Did the thief on the cross go to Paradise at death – with Jesus?


(courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D Gear

Where did the thief on the cross beside Jesus go when he took his last breath? Jesus’ words were: ‘And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”’ (Luke 23:43 ESV). Let’s look at a few committee translations of the Bible and see how they translate this sentence:

1. KJV: And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.

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

3. D-RB: And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise

4. NIV: Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

5. NASB: And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

6. NLT: And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

7. RSV: And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

8. NRSV: He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

9. NAB: He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

10. NJB: He answered him, ‘In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’

All of these translations have the comma before “today”, but there is the occasional exception. One of them comes from the JWs. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation gives this translation of Luke 23:43: ‘And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise’.

Please note that the comma is AFTER “today” and not BEFORE “today” as in the major committee translations of the Bible.

Why the change of comma?

There were no punctuation marks, breaks between words, or clearly defined sentences (as we understand them in English) in the original Greek of the NT.[1] Therefore, how do we interpret this statement? Greek scholars have called the SDA, JW, and Christadelphian interpretation of Luke 23:43 (with the comma after, ‘today’) various things, including “grammatically senseless” (Lutzer 1997:49) because it was obvious that Jesus was speaking to the thief on that very day. Jesus could not have been saying it in the past or in the future. Why would Jesus add the word, “today” to this sentence if it were only referring to Jesus’ and the thief’s existence on that day in which they were both alive and going to die?

It is getting into illogical nonsense to get Jesus to say that it was that very day on which he was saying it. That is obvious. It needs no reinforcement from Jesus that he is speaking to anyone today! If I am speaking to someone today, I don’t say something like, “I am speaking to you today and because it is today, I ask you to help me with carrying the groceries from the car to the house”. It is useless, redundant, superfluous, pointless, senseless, meaningless, worthless, stupid and inane to say that I am speaking to you today when I am speaking to anyone on this very day. The same adjectives can be used to describe the SDA, JW and Christadelphian interpretation of Luke 23:43.

Instead, Luke 23:43 should read as all of the committee translations at the beginning of this article state, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 ESV).

Christ was giving assurance to the thief that on that very day they would both meet in Paradise, the place where all believers go at death.

It is obvious why the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Christadelphians do not want the thief on the cross to be in Paradise with Jesus that very day. They do not believe in the teaching of believers going into the presence of the Lord at death. They believe in the false doctrine of soul sleep or unconsciousness at death. Let’s check out their statements about what happens at death for the believer:

Jehovah’s Witnesses on what happens at death: “When a person dies, he ceases to exist. Death is the opposite of life. The dead do not see or hear or think. Not even one part of us survives the death of the body. We do not possess an immortal soul or spirit…. Jesus compared death to rest and sleep*

Seventh-Day Adventists on what happens at death: “The wages of sin is death. But God, who alone is immortal, will grant eternal life to His redeemed. Until that day death is an unconscious state for all people [this is commonly called ‘soul sleep’]” (Adventist fundamental beliefs #26, ‘Death and Resurrection’.

Christadelphians on what happens at death: “While awaiting this inheritance, all await resurrection in the sleep of death, where there is no consciousness (Psalm 146:3-4, Ecl. 9:10)”.

What happens for believers at death, according to the Bible?

From Luke 23:42, the thief on the cross asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (ESV). Jesus’ response was, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. But we have a few pointed questions to answer:

1. Jesus said that the thief would be in Paradise with him that very day, but wasn’t Jesus in the grave (the tomb) for 3 days? (See Luke 23:50-56).

2. Didn’t Jesus go to Hades between death and his resurrection? (See Job 38:17, Psalm 68:18-22; Matthew 12:38-41; Acts 2:22-32; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6. The Apostles’ Creed states of Jesus Christ that he “was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell”).

3. What about this idea that Jesus didn’t go to Paradise until after his resurrection? If this is the truth about what happened to Jesus at death, Jesus could not make a promise to meet the thief that very day in Paradise. A Christadelphian website quotes Acts 1:3 (NKJV) that states that Jesus presented himself alive after his suffering by ‘many infallible proofs’ during the 40 days after his resurrection. Therefore, say the Christadelphians, ‘it was after these forty days that Jesus ascended to his Father in heaven. Therefore, if Paradise is indeed heaven, it was 43 days before Jesus got there, so by saying to the thief “You’re going to be there with me today”, Jesus would be lying’.

Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross was “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Stephen, the martyr, prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). He did not pray, “Lord Jesus, send me to the grave to sleep until the resurrection of the just and unjust”.

