The Bible’s View
“You Will Be with Me in Paradise”—Where? When?
HISTORY tells us that, shortly before Christ died, an evildoer on a stake alongside him said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Though that man was to die before sunset, the account continues: “Jesus said to him, ‘I tell you truly to-day you will be with me in Paradise.’”—Luke 23:42, 43, The Riverside New Testament (1934), by Professor W. G. Ballantine.
Just what paradise did Jesus have in mind? Was it a paradise on earth such as you may hope to enjoy, or was it something else? Also, think about this: When would that evildoer or others be in paradise? What did Jesus mean by “today”? The answers to these questions can have a direct bearing on your hope and future, as well as those of your family.
If you were to read various comments of clergymen and scholars on Jesus’ words at Luke 23:43, you would find conflicting views about what Christ meant by paradise. (1) Some theologians contend that Jesus was drawing on a prevailing Jewish idea that the dead awaiting resurrection are in a portion of Sheol (the grave) called “paradise.” (2) Others firmly hold that Jesus was promising the evildoer that on that day they would be in heaven. (3) Yet others say that Jesus had in mind an earthly paradise such as the garden of Eden. Since it may involve you, what do you think?
Consider the first-mentioned view, that the paradise was part of the grave (Hebrew, Sheol; Greek, Hades). Typical of what many say, German Bible translator L. Albrecht states that by “paradise” Jesus meant “the place in the realm of the dead where the souls of the righteous await resurrection.” This is widely accepted because ancient Jewish literature shows that at some period Jewish rabbis taught that there is a blessed part of Sheol for the dead in God’s favor. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology discloses how this teaching arose: “With the infiltration of the G[reek] doctrine of the immortality of the soul paradise becomes the dwelling-place of the righteous during the intermediate state.”
But we do well to consider: Can anyone today be sure that that view of paradise was common among Jews when Jesus was on earth? Even if that be granted, the Jewish evildoer wasn’t the one who spoke about paradise. Jesus was. So what God’s Son knew from the Hebrew Scriptures is what is important. Ask yourself: When did Jesus ever countenance Jewish fables or pagan teachings? Do you think that Christ would accept a view based on the pagan Greek teaching of the immortality of the soul?
In the Scriptures, Hades (or, Sheol) refers, not to the underworld of Greek mythology, but to mankind’s common grave. The Bible also shows that the dead are unconscious. (Ps. 146:3, 4; Eccl. 9:5, 10; John 11:11-14) Hence, when Jesus and the evildoer died, they went to the grave where they were unconscious, incapable of any awareness. Christ’s mention of paradise thus could not have been a reference to some imaginary happy portion of Sheol or Hades. Furthermore, the Bible says that by a special miracle of God Jesus was resurrected out of Hades on the third day, but it does not say that the evildoer was resurrected.—Acts 2:31, 32.
What, then, about the second idea, that in mentioning paradise Jesus meant going to heaven? Regarding Luke 23:43, German professor of theology Ulrich Wilckens writes: “Jesus’ ‘Kingdom’ is the renewed paradise of the time of the end, the heavenly realm of the everlasting nearness of God.” But does it seem to you that either logic or the Scriptures support such an interpretation?
According to the Bible, no human, including the apostles, could be accepted for heavenly life until Jesus had been sacrificed, had gone to heaven and opened or “inaugurated” the way into heaven. (Heb. 10:12, 19, 20; 1 Cor. 15:20, 23) Accordingly, it was not until Pentecost of 33 C.E., 10 days after Jesus’ ascension to heaven, that holy spirit was first poured out so that the disciples were “born again,” a prerequisite to going to heaven. (John 3:3, 5; Acts 1:3-9; 2:1-4) The evildoer impaled beside Christ had died over a month before, so he was not “born again.” Logically he could not have been called to the heavenly kingdom any more than was John the Baptizer, who also died before Christ offered the sacrificial basis for heavenly life.—Matt. 11:11.*
There are problems with both of the theological views considered above. Jesuit George MacRae observes: “From the time of the Church Fathers, the classical commentators on Luke’s Gospel have found no agreement.” Yet does that mean that no one can make sense of Jesus’ promise, which God included in the Bible?
It is of interest that a number of respected Bible scholars have connected the word “today” to the first part of Jesus’ statement. For example, J. B. Rotherham renders it: “Verily I say unto thee this day: With me shalt thou be in Paradise.” (See also the translations by G. Lamsa and Dr. W. Cureton, and those in German by Michaelis and Reinhardt.) Is that, however, what Jesus said and meant?
The Problem of Punctuation
The grammatical aspects of the Greek text allow for placing a comma (or, colon) either before or after “today.” But how did the writer Luke punctuate the sentence? The truth is, he did not! Professor Oscar Paret explains that the form of Greek script in which the “New Testament” was written “is composed solely of capital letters . . . loosely set next to one another without any punctuation to separate words and sentences. Greek literature used this script down to the 9th century C.E.” Thus in translating Jesus’ statement W. G. Ballantine, a professor of Hebrew and Greek, did not insert punctuation: “I tell you truly to-day you will be with me in Paradise.”—The Riverside New Testament.
Some have contended, however, that the expression “I tell you truly” or “Truly I tell you” does not allow for adding the word “today” to it. Is that true? Note what Dr. George Lamsa writes:
“According to the Aramaic manner of speech, the emphasis in this text is on the word ‘today’ and should read [as it does in the New World Translation], ‘Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.’ . . . This is a characteristic of Oriental speech implying that the promise was made on a certain day and would surely be kept.”—Gospel Light from Aramaic on the Teachings of Jesus.
Further, The Companion Bible explains that the absence of the Greek word for “that” (hoti) in Jesus’ promise is noteworthy. If the text had read either, ‘I tell you that today . . . ’ or ‘I tell you today that you . . . ’ the meaning would be settled. But in the absence of that, “the relation of the word ‘to-day’ must be determined by the context.”*
The Context—Which Paradise?
What does the context indicate? And how does this relate to your hope for paradise in the future?
After making the above point, The Companion Bible adds:
“When Messiah shall reign, His Kingdom will convert the promised land into a Paradise. . . . [The evildoer’s] prayer referred to the Lord’s coming and His Kingdom; and, if the Lord’s answer was direct, the promise must have referred to that coming and to that Kingdom, and not to anything that was to happen on the day on which the words were being spoken.”
Also, in his footnote on Luke 23:43, German Bible translator L. Reinhardt says: “The punctuation presently used [by most Bibles] in this verse is undoubtedly false and contradictory to the entire way of thinking of Christ and the evildoer. . . . [Jesus] certainly did not understand paradise to be a subdivision of the realm of the dead, but rather the restoration of a paradise on earth.”
Yes, 1,900 years ago, when Jesus made that promise to the evildoer, the time for establishing the Messianic kingdom over the earth had not yet arrived. (Rev. 11:15; Acts 1:6, 7) But historic events of our time in fulfillment of Bible prophecy indicate that the time for Christ to act as an installed king to eliminate wickedness from the earth is right before us. (Matt. 24:3-22) Then this earth will be transformed into a paradise, fulfilling Messianic prophecies that the Jewish evildoer may well have known about. By means of the miracle of resurrection many persons, including that evildoer, will come back to life in the earthly realm of the Kingdom. In this way Jesus will fulfill his words spoken so long ago: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.”
Note that Jesus did not ascend to heaven the day he died or even the day he was resurrected. Shortly after his resurrection he told Mary: “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” This also has a bearing on the question as to when what Jesus said to the evildoer applies.—John 20:17.