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What Happened to the Thief on the Cross? (Part Two)
As we saw in Part One, Scripture shows plainly that Jesus's body and soul were in "Hades"—the grave—for three days and three nights, starting on the day He died. He was not in Paradise, and thus neither was the criminal crucified beside Him. Even so, Luke 23:46 seems to say that Jesus—or at least part of Him—was with the Father in Paradise that very same day: "And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, ‘Father, "into Your hands I commit My spirit."' Having said this, He breathed His last."
Because of the widespread assumption that mankind possesses an immortal soul and that even in death the consciousness of a person lives on absent his or her body, many will take Luke 23:46 to mean that Jesus was with the Father that day in spirit form. Subsequently, they will assume that the criminal could have been as well.
However, the larger issue is what the Bible consistently shows happens at—and after—death. Yes, the spirits of both Jesus and the criminal returned to God the Father, as do the spirits of all people (Ecclesiastes 3:21; 12:7). Yet, at the same time, their consciousness ended, such that it could not be said that they—their complete persons—were with the Father. Jesus committed His spirit to the Father, yet He clearly told Mary after His resurrection, "I have not yet ascended to My Father" (John 20:17).
What does it mean that His spirit was with the Father, but not His body or soul? Was His spirit conscious of being in Paradise? Notice what the Word of God says:
In biblical usage, death is pictured as sleeping—there is no knowledge, no comprehension of the passage of time, no recognition of God, etc. There is no consciousness. The spirit in man allows understanding (Job 32:8; I Corinthians 2:11), but it depends on a living body for consciousness. The idea that some eternal consciousness continues after death comes from paganism, not the Holy Scriptures! The spirit in man, in its most basic definition, is a person's mind (heart, attitudes, etc.), not a separate sentient being.
As a result, even though all the spirits of all the dead throughout human history have returned to the Father, Jesus' statement, "No one has ever gone into heaven" (John 3:13), demonstrates that the "spirit in man" is not the entire person, just a component. Yet, that component, absent a body (physical or spiritual) that can sustain life, has no consciousness of its own. The spirit is given or returned to a body—physical or spiritual—at the time of a resurrection (Luke 8:55). Jesus' spirit returned to the Father, yet He—the Man, the Son of God, the whole Being—did not ascend to the Father until after He was resurrected three days and three nights later.
There is still more to be added to our understanding of the issues involved in the story of the thief on the cross, which we will discover in Part Three.
David C. Grabbe