What about the thief on the cross?

Question: You hold that most people who are saved will nevertheless have to go through a “purging fire” to have their character refined and fit for heaven. Whatever is unfinished in our “sanctification” in this epoch must be completed in the next. But how does this square with Jesus telling the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise”?

It’s admittedly hard to put together into a coherent scheme the various things Scripture says about the afterlife. Jesus’ statement to the thief is puzzling on a number of accounts.. For example, Jesus’ statement seems to assume that he would go to paradise the day he died (“you’ll be with me in paradise”). Yet in 1 Pet 3:18-20 we read:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. In that state he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

This passage seems to teach that when Jesus died, he descended into hell — or some such place — to proclaim his victory (hence the traditional view is that Jesus descended into hell before the resurrection). Eph. 4:8-9 has usually been interpreted along the same lines. How can this be reconciled with Jesus being in paradise immediately after he died? I frankly don’t have a compelling answer.

Along the same lines, what are we to make of Jesus’ statement to Mary after the resurrection, “don’t lay hold of me for I have not yet ascended to my Father” (Jn 20:17)?  If he went to paradise the moment he died, was he (with thief) not in the presence of his Father?

It’s only slightly less challenging to reconcile Jesus’ promise of paradise to the repentant thief with the teaching of Paul that all our works will be “tested with fire” (1 Cor 3:13) and many of Jesus’ teachings regarding a temporary punishment for servants (e.g. Mt. 5:25-26; Lk 12:47-48).

There are a couple of ways of reconciling this. For example, some have the punctuation in the standard translations (which, recall, is not in the original Greek) which is mistaken. Instead, “Truly I tell you, today you shall be with me,” they suggest it should be, “Truly I tell you today, you shall be with me…”  It’s certainly possible. But I think a slightly more plausible explanation is that the “paradise” Jesus refers to is not full-blown “heaven” but something short of this — a state that doesn’t exclude character refinement.

This view is made all the more plausible when you consider that Jesus speaks a lot about the coming Kingdom and about heaven but doesn’t use these words here. It’s made even more plausible when you consider that the NT never envisions heaven without the resurrection of our bodies — and Jesus certainly wasn’t claiming the thief would be resurrected that very day. Even Jesus wasn’t bodily resurrected until Sunday morning.

One might of course object that, whatever “paradise” refers to, it would seem to rule out the pain of being tried by fire or the pain associated with the imprisoning and beating metaphors found in Jesus’ teaching. But why assume this?

Think of it this way: Having the ungodly aspects of our character burned away by the fire of God’s love in this life isn’t pleasant. Sometimes it’s absolutely excruciating. Yet, the clearer vision we have of the love of God that is refining us and to which we are growing by this refinement, the more joy we have in the midst of the pain. In this light it’s not hard to imagine that in “paradise” we will be given a perfectly clear vision of the love that is burning away our chaff and the blessed destiny that awaits us. So even while we experience pain over our post-mortem refinement, our hearts will nevertheless be filled with joy. Compared to our life in this world, it is paradise — though it’s not yet the full glory we will eternally enjoy when we’re resurrected from the dead and the Kingdom is fully come.

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