[This point was brought to my attention by Apollos. I felt it should be represented here, but credit goes to him for coming up with the initial thought and subsequent line of reasoning.]
(Luke 23:43) And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
There is a lot of controversy about this text. The NWT renders it with the comma placed so that it is clear Jesus isn’t saying that the evildoer nailed to a stake beside him would be going to paradise that very day. We know this wasn’t the case because Jesus wasn’t resurrected until the third day.
Those who believe Jesus is God use this Scripture to ‘prove’ that the evildoer—and everyone else who simply believes in Jesus—was not only forgiven but went to heaven literally that very day. However, that interpretation conflicts with what the Bible says about the state of the dead, the nature of Jesus as a man, the teachings of Jesus regarding the resurrection and the hope for earthly and heavenly life. This topic has been well argued in our publications, and I’m not about to reinvent that particular wheel here.
The purpose of this post is to propose an alternative meaning to Jesus’ words. Our rendering, while consistent with the rest of the Bible’s teachings on these and related subjects still raises some questions. Greek doesn’t use commas, so we have to deduce what Jesus meant to say. As an understandable consequence of our decades-long defense of the truth before the onslaught of a world of false religious teaching, we have focused on a rendering which, while true to the rest of Scripture, is, I fear, denying us a particularly beautiful prophetic understanding.
By our rendering, the turn of phrase “Truly I tell you today,…” is here used by Jesus to emphasize the truthfulness of what he is about to say. If that is indeed how he intended it, it is of interest that this marks the only occasion in which he uses the phrase that way. He uses the phrase, “truly I tell you” or “truly I say to you” literally dozens of times but only here does he add the word “today”. Why? How does the addition of that word add to the reliability of what he is about to say? The evildoer has just courageously rebuked his partner in crime and then humbly implored Jesus for forgiveness. It is not likely he is doubtful. If he has any doubts, they are most likely tied to his view of himself as unworthy. He needs reassurance, not that Jesus is telling that truth, but rather that something that seems too good to be true—the possibility that he can be redeemed at so late a moment in his life—is in fact, possible. How does the word ‘today’ add to that task?
Next, we have to think about the circumstances. Jesus was in agony. Every word, every breath, must have cost him something. In keeping with that, his answer shows an economy of expression. Every word is concise and filled with meaning.
We must also keep in mind that Jesus was the great teacher. He always considered the needs of his audience and adjusted his teaching accordingly. Everything we’ve discussed about the situation of the evildoer would have been obvious to him and more, he would have seen the true condition of the man’s heart.
The man not only needed reassurance; he needed to hold on to the last breath. He could not give in to the pain and, to quote Job’s wife, “curse God and die.” He had to hold on for just a few hours more.
Would Jesus’ answer be for the benefit of posterity or was he first and foremost concerned for the well-being of a newly found sheep. Given what he had previously taught at Luke 15:7, it must have been the latter. So his answer, while economical, would tell the evildoer what he needed to hear to endure to the end. How heartening it would have been for him to know that that very day he would be in Paradise.
But hold on! He didn’t go to Paradise that day, did he? Yes, he did—from his point of view. And let’s face it; when you’re dying, the only point of view that matters is your own.
Before that day ended, they broke his legs so that the full weight of his body would pull on his arms. This results in stress being placed on the diaphragm which cannot function properly. One dies slowly and painfully from asphyxiation. It is a terrible death. But knowing that as soon as he died, he would be in Paradise must have provided enormous comfort to him. From his point of view, his last conscious thought on that torture stake is separated from his first conscious thought in the New World by the blink of an eye. He died that day, and for him, he emerges that same day into the bright light of a New World morning.
The beauty of this thought is that it also serves us well. We who may be dying of disease, or old age, or even the executioner’s axe, need only think of that evildoer to realize that we are days, hours, or just minutes away from Paradise.
I feel that our current interpretation, while intended to defend us against the false teachings of Trinitarians, does us a disservice by robbing us of a wonderful and faith-strengthening prophetic word picture.