Luke 23:43 (Thief on the Cross): “Paradise” = Sheol, Not Heaven

Luke 23:43 (Thief on the Cross): “Paradise” = Sheol, Not Heaven May 25, 2009
. . . According to Many Reputable Protestant Scholars
Christ and the Good Thief (c. 1566), by Titian (1490-1576) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]



This comes from a good discussion I am involved in, at the CHNI forum. Dan Woodring is a former Lutheran pastor and now a Catholic. His words will be in blue. Words of my fellow moderator David W. Emery will be in green.

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Apart from the obvious issues regarding time vs. eternity, It seems to me that the example of the dying thief and our Lord’s promise “Today you will be with me in paradise” is more of an argument FOR purgatory than AGAINST it. Jesus’ words lose their meaning if everyone immediately enters paradise after death. Jesus is saying something extraordinary to the thief, namely, that he will be in paradise today. His use of the word “today” to indicate the thief’s immediate or semi-immediate entrance into paradise suggests that not everyone’s entrance is so immediate. The word “today” suggests another possibility besides ‘today.” In other words, Jesus’ uses the word “today” because it is possible that the thief’s entrance into paradise could possibly not be “today.”

This seems to ignore the point that “paradise” was, for the Jews, not the Christian heaven, but the Jewish sheol, the Realm of the Dead. According to rabbinic tradition, this realm had a number of “levels,” and according to the various scholarly theories, the lowest were equivalent to the Christian Hell, while the intermediate ones were more like the Christian Purgatory, and the highest ones (especially the topmost, which was named Paradise), had the Saints awaiting the opening of the Christian Heaven. This last is what Christians refer to as the Limbo of the Fathers. “Paradise” was named after the Garden of Eden, which in Greek and Latin was styled a “paradisio” — as I write this I’m looking at the New Vulgate rendering “paradisum” — which I have read comes from the Persian word “perdes,” a walled-in cultured land, and Adam was from the outset placed “in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it”; in other words, it was man’s charge to cultivate and maintain the “paradise” — symbolically, his innocence — that he was given as his original habitat (Genesis 2:8–17). Now Christ did not go immediately to Heaven, but instead stopped in at the Limbo of the Fathers to announce that the time had arrived for the opening of Heaven (cf. 1 Peter 3:18–20). Then he returned to earth for the forty days prior to the Ascension (which we celebrated last Thursday or today, depending our diocese). It was, then, only on Ascension Day that Christ officially proceeded to enter Heaven, although eternally speaking he had never left there. With this understanding, I think it more correct to say that the Good Thief was being told, in the words, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise,” that he would enter that part of the Realm of the Dead that would eventually be saved. Exactly where in the rabbinic scheme of things his lot fell is open to discussion, but it follows that “Paradise” would place him fairly high and certainly among the saved. There is no reason to believe, then, that the Good Thief escaped Purgatory, but only that through his acts of faith and repentance, as evidenced by his request to Jesus, he was brought to salvation. Certainly his past life, which from the gospel passages we gather included long-term activity as a robber and murderer, would require considerable cleansing (atonement). Whether his death by crucifixion atoned for all the atonement necessary is not for me to judge; only that to judge by the words and the tradition, it is not necessary to believe that complete atonement was made in that punishment. So I agree with your point, Dan, but not for the reason you give.

Thank-you for the reply Dave [i.e., David; the green text above]. I will look into this more tomorrow, and possibly find out that you are correct.

David has answered exactly as I would have, regarding the thief on the cross and paradise. I have made the same argument for years. I wrote, e.g., in one of my old papers (1996):

Paradise in this verse (Lk 23:43) about the thief on the cross (if interpreted literally) is not even referring to heaven, and indeed could not, since Jesus was not yet in heaven on that day (“today . . .”). He was crucified on Friday and didn’t rise from the dead until Sunday. In fact, He didn’t ascend to heaven until forty days after that (Acts 1:3,9-11; cf. Jn 20:17)!

Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, He descended into Sheol, or Hades, the place of the dead (both righteous and unrighteous- see Luke 16:19-31) to preach to the captives (righteous dead). We know this from passages such as 1 Pet 3:19-20, 4:6, and Eph 4:8-10 (cf. Rom 10:7, Acts 2:27). So, then, Paradise in Lk 23:43 is referring to Sheol, not heaven. The conclusion is inescapable from cross-scriptural exegesis. E.g., Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (an impeccable and standard Protestant linguistic source) holds to this view, which is not just Catholic belief, but that of conservative Protestants as well (see also the reputable Protestant reference New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962 ed., p.935).

But while I have come across this view that paradise refers to sheol/purgatory, I really just don’t buy it, and I don’t think it is an argument that protestants are going to buy either.

I’ve already cited two Protestant reference sources that do buy it, and I will add six more presently:

1) Marvin Vincent: Word Studies in the New Testament (1887), for Luke 23:43:

In the Jewish theology, the department of Hades where the blessed souls await the resurrection; and therefore equivalent to Abraham’s bosom (ch. xvi. 22, 23). It occurs three times in the New Testament: here; 2 Cor. xii. 4; Apoc. ii. 7; and always of the abode of the blessed.


The fact that he equates Hades with Luke 16 (a story told by Jesus Himself) implies that Luke 23:43 was another instance of the same thought.

2) The New Bible Dictionary (edited by J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962, “Paradise”, pp. 934-935; citation from p. 935):

The Jews believed also that paradise was present in their own time, but concealed. This concealed paradise was the place to which the souls of the Patriarchs, the chosen and the righteous people, were taken. The ancient, future, and present paradise were regarded as identical. . . .

    In Lk. xxiii. 43 the word ‘paradise’ is used by Jesus for the place where souls go immediately after death, cf. the concealed paradise in later Jewish thought. The same idea is also present in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. xvi. 19-31).


This is the same equation of concepts between Luke 16 and Luke 23, that Vincent made.

3) Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 4th edition, 1901 (cross-referenced to Strong’s word #3857):

3. ‘that part of Hades which was thought by the later Jews to be the abode of the souls of the pious until the resurrection’: Lk. xxiii. 43, cf. xvi. 23 sqq.


Ditto to Numbers 1 and 2 above.

4) Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged one-volume edition, edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1985, pp. 777-778, under paradeisos; this section written by J. Jeremias:

The concealed paradise is the intermediate abode of the redeemed in Lk. 23:43. Other NT terms for the intermediate state are table fellowship with Abraham (Lk. 16:23), being with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8 ) or Christ (Phil. 1:23), and the heavenly kingdom (2 Tim. 4:18). In Mk. 13:27 the dead will assemble in the heavenly world. The final paradise is mentioned in Rev. 2:7 . . .

Jesus’ answer to the prayer of the penitent thief is that he will be with him in paradise (Lk. 23:43). This is the hidden intermediate paradise, but the eschatological “today” points to the dawn of the day of salvation . . .

The NT says that Jesus enters paradise (Lk. 23:43) and offers his blood in the heaven;y sanctuary (Heb. 7:26-27; cf. also Jn. 3:14; 8:28). Yet it also refers to his sojourn in hades and perhaps redemptive work there (cf. Rom. 10:7; Acts 2:27; 1 Pet. 3:19-20).


5) Matthew Henry Commentary (Presbyterian, 1706), for Luke 23:43:

Christ here lets us know that he was going to paradise himself, to ‘hades—the invisible world.’ His human soul was removing to the place of separate souls; not to the place of the damned, but to paradise, the place of the blessed. By this he assures us that his satisfaction was accepted, and the Father was well pleased in him, else he had not gone to paradise; that was the beginning of the joy set before him, with the prospect of which he comforted himself. He went by the cross to the crown, and we must not think of going any other way, or of being perfected but by sufferings. . . .

Lazarus departs, and is immediately comforted; Paul departs, and is immediately with Christ, Phil. 1:23.


