Regarding Responsible Reformation
Al Maxey

Issue #28a
April 7, 2003


Quotable Quote

"There is no sin, and there can be no sin
on all the earth, which the Lord will not forgive
to the truly repentant! Man cannot commit a sin
so great as to exhaust the infinite love of God."

--- Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880)


The Promise of Jesus to the
Thief on the Cross

A reader of these Reflections wrote me the following: "You raised some excellent points in your discussion of the story of the rich man and Lazarus. It was very well done and thought out, however I do have one question that perhaps you can help me answer --- How does one reconcile that with Luke 23:43 in which Jesus tells the criminal beside Him on the cross that, 'Truly I say to you, TODAY you shall be with Me in Paradise' (emphasis added). If you could provide me with some insight as to how to interpret this, I would be grateful."

A passage often appealed to by those who advocate the immediate conscious existence in an intermediate state of some "immortal spirit-being" that survives the death of the physical body is Luke 23:43. Here Jesus made a statement to one of two criminals as that man was dying on an adjacent cross, a man who had previously said to Him, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" (vs. 42). To this dying, penitent thief Jesus replied, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (NASB).

The argument by the traditionalists is that this verse assures us the penitent thief would be "in Paradise" with Jesus THAT SAME DAY! Since the body of the thief was likely placed in the grave that same day, and since it was not resurrected, they conclude it must be his soul/spirit that went to Paradise that day. This, they declare, proves the conscious existence of some spirit-being trapped within one's physical body that is freed to greater existence by one's physical death.

It's interesting to note (and most seem to overlook this point) that the thief asked to be remembered when Jesus came in/into His kingdom! When exactly would that have been? Was this on the day of His death and burial? Most scholars would argue that it was not. Most state the victory was not truly won until at least the third day when Jesus Christ arose from the dead. Others will declare it was not until the ascension several weeks after that. Still others will point to the day of Pentecost, or even to the Parousia, as the ultimate coming of the kingdom. But almost nobody suggests our Lord came in or into His kingdom on the day of His death. Thus, some scholars see a problem early on in the traditional interpretation of this statement by Jesus: how did it accurately address the request of the dying thief on the cross with respect to the coming of the kingdom?

On the night of His betrayal and arrest, just hours before the statement to the thief on the cross, and during the establishment of the Lord's Supper, Jesus declared to His disciples, "I shall never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God" (Mark 14:25). Was Jesus expecting that kingdom to arrive in just a matter of hours? During the many days following the resurrection, our Lord was continuing to speak to the disciples about this kingdom, and the disciples even then were unclear as to when all of this was to occur (Acts 1:3-7). Thus, not even they were under the impression that this kingdom "came" on the day of Jesus' death. Indeed, how was Jesus to "come into" His kingdom that day when He was dead?! Thus, there is much to suggest that the day of our Lord's death was not the day when He came into His kingdom. Some even interpret Paul's statement in 2 Tim. 4:1 about the kingdom of Christ (written decades later) to be an as yet unrealized (thus future) experience.

But the above is only a minor difficulty with the traditionalist's position on this passage. There are far greater problems associated with their interpretation. However, before one can truly perceive the significance of our Lord's statement to this thief, one must first come to an understanding of the biblical concept of Paradise.

The word Paradise is of Persian origin. It was incorporated into the Hebrew language during the time of Persian influence, and passed into the Greek language through its extensive use by Xenophon. The Hebrew word "pardes" occurs three times in the pages of the OT writings:

  1. Nehemiah 2:8 where it is translated "forest."

  2. Ecclesiastes 2:5 with reference to "gardens and parks."

  3. Song of Solomon 4:13 where the author refers to his bride as "an orchard of pomegranates."

The word literally means "a park; a garden." In time it came to signify "a place of exquisite pleasure and delight." The Septuagint uses the Greek word "paradeisos" (transliteration: paradise) consistently in Genesis 2-3 for the "Garden of Eden." It is also used in reference to the Jordan Valley (Genesis 13:10) and again of the Garden of Eden in Joel 2:3.

In the NT writings the Greek word "paradeisos" appears only three times:

  1. 2 Corinthians 12:4 where Paul says he was "caught up into Paradise;" probably equivalent to the "third heaven" of vs. 2, which many biblical scholars suggest signifies being in the very presence of God in heaven (although this event may have been more vision than literal journey, as Paul himself acknowledges).

  2. Revelation 2:7 where Christ promises those who overcome -- "I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God." This tree is in the very presence of God in heaven, positioned on either side of the river of the water of life which flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb (Rev. 22:1-5). Thus, the tree is said to be right before the throne of God in Heaven, which is identified as being "the Paradise of God."

  3. Luke 23:43 where we find the statement of Jesus to the thief on the cross.

"Later Jewish tradition locates 'Paradise' as an abode of the righteous dead in Hades, however the apocryphal books do not!" (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 4). Notice that it is according to later Jewish tradition that Paradise is said to be located in the Hadean realm. This is not the teaching of inspired Scripture. Not even the Apocrypha locates Paradise in Hades. Nowhere in the Bible is Paradise ever associated with some so-called "intermediate state or realm" for the dead. This doctrine originated with men, and is not taught in Scripture.

