Didn’t Jesus tell the thief on the cross that they would be in heaven that day?
Text in question: Luke 23:43
“Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’ ”
Proof texts: John 20:17; John 19:31–33
The repentance of the thief on the cross is a powerful story indeed. It shows us that conversions can happen at the end of one’s life; that even the vilest criminals will be accepted by God if they come to Him; that no more than a request for salvation made in faith is required by God.
However, it also gives many the impression that paradise in heaven awaits them immediately upon death. The story of the thief on the cross is one of the most widely cited texts to support this idea of life after death. The text does appear to say that both Jesus and the thief will be in paradise after death on that day, the day of their deaths. It’s easy to understand why many people are confused about this text.
In order for the text to be true, as written, then both Jesus and the thief would have to end the day in heaven. Otherwise, Jesus would be lying! Does the rest of the Bible support such a scenario?
Let’s look at John chapter 20, a story that occurs on resurrection Sunday, when Mary Magdalene finds Christ’s empty tomb. She talks with Christ, thinking He is the gardener. When she realizes that He is the risen Lord, she moves to hug him. His response in verse 17 tells us something important about death and the afterlife. The verse reads:
“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.”’”
Did you catch that? According to the words of Christ Himself, He had not gone to heaven on Friday, the day He died. He still had not been there as of Sunday morning! Jesus could not have been telling the thief that they would be in heaven together that very day. He would have been speaking a lie.
How, then, can we understand the text in Luke 23?
The problem actually lies with the placement of the comma. As it reads, the text says both men would be in heaven on Friday. We’ve seen from the Bible that this cannot be true. But if you move the comma one word to the right, it becomes:
“Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.’ ”
Indeed, Jesus did tell the thief on that day that paradise awaited him. God commonly uses phrases like “I tell you this day…” in the Bible. See Deuteronomy 7:11, 8:1, 9:3, 10:13, 13:18, and 15:5 for some examples.
Is it wrong to “change” the Bible in this way? In fact, the original Greek manuscript contained no punctuation at all! If we were to read the passage in Luke according to the manner in which it was originally written, it would look like this:
The commas, periods, quotation marks, and even the spaces between the words were added to the Bible by the various translators over time. In light of the other biblical evidence, it becomes clear that the comma, which was not part of the inspired original writing, was misplaced by a translator and copied by everyone else subsequently.
Christ did not go to heaven at His death because He spent the Sabbath day resting in the grave. The repentant thief also went to the sleep of death and is awaiting the return of Jesus Christ with the rest of the sleeping saints.
*All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.