Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but this is my one aim:
to forget everything that's behind, and to strain every nerve to go after what lies ahead.
I press on toward the finish line, where the prize waiting for me is the upward call of God
(Philippians 3:13-14)
by – Stuart H. Pouliot
January 9, 2011
Thief in Paradise: When?
And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, "Are You not the Christ?
Save Yourself and us!" But the other answered, and rebuking him said, "Do you not even fear God, since you
are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve
for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You
come in Your kingdom!" And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
(Luke 23:39-43 NASB)
The story of the criminals being crucified along with Jesus is used by many to teach that this is proof positive that
when a believer dies, he goes straight to heaven to be in the presence of God. A very well-known preacher once
declared that this story "absolutely proves without any doubt" that the death of a believer leads to instant ascent
to heaven. To be sure, this brother in Christ means well in his preaching, but this particular story declares nothing
of the sort. More emphatically: this story has nothing whatsoever to do with where a believer goes in death.
We need to be reminded of Jesus' words: No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven:
the Son of Man (John 3:13), who, Paul declared, alone possesses immortality (1 Timothy 6:16). Could Jesus or Paul,
for that matter, have made it any clearer than this? Given this, what did Jesus mean when He told the thief he would
be with Him in paradise?
First, the criminal asked Jesus to remember him when He comes in His kingdom. To what kingdom was the criminal
referring? In that day, there was only one kingdom that was expected by the Jews. It was the kingdom promised to
David; the same one declared to Mary when Gabriel appeared to her pronouncing her favorable before God.
"He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of
His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end." (Luke
1:32-33 NASB; see Isaiah 9:6-7; Daniel 7:13-14)
Even if he did not know all the facts surrounding Christ's future kingdom, the criminal surely understood the insults
being hurled at Jesus as He hung on the cross. So, it was in this context that the criminal asked Jesus to remember
him when He comes in His kingdom.
And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, "He saved others; let
Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One." And the soldiers also mocked Him, coming up
to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, "If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!" Now there was
also an inscription above Him, "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS." (Luke 23:35-38 NASB)
Did the kingdom of Christ openly manifest among the nations in that day or any of the days that followed the cross
in such in a way that the nations acknowledged who is the true king of the earth? If it did come, then according to
the prophets, the world should be experiencing righteous and just rule with glory filling the earth. Can anyone find
such a thing throughout the nations today? Is our modern world ruled according to righteousness and justice? Are
there kings and lords of Christ ruling over the nations today? The obvious answer to all these questions is no . Jesus'
answer to the criminal had to be in reference to a day that would not commence for at least 2,000 years from
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Calvary, considering we are still waiting for our Savior to come from heaven. Of course, this does not negate the
fact that for King Jesus' people His kingdom is now but not yet . He rules in the midst of His body of believers.
Second, some might argue that Jesus promised the criminal a place in paradise, not in His kingdom. There are only
two other places in the new testament that refer directly to paradise, and each pointing to the future kingdom. Paul
was snatched away into paradise (2 Corinthians 12:4). Then, it is promised to those believers who conquer that they
may eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God (Revelation 2:7). Added to this are all the promises made to those
who conquer, as recorded in the seven epistles to the ecclesia (Revelation 2-3), refer to entering paradise in some
fashion. Of course, John, along with Paul, actually saw paradise.
Third, many preachers place their emphasis on the word today as proof that the criminal and Jesus both went to
paradise in that day. However, when Jesus died, He went into the tomb (grave) as a dead man, until God raised Him
from the dead on the third day. Jesus then ascended to His Father (John 20:17), returned to the earth, and appeared
to His disciples over a forty-day period, before finally ascending into a cloud as the disciples watched (Acts 1:9-11;
2:14-36). Today, He is not in paradise but seated upon His Father's throne in heaven.
The Hebrew believers were encouraged that Christ entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of
God for us (Hebrews 9:24). Please note that these believers had no expectant hope that they were to go to heaven
in death. In fact, a few verses later, they were encouraged to wait for Christ to come a second time for salvation
apart from sin (Hebrews 9:28).
Further, the Thessalonian believers were commended because they were waiting for God's Son to come from
heaven (1 Thessalonians 1:10). The Philippians were encouraged to wait for the Son from heaven as well (Philippians
3:20-21). When the Thessalonians were concerned over their loved ones who had fallen asleep in Jesus, Paul did
not encourage them that there was no need to be concerned, for they were in heaven already (aka in paradise).
Rather, he encouraged them that they were asleep in Jesus and would be resurrected (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
They were to comfort one another with these words about the resurrection and snatching away to meet the Lord
in the air.
Thus, God's word consistently places the emphasis on waiting for the resurrection, and not on death and
immediately going to heaven. It is very doubtful that Jesus would have meant anything different. Whether there is
some sort of afterlife as disembodied spirits (unclothed, naked) is another topic altogether.
Fourth, many cite the use of the word today as proof that the thief went to paradise that day when he died.
However, we need to understand that the Greek language from which the English versions were translated had no
punctuation as do our modern-day versions of the Bible. In other words, punctuation had to be placed in the text
by the translators and editors. As such, this alone opens up the door for interpretative bias.
Without punctuation, Luke 23:43 reads: Truly I say to you today you shall be with Me in paradise . But notice that
the meaning of Jesus' words changes, depending on where a comma is placed in relation to the word today . If it is
placed after today, it simply means that Jesus was making a statement of a future promise on that day. He was not
promising that the thief would be in paradise with Him on that particular or specific day. Recognizing this as the
more likely interpretation, some translations have placed the comma after the word today .
Verily, to you am I saying today , with Me shall you be in paradise."(Luke 23:43 CLV)
Verily I say unto thee this day : with me shalt thou be in Paradise. (Luke 23:43 REB)
Given this rendering, Jesus was merely stating that on that particular day around 33 AD ( today ) He made a promise
to the criminal that referred to a day many years into the future when He would be coming (future) in His kingdom.
In light of scripture on immortality and ascension into heaven, this appears to be the most plausible understanding
of this passage.