Is Jesus a Liar?

In my previous post about why I don’t believe we go to heaven when we die, I deliberately omitted dealing with a ‘complication’. Shortly after posting it, a friend said "Whilst I’m not necessarily arguing that you are wrong, you do need to do something with, ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’ “

I’d been rumbled!

By that, he meant one of the things which Jesus said when he was on the cross. Cutting the story short, Jesus has been crucified, and is hanging there between two criminals, also on their crosses. The first criminal has just said some quite unpleasant things - for which I don’t entirely blame him - he’s really not in a good place is he?

And then the second criminal joins in…

“Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:40-43

It seems quite clear doesn’t it? Jesus is telling the criminal that the two of them will be in heaven together that day.

But hold on just one moment (or a few days, or maybe even at least a couple of millennia!)… We believe that Jesus was in the grave (Sheol, Hades) from before sunset on Friday until sunrise on Sunday. In Matthew 12:40, Jesus says:

...so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

In addition, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 tells us:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

Therefore, the dying criminal could not have been with Jesus in heaven that day, because Jesus himself did not go there.

Note also the use of the word ‘paradise’. The Greek word used here,Παραδείσῳ (paradeiso) is used in only two other places in the New Testament, and in both of those it refers to the dwelling place of God’s presence:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know - God knows. And I know that this man - whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows - was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (The third heaven is where, traditionally, God dwells.)

And

...To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.Revelation 2:7

The tree of life, as Revelation 22:2 explains, is beside the river which flows down from the throne of God - in the New Jerusalem. In that story, God comes to dwell in the New Jerusalem after the resurrections of the dead mentioned in Revelation 20. Only then will men dwell with God in this paradise. So it seems clear to me that the criminal has a while to wait until Jesus’ promise is fulfilled!

Following His Resurrection, Jesus meets Mary Magdalene and says:

“Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” John 20:17

Jesus is saying that he hasn’t gone to heaven - but he is going. That isn’t consistent with the first conversation as translated in our bibles.

This leaves us with three possibilities: either Jesus did go to heaven on Good Friday with the criminal, other parts of the bible are incorrect, and he’s lying to Mary; or he didn’t go to heaven on Friday and was lying to the criminal; or else we have mistranslated or misinterpreted one or other of the things he said.

Let’s assume Jesus is truthful! That leaves us considering the third possibility - mistranslation or misinterpretation.

As originally written, New Testament Greek has no punctuation. So where does the punctuation in our bibles come from? It has been added by the translators, so what we read is influenced by what the translators thought it ought to say, which dictated where they put the punctuation. Let’s consider changing the punctuation in Jesus’ promise to the criminal: if we take Jesus’ words and move the comma one word to the right, we get:

Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.

That potentially alters its meaning quite radically. If we interpret the words that way, the promise is still there, but there’s no way of knowing when it will be fulfilled.

Given that this is about the only place in scripture where anyone seems to claim that someone will be go to heaven ‘straight away’, it seems that a meaning other than the ‘conventional’ is more likely to be correct.

More to the point, the ‘traditional’ punctuation of this sentence reinforces the ‘platonised’, paganised, view of life after death which I was criticising in my previous post - a view of our ‘eternal destiny’ which isn’t really backed up by any other scriptures.

The ‘traditional’ manner of punctuating this sentence also seems to conceal what may be a piece of ancient Middle Eastern idiom. We often see in the bible, the phrase ‘Truly I tell you…’ - it crops up all over the place. It seems to be something people said for added emphasis. In a few (definitely two, perhaps three) places, it’s changed slightly, perhaps to add even more emphasis, to the form above: ‘I tell you today…’ or ‘I declare to you today…’

The other examples I’m aware of are Deuteronomy 30:18:

I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

and Acts 20:26:

Therefore, I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of any of you.

My feeling is that, on balance, and given that we’re hanging the whole doctrine of ‘going to heaven when we die’ on a single sentence (albeit a sentence from Jesus himself), it's more likely that the revised translation - i.e. moving the comma - is likely to be correct. So that criminal, though he is going to be with Jesus in paradise at some time in his future, was not going there that day!

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022