Synopsis: The traditional translation of Luke 23:43 gives the wrong answer to the questions “how can we get to heaven?” and “where does the spirit go after death?” and “what happens after we die?” The traditional translation is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture, and poses theological, biblical, historical, and grammatico-syntactical problems.
The verse should be debugged: that is, re-translated.
When traditionalists read our Lord’s promise to the penitent thief, the result is an assurance that as soon as believers die, they will join Christ in heaven. Since that belief fits the traditionalist worldview, it poses no problems. So, the traditionalist keeps on reading. Most conditionalists are convinced that believers’ reunion with Christ will not occur until the return of Christ. Reading Luke 23:43 poses problems for us. The text as it appears in the standard versions stands out like bugged code, and we are challenged to stop and debug it.
It is not actually the text as it appears in the original Greek that is the problem. Rather, it is the text that appears in the translations that seek to convey its meaning.
Those translations appear to have Jesus promising the thief an immediate reward in paradise on the same day as the crucifixion. Since Jesus went to Hades that day,1 and both thieves were apparently still alive the next day,2 we see theological and biblical and historical problems with Jesus making such a promise.
- theology: reunion at the return, not death
- Bible: Christ went to Hades, not paradise
- history: Christ died a different day than the thief
The typical translations of this text are based on an analysis that looks something like this:
In this analysis, the promise to the penitent is that he will be in some place called paradise. The word “today” indicates when that will happen.
A simple solution to the problem is found in the fact that the word translated “today” can also be rendered “this day.”3 Jesus could be simply referring to the day that the thief had asked about, assuring him that they would be reunited on the day that Jesus came in his kingdom. The grammatical analysis would be the same:
The word in the text translated “today” would be rendered “this day” – a reference to the second coming, not the day of the crucifixion. It is possible, then, to solve the problem without a change in textual analysis. This involves some speculation, however, since there is no biblical record of the word being used to refer to a day in the future.
I am saying today,
A much more satisfactory, and biblically defendable solution is found in a slight reanalysis of the text. If the adverb translated “today” modifies the verb “to say” rather than the verb “to be,” the analysis looks more like this:
The translation would remain exactly the same, except that the comma would be placed after the word “today” rather than before it. The meaning would be the same except that Jesus’ assurance to the penitent thief would not include a specific time reference. This reading is much more acceptable to conditionalists, since it involves no reward before the resurrection. The penitent thief will be with the Lord on the same day that we are.
The apostle Paul described that day: He said “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the
dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”4 We
conditionalists look forward to being with the Lord as much as traditionalists do. But we find no reason to disagree with Paul as to when the reunion will occur. Luke 23:43 (in all modern translations) needs to be debugged because it appears to have Jesus promising the reunion at death, instead of the resurrection. The question is, are there grammatical and textual reasons for the above reanalysis, as well as theological, biblical, and historical ones? If there can be found good reasons for retranslating the text within the syntax and lexicography of the text itself, then that new translation should be adopted, regardless of how comforted some have felt from the verse as it stands. There is no integrity in allowing a mistranslation to remain unchanged. But there must be solid syntactical and lexicographic evidence to show that it is indeed a mistranslation.
Luke 4:21; 5:26
The first two instances of the Greek word sémeron (today) in Luke’s Gospel seems to be consistent with the traditional translation of Luke 23:43. If these texts were analyzed according to the pattern
set above, they would appear like this:
Yet, appearances can deceive, because in Luke 4:21 and 5:26 there is an important word in the text that goes untranslated. That word is hoti, a coordinating conjunction. The purpose of this
grammatical term is to introduce “an objective clause after verbs of knowing, saying, seeing, feeling, etc.”5 It appears with “verbs of expression or perception” and introduces a “specialized object”
clause.6 This term does not need to be translated in English because it is indicated by using quotation marks around the objective clause. The problem is, in Luke 23:43 there is no hoti. That means that while it is clear in Luke 4:21 and 5:26 what the full quotation is, it is not as clear in Luke 23:43 what is being promised, and when.
