As we dive into a series of posts about the Thief on the Cross, I want to lay out the conventional treatments on Luke 23:42-43.
Many Christians interpret this passage to mean one of two things:
- Jesus promised the Thief on the Cross that the thief would be with Christ in Heaven that Friday
- Jesus promised that Jesus would descend into Hell on that Friday to save the Thief from Hell/Purgatory
What follows are two representative samples of Adventist writings concerning the Thief on the Cross. I've omitted several paragraphs from the first paragraph for the sake of keeping the word count of this article down.
Desire of Ages
To Jesus in His agony on the cross there came one gleam of comfort. It was the prayer of the penitent thief. Both the men who were crucified with Jesus had at first railed upon Him; and one under his suffering only became more desperate and defiant. But not so with his companion. This man was not a hardened criminal; he had been led astray by evil associations, but he was less guilty than many of those who stood beside the cross reviling the Saviour. He had seen and heard Jesus, and had been convicted by His teaching, but he had been turned away from Him by the priests and rulers. Seeking to stifle conviction, he had plunged deeper and deeper into sin, until he was arrested, tried as a criminal, and condemned to die on the cross. In the judgment hall and on the way to Calvary he had been in company with Jesus. He had heard Pilate declare, "I find no fault in Him." John 19:4. He had marked His godlike bearing, and His pitying forgiveness of His tormentors. On the cross he sees the many great religionists shoot out the tongue with scorn, and ridicule the Lord Jesus. He sees the wagging heads. He hears the upbraiding speeches taken up by his companion in guilt: "If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us." Among the passers-by he hears many defending Jesus. He hears them repeat His words, and tell of His works. The conviction comes back to him that this is the Christ. Turning to his fellow criminal he says, "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?" The dying thieves have no longer anything to fear from man. But upon one of them presses the conviction that there is a God to fear, a future to cause him to tremble. And now, all sin-polluted as it is, his life history is about to close. "And we indeed justly," he moans; "for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this Man hath done nothing amiss."
There is no question now. There are no doubts, no reproaches. When condemned for his crime, the thief had become hopeless and despairing; but strange, tender thoughts now spring up. He calls to mind all he has heard of Jesus, how He has healed the sick and pardoned sin. He has heard the words of those who believed in Jesus and followed Him weeping. He has seen and read the title above the Saviour's head. He has heard the passers-by repeat it, some with grieved, quivering lips, others with jesting and mockery. The Holy Spirit illuminates his mind, and little by little the chain of evidence is joined together. In Jesus, bruised, mocked, and hanging upon the cross, he sees the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. Hope is mingled with anguish in his voice as the helpless, dying soul casts himself upon a dying Saviour. "Lord, remember me," he cries, "when Thou comest into Thy kingdom."
Quickly the answer came. Soft and melodious the tone, full of love, compassion, and power the words: Verily I say unto thee today, Thou shalt be with Me in paradise.
[...] Many were ready to call Him Lord when He wrought miracles, and after He had risen from the grave; but none acknowledged Him as He hung dying upon the cross save the penitent thief who was saved at the eleventh hour. [...]
I say unto thee today, Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise. Christ did not promise that the thief should be with Him in Paradise that day. He Himself did not go that day to Paradise. He slept in the tomb, and on the morning of the resurrection He said, "I am not yet ascended to My Father." John 20:17. But on the day of the crucifixion, the day of apparent defeat and darkness, the promise was given. "Today" while dying upon the cross as a malefactor, Christ assures the poor sinner, Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.
Adventist Biblical Research Institute
The story of the thief on the cross manifests Christ’s willingness to submit to the divine plan for Him and His power to save. While the multitude accused Him of not being able to save Himself, Jesus was ready to save the thief. This was possible because He was unwilling to save Himself. It is unfortunate that the passage has been used to argue that righteous people go to Paradise when they die.
Paradise: The place or destination for both the thief and Jesus is called “Paradise,” originally a Persian word meaning “enclosure, park, garden.” The Greek version of Genesis 2:8-10, 16 (LXX) uses that same word (paradeisos) for the Garden of Eden. The word is found two other times in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 12:2 Paul says that he was taken in vision to the third heaven, located by him in “Paradise” (verse 4), the place where God dwells. In Revelation 2:7 “Paradise” is the place where the tree of life is located. Those who overcome will have access to that place and to the tree of life. Nowhere in the Bible is “Paradise” a place where the righteous immediately go after death. It is clearly a place where the resurrected righteous will go to be with Christ and the Father, and to have access to the tree of life.
Jesus and Paradise: According to the biblical record, Jesus did not go to Paradise after His death (Acts 2:31; Matt. 12:40). Jesus was buried and remained in the tomb until His resurrection, at which time He appeared to Mary, stating that He had “not yet ascended to My Father” but that now He was “ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God” (John 20:17). The obvious implication is that He could not have promised the thief that He would be with him in Paradise on Friday.
Besides, Jesus and the thief did not die at the same time. The biblical record indicates that Jesus died Friday before sunset (John 19:33). When Jesus died, the thief was still alive, and his legs were broken. It usually took several days for those who were crucified to die.
- The Meaning of “Today”: In general, the interpretation of this text is related to the question of the comma: Should it be placed before “today” (“I tell you the truth, today you will be . . .”), or after “today” (“I tell you the truth today, you will be . . .”)? The first reading is the most common among interpreters who believe in the immortality of the soul. The idea is that immediately after his death the soul of the thief would be with Christ in Paradise. Commas were added to the Greek text in the fifteenth century A.D.; Luke did not use a comma. Therefore he could have meant “I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” This suggestion is supported by a similar use of the term “today” in the Old Testament in the context of solemn promises: “I command you today . . .” (Deut. 30:16); “I announce to you today that you will surely perish” (verse 18). “Today” introduces a solemn statement. This fits the fact that Jesus was not in Paradise immediately after He died. He was solemnly promising the thief that he will enjoy salvation with Christ in Paradise after the resurrection.
This interpretation flows also from the use of the adverb “today” in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus uses it to indicate that salvation is already available through Christ today (Luke 2:11, NIV; 4:21; 5:26; 19:9). This is the “today” of salvation. In that case Jesus was telling the thief that the moment of the cross is the moment of salvation, and that he will participate of it in Paradise. The text is not dealing at all with the intermediate state, but with the saving power of the cross.