Jesus, paradise, and the thief

When Jesus was crucified two malefactors, apparently thieves, were crucified with Him. In Luke's account one of the two admitted his guilt and asked Jesus to remember him. The account of the thieves and Jesus' promise of paradise is found in Luke 23:39-43:

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

Given Jesus' statement "To day shalt thou be with me in paradise" it is easy to conclude that later that day - after their death - both Jesus and the thief would be together in paradise, apparently heaven. Many cite these verses as proof that the good go to heaven when they die.

But wait... does it make sense to conclude they'd be in paradise that day? Could they have been in heaven that day? Here are several reasons why that conclusion makes no sense:

1. Jesus clearly stated He would be "in the heart of the earth" - in the grave - for three days and three nights:

But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:39-40)

Jesus' prophecy was fulfilled exactly: He was in the tomb for three full days and nights, then He was resurrected back to life as explained in the Three days and three nights? page in this website. (If you've ever wondered how there were three days and three nights between Good Friday and Sunday morning, you'll find that page interesting.) So, if Jesus were in the tomb could He have somehow gone to heaven or paradise the same day He died? Was Jesus in heaven while He was in the tomb? No: here's why:

2. Jesus clearly stated, after His resurrection, that He had not yet ascended to His Father. The account below begins with Mary looking into Jesus' tomb:

But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, [and looked] into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and [to] my God, and your God. (John 20:11-17)

By Jesus' own account - more than three days and three nights after His death - He had not yet ascended to the Father.

3. Jesus taught that both the good and the bad would wait for a resurrection from the grave before receiving their reward. For the thief to have received any sort of reward the same day he died - without waiting for his resurrection - would have been inconsistent with Jesus' plain teaching. Here are some scriptures about being rewarded at your resurrection:

Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. (John 5:28,29)

Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor [thy] rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:12-14)

It is plain to see, from the above verses, that we are rewarded at our resurrection. It would have been a violation of the verses above for the thief to have been rewarded the same day he died... unless he was also resurrected the same day he died. There is certainly no record that he - or Jesus, for that matter - was resurrected the same day he died.

So, did the thief somehow go to heaven the day he died, and get his reward there in heaven? After all, we have Jesus statement about a reward in heaven:

Blessed are ye, when [men] shall revile you, and persecute [you], and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great [is] your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you. (Matthew 5:11,12)

Reading the verse above, it is easy to conclude that we get our reward in heaven. But wait... we have just seen other verses saying we get our reward when we are resurrected from the grave. How could both be true?

What Jesus said is true: our reward is in heaven... but when we jumped to the conclusion that we go to heaven to get the reward we made a mistake. The reward is stored in heaven for us, but we do not go to heaven to get it. Jesus plainly promised to bring the reward to us when He returns to earth from heaven:

And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward [is] with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. (Jesus, speaking of His return, Revelation 22:12)

So we've seen that we get rewarded at our resurrection, and that Jesus brings the reward to us when He returns to earth from heaven.

Are there any verses that tie the time of our resurrection and reward to the time of Jesus' return? Yes, there are: the apostle Paul plainly taught that the righteous who had died are to "rise" - be resurrected - from their "sleep" in the grave when Jesus returns:

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive [and] remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent [precede or take the place of] them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive [and] remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

It is clear we are to remain in the grave until our resurrection at Jesus' return. Note that Paul said nothing about souls, and nothing about going to heaven or being in heaven; he said we'd be in the grave, "asleep," unaware of time and events. This is completely consistent with what the Bible says about the dead:

For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing... for [there is] no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. (Ecclesiastes 9:5 and 9:10)

There is greater detail about the resurrection in the What does God Promise Us page of this website. So far, we have gathered the followings points from various sources in the Bible:

1. The dead remain in the grave, unconscious, until their resurrection, and

2. The righteous are to be rewarded at their resurrection, and

3. The resurrection of the righteous occurs when Jesus returns, and

4. Jesus will be bringing their reward from heaven when He returns.

So how could it be that the thief got to paradise the same day he died? Such a conclusion obviously conflicts with what we've read about being rewarded upon our resurrection at Jesus' return. And we've plainly seen that Jesus was in the tomb - not in paradise - for three days and nights after his death. And we've seen that Jesus did not ascend to His Father until after His resurrection, precluding any possibility that He - and maybe the thief with Him - had somehow gone to heaven when He died.

