the penitent thief | thief on the cross( From Chapter Four: Alive in Christ)

The thief on the cross.

In Luke 23:43, while undergoing the agony, abandonment and shame of His own crucifixion, Jesus nevertheless makes one of the terrorists dying alongside Him the following promise: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Taken in isolation, this statement might reasonably be interpreted as a promise that Christians go immediately at death to conscious communion with Christ. However, this is not the only possible interpretation. And when the context is taken fully into account, another interpretation of Jesus’ words seems more likely to be true.

First, while considering Luke 20:27-40 we have already seen reason to believe that, in fact, Jesus did not envisage survival in bliss prior to resurrection in the age to come. Accordingly, E. E. Ellis is correct, that “this interpretation apparently is not in accord with Jesus’ teachings elsewhere.”1  Furthermore, according to the rest of Scripture, Jesus was not in “paradise” between His death and His resurrection, but “in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40), in “the abyss” (Rom. 10:7). He had “not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). He was in “hades” and would have suffered “corruption” there, were it not for His resurrection on the third day, according to Acts 2:27-31 and 13:37, also written by Luke. “I was dead,” says the risen Christ (Rev. 1:18)!2

Second, the criminal is not asking about life after death. He is asking for assurance that he will be saved when Jesus comes as King: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v42). “The reference is to the parousia [second coming] of Jesus…as a future event associated with the raising of the dead.”3  It is then that we can expect to be with Him in the Kingdom of God.4  Likewise, elsewhere in the Bible “paradise” is a future reality, a future restoration and fulfilment of what we have lost through the fall into sin, including “the tree of life”. The Book of Revelation, which incorporates the fullest statement of this theme, definitely associates it with Christ’s second coming and the resurrection.5

So then, the context requires us to ask: Is it possible that Luke 23:43 does not promise immediate transference to heaven at death? The answer is: Yes.

The fact is, that the sense of the word “today” is debatable. One view is that it actually belongs with the first part of Jesus’ reply, with “Truly I tell you”, rather than with “you will be with me”. For example, this is the view of J.-J. von Allmen.6 Could the Greek mean, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise ”? Certainly. Luke has not used the word “that” (Greek hoti) before or after “today” and so the expression is ambiguous. And, in fact, it is far more common, in biblical Greek, for “today” (Greek semeron) to follow, rather than to precede, the verb it refers to. Quite similar instances in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, reflecting Jewish usage, would be Gen. 25:33, Deut. 30:18-19 and I Sam. 21:2.7  In Deuteronomy 30:17-19, in a context as solemn as that of Luke 23, Moses tells the people of Israel: “But if your heart turns away…I declare to you today that you shall perish…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death….” Acts 20:26 is similar, in the New Testament.

However, perhaps even more likely is the view, that Jesus is using the word “today” in an extended sense, to refer to the whole era of salvation inaugurated by His ministry, death and resurrection, to be consummated at His return: “the time of messianic salvation.”8 The special point of the word “today”, here, is to assert that the cross itself, which appears to be the ultimate disproof of Jesus’ messiahship (Lk. 23:39), is really the ordained path to His glory (Lk. 24:46), the very basis upon which He is able to guarantee His kingly salvation to the penitent criminal.

This is how one of the most eminent New Testament scholars of our time sees it:

Jesus’ words to the crucified thief in 23:43 are not referring to a disembodied existence…. It is unlikely that Luke is thinking of a paradisaical intermediate state before the resurrection of Jesus on Easter and of the criminal on the last day. Just as he stresses the ‘today’ of salvation in 4:21…and 19:9, so he does here, albeit in combination with ‘you will be,’ since the paradise, the fulfilment, lies on the other side of earthly pain and struggle. In addition 22:69 says ‘from now on’ although Easter and the ascension are yet to come.9

It is also true, that there is a sense in which all Christians are with Christ in paradise now. “A number of Pauline passages speak of Christians having already been corporately crucified, resurrected, and exalted to heaven with (sun) Christ…in his death and resurrection. Jesus opened the gates of paradise and was exalted there with his ‘body’…”10  However, the most likely explanation of Luke 23:43 is simply that Jesus, from the cross, is affirming the whole plan of salvation, yet to unfold, as an accomplished fact.

  1. E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, p.269. []
  2. “I was dead and, see, I am alive forever and ever…”   J. W. Cooper argues that Jesus, being both God and man, could not have experienced death in a conditionalist sense, in fact that conditionalism and the deity of Christ are irreconcilable (Body, Soul and Life Everlasting, Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1989, pp.142-146).  This is surely unwise dogmatism!  First, if the soul merely “sleeps” in death, rather than ceasing to exist, what exactly is the difficulty?  And yet, is it not possible that even God the Son, Jesus in His divine nature, “the first and the last”, really died; that Rev 1:17-18 means what it says?  This would not be the death of God, of course – since God is Trinity – but it would certainly be death in God.  Well, perhaps that is what it took to redeem us.  Perhaps that is what real omnipotence is.  Alternatively, it is surely consistent with traditional Christology to hold that the divine nature of Jesus experienced death in the manner appropriate to it, even if not in the same sense as the human nature which He shares with us.  For a discussion of the cross as death in God, see Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, S.C.M. Press (1973), E.T. 1976, e.g. p.207. []
  3. I. H. Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, p.872. []
  4. Luke 19:12-15; 22:18, 28-30; Matthew 13:40-43. []
  5. Rev. 2:7; 22:1-5, 14-20. []
  6. See his article on “Death”, in J.-J. von Allmen (Ed.), A Companion to the Bible, New York: Oxford University Press, 1958, p.82. []
  7. The Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) into Greek, made by Jewish scholars c.200-100 B.C.  It is often quoted in the New Testament. []
  8. E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, p.268. []
  9. E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke, pp.151, 361. []
  10. E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, p.269. []

About Warren Prestidge

Warren Prestidge (M.A., B.D. Hons) is a Baptist pastor. His first degree was in English and he has taught at Auckland University and at secondary school. Since 1981, he has pastored churches in Auckland and also lectured for the Bible College of New Zealand and Tyndale College. For two years he directed a Bible College in the Philippines. He authored Life, Death and Destiny. Warren’s wife Jackie, is a mathematics teacher. Warren and Jackie have three adult sons.


  1. Seyemore says:

    There is a problem with the belief that Jesus simply stayed in the grave after his death on the cross. From John 16 to John 17, the night Jesus was captured and subsequently crucified, Jesus says he is “returning to the Father” five times. FIVE times. He can’t mean permanently because he also talks about his resurrection. And the word used for “returning” to the Father is not the same as that used in John 20:17 (for ascend). So it seems possible that he meant exactly what he said, that the thief would be with Jesus, that day, in paradise (with the Father). That is not to say that all believers go immediately to heaven when they die, but maybe the thief was an exception to the rule…like Elijah who was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and did not, apparently, die a physical death like most of us. (And some say the same for Enoch (Gen 5:24).)

    Another problem…in Matt 22:32, Jesus says: ” ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” And we are told that Moses and Elijah are at the transfiguration of Jesus. How can this be if they are dead, body and soul, until they receive their resurrected bodies? Maybe they are exceptions too? Or maybe, there is room for the souls of believers in heaven before the resurrection of our bodies, which are not intended for the current heaven, but for the new heaven on the new earth (Rev 21:1).

    Things I am pondering…

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