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Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise?

Here is an interesting question I have received closely connected with the work I’ve been doing on the different views about the afterlife – what happens to us when we die? – in the early Christian tradition.  It has to do with a key verse that has been much debated over the years, a verse found only in Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus assures the “robber” being crucified with him, that he will that day awaken in paradise.  Or *is* that what Jesus says?

 

QUESTION

Now that you mention about the differences in translations I would like to ask about how the Jehovah’s witnesses in their New World Translation bible Luke 23:43: And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”  They have inserted a comma after today because their bias is that the paradise is in the future not the day Jesus died. Besides their bias do you see any other indication that that rendition would be probable?

 

RESPONSE:

In my book I try to show that Luke has changed many of the teachings of Jesus as found in our earlier Gospel, Mark (and as found on the lips of the historical Jesus himself, in all probability) – in particular Luke has taken Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings that the end of all human history was to be brought to a crashing halt within the lifetime of his disciples and made them refer to things that would happen *later*, only after his disciples had died.  I call this the “deapocalypticization” of Jesus teachings, the making of them less apocalyptic.  But not completely “non” apocalyptic).

Luke still believes in a future Day of Judgment, even if, to some extent, he Jesus does not pronounce as strongly the immediate end of all things.  But what is most significant is that, unlike the historical Jesus himself, who focused exclusively on the coming Kingdom of God as the time when the righteous would be rewarded with eternal life, Luke maintains that eternity begins immediately at a person’s death.   Like Paul (as I will be arguing in my book) , but even more emphatically, Luke thinks that when a believer in Jesus dies, they go straight to heaven.

Nowhere is this indicated more clearly than in his account of Jesus’ own crucifixion.  While he is hanging on the cross, Jesus has a brief conversation with one of the two robbers crucified beside him, who makes a request: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).  This criminal is imagining that there will be a future event that could bring him salvation.  But Jesus subtly corrects him with his famous saying, found only in Luke,: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43).   Remarkable words.  The man will enter paradise immediately at the point of death.  He does not need to wait for some future apocalyptic event, the coming of Christ’s kingdom.

Some readers over the years have suggested this saying of Jesus should be punctuated differently (hence this question), on the understanding that ancient Greek manuscripts did not use any punctuation at all, which is therefore supplied by modern translators.  If we move the comma, then Jesus was instead saying: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”  In that case, Jesus was not telling the man that they will both end up in paradise that very day, as soon as the pain has ended.

On the surface this might make sense, but there are very good arguments against it.  On one hand, on the very basic level, this understanding actually does not make any sense.  If Jesus is talking to the man and telling him something about paradise, why would he indicate that he was saying it to him on that particular day?  What other day would he be saying it?

But possibly more important, in Luke’s Gospel the word “today” is used some dozen times.   In every case it indicates the day on which something significant is happening, often something involving salvation (e.g. 2:11; 4:21; 13:32-33; 19:9).  It never, ever indicates simply the day on which something is said to be about to happen.  And why would it?   Here too, Jesus is saying something important will be happening on that very day: this other man (and Jesus) will soon be in Paradise.

The idea that paradise becomes available to the follower of Jesus immediately upon death for Luke is confirmed in his second volume in the account of the first Christian martyr, Stephen.  Stephen has just antagonized his Jewish opponents by delivering a rather hostile long sermon (most of Acts 7), at the end of which he looks up to heaven and declares that he sees “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”(Acts 7:56).   The Jewish leaders are incensed, thinking he has committed blasphemy, and in a mob effort break out the stones to execute him on the spot.  Just before he dies, Stephen cries out “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (7:59).   Again, that last word is pneuma.   Stephen’s pneuma now will go to heaven to reside with the Lord when his body perishes.

This is Greek-influenced theology, less like the Jewish apocalyptic notion that eternity comes only at the end of time with the resurrection of the body.  Rewards come to the righteous immediately at death.   One does not need to wait for the coming apocalypse.

 

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The De-apocalypticized Jesus of the Gospel of John
Jesus and Hell

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Comments

  1. Matt2239  November 4, 2018

    What Jesus said while being crucified of course grants it more weight. Even while hanging on the cross, he did not relent on the promise of salvation. The significance of the word “today” could underline the credibility that even modern law confers to deathbed confessions. While not conclusive, it does provide important context from all other instances where the word appears.

  2. RonaldTaska  November 4, 2018

    Very, very interesting. Thanks

  3. Hormiga  November 4, 2018

    Just considered in isolation, does the Greek sentence admit of the ambiguity?

