And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.
But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?
And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.
And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
~ Lk 23:39-43
This Scripture is often used as a proof text that the thief went to Heaven after he died. But, is that really what it says? How sure are you that you know where you are going when you die?
We need to analyze this passage with these things in mind:
- Scripture cannot contradict Scripture.
- The NT was not written in English.
- Idioms don’t usually translate very well.
- Greek had no punctuation marks.
Did Jesus contradict the Bible, which says “no man hath ascended up to heaven,” (Jn 3:13)? In addition to Jn 3:13, Peter said righteous King David did not ascend into Heaven (Ac 2:34). For more information, see “What Happens When You Die? 1: Is Heaven the Reward of the Saved?”
The Bible interprets the Bible. Throughout the Bible, we are told of a resurrection from the dead. Our lifeless bodies will be brought back to life.
There is another more subtle contradiction, though. V 42 says “when You come into Your Kingdom”. Christ’s Kingdom will be established when He returns to the earth!
There is an old joke that “If the King James Version was good enough for the Apostles, it is good enough for me!” All that aside, though, the NT was written in Greek. While the KJV is good for most things, all versions have some level and type of bias in their translations. Therefore, it is important to note that the KJV translators believed the reward of the saved is to go to Heaven.
Jesus often said, “Verily” or “Verily, verily” if He wanted to emphasize something. It would be the same if He said “Truly” or “Truly, truly”. It was a figure of speech that would emphasize what He was saying. After all, He didn’t have to tell us if what He was saying was true or not!
Another way to emphasize something is similar to how we speak today in English, though. If someone said, “I tell you today…”, then that is emphasizing the fact that you are being told this. I once told my daughter, “I’m telling you right now, you will go to college.” The “right now” emphasized “I’m telling you.” Since she had not yet graduated high school, it was obvious I did not mean she was to go to college right now.
What if English had no punctuation, though? What I told my daughter could be interpreted, “I’m telling you, right now you will go to college.” Notice what a difference that makes! Well, it is the same difference if I change a comma and say, “Truly I am telling you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus could not have seen the thief in paradise “today”. He was in the grave for 3 days and 3 nights! His resurrection wasn’t for another 72 hours! Therefore, we must conclude that either Jesus lied to the thief or that it was a figure of speech that the translators had difficulty with due to their bias. Would Jesus lead a sinless life and willingly die on the cross and then either lie to the thief or cause a lie by not staying in the grave for 3 days and 3 nights? That wouldn’t be logical. No, it means, “I’m telling you most emphatically and want you to understand this now, that you will be with Me in Paradise when I return and set up My Father’s Kingdom.”