Why is the destiny of the redeemed, whether immediately at death or in the future, variously described in the NT as heaven (Col. 1:5), Paradise (Luke 23:43), and Abraham’s bosom/side (Luke 16:22)? We have no difficulty referring to a house as a residence, mansion, dwelling, and perhaps a palace for some. I once lived in an old weather-board house on a Queensland cane farm, but later graduated to a brick-veneer house. God has no difficulty referring to what happens after death by these various designations (see also 2 Corinthians 12).

Where was Jesus between death and his resurrection?

1. Yes, his body was in the tomb (Matt 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55; John 19:38-42). Matthew indicates that the tomb was sealed with a large stone (Matt. 27:62-65). This should guarantee that the tomb contained the body of Jesus for the 3 days. However, what happened to Jesus’ soul/spirit? Nothing is said in these verses about it. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy bot soul and body in hell’ (Matt 10:28 NIV).

2. What was Paul’s view of what happened at death? Paul stated that ‘we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8). This is parallel with what happened to the thief on the cross, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

3. There are passages of Scripture that indicate an intermediate state following death and before the resurrection. It is a state in which the soul of the individual continues to live in conscious existence. For an indication of what happens to believers, see Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:1-9, esp. v8; Phil. 1:23 and Heb. 12:23. For unbelievers, see Luke 16:24-26 and Heb. 9:27.

4. What about unbelievers at death? Bible.org has an article by Greg Herrick which states that ‘the intermediate state for unbelievers (i.e., what happens to them after death) seems to involve conscious punishment in Hades where they await a future, bodily resurrection to eternal punishment in Hell, the final place of the Devil, his angels, and the wicked (Matthew 25:41; Luke 16:19-31; 2 Thess 1:8-9)’. Therefore, the Christian belief (also included in late Judaism) was that at death, Christians go immediately into the presence of God (this is not going to their final residence, heaven) as Paul indicates in Philippians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5.

5. So, in Luke 23:43, Jesus was affirming what happened to believers at death. Their spirit/soul would go to Paradise (Luke 23:43). It is also called Abraham’s bosom/side in Luke 16:22.

6. The view, based on Christian tradition, that Jesus’ soul/spirit was in Hades between his death and resurrection comes from passages like Eph. 4:9; 1 Peter 3:19 and 1 Peter 4:6. The KJV and ESV translate Eph. 4:9 as ‘the lower parts of the earth’. The NIV and the NLT get to the meaning: (a) “descended to the lower, earthly regions” (NIV); (b) “descended to our lowly world” (NLT). The meaning from Eph. 4:9 is that this is not speaking of Jesus’ experience between his death and resurrection, but that He came down from heaven to earth at his incarnation. The evidence is fairly questionable that Jesus spent any length of time in Hades (‘prison’) between his death and resurrection.

7. John 20:17 (NIV) might be an indication that Jesus was not in heaven (as opposed to Paradise) until after the resurrection. The verse states, ‘Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’”.

8. If Jesus was incorrect and he was NOT in Paradise when he died in order to meet the thief there, we are only left with theological guesswork as to where Jesus was between his death and resurrection – the cults vs orthodox Christianity. The Scriptures are more specific than that. Jesus went at death where all believers go – to Paradise or Abraham’s bosom/side. When Jesus proclaimed that the thief would be in Paradise with Him on that very day, Jesus was not only confirming where believers go at death (it is not to sleep), but also he was declaring that the work of salvation was complete. The vicarious and substitutionary atonement, and propitiation had been completed and justification by faith was available to all who would believe in Christ alone for salvation (points 1-8, with help from Kaiser et al 1996:488-489).

I have written a detailed refutation of the false doctrine of soul sleep in “Soul Sleep: A Refutation”. See also Dr. Richard Bucher’s exposition, “Where does the soul go after death? (Paradise or Soul Sleep)?” Dr. Bucher has stated:

But the soul sleep argument depends on all of these passages being taken literally. But is that really the case? Is it not possible, or even probable, that the “death as sleep” passages are intended to be understood in a figurative sense? Someone who has died looks like he is sleeping, which is why people of many cultures have described death in this way. Even if the soul and body are sleeping in some real sense, who can be sure that it is a sleep exactly like the sleep of the living, that is, a totally unconscious sleep? Who can be sure what the sleep of the dead is exactly like?

A valuable contribution is in, “Where did Jesus go after he died on the cross?

Works consulted

Kaiser Jr, W C; Davids, P H; Bruce, F F & Brauch, M T 1996. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Lutzer, E W 1997. One Minute after You Die: A Preview of Your Final Destination. Chicago: Moody Press.


[1] I read NT Greek and have taught NT Greek at theological college level.


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 16 October 2015.


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