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What Happened to the Thief on the Cross? (Part One)
In Luke 23:43, Jesus Christ tells one of the criminals being crucified next to Him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." This statement forms the foundation of belief for the majority of professing Christians that they will go to heaven as soon as they die. The common interpretation is that Jesus promises the malefactor he would be with Him in "Paradise"—assumed to be heaven—later that day, after both had died. From this scenario, they extract the theory that all of the faithful are likewise caught up to heaven immediately upon death. This verse has become the modern pillar of the ancient pagan belief that our soul lives on after the death of the body and finds its way to heaven to be with God.
The only problem is that Luke 23:43 does not support this at all!
Jesus gave only one sign that He was the One He said He was: that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights:
If Jesus was not in the grave for three days and three nights, He is not our Savior! But since we know He was telling the truth, He must have been in the grave for exactly three days and three nights—thus, He could not have been in Paradise that day. Following this through, if He was not in Paradise on the day He died, neither was the criminal hanging next to Him.
The apostle Paul corroborates that Jesus did in fact fulfill His prophecy. In I Corinthians 15:3-4, he tells Christians: "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." Notice that Paul says Jesus was buried, not that the body was buried and His consciousness went to Paradise. It reads that He—Jesus, Himself, entirely—was buried. He was dead for three days. He died for our sins, "slept" in the grave for 72 hours, then came back to life after being resurrected by the Father.
John gives further proof of where Jesus was: "Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So there [in the tomb, the grave] they laid Jesus . . ." (John 19:41-42). Similarly, Peter told those present on Pentecost, "[David], foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption." (Acts 2:31) This states that Jesus' body and soul were in "Hades" (the grave), not in Paradise.
Jesus Himself tells us He was not simultaneously in the grave and in Paradise. When Mary Magdalene stood outside the tomb, she encountered the resurrected Savior (John 20:14). After He identified Himself (verse 16), He told her plainly where He had not been: "Jesus said to her, ‘Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, "I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God."'" (John 20:17). Clearly, He had not been in Paradise with the Father during the time He was in the grave, thus the criminal was not either! Nevertheless, the time is coming when that man will eventually enter the Paradise of God promised to come to this earth.
What exactly is the "Paradise" Jesus was talking about? The Greek word translated "Paradise"—used only three times in the New Testament—has the basic meaning of "park" or "garden." It describes an Eden-like setting. Additionally, by usage it is shown to indicate the presence of God's throne. This is seen in II Corinthians 12:1-5, where Paul relates the incident of "a man" (actually Paul himself) having a vision where he was "caught up to the third heaven . . . caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter." "Paradise," then, refers to where God's throne is.
Revelation 2:7 also mentions Paradise: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God." This gives us another indicator—the Tree of Life is shown to be in the Paradise of God just as it was in "Eden, the garden of God" (Genesis 2:8-9; this particular phrasing is used in Ezekiel 28:13).
Notice also Revelation 22:1-2:
The context of this is "a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. . . . Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . ." (Revelation 21:1-2). We see, then, that after the Millennium (see Revelation 20:1-5), the New Jerusalem descends, and it not only contains the Tree of Life, but also God's throne—for God Himself will be reigning on the new earth. This is (will be) Paradise, and the repentant criminal will be there with Jesus Christ.
There is more to relate on this subject, which we will cover in Part Two.
David C. Grabbe