Seeing the Thief on the Cross
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
How could Jesus have seen the thief on the cross in paradise the very day that He died and was buried?
The fact that Bible critics ask such a question reveals their severe lack of Bible knowledge. Allegedly, the promise that Jesus made to the penitent thief who hung on a cross next to Him (“Today you will be with Me in paradise”—Luke 23:43), “could not have been kept unless Jesus went to heaven that day, in which case he would not have been buried for three days” (McKinsey, 1983, p. 3). Skeptic Steve Wells similarly commented on Jesus’ promise to the thief, saying: “[H]ow can that be since it’s only Friday and, according to the gospels, Jesus lay dead in the tomb Friday night and all day Saturday?” (2007). Obviously, these skeptics do not understand the Bible’s teaching about afterlife.
The reason Jesus could say that He and the penitent thief could be together in paradise the very day they died (even though their bodies were still on Earth), is because Jesus was referring to their souls cohabiting paradise, not their physical bodies. The Bible clearly teaches that when people die their souls depart from their bodies (cf. Genesis 35:18) and dwell in hades—the “receptacle of disembodied spirits” (Thayer, 1962, p. 11) where all people who die await the Lord’s return and subsequent judgment.
The word “hades” occurs ten times in the New Testament, and always refers to the unseen realm of the dead. One part of hades is known as paradise (or “Abraham’s bosom”—Luke 16:22), whereas the other part is known as “torments” (Luke 16:23). The spirits of the righteous dwell in paradise, whereas the wicked, like the rich man of Luke 16, find themselves “in torments in Hades” (vs. 23).
On the Day of Pentecost, Peter quoted from Psalm 16 (“You will not leave my soul in Hades”—Acts 2:27), and applied this passage to Christ, saying, “His [Jesus’] soul was not left in Hades” (Acts 2:31). When was Jesus’ soul in hades? After His death, and before His resurrection. Who was with Him in the part of hades known as paradise? The thief on the cross. Did Jesus lie when He told the thief, “Today you will be with Me in paradise”? Certainly not!
McKinsey, Dennis (1983), “Jesus, the Imperfect Beacon,” Biblical Errancy, February.
Thayer, J.H. (1962), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Wells, Steve (2007), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, [On-line], URL: http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/lk/23.html.