6) John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible (1765), for Luke 23:43:

In paradise – The place where the souls of the righteous remain from death till the resurrection. As if he had said, I will not only remember thee then, but this very day.


7) Systematic Theology, Augustus Hopkins Strong (Baptist; 1907), Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., three-volumes-in-one edition, 994, 998; one of several proof texts for Sheol, given:

Luke 16:23 . . . 23:43 . . . cf. 1 Sam. 28:19 — Samuel said to Saul in the cave of Endor: “tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me” — evidently not in an unconscious state . . .

Luke 23:42,43 . . . Paradise is none other than the abode of God and the blessed, of which the primeval Eden was the type. If the penitent thief went to Purgatory, it was a Purgatory with Christ, which was better than a Heaven without Christ. Paradise is a place which Christ has gone to prepare, perhaps by taking our friends there before us.


8 ) Hans Bietenhard and Colin Brown, “Paradise,” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, edited by Colin Brown, Vol. 2; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976, p. 761:

In Lk. 23:43 it is no doubt dependent on contemporary Jewish conceptions, and refers to the at present hidden and intermediate abode of the righteous.


Other Protestant sources teach differently, but if the claim is that no Protestant thinks in these terms, that is clearly untrue. All eight of the above sources are quite reputable and widely used.

For one thing, our Lord would not have spoken to the thief in Greek (or Latin), and we do not know the Aramaic.

My guess would be that it was sheol, or whatever in Aramaic is the equivalent of that, if it is different from Hebrew.

We only know that St. Luke used the word, writing not to a Jewish but Gentile community which would have presumably been unfamiliar with rabbinic interpretation. In fact, one finds Luke frequently using a vocabulary different from the other Gospels, which emphasizes this. For instance, “Rabbi” or “Rabboni” becomes “Master”, “Golgotha” becomes “Cranium.” The point is that your argument assumes an understanding of the original audience of Jewish tradition/teachings/etc. when in fact, the isogogics of Luke contradict this.

Yet Luke also contains the account of Lazarus and the rich man in Hades / Sheol, just seven chapters before. So the concept is present in his thought-world, and five of my eight sources above cross-reference Luke 16 and 23.

Second, we have St. Paul’s use of the paradise in 2 Cor. 12:2-4, in which he identifies “paradise”as the “third heaven.” 2 Corinthians predates the Gospels, and since Luke was a companion of Paul, it is likely that Luke was not only familiar with 2 Corinthians, but also Paul’s usage. Finally, when we look at the third (of only three occurrences of the word “Paradise” in the NT, Rev. 2:7, we find a meaning which is far more consistent, I think, with “heaven” than “purgatory.”

But these instances can be explained by the three senses used of the same word: past, present, and future: much as Scripture teaches about salvation itself. The lexicons draw this distinction, so it poses no problem to my scenario.

Lastly, it seems rather clear to me as well that the Church Fathers also interpreted paradise as heaven, rather than purgatory. Indeed, as a culmination of that tradition we have Dante’s Divine Comedy-Paradiso, Purgatorio, Inferno in which clearly Paradiso is heaven.

That could probably be accounted for, I suspect, by the three distinctions noted above.

Lastly, while we do not know the severity of the thief’s crimes (except that they were seriously enough to be punished with crucifixion), given the extent of his earthly punishment and his love for Christ, it is not hard for me at all to imagine him bypassing purgatory. And as I said before, our Lord’s words do seem to convey something extraordinary.

To the contrary; in Catholic thought, sin weighs down the soul and becomes a part of us, the longer we commit it. While the thief and anyone else can certainly sincerely repent of some particular sin, it doesn’t follow (in likelihood) that so little of sin remains in their souls that they could bypass purgatory altogether. Only the most saintly can hope to do that. And a thief (even a repentant one) doesn’t fit into that category.

Martin Luther rejected purgatory in part because he was inclined to believe something akin to soul sleep: a heresy which even John Calvin opposed.

* * * * *

Good response [i.e., what follows below]. I’ll make counter-replies:

I respect your opinions and appreciate your time in responding to me. But still, I find this argument with reference to Luke 23:43 to be very weak.


