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?
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?
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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