    και ειπεν αυτω αμην σοι λεγω σημερον μετ εμου εση εν τω παραδεισω

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2018

      Yes, as you show, there was no punctuation in ancient manuscript (or even word divisions!), so editors have to decide the appropriate punctuation. In this case I think the case is pretty clear where the adverb goes, once punctuated correctly. (You have to base the decisions on context and exegesis generally)

      • Hormiga  November 5, 2018

        English has word order available as a means of making semantic distinctions, but did Koine? I.e., if the σημερον adverb had been moved to a different place in the sentence, would it have been clearer whether it was modifying the “tell” or the “will be”?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 6, 2018

          Word order is much less important in Greek. The adverb could show up in a variety of places and still signify teh same thing.

  4. Hon Wai  November 4, 2018

    Were there no non-Christian Jewish writer at any time during Hellenistic Judaism who espoused the view that eternity or post-mortem rewards begins immediately after death?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2018

      Yes, there were Jews who thought this. I’ll be laying out the evidence in my book.

  5. BryanS  November 4, 2018

    The accounts of Jesus’ interaction with the two other condemned men have always fascinated me. Two questions:

    1. Mark and Matthew have both men mocking Jesus. Did Luke modify Mark’s account for his own purposes, or could there have been sources with an alternate tradition (either oral or written)?

    2. The other condemned are variously referred to in English translations as criminals, bandits, or insurgents. Could they have been petty criminals (e.g., burglars or pickpockets), or zealots who had defied Roman authority? Did Rome apply capital punishment for crimes other than sedition or treason?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2018

      a. Luke probably altered the accoutns for his purposes; b. The term used for them in Greek suggests guerilla warriors opposing the Roman authorities.

  6. balivi  November 4, 2018

    “…Luke thinks that when a believer in Jesus dies…”

    Its fals, sorry. Not “IN Jesus”, but “IN Christ”. Its very improtant difference. Paul never said “IN Jesus” only “In Christ”, therefore Luke either.

    Your genial translation/exegezis (1Cor 11:23-24, the ‘paradidomi’ problem) we can understand this. According to Paul, Jesus died at the night, when he took the bread. Jesus (as Son of God) not on the cross died. Luke wants to say the same thing.

    Luke many place change. I show three:
    1. It happened in Gethsemane (Luk22:44)
    2. Splitting the trim ( before Jesus death the split of carpet)
    3. the centurion’s words at the cross (Luk23:47)

    When Jesus died, he became a man (as antropos in Fil2:6-8). Therefore the Jesus it is not the son of God on the cross, at Luke. Same like Paul.

    • balivi  November 4, 2018

      The Christ, is not Jesus, according to Paul, the Christ is not a person. The Christ God’s revealing secret, at the Paul. Anyone can see, who were baptized into Christ. In the mirror. Certainly. (2Cor10:12; 2Cor10:7; 1Kor13:12 here the new man, was hidden because the Christ).

  7. godspell  November 4, 2018

    In any event, there is no reason to think Jesus said anything to the thieves, or they to him. In Mark, they neither praise nor mock him–they are just hanging there on each side of him, dying the same death as him, which is Mark’s point–the Messiah nobody recognized in life is dying the same death as two common thieves.

    People getting chatty while they’re being done to death in a protracted and unpleasant way might also be said to be a Greek thing. Anybody really believe Socrates was debating philosophy after ingesting what was meant to be a fatal dose of hemlock poison?

    Googling the symptoms–

    //Common symptoms of hemlock poisoning may include:

    trembling
    burning in the digestive tract
    increased salivation
    dilated pupils
    muscle pain
    muscle weakness or muscle paralysis
    rapid heart rate followed by a decreased heart rate
    loss of speech
    convulsions
    unconsciousness or coma//

    Yeah, he could have talked for a bit, but Plato wasn’t even there, and nobody was writing it down that we know of.

    However, to a Greek of philosophic bent (and I think you could say that includes the Greek-speaking Luke), it really matters how you face death. It may be the most important moment of your life–the final test. If you have a few moments of consciousness before the end, you should say and/or do something of significance, that illustrates who you were in life, what you were really about.

    To Luke, it would be horrifying to think Jesus’ last words were an anguished complaint to God–worse than anything Job said under far more trying circumstances.

    While the Old Testament is full of people meeting death bravely, they don’t tend to get very talkative while dying. It’s not a philosophic moment. Jesus’ lament in Mark is in that tradition (in fact, if he did say it, drawn directly from scripture). Jews call out to God, implore Him for mercy, forgiveness, or an explanation, at least.

    In the Greek-speaking world Luke came from, you’re supposed to say something profound, to indicate your self-possession in the face of the ultimate catastrophe.

  8. Mizraim Martínez  November 4, 2018

    Wow how could I have miss this:

    “If Jesus is talking to the man and telling him something about paradise, why would he indicate that he was saying it to him on that particular day? What other day would he be saying it?”

