Most people want to believe that the Bible teaches heaven awaits them immediately after they die. Is this, however, what God's word really says? Jesus made a unique promise to a thief on a cross next to his that is often used to justify heaven as the reward of the repentant. This short article examines Jesus' statement to determine the truth of what the Scriptures teach!
The statement in question, made by Jesus and used to 'prove' heaven exists upon death is found in the book of Luke.
And he (the thief) said unto Jesus, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom (thought to be in heaven) . . . " Verily I 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)
Two major assumptions are made regarding the above verses. The first one is that Christ knew he would enter his reward on the day he died. The second is that he also received his Kingdom on the same day and therefore had the authority to grant the thief access to it.
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? 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 before he could enter heaven.
Christ himself informs us about the length of a day when he said, ". . . Are there not twelve hours in the day?" (John 11:9). Twelve hours in a day means that a night must also be twelve hours long as well (for 24 hours total). Jonah's sign was three days AND three nights long, meaning 72 hours total before the Lord could enter heaven.
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. 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 heaven (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 on the day he died. What, then, should be the correct punctuation of his statement?
Then he said to Jesus, "Remember me, Lord, when You come into Your kingdom." 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 would be the catalyst for a major misunderstanding of Scripture regarding heaven. 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!
The Biblical truth is that the ultimate reward of the saved will be heaven, but one which is brought down to the earth by God himself!