Did the Thief on the Cross go to Heaven that Day?

Luke 23:42-43 Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”

43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

A single verse in the Gospel according to Luke has been held to provide evidence that Jesus expected an immediate presence in heaven for himself and the thief on the cross, on the day of the crucifixion. The insurmountable difficulties involved in such an interpretation are seldom considered. Alan Richardson cautions against reading this verse in a way which contradicts the general New Testament view (Introduction to New Testament Theology, p. 346).

E. Earle Ellis warns us likewise that the common interpretation “is not in accord with Jesus’ teachings elsewhere or with the general New Testament view of man and of death” (New Century Bible Commentary on Luke, p. 269). He then rightly refers us to Luke 20:27-40 which shows that life after death for Abraham depends on his future resurrection.

According to our translations, Jesus said to the thief: “Verily I say to you, Today you will be with me in paradise.” Can it really be that we are to understand that Christ was offering the thief a place in heaven (into which Christ alone is said to have passed, Hebrews 4:14) apart from the resurrection, and in advance of all the faithful including David, who in Acts 2:34 had “not ascended into heaven”?

Indeed, was Jesus himself expecting to be with the Father that day, in view of his statement to the Jews that “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40)?

How indeed could he have been in paradise on the day of the crucifixion, when according to the prophecy of his death cited by Peter he was in hades until the resurrection (Acts 2:31)? Even on the Sunday of his resurrection he had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17).

The attempts which have been made to preserve the traditional scheme intact involve some questionable interpretations. It has been suggested that paradise here was not in the presence of the Father but in the world of the dead. But the paradise of Scripture is found not in the heart of the earth, but in the restored garden of Eden, which contains the tree of life:

“To him who overcomes, I will give to eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise garden of God” (Revelation 2:7; 22:2). No one would propose that the tree of life is growing in the realm of the dead!

The solution to the problem posed by Jesus’ promise to the thief may well lie in the punctuation of Luke 23:43. George R. Berry, editor of the Interlinear Literal Translation, wrote: “There is no authority anywhere in the Greek text for punctuation.” The Greek adverb here rendered “today” appears in the LXX and the New Testament 221 times. In 170 of these occurrences the adverb follows the verb it modifies, and often accompanies statements of great solemnity: Thus in the Old Testament we have: “I say unto you today”; “I testify to you today.” Examples may be found in Deuteronomy 6:6; 8:11; 10:13; 11:8, 17, 23; 13:8; 19:9; 27:4; 31:2.

It is not unnatural, therefore, that we should punctuate Luke 23:43 as follows: “Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.” Paul uses a similar turn of phrase in Acts 20:26: “I testify to you this day, that I am innocent of the blood of all men.” A few reasonably early manuscripts do place the comma in Luke 23:43 as we suggest.

In view of the thief’s request, the reply of Jesus makes good sense so punctuated. He had asked that Jesus remember him when he came in (the power of) his Kingdom, that is, at the Parousia, when the Kingdom is to be manifested in glory. The Lord’s assertion more than satisfies the thief’s request; he assures him that he is remembered on that very day, in advance of the coming of the Kingdom. He will indeed be with Jesus in the paradise of the future Kingdom.

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