Was the thief on the cross saved, and did he immediately go to heaven when he died? What did Jesus say to him, and what did He really mean?
Many people mistakenly assume that the thief who was crucified next to Jesus Christ was “saved” and went immediately to heaven when he died, since Christ had told him in Luke 23:43: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Consider the context
One of the principles of studying the Bible is to read a verse in its context and then in the broader context of the entire Bible. Therefore, the meaning of this verse must agree with John 3:13, which states that no one (except for Christ) has ascended into heaven. We also read that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Whenever there is an apparent contradiction in Scripture, more study is needed to be sure we correctly understand any unclear passages.
So first, we need to look at the context in which Christ made this statement to the thief on the cross. He was replying to the thief’s plea, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Obviously, then, “Paradise” in verse 43 refers to the Kingdom of God.
The broader context of the Bible tells us that the Kingdom refers to the rule of God’s government over the entire earth, with Christ as its King. Who will enter that Kingdom? The “sheep” of His flock will inherit the Kingdom at the return of Christ (Matthew 25:31-34; Daniel 7:27). Human mortal beings cannot inherit that Kingdom—one must be changed from flesh into spirit, which will occur at the resurrection of the just (1 Corinthians 15:50-53).
The resurrection of the just is the culmination of conversion. First, one has to repent of his or her evil deeds, be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39; 8:14-17). Conversion as taught in the Bible does not occur instantaneously, and it is more than a simple “deathbed repentance.”
Even though the thief on the cross admitted to receiving the due reward for his deeds (Luke 23:40-41), he did not have an opportunity to live a life of obedience to God, which is all part of the conversion process. The thief merely made a positive comment about Jesus Christ; and in return, Christ spoke comforting words to him about his future in the paradise of the Kingdom of God.
What did Christ mean, “today”?
We also need to answer this question: Did Jesus Himself enter “Paradise” that day? By His own mouth, He was in the grave for the next three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). His soul remained in Sheol, or the grave, for that short time period, and then was resurrected. “For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (Psalm 16:10).
This, in itself, tells us that the thief on the cross did not join Christ anywhere that day. After being resurrected, Christ told Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father’” (John 20:17).
What, then, is the accurate way to understand Christ’s statement to the thief on the cross? As we have seen, the New King James Version reads, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” However, the Greek text of the Scriptures has no punctuation. Translators, in trying to smooth out the text, add punctuation. In this case, they misplaced the comma due to a lack of understanding.
If the comma is simply deleted after “you” and instead inserted after “today,” the meaning changes significantly—and agrees with the rest of the Bible. It would then read, “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” Christ gave the thief the absolute promise on the day they were dying that he would (eventually, but not that same day) be with Christ in His Father’s Kingdom.