Question & AnswerBible answers to your questions | Volume 21 No. 1
If the dead are asleep until the resurrection, how do you explain Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise?”
The meaning of Christ’s statement in Luke 23:43 is determined by a scriptural answer to one very important question: Did Jesus Himself go to Heaven that same day?
Not according to the Bible. On the day of the resurrection, when He met Mary at the garden tomb, His words were: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to My Father.” John 20:17.
Jesus could not have gone to Paradise on Friday if He hadn’t yet ascended to the Father by Sunday!
Why then did Jesus say, “Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise”? The apparent problem vanishes when you consider that the original Greek manuscripts had no punctuation. The commas and periods were introduced into the text by translators, who inserted them where they thought they should be. But one comma can change the whole meaning of a sentence. By repositioning the comma after “today,” the passage reads: “Verily I say unto thee today, Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.” This is what Jesus is really saying. Today, when all seems lost; today, when I do not look like a Lord or King, and after even My disciples have fled; today, although My hands are nailed to a cross, I can still save you!
Someday that thief, along with all others who have accepted Christ, will claim the promise of the resurrection and be with Jesus in Paradise.
What about Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazurus in Luke 16? Doesn’t this prove that the immortal soul of an individual goes either to Paradise or eternal torment when they die?
Many individuals use the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as biblical proof that souls go either to Heaven or hell upon death. Many aspects of the parable show that Jesus did not intend it to be believed as a true picture of what happens in the afterlife or even to make any point about the afterlife at all; rather, Jesus was using popular fiction about the afterlife to teach a lesson about the choices people make in their present lives.
Here are clues from the story which demonstrate that the illustration is fictitious:
1. The term “Abraham’s bosom” is the Jewish idiom for Heaven just like its Christian counterpart, the “gates of Peter.” “The beggar died and was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died and was buried.” Luke 16:22.
2. The rich man places Abraham in the place of God as if he had the prerogative to alter his conditions in hell. See Luke 16:24.
3. The parable indicates that the inhabitants of Heaven and hell can see one another and communicate across the chasm, and that the redeemed spend eternity observing the torments of the damned and the damned observe the heavenly bliss of the redeemed. The Bible does not support this view. See Malachi 4:1,3.
4. Jesus taught that Abraham was still in the grave awaiting the resurrection of the righteous. See Luke 20:34–38.
The Protestant Reformation established the principle that unclear passages of scripture must be interpreted in the light of clear and plain portions of scripture. If we examine what Jesus taught about death and the immediate afterlife we have further proof that He employed a fictitious illustration: Jesus taught that no man, neither evil or just, will receive his eternal reward until after Jesus returns in His glory. “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and then He shall reward every man according to his works.” Matthew 16:27. That day is yet future.
Jesus taught that death is a sleep. When speaking to His disciples about the death of Lazarus He said, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep…. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.” John 11:11,14. See also Psalm 13:3.
Jesus used the beliefs and practices of the day as the background information for His famous stories in which He illustrated a single sublime truth. In Jesus’ time many Jews believed that there was immediate life after death, a concept imported from the Greek philosophy of the day, which the Jewish rabbis combined with the Bible teaching of the resurrection.
Also, the Jews believed that wealth and a Jewish bloodline gave you title to Heaven. In the parable, Jesus taught that wealth may be the curse of selfish men and that ancestry counts for nothing in deciding who will be saved and who will perish. This is the true lesson of this parable.
In Revelation 6:9,10, don’t the prayers of the martyred souls under the altar seem to indicate that at least some people go to Heaven upon death?
In vision John heard the souls of slain saints crying under the altar to God: “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?”
The expression used is symbolic. A similar symbolism is recorded in Genesis concerning the blood of the first martyr, Abel. “The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground.” Genesis 4:10.
Beyond any reasonable doubt, these “souls” that are “under the altar” are not literal disembodied humans.
They symbolize martyred saints whom God has not forgotten. “I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.” Luke 18:8.
Can you shed some light on a difficult text? “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins. . . being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also He went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.” 1 Peter 3:18–20. Who are these spirits and when did Christ preach to them?
Without careful study, this passage seems to support the immediate life after death concept.
However, if the text is treated literally, the meaning becomes even more obscure. Did Jesus descend into hell, limbo or purgatory at His death? No Bible passage confirms this. Psalm 16:10 plainly teaches just the opposite.
Notice also that the preaching occurred prior to the flood. So, the text cannot support that Christ went to preach to spirits after His death, either. We must search other Bible texts for the understanding of this passage.
In Psalm 142:7, David uses the term “prison” to refer to afflictions: “Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise Thy name.” Solomon uses the term in reference to a king’s foolishness. Ecclesiastes 4:13,14. Isaiah represents spiritual darkness as a prison. Isaiah 42:7.
The Bible sometimes refers to the dead as “prisoners” of the grave. See Job 3:18. Yet these are prisoners that cannot hear. The “spirits in prison” cannot be dead, for Christ wouldn’t preach to dead, unhearing people.
The most logical conclusion is that through the Holy Spirit, Christ sent a message by way of His prophet Noah to the antediluvians who were imprisoned in spiritual darkness.
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