Jesus’ words to Peter are especially pertinent since they involve a direct promise to an individual – just as the words of Luke 23:43 do.Jesus’ tells Peter that “this very night” he would deny his Lord
three times. Again, this text seems amazingly similar in construction to Luke 23:43. The words “this very night” are clearly modifying the prediction, not the words “I tell you.” But this is merely another instance of an untranslated hoti which makes that clear.
Jesus is assuring Zaccaeus that salvation had come to his house on that very day. Readers of this verse who are looking for connections to Luke 23:43 see an exact match: they see Jesus promising Zacchaeus salvation today, and promising the penitent thief entrance into paradise today. Yet, this exact match disappears when the text is read in Greek. For, just as in the previous two texts, the date of Jesus’ promise is made clear by the insertion of the conjunction hoti before the word sémeron. That construction makes the word today part of the promise, not simply the day that the promise is made.
Yet, that construction is omitted by Luke in 23:43. The Gospel writer singles that text out as a more ambiguous quotation. He gives no other texts with similar enough wording for readers to use
in concluding which verb the adverb sémeron is modifying. Yet, the Bible as a whole comes to our rescue. There are numerous texts in the Bible, with similar wording, and without the hoti conjunction.
Here are some examples:
“I command you today,…”
The exact phrase “I command you today,…” in Greek is found 24 times in the Septuagint Greek translation of Deuteronomy.7 It contains the word sémeron as part of a direct address from one person to another (or others), but does not contain the word hoti. It would make sense for the translators of Luke 23:43 to use these 16 verses as a pattern for translating the more ambiguous text, but they clearly have not. If they did, they would render it “”Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus is simply following a pattern of an authoritative announcement, by including
the date of the announcement.
“I declare today”
A similar pattern is found in the Old Testament statements where the word “declare” is used with the word sémeron.8 In each case, the adverb modifies the verb of communication, not the subsequent verbs. Jesus’ declaration to the penitent thief would make perfect sense if translated in the same light. He is making a declaration, giving the date of his declaration, and then following with the full details of the declaration. Again, the translators of Luke 23:43 have chosen not to follow this pattern.
There are only seven texts in all of the Scripture where the words “hoti sémeron” appear together. In each of these texts, it is crystal clear that the adverb sémeron modifies the verb within the statement of declaration, and not anything else. These are:
- “today the LORD will appear to you” (Leviticus 9:4).
- “today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel” (1 Samuel 11:13).
- “Adonijah shall be put to death this day” (1 Kings 2:24).
- “I will surely show myself to him today” (1 Kings 18:15).
- “today the LORD will take away your master” (2 Kings 2:5).
- “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
- “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).
This establishes an alternative pattern of grammatical construction for authors who wish to convey that the action within a declarative statement is taking place on the day the statement is made. Luke 23:43 is not one of those seven texts. It does not follow that syntactical pattern. The fact that it is systematically translated as if it did can only be attributed to either theological bias or lack of awareness of these syntactical distinctions, or both.
Having established that there is a case against the traditional translation of Luke 23:43 on biblical, historical, and grammatico-syntactical grounds, it is important to revisit the theological basis of the text. Jesus is assuring the penitent thief that his sins have been forgiven, and that – when he comes again – his Lord will raise him from the dead, and reunite with him in paradise. That assurance is consistent with the promises Jesus had made to that point.
- He promised to raise all believers “on the last day.”9
- He defended the doctrine of the resurrection against the skepticism of the Sadducees.10
- He encouraged charitable acts because those who do them will be “repaid at the resurrection.”11
- He agreed with Martha’s doctrine that the saved will “rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”12
- He called himself “the resurrection and the life.”13
There is no biblical record of Jesus teaching his disciples that they would reunite with him at their deaths. There is no biblical record of Jesus teaching believers that they will be rewarded at their deaths. Instead, Jesus promised “When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.”14 The reunion he promised was to take place at his second coming, not at death.