The word "Paradise," as it is used in the New Testament writings, obviously refers to the eternal abode of God (what we generally term as "Heaven"). "In the NT 'paradise' means heaven in 2 Cor. 12:4 and Rev. 2:7. Accordingly it naturally denotes heaven in the remaining instance: Luke 23:43" (Davis Dictionary of the Bible, p. 569). "It is evident that Luke 23:43 speaks of a heavenly Paradise" (New International Commentary on the NT). "There can, therefore, be no doubt that paradise is heaven! The Fathers made a distinction between paradise and heaven which is not found in the Scriptures" (Charles Hodge). "Paradise is not a shadowy waiting-room, but a blissful abode within the very courts of heaven itself" (New International Commentary on the NT).

The Jews "have a multitude of fables on the subject" (Adam Clarke's Commentary, Vol. 5, p. 497), and their literature is "full of fancies and discrepancies" (New International Commentary on the NT). The Gospel of Nicodemus even maintains that this thief on the cross is still alive today in the original Garden of Eden somewhere on the earth's surface! According to the Narrative of Joseph, the penitent thief is the only resident of Paradise!

"Jesus, however, did not endorse the later Jewish tradition that paradise was at any time a compartment of Hades!" (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 4). Brother Curtis Dickinson wrote, "In the days of Jesus, the Jews held many widely diverse views regarding 'Paradise,' but none of them were based upon Divine revelation, so no weight should be attached to such opinions. We will stick to what is revealed in the Bible" (The Witness, Vol. 30, No. 8, August 1990).

Thus, the first major point that needs to be made, and stressed, at this juncture is that Jesus was not speaking of some compartment in Hades or Sheol, but was rather referring to Heaven itself -- the abode of the Father.

The biggest problem associated with Luke 23:43, however, is in connection with the word "today." What did Jesus mean when He stated that this dying thief would be with Him in Paradise "today?" Was this really what Jesus was suggesting here, or have we perhaps misunderstood and thus misapplied this entire verse?

There are several significant problems associated with the assumption that the "soul" or "spirit" of this thief left his physical body at death to enter Paradise that day. First, it assumes the inherent immortality of some "spirit-being" trapped inside the physical body which is freed by the death of that body. This is simply not taught in Scripture. The dead "sleep" in the dust of the ground awaiting the resurrection, they are not conscious spirits cavorting in some Hadean realm. For an in-depth treatment of this matter, I would refer the reader to that section of The Maxey - Thrasher Debate dealing with Body, Soul and Spirit.

Another major problem, however, is that it seems clear from Scripture that Jesus Himself did not enter Paradise that day. Thus, how could the thief have been "with Him" that day if Jesus Himself was not there?!! It was not until about 43 days later (He arose the 3rd day and spent 40 days more with the disciples before ascending to the Father) that Jesus returned to the abode of God. At the empty tomb, on the day of His resurrection, He told Mary, who was clinging to Him, "I have not yet ascended to the Father!" (John 20:17). This was three days after His statement to the thief on the cross, and Jesus says He has not been there yet. Where was He? He was dead ... buried in the tomb. "So shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40). Jesus was not in Heaven, He was in the grave. The promise to Jesus was that He would not be abandoned to the grave, nor would He "undergo decay" (Acts 2:27). He would be raised. If Jesus was not raised, but abandoned to the grave, all is lost (1 Cor. 15:12-19). No, Jesus was not in Paradise that day with the thief. They were both DEAD and BURIED.

Brother H. Leo Boles, in his Commentary on Luke, correctly observed, "Evidently Jesus did not mean that this robber would go with him to heaven that day, as it seems clear from other statements that Jesus did not go to heaven that day. His day of ascension came about forty days after that time" (p. 454). The thief on the cross was not with Jesus "that day" in Paradise for the very simple reason that Jesus Himself was not there!!

Indeed, the raising of the dead and their entrance into God's presence "in Heaven" is a future event, not one that occurs at the instant of death. "No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven -- the Son of Man" (John 3:13). "Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. .... For David did not ascend to heaven..." (Acts 2:29, 34). Thus, it is unlikely the thief made it into the very presence of God before the throne on the day of his death. If David wasn't there, and Jesus wasn't there, and "no one" was there, then neither was the thief!!

So, how do we deal with the apparent "problem" raised by the traditionalists when they quote Luke 23:43? "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (NASB). The very simple solution is to be found in an obvious error of punctuation. It is important to keep in mind that the early Greek manuscripts of the NT text did not contain punctuation, nor even spaces between the words (which was the space saving device known as "scriptio continua"). Even question marks were not used commonly in Greek manuscripts until the 9th century A.D. (Dr. Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, p. 27). It would be many hundreds of years before punctuation would be added to the text of the New Testament, and this would be done by uninspired men with theological biases. It was not until 1205 A.D. that Stephen Langton (a professor in Paris and later the Archbishop of Canterbury) divided the Bible into chapters. Thus, it is important to note that the sectional and grammatical separations in Scripture are the devices of men and not of God!!

