“I say to you today, you will be with me…”
What Jesus said to the criminal on the cross has been quoted to prove that when a person dies, he goes immediately to Heaven or Hell, but it does not have to read that way. Admittedly, the way that this verse is punctuated in almost every English Bible, it does say the criminal was going to go to Paradise that day. However, there was no punctuation in the original text (in fact, there were not even spaces between the words). All punctuation was added by translators, and they added it in a way that fit their theology and made sense to them. Thankfully, most of the time the translators have done a good job with the punctuation, and it is correct and helpful. However, in this verse almost every English Bible puts the comma in the wrong place, creating a false and misleading reading. We believe that the comma should be after the word “today,” not in front of it. That way, the verse reads: “And he [Jesus] said to him [the criminal], ‘Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.’”
In many languages, including Greek, Hebrew, and English, words that we normally think of as being “time words” are often used for emphasis. This happens with the English word “now” all the time. A teacher might say, “Now class, make sure you sign your test.” The purpose of “Now” in that sentence is not time, but emphasis, and that can be the case in both Hebrew and Greek as well. The comma being after “today” also fits with the immediate context. We must remember what the criminal said to Jesus in the previous verse, Luke 23:42: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The “kingdom” is not “heaven,” and it is future, it is not available now, which is why the criminal said, ‘when you come into your kingdom.’ The kingdom is the Messianic Kingdom that Jesus will set up on earth after he fights the Battle of Armageddon and conquers the earth.
The criminal did not doubt that the Messianic Kingdom was coming, but he likely doubted whether he would be allowed into it. So in an unassuming, pleading way, he requested, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In other words, the criminal said to the Lord that he would like to be in the first resurrection, the Resurrection of the Righteous, and get to enter the Kingdom and be saved. It was a wonderful act of love for Jesus to say, “you will be with me in Paradise.”
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