What Jesus Told the Thief

Did Jesus promise the thief on the cross that his soul would survive his death (Luke 23:42, 43)?

The story of the thief on the cross manifests Christ’s willingness to submit to the divine plan for Him and His power to save. While the multitude accused Him of not being able to save Himself, Jesus was ready to save the thief. This was possible because He was unwilling to save Himself. It is unfortunate that the passage has been used to argue that righteous people go to Paradise when they die.

1. Paradise: The place or destination for both the thief and Jesus is called “Paradise,” originally a Persian word meaning “enclosure, park, garden.” The Greek version of Genesis 2:8-10, 16 (LXX) uses that same word (paradeisos) for the Garden of Eden. The word is found two other times in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 12:2 Paul says that he was taken in vision to the third heaven, located by him in “Paradise” (verse 4), the place where God dwells. In Revelation 2:7 “Paradise” is the place where the tree of life is located. Those who overcome will have access to that place and to the tree of life. Nowhere in the Bible is “Paradise” a place where the righteous immediately go after death. It is clearly a place where the resurrected righteous will go to be with Christ and the Father, and to have access to the tree of life.

2. Jesus and Paradise: According to the biblical record, Jesus did not go to Paradise after His death (Acts 2:31; Matt. 12:40). Jesus was buried and remained in the tomb until His resurrection, at which time He appeared to Mary, stating that He had “not yet ascended to My Father” but that now He was “ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God” (John 20:17). The obvious implication is that He could not have promised the thief that He would be with him in Paradise on Friday.

Besides, Jesus and the thief did not die at the same time. The biblical record indicates that Jesus died Friday before sunset (John 19:33). When Jesus died, the thief was still alive, and his legs were broken. It usually took several days for those who were crucified to die.

3. The Meaning of “Today”: In general, the interpretation of this text is related to the question of the comma: Should it be placed before “today” (“I tell you the truth, today you will be . . .”), or after “today” (“I tell you the truth today, you will be . . .”)? The first reading is the most common among interpreters who believe in the immortality of the soul. The idea is that immediately after his death the soul of the thief would be with Christ in Paradise. Commas were added to the Greek text in the fifteenth century A.D.; Luke did not use a comma. Therefore he could have meant “I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” This suggestion is supported by a similar use of the term “today” in the Old Testament in the context of solemn promises: “I command you today . . .” (Deut. 30:16); “I announce to you today that you will surely perish” (verse 18). “Today” introduces a solemn statement. This fits the fact that Jesus was not in Paradise immediately after He died. He was solemnly promising the thief that he will enjoy salvation with Christ in Paradise after the resurrection.

This interpretation flows also from the use of the adverb “today” in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus uses it to indicate that salvation is already available through Christ today (Luke 2:11, NIV; 4:21; 5:26; 19:9). This is the “today” of salvation. In that case Jesus was telling the thief that the moment of the cross is the moment of salvation, and that he will participate of it in Paradise. The text is not dealing at all with the intermediate state, but with the saving power of the cross.