    That really made me laugh because it is true.

  9. brenmcg  November 4, 2018

    >at the end of which he looks up to heaven and declares that he sees “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”(Acts 7:56).<

    Do you think this counts as fulfilling the prophecy in Matthew 16:28?
    “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2018

      I don’t think Luke sees it that way, no. He doesn’t see the kingdom of God but Jesus in heaven.

  10. James Chalmers  November 4, 2018

    Let me see if I have this straight. I used to think early Christianity faced a considerable problem in transitioning from “all who believe shall be resurrected and enter the kingdom when it comes” to “the kingdom will be some time in coming, but all who believe will to to heaven.” Now I see that the transition was not that drastic and difficult to make, because Luke and even Paul (as early as five years after the crucifixion?) already held that “all who believe will go straight to heaven to join Jesus before he makes his return.” “Going to heaven when you die” was a part of the Christian gospel as conceived in early days by Paul and, presumably, others. Though the imminent coming of the kingdom did have to be somehow dispensed with, going to heaven when you die (if you believe) was there even in Paul’s teaching. And going to heaven for all eternity is a pretty good deal for the individual, even if the world and the individual’s time there isn’t transformed–even if the parousia is delayed indefinitely.

    Have I got this straight now?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2018

      Yes, I would say the delay of the resurrection led to the idea of an interim state, which led then to the idea of postmortem rewards and punishments for all.

  11. James Chalmers  November 4, 2018

    An obvious further question: was Jesus also a “straight to heaven” man? Or was it instead “we rot till the day of judgment/resurrection comes”?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2018

      My sense is that he didn’t think there would be much rotting, because the kingdom was coming sometime next month.

  12. Gravenfox  November 4, 2018

    Is there any significance to the fact that the author used πνεῦμα instead of ψυχή to refer to the soul?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2018

      Much debated whether they are synonymous — it depends which author is involved. TEchnically the first means spirit and the other soul.

  13. John4
    John4  November 5, 2018

    Perhaps then, Bart, you could share with us here in the blog your argument that Paul “thinks that when a believer in Jesus dies, they go straight to heaven”?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2018

      Ah, it’s a long section in my forthcoming book! (But see Philippians 1:21-24)

      • jrauch  November 5, 2018

        It seems inconsistent for me to see how Paul would have changed his thinking that “believers in Jesus” go straight to heaven by what he wrote in Philippians. Paul wrote earlier in great detail about the transformation from an earthly body into a spiritual body only when Jesus returns. If Paul had changed his mind, would a simple statement be all that he would make? Would he not make a much stronger statement for people to believe in Jesus so that they could immediately be with Jesus upon their death? Perhaps Paul later began thinking that he (only Paul) was important enough to go directly to heaven upon his death (similar to what took place with Jesus).

        • Bart
          Bart  November 6, 2018

          He still very much believed in a transformation of the body — even (explicitly) in Philippians. But he also came to think that a believer would not be bereft of Christ’s presence if s/he died before it happened.

          • readyforchange  November 8, 2018

            Dr. Ehrman, are you saying that when Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 that “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first”, the dead would have already been in the presence of Christ, before they rise?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 9, 2018

            Apparently.

  14. jhague  November 5, 2018

    Did the message change to imediately going to heaven upon death due to the apocalypse not happening and people were dying?

  15. Stephen  November 5, 2018

    How confident are we that we know what Luke meant by “paradise”? Do you think he had the same cosmology in mind as Paul, i.e., the “third Heaven”?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2018

      He gives no indication he knows of multiple heavens, no. Paradise is a standard term for the eternal place of blessing for the righteous who have died.

  16. talmoore
    talmoore  November 5, 2018

    1 of 2

    My hypothesis — and, as far as I can tell, I’m the only one who thinks this — is that Jesus and his immediate Jewish followers believed that there were, at minimum, two types of “saved” people, but more likely three types. The first type were what Jesus and his followers called the Qodeshim, or “The Saints” as they’re called in scripture. These were especially holy men and women, such as the Patriarchs and Matriarchs and prophets of Jewish history, like Abraham and Jacob. Also included in “The Saints” were martyrs to the messianic cause, such as the seven sons martyred in 2 Maccabees.

    Jesus’s followers probably believed that Jesus became a member of The Saints upon his martyrdom and that they, too, would become “Saints” via their connection to him. As part of their higher status, these Saints gained two benefits that are significant to this discussion. First, when they die their souls immediately go to be with God in heaven, and their souls remain with God until the Resurrection, at which point they can skip the line for Judgment, so-to-speak, and get a VIP ticket straight to Paradise. This is what I think Luke and Paul are referring to (think Rapture).

