If Christ did not go to heaven until at least 3 days after His death, how can the thief be in paradise the day Christ died?
ESV - 43 And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
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As I understand the theology involved, by His reference to Paradise, Jesus was not speaking of heaven, but of the intermediate state of blessedness of deceased believers at that time (that is, prior to Christ's resurrection and subsequent ascension), in which both the repentant thief and Jesus would have been immediately following their deaths. (The corresponding intermediate abode of the unsaved would have been Hades.) When Jesus was later resurrected and subsequently ascended to Heaven (directly opening the way to it for all those redeemed by faith in Him), He took with Him those who had been in Paradise, as indicated by Ephesians 4:8.
This is an excellent question especially because the passage has been used many times to argue that upon death the saved immediately go to Paradise. However, my understanding is that the Bible does not say that Jesus went to Paradise immediately after His death (Acts 2:31; Matt 12:40). Jesus died on a Friday, He was placed in the tomb where He remained until the resurrection Sunday when He appeared to Mary saying “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). How could He promise the thief that He would be with Him in Paradise on that Friday? Besides, most likely, Jesus and the thief did not die on the same day. The Bible says that Jesus died Friday before sunset (John 19:33) when the thief was still alive. Later on, the thief's legs were broken to hasten his death and it's very likely that he might have lived several hours after sunset, which means that he died the next day, on Saturday (a Bible day starts at sunset and ends at sunset (Gen 1:5)). The truth is that the interpretation of this paragraph rests on the placement of a comma: Should it be placed before “today” (“I tell you the truth, today you will be...”), or after “today” (“I tell you the truth today, you will be...”)? The first reading is the most common among those who believe in the immortality of the soul. The idea is that upon death, the soul of the thief would be with Christ in Paradise. But the original Greek Bible manuscripts did not use punctuation marks of any kind, they were added to the Greek text much later, in the 14th century A.D. Therefore he could have meant “I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” This interpretation is supported by other uses of the “today” in the Bible when making a promise: “I command you today...” (Deut 30:16); “I announce to you today that you will surely perish” (Deut 30:18). And to me, this makes more sense because Jesus was not in Paradise immediately after He died. He was only promising the thief that he will see salvation with Christ in Paradise after the resurrection. Jesus' promise indicates that salvation is already available through Christ today (Luke 2:11; 4:21; 5:26; 19:9). This is the “today” of salvation. In my view, the text has nothing to do with the state of the dead, but with the saving power of Jesus and the assurance that all who died in faith, at His return will be resurrected (John 5:28, 29; 1 Thess 4:16, 17) to spend eternity with Him in Paradise.
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