanded faith first and foremost, typically professed in a public baptism, which marked your admission to the community of believers. Virtue alone couldn't get you into paradise — witness the virtuous pagans in Dante's Inferno, condemned to the upper reaches of hell.

You can see how the Christian notion of salvation was more compelling than that of the Zoroastrians. Leading a virtuous life might sound easy, but in fact it's a tall order. How virtuous? Virtuous according to whom? How can one be sure one has done enough? Whereas accepting Jesus as your personal savior takes a few minutes, and even if you slip later, repentance will bring forgiveness. Considered purely as a marketing proposition, Christianity is hard to beat. Do X and you will get Y. I realize this is a pretty bald way of putting it, but I've got only 600 words to explain why there are two billion Christians today and only a couple million Zoroastrians.

Luck, you say. Being in the right place at the right time, namely the edge of the Roman empire at its height. Christianity was also heir to a messianic strain in Judaism that, under the aggressive leadership of people like Saint Paul, rapidly developed into an impulse to save the whole world.

Still, there had to be more to it than that, and I'm trying to explain what it is. Christianity didn't invent paradise, but it did offer a formula for obtaining it that seemed to offer a high degree of certainty. We can be sure of little in this world; why shouldn't we want to have a firmer grasp of the next?

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