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As he was crucified, Jesus engaged in a conversation with one of the other thieves hung along side him. at the end is this pronouncement:

Luke 23:43 (ESV)
43 And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

This verse is often referenced to make a theological point about how people come into salvation and the absence of presence of ceremony/action in the process. However it seems to me that most usages of the verse are based on an interpretation that uses a theological construct or doctrinal position of some kind to interpret this verse based on their larger understanding of the concepts. For example:

  • Protestants who believe salvation is entirely a work of God might say that this verse shows that Jesus pronouncement that this person was now heaven bound means that he can bestow salvation on whomever he pleases with them having to have done any works or go through an rituals. Paradise refers to Heaven and salvation (admittance) is a free gift.
  • Mormons who believe that salvation is impossible without some accompanying works argue that this verse isn't talking about heaven at all but some other realm where that person would again have a chance to do good works. Paradise is not heaven and the gift given was a second chance to earn admittance into heaven.

Starting with the word Greek παράδεισος and it's original meaning and how it would have been understood in context, what can a good hermeneutical approach to this passage show us? How would the original audience have understood this usage? Then bringing in other passages to bear on the issue, what relevant related texts do we have? At what point in the process of zooming out from the text must our doctrine formed by other sources become the determining factor in how we interpret this saying?

Note that I do not think interpretation based on other clearer passages or understandings is wrong, but part of my interest in asking this is understanding _where the line between that and textual analysis is drawn in this case. Is the word itself self-evident? If so why the dispute about what it means? If it's not self evident, when do we step back and apply other methods and what are those in this case?

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"Why the dispute about what it means?" - Sorry, that made me laugh. ;) –  GalacticCowboy Nov 1 '11 at 11:14
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In the Hebrew Bible there is no explicit expectation that anyone ever went up to heaven after death; on the contrary, righteous people had had an expectation of descending down into Sheol. For example, Jacob (Gen 37:35) and Job (Job 14:13) and Hezekiah (Is 38:9-11) mention their expectation of going down into the earth after their death. The passage in Jonah 2:5-7 provides us an explicit reference to Sheol. That is, Jonah mentioned his descent into Sheol notwithstanding that his corpse remained in the belly of the great fish in the sea. In other words, Jonah had died in the belly of the great fish and his soul had descended to the "roots of the mountains," which is an allusion to the underworld of Sheol (since there were no roots of any mountains in the belly of the fish). In other words, Jonah had descended into the "belly" of the earth, which was Sheol. He was of course resuscitated by the Lord and went on to preach to Nineveh.

So before the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, all righteous at their physical death descended into the Sheol, which was a place of rest according to the description mentioned in Luke 16:22-24. Sheol was therefore the "paradise" to which Jesus was referring when he hanged on the cross, since the destination was a haven compared to Torments, which was the destination of the unrighteous. When Jesus died on the cross, his soul descended down into Hades, which is Sheol (Acts 2:27 and Acts 2:31 compared with Ps 16:10, where "Sheol" is mentioned and equated with the Greek word "Hades" in the two passages of Acts). As the "second Moses" Jesus delivered the righteous from the confines of Sheol according to the timelines as illustrated here. That is, Sheol was the analog to Egypt, which "confined" God's people. From the resurrection onward, the Christian New Testament therefore begins to talk about going up to heaven after death (e.g., Phil 1:23), since Jesus was the "first born from the dead" (Col 1:18 and Rev 1:5). For more discussion, please click here.

Finally, a good clincher is that Jesus alludes to Jonah who was in the "belly" of the fish, and, like Jonah, Jesus had indicated that he would be in the "belly" of the earth (Mt 12:40).

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Nothing in the text supports Jonah dying and being resurrected. Surely resurrection is special enough that it would have been mentioned had it happened? (It's also not clear to me what that part has to do with the present question; maybe you could either edit it out or make it clearly relevant?) Also, you say a lot about Sheol's role (analog to Egypt, etc), but where do you get that from the text? And finally, your last paragraph doesn't seem to fit; our focus here isn't on church doctrine/history. –  Gone Quiet Jan 10 at 3:57
    
Is Jonah describing himself in the belly of the fish (in the sea), or in the belly of the earth, when he writes, "I descended to the roots of the mountains. The earth with its bars was around me forever"? It is plain, isn't it? –  Joseph Jan 10 at 4:07
    
No it's not. The text tells us he was in the belly of the fish; poetic language used in prayer (a) shouldn't be assumed to be literal and (b) shouldn't be assumed to be what happened -- this is Yonah talking, not God or the "narrator". And by the way, the "roots" of many "mountains" are under water. Nothing in the book of Yonah supports an interpretation that he died and was raised. –  Gone Quiet Jan 10 at 4:13
    
Okay - so it is figurative. The roots of the mountain are "under" the sea. We are back under the earth... –  Joseph Jan 10 at 12:23
    
I didn't say it was figurative; I said you can't assume it's literal. I have not made a positive statement about Yonah's speech -- which, remember, should be read through the filter of Yonah's perspective. I'm not going to argue this point with you; I've pointed out what I consider to be problems in your answer, including that your whole Yonah thing (that I say is mistaken) doesn't really even bear on the question. If you want to respond to these criticisms, you should do it by editing your answer. –  Gone Quiet Jan 10 at 13:46
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Jesus' statement in Luke 23:43 is not so much about the afterlife or what's required of us to get into heaven. It's primary purpose is to depict Jesus' death as undoing the curse of Adam.

Luke presents Jesus as a new Adam.