If “paradise” is “sheol” than Jesus is only telling the thief that today he will be among the dead. Well, duh. That Jesus begins by saying “Amen, Amen”, that is, by calling attention to that which follows as extraordinary or worthy of note, and then follows it by such an anti-climatic saying as “today you will be with me in the realm of the dead” is frankly, ludicrous.

But that is not how this argument is construed. It’s not that He was saying, today, you’ll be dead with me (which is indeed a big “duh”), but that he will be with Him in Paradise: i.e., the “good” part of Hades or Sheol as opposed to the bad part (as seen in Luke 16 and the story of Lazarus and Dives). This is the relevant distinction that you overlook, because you don’t seem to want to accept any connection at all between the thought of Luke 16 and that of Luke 23 (and also how the late Jews regarded the term “Paradise”).

Looking at your (Dave’s) protestant quotations, it is clear that they have something in mind much different than Purgatory.

Of course. Hades / Sheol (which is what they refer to) is not purgatory. It only provides an instance of a third state besides heaven and hell (which some Protestants want to deny). In other words, it is relevant to a questioned premise that is antecedent to the doctrine of purgatory (i.e., whether or not there is a place or state in the afterlife other than heaven or hell), but not purgatory itself. I made this distinction clear in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, on p. 133. That book was completed in 1996, so this is no new opinion for me.

Rather, as a intermediary realm, they mean not one whereby souls are cleansed for heaven, but rather, whereby souls await reunion with their bodies in the resurrection. For further information you may consult N.T. Wright’s books “For all the Saints.”

That’s right.

But I am hardly concerned with them, anyway. It is possible to find protestants who believe all sorts of silly things. I amend my previous statement regarding them.

Your original remark was to the effect that I would convince no Protestant with my argument. Having now produced eight Protestant sources, I think we can safely put that to rest.

Now, regarding the view that it is impossible for “paradise” to mean “heaven” because Christ did not immediately go to heaven,

Note that in my own words that I cited, I wrote: “Paradise in this verse (Lk 23:43) about the thief on the cross (if interpreted literally) is not even referring to heaven, and indeed could not, since Jesus was not yet in heaven on that day (‘today . . .’). Thus, the argument hinges on the premise that “today” is to be interpreted literally. But of course it doesn’t necessarily have to be literal. It could very well be non-literal or it could have multiple meanings, including an eschatological dimension (which I suspect is the case). I’ve already shown in my own citations that Paradise can have multiple meanings (past, present, and future; Sheol and heaven). I think it is (or could be) a both/and scenario.

this thought is addressed by St. Augustine who points out:

For when He said to the man that was expiating his crimes on the tree, and making confession unto salvation, “Today shall you be with me in paradise,” [Luke 23:43] in respect to His human nature His own soul was on that very day to be in hell, His flesh in the sepulchre; but as respected His Godhead He was certainly also in paradise. And therefore the soul of the thief, absolved from his by-gone crimes, and already in the blessed enjoyment of His grace, although it could not be everywhere as He was, yet could on that very day be also with Him in paradise, from which He, who is always everywhere, had not withdrawn.

Tractate 111. (John 17:24-26).

St. Augustine is arguing in a quite different sense. He concedes that Jesus would be in Hades (“hell”: probably an unfortunate English translation there), but in “paradise” (presumably heaven, if I am reading him right) in His Divine Nature. That doesn’t really contradict what I’m saying, but goes “metaphysically” beyond it. It is characteristic of Augustine (with his Platonist influence) to contrast and compare the real and the ideal, so to speak.

Furthermore, St. John Cassian sees “paradise” as distinct from “hades” when he says:

At least we must avoid, and shun with the utmost horror, that wicked punctuation of the heretics, who, as they do not believe that Christ could be found in Paradise on the same day on which He descended into hell, thus punctuate “Verily, I say unto you to-day,” and making a stop apply “thou shalt be with Me in Paradise,” in such a way that they imagine that this promise was not fulfilled at once after he departed from this life, but that it will be fulfilled after the resurrection.

