PARADISE AND THE THIEF ON THE CROSSBack to Alphabetical Index | Back to Chapter Index
Many believe that humans have an immortal soul, and that they go immediately to either heaven or hell at death. A fundamental principal of this teaching is that all a person has to do in order to go to heaven is ask forgiveness for their sins any time before death. In an attempt to substantiate this belief, people often refer to the conversation between Jesus and the two thieves who were crucified with him:
"And one of the hanged criminals blasphemed him, saying, If you are the Christ, save yourself and us. But answering, the other rebuked him, saying, Do you not fear God, for you are in the same judgment? And we indeed justly, for we receive things worthy of what we did. But this One did nothing wrong. And he said to Jesus, Lord, remember me when you come in your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, Truly I say to you, Today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk.23:39-43 Para.).
Indeed, this conversation does seem to indicate that Jesus did promise the thief that he would go to paradise with him that very day; however, is this what Jesus actually meant? Did Jesus grant one of these thieves salvation just before his death, and did he go to heaven with Christ that day?
This study will show that there is a serious mistranslation of the original Greek words of this text in the King James version of the Bible, and that this mistranslation has led many to believe in the false teaching of going to heaven or hell immediately after death.
This study will also show that the thief who asked Jesus to remember him is not in heaven, the process of salvation requires more than just asking to be remembered by Jesus, and Jesus' promise to the thief did not mean that the thief would receive eternal life and immorality at the time of his death.
Did Jesus Die?
"And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying to me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: I am he that lives, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death" (Rev.1:17-18 KJV).
Here, the apostle John records that Jesus himself said he died.
The Greek Interlinear Bible translates the phrase "was dead" in verse 18 as "I became dead". The Greek word for 'dead' is 'corpse', which means 'a lifeless body'. Jesus said he became a dead body. This phrase is very important because some believe Jesus did not totally die; they believe that only his flesh died, but his spirit remained alive and went to heaven. See our studies about the state of the dead.
The original Greek language of verse 18 leaves no doubt that Jesus was totally dead. He ceased to exist as a living, thinking being. All that remained of him was the record of his existence. It is important to understand that, if God the Father had not resurrected Jesus, he would have remained dead forever, never to live again. See Matt.10:28; Lk.12:4-5.
Jesus Was Buried
King David was inspired to foretell the death and resurrection of the Messiah:
"Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For you will not leave my soul in hell [sheol]; neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption" (Psa.16:9-10 KJV). See Mk.16:6.
Both Peter and Paul speak of this prophecy in reference to Christ's resurrection. Around fifty days after Jesus had been resurrected, Peter says that king David was still dead and had not gone to heaven:
"Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption . . .. He [David] seeing this before spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption" (Acts 2:27;31 Para.). See also Paul's comments in Acts 13:35-37.
The statements of King David, Peter and Paul, prove that Jesus did not go to heaven at death, but he was in the grave until God the Father resurrected him to life. However, when did he rise from the dead and when did he go to heaven?
Jesus Rose the Third Day
"For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:" (1.Cor.15:3-4 KJV).
The apostle Paul says that Jesus died, was buried, and rose the third day. There are 17 other references in the New Testament that indicate Jesus would be dead until he was resurrected the third day. If this is so, how could the thief be in paradise with Jesus the same day he died, when Jesus himself was dead for three days? See our study paper about which day the Christian Passover is.
Around 30 Years Later
Around 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the writer to the Hebrews gave a long list of righteous individuals who were still dead and in their graves:
"And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect" (Heb.11:39-40 KJV). See also v13.
Both the living and dead elect of God will be made perfect at the same time. The perfection spoken of is the transformation from a temporary existence to immortality. If the thief was granted salvation just before his death and went immediately to heaven that same day, most of the scriptures that deal with a future resurrection make no sense.
The Dead Rise First
"But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep [dead], that you 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 to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall not prevent [precede] them which are asleep" (1.Thes.4:13-15 KJV). See also 1.Cor.15:51-54.
In this great day, all of the dead who have obtained salvation will rise first to meet Jesus as he enters the atmosphere and will be joined by the living who have also obtained salvation. Here, Paul clearly says that all of the righteous who have died over the centuries will be resurrected in a single event.
Was the Thief Saved?
The only way a person could obtain salvation under the terms and conditions of God's first covenant with national Israel was to fulfill its requirements. Under the New Covenant a person must be called by God the Father, repent of sin, be baptized and receive the holy spirit. From what God's word sets forth as necessary procedures and requirements before a person is given salvation, it seems impossible that the thief could have gained salvation under either covenant before his death.
