Jesus' statement in the Bible often used to 'prove' 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. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, 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.
Was he conscious AFTER death?
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.
40. For just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, in like manner the Son of man shall be in the heart of the earth THREE DAYS and THREE NIGHTS" (Matthew 12:40, HBFV)
" . . . 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. Three days is equal to 3 times 12 or 36 hours. Three nights are also 36 hours long (3 * 12). Adding them together, we get 72 hours, or three complete days!
Jesus was NOT conscious after his death on the cross because he was DEAD - 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 (see our "Timeline of Christ's last week").
16. Jesus said to her, "Mary." Turning around, she said to Him, "Rabboni"; that is to say, "Teacher." 17. 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.
When does he receive the Kingdom?
The thief on the cross next to his requested Jesus "remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (Luke 23:43). The question is when does Christ receive his kingdom? Did he receive it immediately after he died? According to prophecy, the kingdom Jesus will rule will be instituted at his SECOND COMING, when he returns as King of kings and Lord of lords.
"And in the days of these (end time) kings the God of heaven will SET UP A KINGDOM which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever." (Daniel 2:44, see also Revelation 11:15, 17)
The Bible is clear that the Kingdom reigned by Jesus Christ will not fully come into existence until the near future. This means the thief on the cross could NOT have immediately, upon his death, entered the "kingdom" he requested since it was not fully set up! For additional study on this topic please read our article "What is the Kingdom of God?"
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.
"And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise (heaven)" (Luke 23:42- 43)
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 Jesus' 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!
Jesus did not promise the thief on the cross immediate entrance into heaven, a reward that the Bible says even King David had not yet received (Acts 2:29). Our Savior did detect, however, a repentant heart on the part of the man dying next to him. He knew that the man would be resurrected in God's second resurrection of the dead and given a full chance at salvation. Jesus said what he said because he knew from the thief's attitude that he would someday fully repent, receive God's spirit, and eventually be given the gift of eternal life.