Did the Thief on the Cross Go to Heaven with Jesus Christ (Luke 23:43)?
Notice Luke 23:43 carefully. Jesus said that the crucified malefactor would be with Him in Paradise. If we can prove where Jesus went when He died, then we can prove if the malefactor really went to Paradise that day.
In I Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul tells Christians: "For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures." Notice that Jesus was buried—it does not say the body was buried, and that the soul went to Paradise. It reads that He—Jesus, Himself, entirely—was buried. He was dead for three days. He died for our sins. Then He came to life, and arose!
John gives us further proof of where Jesus was. "Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There"—in the tomb, the grave—"laid they Jesus" (John 19:41-42). It was Jesus who was laid in the tomb, not merely the body of Jesus. Jesus was dead!
To make this even plainer, read Acts 2:31 (KJV). Speaking of Christ, Peter quotes the prophet David as follows: "He [David] seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in hell, neither His flesh did see corruption." This verse proves that Jesus was not in Paradise, but in hell. The word "hell" ought to be rendered "grave." The inspired Greek word used by Peter is hades, meaning "the grave." It does not mean a fiery, burning hell, for which the Bible uses another word.
Hell or the grave is not Paradise. Since Jesus did not enter Paradise that day—the day of the crucifixion—then neither did the malefactor enter it. Christ has "preeminence" in all things (Colossians 1:18). Therefore the malefactor who repented could not have preceded Christ to Paradise. Whenever the repentant malefactor enters Paradise, Christ will be there too! He said so: "With me shalt thou be in paradise."
Since we know where Jesus was when He died, we now need to locate Paradise. In II Corinthians 12:1-5, Paul speaks of one whom he knew who had marvelous visions and revelations from the Lord. In a vision he was "caught up to the third heaven"—God's throne! "He was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter." Paradise, then, is located in the presence of God's throne.
In various passages, the Bible describes Paradise. Revelation 2:7 says, "To him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God" (American Standard Version). Observe that the tree of life is in the Paradise of God.
Revelation 22:1-2 refer to "the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Revelation 21:2, ASV). In this city, we find "a river of water of life, bright as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the midst of the street thereof. And on this side of the river and on that was the tree of life. . . ." (ASV). The New Jerusalem contains the tree of life. In the New Jerusalem, then, is the Paradise of God.
Jesus said the repentant malefactor would be with Him in this Paradise, but the New Jerusalem is not yet finished. Jesus is still preparing a place for us in it (John 14:2), for it will not be fully ready until after the Millennium (Revelation 20:1-5). Not until then will it descend to earth—and not until then will the repentant malefactor enter Paradise!
Then what did Jesus mean by saying, "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise"? Most have assumed that Jesus promised the thief that he would be with Him in paradise that very day. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Remember the thief had asked earlier, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (Luke 23:42). The plain fact is that Jesus has not yet come into His Kingdom (Luke 11:2; 19:11; I Corinthians 11:26; I Thessalonians 4:13-17; I Corinthians 15:23, 49-52)!
Additionally, proper punctuation helps explain Luke 23:43. Most translations are improperly punctuated to make it appear that Jesus would be in Paradise that day. However, as we saw above, the Bible proves Jesus was not in Paradise that day. A comma placed before the word "today" is incorrect. The comma should follow it: "Verily I say unto thee today, shalt thou be with me in paradise." By using the word "today," Jesus was stressing the time of His promise—not the time He would be in Paradise.
Remember, punctuation was not used in the inspired Greek that Luke wrote. It was added into the Greek and English centuries later by men. Here is exactly, word for word, the order in the original Greek, which can be verified in any interlinear Bible: "Verily I say to thee today with me shalt thou be in the Paradise." "Today" naturally follows "say," the word it modifies.
The repentant malefactor crucified with Jesus is still dead and buried. Jesus alone is the firstborn from the dead (Romans 8:29; Acts 26:23; I Corinthians 15:23). Nevertheless, the time is coming when this man will be resurrected and eventually enter the Paradise of God promised to come to this earth.