Did the thief on the cross go to paradise?


By BibleAsk Team

The story of the thief on the cross, also known as the penitent thief, is often deeply misunderstood narrative in Christian theology. Found in the Gospel accounts of Matthew (Matthew 27:38, 44), Mark (Mark 15:27, 32), Luke (Luke 23:39-43), and John (John 19:18), this episode unfolds during the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. While traditional interpretations often depict the thief as immediately entering paradise upon his exchange with Jesus, a closer examination of the biblical text reveals a more nuanced understanding. To explore this topic comprehensively, we’ll delve into the relevant passages, consider differing theological perspectives, and examine the context of the crucifixion narrative.

The Biblical Narrative:

In Luke 23:39-43, we encounter the account of the thief on the cross:

Luke 23:39-43 (NKJV):

39 Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, [a]“If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”

40 But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said [b]to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”

43 And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Biblical Interpretation

About the verse in Luke 23:43, it should be noted that the comma between the words “you” and “today” was inserted by the translators. The commas in this verse were not in the original manuscripts. The original Greek text, which had neither punctuation nor word division, reads literally: “truly to-you I-say today with-me you-will-be in the paradise.”

Did Jesus go to paradise on the day of His crucifixion? What did Jesus teach about the time when men would enter upon their reward in paradise?

Jesus Himself gives us the answer to these questions. For three days later Jesus informed Mary, “I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). Obviously, therefore, Jesus did not go to paradise, and was not in paradise, on the day of His crucifixion. Accordingly, the thief could not have been with Jesus in paradise.

In this view, Jesus’s statement could be understood as, “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” This interpretation suggests that Jesus is affirming the truth of His statement on that particular day but does not imply immediate entry into paradise.

When Jesus assures the thief of a place with Him in “paradise,” He referred to the “many mansions” of His “Father’s house” and to the time when He would “receive” unto Himself His own (John 14:1–3). Throughout His ministry Jesus had clearly states that He would “reward every man according to his works” when He returned in triumph “in the glory of his Father with his angels” (Matthew 16:27). Not until that time will He invite the saved of earth to “inherit the kingdom prepared for” them “from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:31, 34; Revelation 22:21).

Paul, similarly teaches the same truth that those who fall asleep in Jesus will come forth from their graves at Christ’s second coming (1 Corinthians 15:20–23) to receive immortality (verses 51–55). The resurrected righteous and righteous living will “be caught up together … to meet the Lord in the air,” and thus “ever be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17). The thief will, accordingly, be “with” Jesus in “paradise” following the resurrection of the just, at His second coming.

The great question the thief was thinking of at the moment was not when he would reach paradise, but whether he would get there at all. Jesus’ assertive statement assured him that, however undeserving he may be and however impossible it may seem for Jesus—dying the death of a criminal—to fulfill such a promise, the thief will most surely be there.

Obviously, in placing the comma before the word “today,” the translators were guided by the unscriptural popular belief that the dead enter into their rewards at death. But neither Jesus nor the writers of the New Testament believed or taught such a doctrine. To place the comma before the word “today” makes Christ contradict what He and the New Testament writers have plainly stated elsewhere.

Contextual Considerations

To better understand the thief’s fate, it’s essential to consider the broader biblical context and theological concepts related to death, resurrection, and the afterlife. In the Old Testament, the concept of Sheol is often associated with the realm of the dead, where both the righteous and the unrighteous reside after death (Psalm 6:5; Ecclesiastes 9:10). This understanding suggests that all individuals, regardless of their moral standing, enter a state of unconsciousness or dormancy after death.

Sleep as a Metaphor

Throughout the New Testament, sleep is often used as a euphemism for death (John 11:11-14; 1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). From this perspective, Jesus’s assurance to the thief could be understood as a promise of future resurrection and participation in the kingdom of God rather than immediate entry into paradise.


In conclusion, in this story, Jesus assures the thief on the cross that he will be with the Lord in paradise at the Day of resurrection not at the moment of death as is commonly believed. This narrative serves as a powerful reminder of Jesus’s compassion, grace, and willingness to forgive even in the darkest hour. Ultimately, the thief’s story points to the hope of redemption and new life made possible through Christ’s death and resurrection.

For more on the state of the dead:

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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