  17. talmoore
    talmoore  November 5, 2018

    2 of 2

    As to the other two types of “saved” people, they are called the Tzaddiqim and the Tzaddiqim ha-Goyim, or “The Righteous” and “The Righteous Among the Nations”. The first group are Jews saved because they have repented (think John the Baptist) or they have followed the Torah to the T, etc. They aren’t necessarily Christians of even followers of Jesus. They are simply Jews who have remained faithful to the God of Israel. The Righteous Among the Nations are similar except that they are not Jews. They are those gentiles that the Jews called “God-fearers” or they could simply be gentile allies of the Jews who help fight against the enemies of God and the Jews.

    However, The Righteous are treated differently after death. For one, their souls don’t immediately go to be with God. Rather, they remain trapped here on earth (think of the classic ghost story). Also, they will have to stand in line at the Judgment with everyone else, and if judged righteous, they are saved to live in the new paradise on earth, ruled by The Saints. Paul’s re-interpretation of the Righteous Among the Nations seems to be that he allowed for non-Jews to be included within the first group of The Saints without having to actually become Jews simply by becoming followers of Jesus. That is, gentile Christians become Qodeshim via Jesus’s martyrdom the same way Jesus’s disciples became Qodeshim by remaining “faithful” to Jesus.

    If you interpret everything I’ve said here back into the New Testament, it should all start to make a lot more sense.

  18. Lopaka  November 5, 2018

    Doesn’t the idea that Jesus would be in paradise that Friday contradict the harrowing of hell?

    Maybe he went to both? That way he could have said to the other criminal: “I’ll see you in hell!”

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      Yes, Luke does not have a tradition of the Harrowing of Hell. And the texts that do have a tradition of teh harrowing of hell do not have this tradition from Luke.

  19. jakethedog  November 5, 2018

    Isn’t there a thought that Jesus went to hell for three days, then rose from the dead to go to heaven (Apostle’s creed)? If so how could he also be in paradise with the robber?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2018

      The traditions of his descent to hell are not found in Luke, and Luke’s tradition of him going straight to paradise aer not found in the traditions of his harrowing of hell.

  20. Leovigild  November 6, 2018

    The word Luke uses for paradise, ‘paradeisos’ (the origin of the English word), is derived from a Persian term for pleasure garden. When does the word come to connote an idealized place after death? Does this derive from Jewish philosophy?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2018

      It came to be used of the “original” garden — the Garden of Eden; afterlife was imagined as being a return to the life of Eden.

      • Leovigild  November 7, 2018

        Yes, I know that ‘paradeisos’ is used to describe the Garden of Eden in the Septuagint. When is its earliest attestation as a reference to an afterlife?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 9, 2018

          That’s a great and relevant question! And off hand I don’t know!!

        • ftbond  November 14, 2018

          The Book of Enoch uses “Eden” (paradise) in an apparent reference to a “heavenly” paradise – chptrs 23, 24. Those chapters MAY have been written as early as 300 BCE — but, I think the work is generally dated between 200-170BCE. There are also Talmudic references to paradise, but, I’m not sure if any of those can be reliably dated.

          You’ll find mention of paradise in the Erza-Esdras books, but, in those writings, “paradise” seems almost to refer to an “experience” of an Eden-like existence, and not necessarily having anything to do with the afterlife.

          I think it’s important that one understands that in Jewish thought, it was only natural that the “desirable state to return to” (whether it applied on a nationalist or personal level) was the primitive “Eden” experience of Adam and Eve.

          And, for this reason, I personally think it is a HUGE mistake to think of “Paradise” as the name of a place, but rather, the Title given an experience.

          In the Talmud, Rab writes “In paradise there is no eating, no drinking, no cohabitation, no business, no envy, no hatred or ambition; but the righteous sit with crowned heads and enjoy the luster of the Shekinah, as it is written: ‘They saw God and did eat and drink'”

          I mentioned in another post that Jesus said to the thief, “you will be *with me* in paradise”; Stephen cried out “Jesus, receive my spirit (ie, *with you*); Paul said “…absent from the body… present *with Jesus*”.

          In the Talmud, Rab likened simply being “with God” as to be (essentially) equal to all experience of eating, drinking, cohabitation, etc… And, it may be that this is the type of Rabbinic thought that was being expressed in being “with Jesus” at death: to be with Jesus in death was to experience “paradise”.

          Anyway, it seems that “paradise” as an afterlife concept came into play after – or perhaps even during – the Babylonian captivity, but as best as I can make out, the earliest reference to it as an afterlife concept is in Enoch. But – even there, that just represents (perhaps) the earliest usage of the term “paradise” as a reference to an afterlife experience; that afterlife experience may well have been referred to with other “titles” that we just don’t know about.

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