The parables of the second coming which Jesus taught also emphasized this principle:
- The bride and bridegroom will be united at the coming of the bridegroom.15
- The master went on a journey, and settled accounts with his servants when he returned.16
- People will be separated like a shepherd separates his sheep and goats when “the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him.”17
- The apostles agreed with this eschatological emphasis. Paul taught that the believer’s blessed hope was “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”18 Peter encouraged believers to “look forward to the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world.”19 James told the brothers to be patient “until the coming of the Lord.”20 John commanded his listeners to abide in Christ now, so that they would “not be ashamed before him at his coming.”21 He saw Jesus in a vision saying “I am coming soon, and my reward is with me to pay each one according to what he has done!”22
So, the Bible consistently teaches that all believers will be rewarded with eternal life by Christ at his return, and that our reunion will take place at that event. Luke 23:43, as it is presently translated, seems to teach otherwise. It seems to have Jesus promising that immediately at death both he and the penitent thief would be reunited, and presumably conscious of the reunion. But when Jesus described a young girl who had died, Luke records that he said she was sleeping.23 He did not put her in paradise. His statement agreed with the Old Testament writers, who described the dead as sleeping with their ancestors.24 Paul taught that Jesus was the first to be raised from that sleep, and that took place not when he was on the cross, but when he came out of the tomb – three days later.25 He went on to say that the rest of us will be raised from that sleep “at his coming.”26
Some of the early Christian teachers had been taught a Greek philosophic concept called the immortality of the soul. When they saw texts like Luke 23:43, they took it as proof of that concept. Yet, the Bible rejects it. In the Bible, we learn that only God has immortality.27 Believers are promised that they will “put on immortality,” but that will happen at the resurrection, not at death.28 Luke 23:43 is a mistranslation that has kept a lot of good Christians from seeing this truth. It is time we debugged it.
- Acts 2:27,31 states that Jesus was in Hades until his resurrection, not paradise. Paul, in Eph. 4:9-10 calls it the “lower parts of the earth” and says that Christ descended there. Yet he says that a person having visions from God might be “caught up into paradise” (2 Cor. 12:3). [↩]
- John 19 says that the soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves because they were still alive, but Jesus had already died that day. The thieves were taken down from their crosses alive, and left to die of exposure after dusk (which, according to Jewish reckoning, would have been the next day). [↩]
- Genesis 22:14 LXX; 2 Corinthians 3:15. [↩]
- 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 ESV (emphasis mine). [↩]
- H.E. Dana, and J.R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. (Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1957), 252. [↩]
- Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond The Basics. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 762. [↩]
- Deut. 4:40; 6:2, 6; 7:11; 8:11; 10:13; 11:8, 13, 22; 12:14; 13:1, 19; 15:5; 19:9; 27:4, 10; 28:1, 13ff; 30:2, 8, 11, 16. [↩]
- Deut. 26:3; 30:18; Zech. 9:12. [↩]
- John 6:39, 40, 44, 54. [↩]
- Matthew 22:23, 28, 30, 31. [↩]
- Luke 14:14. [↩]
- John 11:24. [↩]
- John 11:25 [↩]
- John 14:3 NLT (emphasis mine). [↩]
- Matthew 25:1-13. [↩]
- Matthew 25:14-30. [↩]
- Matthew 25:31-46 (emphasis mine). [↩]
- Titus 2:13 . [↩]
- 1 Peter 1:13 NLT. [↩]
- James 5:7-8. [↩]
- 1 John 2:28. [↩]
- Revelation 22:12 NET. [↩]
- Luke 8:52. [↩]
- 1 Kings 2:10; 11:21, 43; 14:20, 31; 15:8, 24; 16:6, 28; 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24; 10:35; 13:9, 13; 14:16, 22, 29; 15:7, 22, 38; 16:20; 20:21; 21:18; 24:6; 2 Chr. 9:31; 12:16; 14:1; 16:13; 21:1; 26:2, 23; 27:9; 28:27; 32:33; 33:20. [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 15:20. [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 15:23. [↩]
- 1 Timothy 6:16. [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 15:53-54. [↩]