What did Jesus mean by Paradise?
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
This statement, by Jesus, recorded in Luke 23:43, is taken as a great source of comfort and hope by many. Here, they say, is clear proof that we go to heaven when we die.
The Scripture Detectives
Imagine that we are "Scripture Detectives", sent to investigate this episode, review the witness statements, sift the evidence and uncover the motives of the people involved. Where would we start and what would we find? This investigation is important because if this simple statement means what many people say it means, then JESUS IS A LIAR and any who put their faith in him are wasting their time.
I hope that has now got your undivided attention and we can start the detective work.
The first clue I would like us to look at is the word "paradise". What does it mean? A brief look at a dictionary will reveal several definitions, including: heaven; a park; a garden or some state of limbo. The word has been passed down to us from the Persian language, where it meant a grand enclosure or park, shady and well watered and it was enclosed by walls. [from pairi- around + daeza wall] Over the years, the other definitions have grown up. So we have to ask ourselves, what Jesus would have meant by the word. Did he mean heaven?
Next, like all good detectives with a theory, we need to work through it, test it out and see whether it holds water. Our theory is that Jesus was in effect saying to the thief on the cross next to him "Today, you and I are going to be in heaven.".
Let's look at some more clues. Did Jesus go straight to heaven?
Jesus himself predicted before his death,
"So shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matt. 12:40).
We know from the Gospel accounts that this came to pass. Jesus died and he was put into a tomb, where he remained for three days and nights, "in the heart of the earth".
When Jesus miraculously rose from the dead in accordance with Scripture Prophecy, what did he do then? According to Acts 1:3 -
..He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.(NKJV)
It was after these forty days that Jesus ascended to his Father in heaven. Therefore, if Paradise is indeed heaven, it was 43 days before Jesus got there, so by saying to the thief "You're going to be there with me today", Jesus would be lying.
So we've tested our theory and it can only lead to two conclusions: either we've pieced together the evidence wrongly or Jesus was not telling the truth. Before we charge Jesus with fraud, deception and misleading the populace for 2000 years, let us consider the alternative, that our facts don't add up.
Perhaps there is a missing piece of the puzzle that we need to find, before we can work out the true picture. Perhaps we need to call in some expert witnesses to provide extra background information. As all the written evidence is in Greek, perhaps we need a Greek scholar to see if we have missed something in the translation.
A scholar of New Testament Greek in the witness box, would tell us that the original texts did not contain punctuation marks. They have been added by the translators and are therefore not inspired by God.
As this Greek parchment shows, there are no commas or full-stops. But how does this help our case?
What if Jesus said
"I tell you the truth today, you will be with me in paradise."?
The difference in the text is tiny, yet the difference in the meaning is huge!
Suddenly, we have a case that holds together. Jesus is saying emphatically "I'm telling you right here and now that you will be with me in paradise."
But does it Hold Water?
We need to test this new theory and see if it holds water. In order to understand perfectly what is going on, we still need to uncover what Jesus meant by the term "Paradise". Did he mean the grave, did he mean heaven or did he mean something else?
If Jesus meant the grave, then this would not really fit anyone's concept of "Paradise" and it would also have been of no comfort to the thief being executed beside Jesus.
This leaves us the options of heaven or somewhere else. Perhaps, as Scripture Detectives, we need to take a statement from someone else - the thief himself. What did the thief ask? Where did he want to be? The witness' statement has been recorded for us in the Bible:
Luke 23:32 There were also two others, criminals, led with Him to be put to death.
Luke 23:33 And when they had come to the place called Calvary, there they crucified Him, and the criminals, one on the right hand and the other on the left.
Luke 23:39-43 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, "If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us." But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, "Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong." Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."
It is a small point, but the man in question is often referred to as the "thief on the cross", yet Luke uses a general word "criminal". The exact nature of the crime is not known.
Now regarding the statement of this witness; he asked Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."
It is tantalising that we know so little of this witness. He seems to know Jesus; he knows Christ's mission and he knows Christ's innocence. Yet he is a criminal, condemned to die. Was he a disciple of Jesus? We don't know for certain, but he recognised Jesus as the Messiah. Whatever the background and crime of the criminal, he is asking Jesus for a specific thing; "Remember me when you come into your kingdom".
Assuming that Jesus is granting the criminal's request, rather than denying it - and we are not told anything to the contrary, Jesus is equating "Paradise" with his "kingdom". And this brings us round the full circle to examining exactly what Paradise is.
So what IS Paradise?
The concept of a place of limbo, somewhere between heaven and earth, some kind of celestial waiting room is not one that will be found in the pages of scripture. What about a park or garden? Now we are on a firm biblical path! We know of a garden from the early pages of Genesis, called the Garden of Eden. We know, because Adam and Eve were thrust out of it (Genesis 3:24) and were unable to get back in again, which fits well with original Persian concept of Paradise being an enclosed garden. Equating Paradise with Eden is not something new or unusual. It is the rationale behind Milton's book, "Paradise Lost", for instance.
The Kingdom of God
So was Jesus saying that the criminal would be with him in Eden? Well, broadly speaking, yes. Not the old Eden. That has been lost forever, presumably destroyed in the Flood. But there will again be a time when Mankind is placed in a perfect, earthly environment, to be totally attuned to nature and to the Creator.
In the Prophecy of Isaiah chapter 65 (a chapter concerning God's kingdom), verse 17, it states:
17 "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create;
For behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing,
And her people a joy.
In the Book of Revelation, chapter 21, we can look forward to the time when this prophecy comes to pass:
1. Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.
We can find parallels with the original Eden, non more so than the Tree of Life
Revelation, chapter 22:1-7
And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever.
Then he said to me, "These words are faithful and true." And the Lord God of the holy prophets sent His angel to show His servants the things which must shortly take place.
"Behold, I am coming quickly! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book."
The Tree of Life
The presence in God's kingdom of the tree of life, confirms that this is a greater re-creation of Eden, or Paradise regained. At no other place in the Bible is the Tree of Life mentioned in this way, emphasising the uniqueness of this symbol.
The kingdom of God is a subject that is dealt with regularly in the pages of this magazine, but is perhaps something that even many Christians are confused about.
As we read concerning Jesus in Acts 1: 9-11
Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven."
Jesus WILL Return!
In short, the Bible promises that Jesus would return. When this happens, it will be in fulfilment of many, many prophecies that are to be found throughout the Bible, from cover to cover. Here is just one example:
1 Thessalonians 4:16
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
This is where Jesus was promising to be with the criminal, at some future date, following Christ's return to earth and the setting up of the kingdom.
So hopefully, we "Scripture Detectives" can now close our case and announce our findings.
Earth not Heaven
Jesus was not promising the criminal instant immortality with him in heaven. This theory does not stand up to the evidence. Rather, Jesus was saying "I will have you with me in my kingdom", which is exactly what the criminal asked for.
In fact, it would be rather strange and lonely in heaven since the scriptures say that Jesus and his Father will come and make their dwelling with men!
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."
We are only given a glimpse of the Kingdom through the pages of scripture, but it is a wonderful glimpse. Perhaps despite his agony, through his nearness to Jesus, the criminal was also able to get that wonderful glimpse. As we watch and wait for the return of Jesus, perhaps we, too, would like to say: "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."
The Dawn Christadelphians