The whole meaning of Luke 23:43 literally hinges on the placement of a single comma (a comma placed by fallible men)!! In the Luke 23:43 passage, the comma is traditionally placed prior to the word "today" ("Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise"). However, consider the following alternative:

"Truly I say to you today,
you shall be with Me in Paradise."

By moving the comma to a position after the word "today" one alters the meaning of the sentence so that it is now no longer in conflict with the remainder of biblical doctrine on the nature of man and his eternal destiny. Grammatically, either placement of the comma is technically correct in the Greek language. Thus, there is just as much grammatical justification for the placement of the comma after "today" as there is for placing it before that word. The theological biases of the early translators (influenced as they were by the heathen doctrines of immortal soulism and subterranean realms of bliss and torment) prompted them to select a placement of the comma that seemed to substantiate their own perceptions of the nature of man and his ultimate destiny. The problem with that selection of comma placement, however, is that it contradicted the remainder of God's Word on the subject!! A simple matter of repunctuation (as this procedure has come to be characterized) solves the problem and brings this verse back into harmony with biblical teaching.

"Translators have placed the comma before the adverb 'today,' not for grammatical reasons, but for the theological conviction that the dead receive their reward at death. One would wish that translators would limit themselves to translating the text and leave the task of interpretation to the reader" (Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? -- A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 176).

Actually, the phrase "I say unto you this day" (or "") is "a common Hebrew idiom which is constantly used for very solemn emphasis" (E. W. Bullinger, Appendix 173, from The Companion Bible). Thus, it would not have been that unusual for Jesus to have said, "Truly I say to you today..." instead of applying the word "today" to the phrase which followed. His statement to the dying thief would certainly constitute a declaration with "solemn emphasis." Brother Curtis Dickinson wrote, "The Greek adverb here rendered 'today' appears in the Septuagint and the New Testament 221 times. In 170 of these places the adverb follows the verb it modifies. For example: 'I declare to you this day, that ye shall surely perish' (Deut. 30:18). Therefore, it would be natural to 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'" (The Witness, Vol. 30, No. 8, August 1990).

"In suggesting that the words of our Lord to the thief can only be understood by re-arranging the punctuation we are often accused of tampering with the text. This is a false accusation because any punctuation is an addition to the text. The correct punctuation can only be determined by comparing Scripture with Scripture" (A. W. Fowler, "Jesus' Promise to the Dying Thief," an article in Resurrection Magazine, Autumn 1991). Of course, when we compare Scripture with Scripture we discover that there is no way Jesus was with this thief in Paradise that day, nor do the Scriptures teach immortal soulism, or Hadean holding areas for disembodied spirits, or judgment and reward prior to the resurrection on the Last Day. Thus, the placement of the comma that best harmonizes with the teaching of Scripture is to place it after "today." "Thus, Jesus is not teaching conscious existence in paradise immediately after death in an intermediate state!" (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 4).

"This emphatic use of 'today' is a common idiom in both Hebrew and Aramaic which are the two Semitic languages in which the Old Testament was written. The idiom is used to introduce a solemn statement. 'I ... to you today' when the verb is one of declaration, testification, command or oath. Some seventy occurrences of this formula are found in the Bible and forty-two are found in the Book of Deuteronomy (for example, Deut. 4:26)" (A. W. Fowler, "Jesus' Promise to the Dying Thief," an article in Resurrection Magazine, Autumn 1991). "The earliest translation of the Greek New Testament was into the language of Palestine's nearest neighbour, Syria. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. It is therefore not surprising that in one of the oldest Syriac manuscripts of the Gospels (5th century Curetonianus) the translator recognized the idiom and translated the passage, 'Amen say I to you today that with me you will be in the garden of Eden.' By introducing the word 'that' the translator removed the need for any punctuation to determine the sense. We therefore have a very ancient precedent for our interpretation which ante-dates all the English versions by hundreds of years" (ibid).

Is there any evidence among Bible translators, and Bible translations, for this repunctuation? Actually, there is more than some realize. Consider the following:

Brother Curtis Dickinson wrote, "It may be asked why translators of most modern versions do not place the comma after the 'today' so that the verse will harmonize with other scriptural teaching on death and resurrection. We might as well ask why they do not translate the Greek baptizo as 'immerse' or diakonos as 'servant' instead of merely spelling them with English letters. To do so would put the translation at odds with most denominational doctrine and almost insure its failure to be accepted. When the translators put Luke 23:43 into English, they punctuated it arbitrarily according to preconceived notions. An honest translator, when faced with more than one choice of translation, will choose the one that is in harmony with the rest of God's word" (The Witness, Vol. 30, No. 8, August 1990).

Thus, I must conclude that the traditional teaching based on Luke 23:43 is entirely false, and that it is due to a false rendering of the passage (a misplaced comma). This passage in no way teaches the thief went to be with the Lord in Paradise that day. Instead, the Lord merely assured this thief that he would indeed be with Him in Paradise. When will this happen? -- When the thief is resurrected on that last great day!!

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