Trouble in Paradise
These days if you speak about Jesus and hell in the same breath, you are vilified by the new orthodoxy.
And he said unto him - Verily I say unto thee this day: With me shalt thou be in Paradise. (Luke 23:43, Rotherham)
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and buried; He descended into hell, the third day He rose again from the dead. (Apostles' Creed)
Jesus' descent into hell was a basic, orthodox doctrine in the Early Church that has been carried in the Apostles' Creed for centuries. These days, however, if you speak about Jesus and hell in the same breath, you are immediately vilified by the new orthodoxy and thrown into the rubble with "those faith preachers." Personally, I don't know of another doctrine that brings out the words "blasphemy," "heretic," or "apostate" or even "cult-like" more lightning fast than this one.
Preachers present Luke 23:43 as the trump card refuting the idea that Jesus descended into hell (hades) after giving up the ghost on the cross. (Apparently those drafting the Apostles' Creed didn't think this, but so it goes.) Here is some modern-day preaching on Luke's verse:
Preachers and Theologians Say
Moreover, if as the Faith teachers say, Jesus was immediately taken to hell after his death, why then did he tell the thief on the cross "today you shall be with me in Paradise"? Although we do not know definitively "what happened from the cross to the throne," the above passages would indicate one thing that did not happen. Jesus was not taken to hell by the devil after his death. Thus, the house of cards constructed on the double-death of Jesus by the Faith teachers comes crashing to the ground. (D.R. McConnell, A Different Gospel, Updated Edition, Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts) 2004 at 126-127)
Jesus' words to the thief on the cross, 'Today you will be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43), imply that after Jesus died his soul (or spirit) went immediately to the presence of the Father in heaven, even though his body remained on earth and was buried. Some people deny this by arguing that paradise is a place distinct from heaven, but in both of the other NT uses the word clearly means "heaven." In 2 Cor 12:4 it is the place to which Paul was caught up in revelation of heaven, and in Rev 2:7 it is the place where we find the tree of life, which is clearly in heaven in 22:2, 14. (Wayne Grudem, He Did Not Descend Into Hell, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 1991 at 112)
But to the penitent Jesus says: 'Today you will be with me in Paradise.' This was almost too good. There would not even be a delay. Today the Spirit of Jesus and the renewed Spirit of the thief would be in union in Paradise. The promise would be without delay. (John Piper, Sermon at Bethlehem Baptist Church on April 17, 1981)
My conclusion is that the thief died the same day AND went to Heaven to be with Christ the same day. (John MacArthur, Questions on the Repentant Thief at http://www.ldolphin.org/kwellsx.html
The Bible . . . states that at death Jesus went to be with His heavenly Father, not to be with Satan in the Pit. As He died said: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46). —Hobart Freeman, Did Jesus Die Spiritually? The JDS Heresy
So It Goes with Bible Translations
Bible translation is both fascinating and fraught with troubles. Good translators will tell you that there is no way to be completely objective about the process. The translator brings in his own personal biases, learning, theological biases, and intellectual processes into the mix which all have a bearing on the outcome. That is not to say, of course, that translations are bad, but they may be fallible with regard to certain verses.
For Luke 23:43, I used the Rotherham translation because it is the only English translation that I could find that did not mimic the modern-day construction of Luke as quoted above. When you consider that the Koine Greek did not have any punctuation, you can see how even the decisions about how to punctuate a verse, let alone language vocabulary and usage, affect translation:
"I tell you in solemn truth," replied Jesus, "that this very day you shall be with me in Paradise. (Weymouth)
And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (RSV)
And he said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (NASB)
"I tell you truly," said Jesus, "you will be in paradise with me this very day." (Moffatt)
"And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (ESV)
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." (NIV)
He said, "Don't worry, I will. Today you will join me in paradise." (The Message)
And he said to him, "I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise." (HCSB)
Jesus replied, "I promise that today you will be with me in paradise." (CEV)
Each of these translations leaves no doubt that Jesus meant that the thief would immediately accompany him to Paradise that very day, Good Friday. Have these translations rendered Luke accurately, or is Rotherham's rendition which emphasizes the timing of when the promise is made more faithful to scripture and the Plan of Redemption? According to McConnell, the entire "Word of Faith movement" (and the Apostle's Creed for that matter) depends upon the answer.
Look at the Thief
To properly construe the verse, we should start with the thief since, after all, he is the one who is promised the ride to Paradise. This man, whoever he was, was not a saviour, but a sinner. As a sinner, he had to be spiritually reborn in order to enter the kingdom of God:
Jesus answered him [Nicodemus], 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew (from above), he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. . . . Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born anew.' (John 3:3, 5, 7, RSV) (emphasis supplied)
Jesus' own declaration is that this thief, like any other man, could not "see" or enter into the kingdom of God unless he had been born-again or born from above.
Now, according to the views of McConnell and friends, this man was born-again the moment that Jesus said, "You will be with me in Paradise" because they say that he more or less accompanied Jesus to heaven. It sounds plausible, maybe even convincing, until you hold it up to the light of other scripture.
In 1 Corinthians 15, we read:
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. . . . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:13-14, 17, RSV)
According to black-letter Bible, the thief remained in his sins (not redeemed or born-again) until Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Jesus's resurrection did not happen until three days after Luke 23:43. Consequently, the man could not have "seen" the kingdom of God on the day of Jesus's crucifixion since redemption had not yet been wrought. He had to wait like everybody else (in Abraham's bosom) until the third day where Jesus was resurrected and then ascended into heaven and presented His blood before the Father.
and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place, once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:12, NASB)
It was at that moment that we see in Hebrews, not any time before, that redemption was obtained and men could "see" heaven. Consequently, Rotherham has it right, "I say unto you this day," and the modern preachers and translations have gotten it wrong.
[One note on Grudem: There have been those who have said that Abraham's bosom was a part of Paradise, but I am not one of them. I believe this teaching came about from those 41ministers who couldn't deny the Bible's description of Jesus's descent "into the heart of the earth," but who, on the other hand, did not want to admit that it was into a descent into hell (hades). Like Grudem, I don't find any scriptural evidence that Abraham's bosom was once Paradise.]