This is beyond a doubt the purpose in Luke's placement and arrangement of Jesus’ genealogy. Unlike Matthew who places his genealogy at the outset of his gospel, Luke places it immedietly after Jesus’ adult baptism and just prior to the temptations. It’s thus bookended by the issue of Jesus’ sonship. In the baptism God declares Jesus to be His “beloved Son” and in the temptations Satan challenges Jesus, ”if you are the Son of God…”

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

Luke then records the genealogy and then...

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted[a] by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” (Luke 4:1-3)

Also instead of beginning with Abraham and working forward to Jesus, as Matthew does (Matthew 1:1-16), Luke genealogy begins with Jesus and works backwards to Adam (Luke 3:23-38). The net effect makes this genealogy a list of sons rather than a list of fathers and points to Adam rather than Jesus.

Matthew is a list of fathers starting with Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram...

Luke is a list of sons ending with Adam and God.

the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, 38 the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

Of course Luke’s intention is not to diminish Jesus but rather to make a comparison between Jesus and Adam. Both Jesus and Adam are said to be God’s son.

Luke presents Jesus as tempted like Adam.

Jesus’ three temptation follow immediately after the genealogy. If Luke intends to present Jesus like Adam than the temptations could not have been better placed. But Jesus’ success here is merely the beginning of a battle that will continue in the later part of Luke. Luke tells us that after the temptations the devil, ”left him until an “opportune time” (4:13). In Luke, Satan finds this opportunity at the beginning of the crucifixion plot, entering into Judas Iscariot (Luke 22:3).

This suggests that the events surrounding the crucifixion are themselves a continuation of the temptation. Certainly there are echoes of the devil’s challenge at the trial when the leaders ask, “Are you the Son of God…” (22:70). And it’s Jesus’ bold “Yes!” which seals his fate, overcoming the potential desire to save his own skin.

As with the other gospels Jesus confession is juxtaposed with Peter’s denial. If Peter’s denial is due to, as Luke tells us, the sifting of Satan (22:31-32) then there is little doubt Satan is also present in this challenging question to Jesus. It echoes the devil’s challenge in the earlier temptations.

Luke presents Jesus undoing the curse of Adam.

At Jesus’ death, the centurion declares, “surely this man was innocent!” Here Luke differs remarkably from the centurion’s confession in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. In those accounts the centurion says, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Owing to the fact that Luke has already declared Jesus to be the Son of God, it is doubtful that Luke wants to downplay this fact here. Instead it appears the verdict of innocence is in some sense connected to Jesus being like Adam, the Son of God.

For Luke, Jesus’ innocence is not simply in reference to the crime for which He has been charged but instead refers to his victory over all temptation. What Christ has done in his persistent innocence is to reopen the way closed by Adam. Jesus final words to the thief on the cross are directly connected to this second Adam motif, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” “Paradise” is the same Greek word used elsewhere in Septuagint and the book of Revelation for the “garden” of Eden.

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"Paradise" is a transliteration of παράδεισος, a word used only three times in the New Testament. Furthermore, the context of each of the three uses is different from the others, and by three different authors.

In 2 Corinthians 12:4 it appears to parallel or point to the term "third heaven" in verse 2. Since God is apparently immediately present there, this seems to be a reference to what we generally consider "heaven". (See the NET Bible notes on this passage as well.) However, since this passage refers to an apparent vision, it's difficult to relate directly to Jesus' statement.

In Revelation 2:7, this is given as the location of the "tree of life" - once again, what we typically believe to be an attribute of "heaven". In this case, the word is also modified by a possessive - "of God" - to differentiate it from any other paradises.

The meaning is somewhat more cloudy in Luke 23:43. First, we have to deal with Jesus' destination after death - did Jesus descend into Hell/Hades, and if so, how long did He remain there? In other words, does "paradise" refer to an understanding of Hades as a "holding area" for the dead? Or was He speaking in a sense outside space and time, and actually referring to Heaven?

As far as the original meaning of this word, the NET Bible notes provide the following definitions:

  • (Persian) A grand park or hunting preserve; enclosed, protected, well cared for, but sealed off or contained
  • A pleasure garden
  • A grove or park
  • ("Later" [?] Jews) The part of Hades set aside for the souls of the righteous until the resurrection
  • Heaven (possibly including the view mentioned above, with multiple levels of "heaven" - sky or atmosphere, outer space/universe, God's abode)
  • Eden

One critical point here is that none of the passages refer to any further work done by those in this location or state. Regardless of whether we take it as Heaven itself or a holding area for the righteous awaiting resurrection, their fate seems to be already determined. It also seems to be a place of pleasure, not torment or toil.

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+1: N. T. Wright comments (in nearly all the books by him I've read) that the righteous won't go to "heaven" in the Resurrection, but to a new creation, which included a new heaven and a new earth. As you suggest, one guess about what happens to the righteous before the Resurrection is that they wait in paradise. –  Jon Ericson Nov 1 '11 at 20:45
    
I would add: The rabbis refer to the mystical meaning of scripture as Paradise, where the consonants are the same in Hebrew and English. Specifically it refers to the hermeneutic method of PaRDeS, refering to the four layers of interpretation. Pashat - Literal, Remez - Hints, Drash - Compare and contrast, & Sod - hidden. If Jesus was familiar with the method, or perhaps even the source of it, since the methods reveal sensus plenior, then one meaning of "This day you will be with me in Paradise" is that together they are painting another hidden esoteric picture with their lives. –  Bob Jones May 28 '12 at 15:54
    
This meaning would not exclude others since there would be four layers of meaning in what he said. –  Bob Jones May 28 '12 at 15:54
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