A look at early manuscripts offers an explanation. The original written accounts of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and the other books of the New Testament are gone. There is debate even about what language the originals were written in: Koiné Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew. There is debate even about what language Jesus spoke. The earliest texts we have are believed to date from after 100 AD, most written in Koiné Greek, Syriac and Latin. These, of course, were all hand-written: copies, translations, copies of copies, copies of translations, translations of translations etc. Mistakes were made in copying and translation. You can research the details; the more you look, the more evidence - and opinions - you'll find.

My research yielded two findings: Koiné Greek was unlike English in some important ways, and, an early Syriac text presents a different rendering of the verse in question, Luke 23:43. Here is what I found online about Koiné Greek:

1. The Koiné Greek of the early New Testament texts seldom, if ever, used punctuation of any sort, and did not have commas as we know them

2. Koiné Greek early New Testament texts usually had no spaces between the words

3. Koiné Greek early New Testament texts had all upper-case letters

4. Punctuation and word separation were added by scribes - and translators - at their discretion, beginning centuries later

The English translation (King James Version) of Luke 23:43 - from the Greek - adds punctuation, and in doing so associates "today" with "shalt be":

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

An English translation of the Curetonian Syriac text is punctuated differently, and associates "today" with "say" rather than with "shalt be"... revealing a difference of opinion about the how to associate "today":

Amen, I say to thee to-day that with me thou shalt be in the Garden of Eden. (F. C. Burkitt, "The Curetonian Version of the Four Gospels," Vol. I, Cambridge, 1904)

As you can see, the meaning of the alternate version is very different from the King James version. The implications are huge: there is no longer any suggestion that Jesus and the thief would be in paradise that same day. The confusion and conflicts raised with the rest of the Bible are gone: Jesus is in the tomb for the next three days and nights just as He said, not in paradise. Jesus does not somehow go to His Father before He is resurrected. The thief will wait in the grave for his resurrection and reward. When properly understood, the Bible presents and maintains a consistent, non-conflicting set of doctrines!

Fortunately some modern translations agree with the alternate given above:

And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” (NWT)

And Jesus said to him, "Truly, I tell you today, you shall be with Me in paradise." (Faithful Version)

Perhaps you noticed that none of the verses said the thief and Jesus would be in heaven: the verses say they'll be together in "paradise" or "in the Garden of Eden." Again, when properly understood, the Bible presents and maintains a consistent, non-conflicting set of doctrines. The "paradise" Jesus spoke of is not in heaven, where people often like to think God lives. Rather, it will be as described in the final chapters of the last book in the Bible, in a new universe - "a new heaven and a new earth" and a "new Jerusalem" - where God Himself will come and dwell with us. The apostle John gives this description in the last book of the Bible:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God [is] with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, [and be] their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21:1-4)

In paradise, the new creation, we will have access to the tree of life that was in the original paradise, the Garden of Eden:

Blessed [are] they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. (Revelation 22:14)

We've seen that what the Bible teaches is consistent - but very different from mainstream Christian doctrine. We don't go to heaven when we die: we wait for a resurrection. We don't go to heaven even after we're resurrected: search your Bible from beginning to end and you will not find eternal life in heaven promised anywhere. Likewise, the doctrine of eternal torment of the wicked in some kind of fiery hell is a complete misrepresentation of the Bible. You can read more about this in the God Has a Plan page of this website.

So where did belief in going to heaven and hell come from? From Greek and other pagan doctrines about the afterlife, gradually adopted into mainstream Christian thought over the centuries. The same applies to belief in an immortal soul. Hundreds of years before the time of Christ the Greek philosopher Plato, in Phaedo, wrote about the immortal soul. See if this sounds like mainstream Christian doctrine:

Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?... is this anything but the separation of soul and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation; when the soul exists in herself, and is parted from the body and the body is parted from the soul... the soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable; and the body is in the very likeness of the human, and mortal, and unintelligible, and multiform, and dissoluble, and changeable.

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