"To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God" (Rev.2:7 KJV).
Overcoming is a process that takes effort, which is based on the knowledge and understanding of what is required by God. There was no time for the thief to go through the overcoming process, which involves listening, learning, effort, and making correct decisions. Therefore, he could not have been saved and entered into the paradise of God which is reserved for the overcomers. See Matt.24:13, 2.Cor.5:9-10, Heb.5:8-9, Rev.2:26;3:21.
Furthermore, even if the thief were converted and had obtained salvation before his death, he still would have had to await the resurrection of the elect of God, which has not yet occurred. See Matt.24:30; 1.Cor.15:23; 51-54; 1.Thes.4:13-15; Rev.20:4-6.
I Have Not Yet Ascended
"And she saw two angels in white, sitting one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they said to her, Woman, why do you weep? She said to them, Because they took away my Lord, and I do not know where they put him. And saying these things, she turned backward, and saw Jesus standing, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, Woman, why do you weep? Whom do you seek? Thinking that it was the gardener, she said to him, Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you put him, and I will take him away. Jesus said to her, Mary! Turning around, she said to him, Rabboni! - that is to say, Teacher. Jesus said to her, Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father, but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and my God and your God" (Jn.20:12-17 Para.).
In this conversation between Mary and Jesus, he says he had not yet ascended to heaven. It is important to note that this conversation took place early Sunday morning, but Jesus had died around 3 p.m. on the previous Friday.
Therefore, if Jesus had promised the thief that he was going to be with him that day in paradise, it would have been a broken promise because on Sunday morning Jesus still had not gone to heaven. Either Jesus lied to the thief or there is some other explanation as to what he meant when he said, "Truly I say to you, Today you will be with me in Paradise."
What Did Christ Promise?
The problem is not with what Jesus said; it is with what some think he said. There is no doubt that Jesus told the thief that he would be with him in paradise. But when would the thief be in paradise with Jesus? And to what paradise was Jesus referring?
Jesus did not lie to the thief, because he had the authority and power to fulfill his promise. The conversation that Jesus had with Mary after his resurrection shows that he did not go to heaven immediately after his death; therefore, the thief did not go there either. Moreover, the thief could not have fulfilled the requirements under the Old or New Covenants to obtain salvation. And the thief could not have preceded Christ to heaven, because Jesus was the first-born from the dead to receive eternal and immortal life (1.Cor.15:20;23; Col.1:13-18). Furthermore, Jesus has not established his kingdom upon earth, a kingdom in which the elect are to rule with him (Matt.25:31-34; 2.Tim.2:12; Rev.2:26-27; 3:9-10). So, what did Jesus really say?
What Jesus Really meant
First we must understand that the King James Version of the New Testament was translated from the Greek language, and that the translators believed in the immortality of the soul; therefore, they had no reason to clarify what Jesus meant.
The Word Today
"Truly I say to you, Today [Greek: 'semeron] you will be with me in Paradise." The Greek word 'semeron' can mean many things depending on the context in which it is used. It can mean 'a whole day', 'a point in present time', 'a period of time', or 'an immediate future in contrast to the present situation'.
The misconception concerning what Jesus said is partly a matter of semantics, based on the punctuation used in the King James version of the Bible that did not exist in the original text. The comma that is placed before the word 'today' completely changes the meaning of the sentence: "I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." This is taken to mean that the thief would go with Jesus to heaven the very same day. However, if the coma is placed after the word 'today', the sentence can be assumed to mean that on that day Jesus was telling the thief that he would eventually be with him in Paradise:"I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise."
Clearly, what Jesus said and meant was: I am telling you today, (meaning right now) that you will be with me in paradise. Any other meaning would conflict with all other references to the resurrection of the elect at Christ's return.
The Word Paradise
The English word paradise is translated from the Greek word 'paradeisos', which means 'a garden', 'park', or 'paradisal state'.
The paradise the thief will find himself in when he is brought back to life will not be the paradise of God nor the paradise of the new heaven and earth, but it will be the Kingdom of God right here on earth. In this earthly paradise the thief will have his opportunity to repent, be baptized, receive the holy spirit, and qualify to enter Gods eternal paradise.
The simple fact is that there is no scriptural precedent, permission, or condition whereby the thief could possibly have gone to heaven immediately after his death.