The statement by Jesus often used to 'prove' (known as proof-texting) that those deemed worthy enter heaven upon their deaths is found in the book of Luke.
And he (the thief on the cross next to his) said unto Jesus, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom . . . " Verily I (our Savior) say unto thee (a thief justly deserving of his punishment), To day shalt thou be with me in paradise (heaven)" (Luke 23:42 - 43, KJV Bible)
Two primary assumptions are made when reading the above verses. The first one is that Christ knew he would enter heaven on the day he died. The second assumption is that he also received his Kingdom on the same day and therefore had the authority to grant the thief access to it. We will look at each of these assumptions.
The belief that Christ entered heaven immediately upon death assumes that he was still conscious after offering his Spirit to God (Luke 23:46). Is this TRUE? Was Christ spiritually ALIVE after he breathed his last on the cross? During his ministry, the Jewish religious leaders constantly pestered Christ to PROVE to them that he was the Messiah. The ONLY sign that would be given, according to Jesus' own words, that he was man's Savior would be that of Jonah the prophet (Matthew 12:40).
Note that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for THREE days and THREE nights. Since we know there are twenty-four hours in a complete day, once we know how long a DAY is we will know how long Christ was dead. We have our answer about the length of day from Jesus himself who said " . . . Are there not TWELVE HOURS in the day?" (John 11:9). Twelve hours in a day means that a night must be twelve hours long as well (for 24 hours total). Jonah's sign was three days AND three nights long, meaning 72 hours total.
Jesus was NOT conscious after his death on the cross because he was DEAD, or unconscious, as he predicted and according to his own prophecy would stay in this state for 72 hours (see our article on "Three Days and Three Nights" for more information). His statement, therefore, to the thief on the cross cannot mean he was granting entrance to heaven on the same day. Further proof that Christ did not ascend immediately to God's throne upon his death is found in his statement to Mary Magdalene made more than 72 hours after his death, "Jesus said to her, "Do not touch Me, BECAUSE I HAVE NOT YET ASCENDED TO MY FATHER" (John 20:16 - 17). In fulfillment of his own prophecy Jesus was dead for three complete days, resurrected, then early on a Sunday morning ascended into heaven.
An error in punctuation
How are we to understand Christ's statement regarding heaven to the thief next to him? It all comes down to an error in punctuation! Let us look again Luke 23 in the KJV translation. The original Greek language used to write the New Testament did not have punctuation marks as we do today. Translators placed a comma BEFORE the words "to day" in the sentence in an attempt to clarify the sentence's meaning. Instead, their punctuation placement gives the false impression that Jesus entered heaven and received his kingdom on the day he died. What then should be the correct punctuation of his statement?
42. Then he said to Jesus, "Remember me, Lord, when You come into Your kingdom." 43. And Jesus said to him, "Truly, I tell you today, you shall be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:42 - 43, HBFV)
It is hard to believe that a simple misplaced punctuation mark, a little comma, would be the catalyst for a MAJOR misunderstanding of Scripture. Yet this is exactly what has occurred in Luke 23:43. The correct punctuation of this verse shows that Jesus was stressing the TIME his promise was made, not the time he would be in heaven!