Conferences XIV.

He may be arguing in the same sense as St. Augustine, since he, too, acknowledges Christ’s descent to Sheol, which was the crux of my position.

Pope Paul VI says in Solemni Hac Liturgia “We believe in the life eternal. We believe that the souls of all those who die in the grace of Christ whether they must still be purified in purgatory, or whether from the moment they leave their bodies Jesus takes them to paradise as He did for the Good Thief are the People of God in the eternity beyond death, which will be finally conquered on the day of the Resurrection when these souls will be reunited with their bodies.” He too, distinguishes between paradise and purgatory, and give the good thief as an example of those who go to the former without needing the latter.

But that is not at issue, since I perfectly agree that Paradise is not purgatory; therefore, it offers no resolution to our exegetical dispute, since he doesn’t precisely define Paradise in this context. Deductively, however, there is an interesting conundrum raised. If resurrection of the body for believers could not occur till Christ’s own resurrection, then the thief could not have gone to heaven, since Christ was not yet resurrected on Good Friday. Pope Paul VI is referring to souls, so that if we are talking about the soul of the good thief, it makes perfect sense to hold that Sheol must be referred to, since we are still in the period before Jesus rises from the dead, as the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15:20). After Jesus’ own resurrection, then the souls of the saved could reunite with their bodies.

In fact, what we see in the Church Fathers is the view that the Thief’s contrition and confession placed him in a role similar to that of the martyrs (Augustine speaks this way, but I will have to find the reference). St. Cyprian speaks of the thief as being sanctified through his suffering and baptized in his own blood, and thus being “perfected:”

But the same Lord declares in the Gospel, that those who are baptized in their own blood, and sanctified by suffering, are perfected, and obtain the grace of the divine promise, when He speaks to the thief believing and confessing in His very passion, and promises that he should be with Himself in paradise.

Letter LXXIII, 22.

Of course, but again Paradise isn’t specifically defined, so it is by no means certain that this contradicts my position.

Pope John Paul II describes the thief as having become a “saint” “in the final moments of his life” and goes so far as to regard the incident as the “first canonization in history”:

The criminal, therefore, by asking Jesus to remember him, professed his faith in the Redeemer. At the moment of his death, he not only accepted death as the just penalty for the evil he had done, but he turned to Jesus to tell him that he placed all his hope in him.

This is the most obvious explanation of that episode narrated by Luke, in which the psychological element, the criminal’s change of attitude while having as its immediate cause the impression received from the example of the innocent Jesus who suffered and died and at the same time forgave has, however, its real mysterious root in the grace of the Redeemer, who converted this man and granted him divine forgiveness. Jesus’ response was immediate. To the penitent and converted criminal, Jesus promised paradise in his company on that very day. It was a case of complete forgiveness. He who had committed crimes and robberies and therefore sins became a saint in the final moment of his life.

One could say that in this text of Luke we have the first canonization in history, performed by Jesus in favor of a criminal who turned to him in that dramatic moment. This shows that people can obtain, through Christ’s cross, forgiveness of all their offenses, even of an entire evil life, if they surrender to the grace of the Redeemer who converts and saves them.

Pope John Paul II, General Audience, Nov. 16, 1988.

Nor does this say that heaven is being referred to. So, really, none of your citations necessarily overcome my argument. I think it is interesting, however, to ponder that the thief may have become a saint and if so, could have avoided purgatory altogether. We don’t know. But even if so, it is a different proposition to hold that he may have accompanied Jesus to Hades / Sheol to set the captives free. That implies no lack of saintliness, since Jesus is there, too.

It still remains the case that Catholics can and do interpret the passage as I do. It is permissible and not “silly” at all. For example, Dom Bernard Orchard, in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953):

    ‘Paradise’ . . . signified for the Jews the abode of the blessed. Here, if taken literally in its context, it signifies primarily the limbo of the just, to which Christ’s soul was presently to descend.


