Many in orthodox Christianity teach that the “immortal soul” goes to heaven or “Paradise” at the time of our death. They use the famous statement of Jesus Christ to the thief on the cross as a “proof” text to support their belief. We must understand, of course, that the concept of an immortal soul going to heaven was taught long before the birth of Christianity, and that New Testament Scriptures are often used by some to “prove” this concept adopted from paganism. The passage regarding the thief on the cross is no exception.
Did the thief on the cross go to heaven on the day Christ told him, in Luke 23:43: “Assuredly , I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”?
There are several problems with thinking the man went to heaven that day. The first problem is that Christ was not resurrected until three days later. Even then, He Himself did not go right away to heaven at the moment of His resurrection, since He told Mary at the grave to “touch me not; for I am not yet ascended.” (John 20:17, Authorized Version).
We need to understand that there was no comma in the original text of Luke 23:43. The church has consistently taught until Mr. Armstrong’s death that the coma in the Bible had to be — and was in fact — inserted by the translators at the wrong place. Christ told the thief on that day what would happen in the future — not, that He and the thief would enter “Paradise” on that day. Correctly, the verse needs to be translated: “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Also, “Paradise” does not have to mean, “heaven.” There is NO Scripture in the Bible promising us to go to heaven when we die! Paradise in the Greek means a park or place like the garden of Eden. We read in Revelation 2:7 that the tree of life is in the midst of the Paradise of God. Revelation 21 tells us that the Heavenly Jerusalem will descend to earth in the future, and that the tree of life will be in it — that is, in Paradise (Revelation 22:2). At that time, Paradise, with the tree of life, will be on earth — not in heaven.
Did Christ say that the thief would die and be on the very same day of his death in Paradise on earth? That would pose another problem since Paradise is not here yet — and almost 2000 years have passed since Christ made His promise to the thief. We also have a clear statement in regard to King David, a man after God’s own heart. We read in Acts 2:29 that “he is dead and buried and his tomb is with us today.” So, even after Christ’s resurrection, David was still dead and buried in his tomb. He saw corruption (Acts 13:36), and he did not ascend to heaven (Acts 2:34). Rather than believing that the souls of dead people go to heaven, the disciples believed in a future resurrection of the dead, as stated by Paul to King Agrippa in Acts 26:8: “Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?” Just when would this resurrection occur? For those “in Christ,” at the last trumpet, as stated in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16 — not before then.
There are actually several possibilities as to what Christ might have promised the thief. Christ could have forgiven his sins and promised him that he would be in the first resurrection, in which case he would be resurrected at Christ’s return, when He comes to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth (compare Luke 23:42). This would occur when everyone “in Christ” will be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). As an immortal spirit being, the thief would of course be in “Paradise,” when it would descend to this earth after the Millennium and the Great White Throne Judgment.
Another possibility is that the thief would be resurrected in the Great White Throne judgment period (Revelation 20:11-12) — when all those will be resurrected who have not received God’s Spirit in this life. If this is the case, then the thief would work out his salvation with fear and trembling, and Christ knew that he would “make it” at that time. In either case, the thief would be in Paradise with Christ, when Paradise will be established here on earth — after the Millennium and the Great White Throne Judgment.
In addition, by extension, the earth can be compared with “Paradise” or a beautiful garden during the Millennium and the Great White Throne Judgment. Therefore, even if we don’t replace the comma in Luke 23:43, Christ’s statement would still make sense in this way: If Christ was referring to the earth’s beautiful condition during the time of the Millennium and the Great White Throne Judgment, when He made His promise to the thief, then the thief would be in Paradise “that day”: He will come back to life — either in the first or the second resurrection, NOT in the third — and this would be on the “very same day” of his death, insofar as his CONSCIOUSNESS was and is concerned. As all those who have died sleep the sleep of death without any consciousness, so did and does the thief. But when he is resurrected, it will be for him “on that day” — as if just one second had passed.
The thief never went to Paradise on the day of his death, but he is awaiting a future resurrection. If “Paradise” is a reference to the earth during the Millennium and/or the Great White Throne Judgment, then the thief will be in Paradise with Christ on that day. In any event, he will be in Paradise (as mentioned in Revelation 22:2), with Christ, after the Millennium and the Great White Throne Judgment. He will be with Christ in Paradise here on earth — not in heaven.