The question is about Luke 23:43 and the thief going to Heaven that day, but we know that Jesus didn’t ascend into Heaven until 40 days later, so how do we understand this contradiction?
Well, let’s begin with the actual verse of Luke 23:43 says, “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
It does appear to be a contradiction when you do consider that after His resurrection Jesus told Mary that “I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17) and we know that the Father was in Heaven because Revelation 2:7 and Revelation 22:12 places God the Father in that Paradise spoken by Jesus to the thief.
We also know that according to John 19:32-34 the thief himself did not die the same day of that promise from Jesus.
The seemingly contradiction is cleared up when you consider that the comma was likely placed on the wrong side of the word today, which should have been “verily I say to you today, shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
The commas, chapter divisions, and verse numbers, were not part of the original text because they were not part of the original language. They were added in various translations and different times, between 900 AD to 1400 AD, but my point is not to consider them part of the sacred inspiration.
Instead, we should consider the commas or semi-colons or even [to some degree] the exclamation marks, as all part of the translation into the English language.
The bigger question about the Luke 23:43 account of Jesus telling the thief he would go to heaven, is When do we go to Heaven? and What happens when we die? This account has always been a good proof text about going to Heaven immediately upon death.
When We Die
It is common to talk of a deceased loved one dying and finding comfort that they are in a better place. Sometimes we talk of them being in Heaven and out of their body that brought them such pain. We talk of loved-ones being with Grandma now or dancing in the streets of gold or rejoicing in the presence of the Lord.
Having served in the calling of a hospital chaplain and ministering to families of various faith backgrounds I personally think it is healthy to find comfort in a deceased loved-one being in Heaven and to find comfort that they are no longer bound to their mortal body.
In fact, the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 does comfort us by saying, while “we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord” and the opposite as well, “to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
In the midst of those statements on being absent from the body and being present with the Lord, Paul interjects: “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7), which is exactly what we do when we find comfort that a loved one has moved on to their eternal home.
We also know that upon death our spirit returns to God, because Ecclesiastes 12:7 says about death that “the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” There is an obvious separation of the body to the earth and the spirit to God.
We don’t fully know what that means on God’s end of the equation, but many have seen it take place on our end, when a loved one gasps their last breath and there is a notable exit of that breath of life, leaving the body to return to dust.
Some cite verses that state the dead are unconscious, like Ecclesiastes 9:5 or the verses on death as sleep, like John 11:11, to embolden their argument that our spirit that returns to God would seemingly go into some type of mass storage collection without any assigned identity.
While I would admit that it is unlikely that deceased loved ones are dancing in the streets of glory or looking over the side of Heaven’s walls at us below or even consciously chatting it up with the angels, I do believe that their spirit that returns to God is a very significant identifiable essence of who they are in Christ.
It is perfectly biblical, I think, to acknowledge that they have gone to be with the Lord. We “walk by faith” in simply believing what Scripture actually says, that our “spirit shall return unto God who gave it” because “to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (Ecclesiastes 12:7; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8).
I find a lot of comfort in the description of death as sleep, because when I enjoy a solid night’s sleep I have no sense of the time that has passed between putting my head on the pillow and awakening to a new day.
Sleep, is a great word picture for death, but knowing that our actual time of being dead is as a sleep does not convince me that we should not talk and regard our loved-ones as being with God because “we walk by faith.”
Allow me to interject here my take on the speaker in the prophecy video mentioned in regard to this question…
I had mixed emotions viewing it, because for the most part he was presenting truth, but I’m not sure it was in genuine love. Perhaps he saw it as love, but it seemed like a forced answer to a question not being asked.
It reminded me of an incident that happened to me my Freshman year at college. I was sitting with a few new friends when a guy whom I previously met came and sat down with us. He said, “I stared a work-study with the Registrar’s office today.”
Then he proceeded to blurt out my High School GPA and other personal information that he discovered when moving files. It was true but it left me confused about why he thought it was necessary to share that. He was the know-it-all with no common sense or sensitivity to properly apply his knowledge, except to use it to one-up someone else.
I don’t know why some insist in turning certain doctrines into contentious arguments when it is not a matter of salvation or value to eternity. The doctrinal study of what happens at death is one such doctrine. I realize that some ministers argue if you don’t understand the truth about death, the devil is going to deceive you into accepting Satan’s deceptions of evil spirits during the end times.
That’s not a biblical argument but a philosophical one. It’s not really true, because I know lots of true Bible believers who accept the comma as in the correct spot in Luke 23:43 and they are fully knowledgeable of the biblical warnings of Satan’s deceptions of evil spirits during the end times.
My experience has been that some denominations and ministers use an array of secondary doctrines to bolster trust for their bigger testing doctrines. In other words, they use these doctrines as hooks to build trust in their interpretations so when they present a bigger doctrine you are more likely to go along with them.
I know from my background that Seventh-day Adventist ministers take this approach and exploit topics’ mainline Christian ministers avoid in order to build trust so when they present their doctrine of Sabbath keeping and leaving your church to join their remnant (their doctrine of being the only true church), there already exists an assumption that they alone are teaching these truths.
Let me be clear, however, that every Christian minister ought to present the whole counsel of God and not avoid biblical topics. Which is exactly why we teach through the Bible, book by book and verse by verse at CrossHope Chapel. Where we are different in how we do church is that we understand that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
Immortality and the Soul
The account of the thief and a discussion dealing with the doctrine of death will bring any good Bible student to consider immortality and the soul. So, let me throw out a quick overview on this part of the topic.
According to Scripture immortality is only possessed by God (1 Timothy 6:15-16) and we seek that as our desire to be saved in Christ (Romans 2:7). The Greek philosophers taught that all men lived eternally, regardless of being good or bad, and that concept simply found its way into Christendom through Catholic theologians.
Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived somewhere in the area of 400 BC, taught that every man had a soul (psychē) and the soul was a mystical immaterial eternal essence not subject to extinction.
Scripture, on the other hand, gives mention to the soul as a living being. Genesis 2:7 gives us the composite of man which the King James explains as “dust” plus “breath” equals “soul.” As we get further into the Bible we come to Ezekiel 18:20 which says that the soul can die and Jesus in Matthew 10:28 said that the soul can be destroyed.
While Plato, Greek philosophers, and Catholic theologians like Augustine taught that every man had a soul that was immortal, the Bible says otherwise. There is no verse in the Bible that credits mankind with any possession of immortality – the quality of eternal existence and never subject to death. 1 Timothy 6:12 states that the Lord “only hath immortality” and that we receive the gift of immortality at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:53-54) because we have received it by faith (Romans 6:23).
Complexity of Man
I realize I may have just raised more questions than I answered, but I think man is more complex than either side of this debate admits. Man is not immortal but neither is man the composite of mere earth.
The clearest point of this doctrine is that we have a spirit from God that returns to God immediately at our death. That is amazingly encouraging to me to know that God is not leaving me for dirt, but He is receiving my spirit.
What’s even more encouraging to me is that our Lord is returning for me, just as did after His friend Lazarus died, and He will call me forth from my death, just as He did for Lazarus.
For the promise of our Savior was as true for Lazarus as it is for you and me, that “he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).