Haydock’s Bible Commentary (1859) provides both possibilities, in a (typically Catholic) “both/and” exegesis:

    Ver. 43. ‘I say to thee: This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise’; i.e. in a place of rest with the souls of the just. The construction is not, ‘I say to thee this day,’ &c.;, but, thou shalt be with me this day in the paradise. (Witham) — ‘In paradise.’ That is, in the happy state of rest, joy and peace everlasting. Christ was pleased by a special privilege, to reward the faith and confession of the penitent thief with a full discharge of all his sins, both as to the guilt and punishment, and to introduce him, immediately after death, into the happy society of the saints, whose ‘limbo’ (that is, the place of their confinement) was now made a ‘paradise’ by our Lord’s going thither. (Challoner) — The soul of the good thief was that same day with Jesus Christ, in the felicity of the saints, in Abraham’s bosom, or in heaven, where Jesus was always present by his divinity. (St. Augustine) — St. Cyril, of Jerusalem, says he entered heaven before all the patriarchs and prophets. St. Chrysostom thinks that paradise was immediately open to him, and that he entered heaven the first mankind. (Tom. v. homil. 32.)


My position appears to be identical with that of St. Thomas Aquinas, as well:

Whether Christ made any stay in hell?

Objection 1: It would seem that Christ did not make any stay in hell. For Christ went down into hell to deliver men from thence. But He accomplished this deliverance at once by His descent, for, according to Ecclus. 11:23: “It is easy in the eyes of God on a sudden to make the poor man rich.” Consequently He does not seem to have tarried in hell.

Objection 2: Further, Augustine says in a sermon on the Passion (clx) that “of a sudden at our Lord and Saviour’s bidding all ‘the bars of iron were burst'” (Cf. Is. 45:2). Hence on behalf of the angels accompanying Christ it is written (Ps. 23:7, 9): “Lift up your gates, O ye princes.” Now Christ descended thither in order to break the bolts of hell. Therefore He did not make any stay in hell.

Objection 3: Further, it is related (Lk. 23:43) that our Lord while hanging on the cross said to the thief: “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise”: from which it is evident that Christ was in paradise on that very day. But He was not there with His body. for that was in the grave. Therefore He was there with the soul which had gone down into hell: and consequently it appears that He made no stay in hell.

On the contrary, Peter says (Acts 2:24): “Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the sorrows of hell, as it was impossible that He should be held by it.” Therefore it seems that He remained in hell until the hour of the Resurrection.

I answer that, As Christ, in order to take our penalties upon Himself, willed His body to be laid in the tomb, so likewise He willed His soul to descend into hell. But the body lay in the tomb for a day and two nights, so as to demonstrate the truth of His death. Consequently, it is to be believed that His soul was in hell, in order that it might be brought back out of hell simultaneously with His body from the tomb.

Reply to Objection 1: When Christ descended into hell He delivered the saints who were there, not by leading them out at once from the confines of hell, but by enlightening them with the light of glory in hell itself. Nevertheless it was fitting that His soul should abide in hell as long as His body remained in the tomb.

Reply to Objection 2: By the expression “bars of hell” are understood the obstacles which kept the holy Fathers from quitting hell, through the guilt of our first parent’s sin; and these bars Christ burst asunder by the power of His Passion on descending into hell: nevertheless He chose to remain in hell for some time, for the reason stated above.

Reply to Objection 3: Our Lord’s expression is not to be understood of the earthly corporeal paradise, but of a spiritual one, in which all are said to be who enjoy the Divine glory. Accordingly, the thief descended locally into hell with Christ, because it was said to him: “This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise”; still as to reward he was in paradise, because he enjoyed Christ’s Godhead just as the other saints did. (Summa Theologica, Third Part, Treatise on the Incarnation, Q. 52, A. 4)

I agree that we are only of differing opinion on the interpretation of one verse/one word. We agree on the Church’s teaching on purgatory. . . . I do not wish to take any more of your time, or to divert your attention any further. And we have probably reached the point, or near the point, that it will cease to be fruitful. Thank-you for the discussion.


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