Most Bible versions translate Christ’s words to the convicted criminal being crucified with Him similar to the New King James Version: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 Luke 23:43And Jesus said to him, Truly I say to you, To day shall you be with me in paradise.
American King James Version×). Many people think Jesus assured the man he would go to heaven with Him that very day. But is this really what He meant?
Although it is a strong supporting factor, the fundamental understanding of this passage does not rest solely on the misplacement of a comma in English translations. Certainly the true meaning would be better understood if the comma were correctly placed after the word today . However, other rules of sound Bible study also help us to understand Luke 23:43 Luke 23:43And Jesus said to him, Truly I say to you, To day shall you be with me in paradise.
American King James Version×.
We need to first understand that original texts of the Bible (Greek for the New Testament and Hebrew and some Aramaic for the Old Testament) used no punctuation.
As Dr. E.W. Bullinger explains in The Companion Bible: “None of our modern marks of punctuation are found [in Bible texts] until the ninth century . . . The punctuation of all modern editions of the Greek text, and of all versions made from it, rests entirely on human authority, and has no weight whatever in determining or even influencing the interpretation of a single passage” (1990, Appendix 94, p. 136, emphasis in original).
In most cases translators and publishers of the Bible have done an admirable job using punctuation to clarify the meaning of the Scriptures, but this is one case where their doctrinal bias has regrettably obscured the meaning of Christ’s words. By placing a comma before “today” in Christ’s statement to the dying man rather than after it, they have Jesus saying something He never intended.
We know this because the Bible clearly says Jesus Himself did not go to paradise or heaven on the day He died! Instead He died and was buried in the grave. Notice the apostle Paul’s clear statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 3 For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
American King James Version×: “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: 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” (emphasis added throughout).
Notice what Christ told Mary soon after He had been resurrected: “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20:17 John 20:17Jesus said to her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brothers, and say to them, I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
American King James Version×). A full three days after His death, Jesus Himself clearly said that He had not yet ascended to heaven!
Jesus had earlier plainly said that He would lay in the grave for three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40 Matthew 12:40For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
American King James Version×). The Scriptures nowhere say that His body was buried but His soul went elsewhere. Jesus died and was buried. He went only to the grave. Therefore the dying criminal could not have been with Jesus in heaven that day, because Jesus Himself did not go there then.
If Jesus was not telling the man he would be in heaven or paradise on that day, what was He telling him?
A fundamental principle for sound Bible study is to carefully check the context. Notice the specific wording of the man’s request: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 Luke 23:42And he said to Jesus, Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
American King James Version×). Notice that the thief expressed no expectation of immediately going to heaven with Jesus at the moment they died.
He may have already known something about the nature of the Kingdom of God—that it would be a literal kingdom to be established on earth by the Messiah, which many Jews of that day understood. Jesus Himself had previously given an entire parable “because they thought that the kingdom of God would immediately appear” (Luke 19:11 Luke 19:11And as they heard these things, he added and spoke a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.
American King James Version×). Jesus also taught His disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come” (Luke 11:2 Luke 11:2And he said to them, When you pray, say, Our Father which are in heaven, Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
American King James Version×). This Kingdom, as explained in our free booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom , is the Kingdom that Jesus will establish on earth at His return, not a location in heaven to which we go when we die.
Notice also Jesus’ response to the man, telling him “you will be with Me in Paradise.” Understanding the nature of the biblical use of the term paradise is crucial to grasping the meaning of this passage.
The word translated “paradise” is used only two other times in the New Testament. In both cases it refers to the place of God’s presence.
In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows;)
4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
American King James Version×Paul describes a vision in which he “was caught up into Paradise.” Paul says this paradise was in “the third heaven”—the dwelling place of God.
Jesus tells us that “the tree of life” is located “in the midst of the Paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7 Revelation 2:7He that has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit said to the churches; To him that overcomes will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the middle of the paradise of God.
American King James Version×). Revelation 22:2 Revelation 22:2In the middle of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bore twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
American King James Version×explains that the tree of life is to be in the New Jerusalem. God will come from heaven to dwell in this New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2-3 Revelation 21:2-3 2 And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
American King James Version×) after the resurrections of the dead mentioned in Revelation 20. Only at that time will men dwell with God in this paradise.
Putting together these scriptures, we can see that the paradise Christ mentioned, in which men will dwell with God, is to be at a future time.
How do we know this was Christ’s meaning? Again, as noted above, Jesus plainly said He was going to be dead and buried for the following three days and nights, after which He clearly told Mary that He had not yet ascended to heaven.
Some theologians and religious denominations try to redefine Christ’s use of paradise to say that this referred to where the righteous dead went before Jesus came—a sort of temporary “holding place” next to hell because heaven wasn’t available to them until Christ ascended to heaven after His death and opened the way for them to follow.
This concept, however, is straight out of pagan Greek mythology about life after death (the Elysian Fields as the section of the Greek underworld for good people) and not something taught in the Bible. The idea that the righteous dead of Old Testament times went to a place called “paradise” and later ascended to heaven after Jesus was resurrected is disproved by the apostle Peter’s plain statements in Acts 2:29 Acts 2:29Men and brothers, let me freely speak to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us to this day.
American King James Version×and 34—almost two months after Christ’s death and resurrection—that King David “is both dead and buried” and “David did not ascend into the heavens.”
Putting together the relevant scriptures, we can see here the truth of the matter. The robber had come to his senses while being crucified alongside Jesus (Luke 23:39-41 Luke 23:39-41 39 And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If you be Christ, save yourself and us.
40 But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Do not you fear God, seeing you are in the same condemnation?
41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man has done nothing amiss.
American King James Version×). Like anyone facing imminent death, he sought comfort and assurance. Jesus provided it, telling the man, “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Part of His reply, “Assuredly I say to you today” was a “common Hebrew idiom . . . which is constantly used for very solemn emphasis” ( he Companion Bible, Appendix 173, p. 192). Examples of this Hebrew phrase, worded very similarly to Christ’s statement, can be found in Deuteronomy 30:18 Deuteronomy 30:18I denounce to you this day, that you shall surely perish, and that you shall not prolong your days on the land, where you pass over Jordan to go to possess it.
American King James Version×(“I announce to you today that you shall surely perish”) and Acts 20:26 Acts 20:26Why I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men.
American King James Version×(“Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men”—New International Version).
Many centuries later, when the punctuation marks that we see in our English versions were inserted, Jesus’ meaning was distorted by the wrong placement of the comma, and this Hebrew figure of speech was obscured. (Several other Bible translations and reference works, among them the Rotherham Translation, The Emphatic Diaglott, The Concordant Literal New Testament and A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament, recognize the Hebrew idiom and correctly place the comma after “today” for proper punctuation.)
In conclusion, Jesus never said nor implied that the dying man would be in paradise or heaven on that very day. Christ was encouraging him by solemnly assuring him that a time would come, in God’s future Kingdom on earth, when the man would be resurrected and would see Jesus again.
This dramatic event can be properly understood only when we comprehend the time frame of God’s plan of salvation and the promised resurrections described in the Bible. To learn more, request or download our free booklet Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach?