The thief on the cross

I guess the most common remaining question I get on this material is based on —

(Luk 23:42-43 NAS)  42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”  43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

There really are two closely related questions. First, if the general resurrection happens many years later, at the Second Coming, how could Jesus say he’d be with the thief “today”? And this question arises under any theory you have. The fact is that Paul and Jesus speak of a general resurrection to occur sometime in the future, whereas this passage seems to speak of going to heaven immediately upon death.

The second connected question is where are the dead between death and the general resurrection? In heaven? If so, then they’ve already been judged and so what’s the point of Judgment Day? Asleep? Then what about this passage? The Bible sure seems to teach salvation immediately after death as well as a resurrection at the end of time. How can these be the same?

There’s a popular theory, a little over a one hundred years old, that after death and before judgment, the saved go to Paradise and the damned go to a place called Tartarus. Several denominations bought into this teaching, including many within the Churches of Christ, but it doesn’t really hold up.

“Tartarus” is the Platonic version of hell. According to Plato, the wicked go to Tartarus to suffer eternal torment. The word appears in the NT only in —

(2Pe 2:4 ESV) For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell [Tartarus] and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;

This indeeds sounds a little like a waiting room for the Judgment Day, and so the theory is that the saved await Judgment Day in Paradise and the damned await Judgment Day in Tartarus. Of course, if true, then there will be no surprises at Judgment Day. If you’ve spent the last few thousand years awaiting Judgment in the same waiting room as Hitler, with the thermostat turned up far too hot, you know where you’re going!

And this passage only speaks of the angels, not damned humans. How do we justify treating humans as suffering the same fate as fallen angels? That would be sheer presumption.

Just so, “Paradise” in Luke 23:43 is the same word used by the Septuagint for “Garden” in the creation accounts. Jesus promised not so much a visit to a well-appointed waiting room as Eden itself. And Revelation pictures the new heavens and new earth as Eden re-established —

(Rev 2:7 ESV)  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

(Rev 22:1-2 ESV) Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb  2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

Jesus seems to be speaking more of the new heavens and new earth, not a paradisaical waiting room.

So this is how I see it. God exists outside of time. Augustine figured this out over 1,500 years ago, but the fact is that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity — experimentally confirmed thousands of times — describes time as part of the created universe. Time “began” when the universe was formed. There is no time such as we experience time outside the universe.

Therefore, it’s just a fact that God exists outside of human-experienced time. Therefore, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that the new heavens and new earth exist outside of earth-time. God does. Surely so does Judgment Day. And so it’s entirely consistent with scripture that, when we die, so far as our experience goes, we pass directly outside of earth-time and land in the general resurrection on Judgment Day. The saved therefore wind up in Paradise/the new heavens and new earth shortly after death — as they experience time. They could easily meet their great-great-grandparents and great-great-grandchildren all at once as they enter the new Jerusalem to worship at the throne of God.

The rich man and Lazarus

The most serious objection to this theory is, of course, Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luk 16:19-31). Some argue at length that this is most definitely not a parable, in order to insist on a very literal interpretation of many of its features. But it seems improbable that Paradise will leave us with the ability to talk to the damned in their suffering. What kind of heaven would heaven be if we could hear the screams of hell? Besides, Luke includes it with a series of parables on the same topic. Contextually, it’s a parable.

N.T. Wright explains,

The parable is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination. If that were its point, it would not be a parable: a story about someone getting lost in London would not be a parable if addressed to people attempting to find their way through that city without a map. We have perhaps been misled, not for the first time, by the too-ready assumption, in the teeth of the evidence, that Jesus ‘must really’ have been primarily concerned to teach people ‘how to go to heaven after death’. The reality is uncomfortably different.

The welcome of Lazarus by Abraham evokes the welcome of the prodigal by the father, and with much the same point. The heavenly reality, in which the poor and outcast would be welcomed into Abraham’s bosom (as everyone would know from the folk-tale), was coming true in flesh and blood as Jesus welcomed the outcasts, just as the father’s welcome to the returning son was a story about what Jesus was actually doing then and there. The theme of ‘rich and poor’, not unimportant in Luke, is here thrown into stark prominence, as recent studies have rightly stressed. But the point of this, when the story is seen as a traditional tale with a new ending, was not so much what would happen to both in the end, nor yet simply a statement on the abstract ‘ethical’ issue of wealth and poverty, but rather what was happening to both rich and poor in the present time. Jesus’ welcome of the poor and outcast was a sign that the real return from exile, the new age, the ‘resurrection’, was coming into being; and if the new age was dawning, those who wanted to belong to it would (as in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah) have to repent. The story points up the true significance of what Jesus was doing, and the urgent need of those who were at present grumbling to recognize this significance. The five brothers at home correspond quite closely to the older brother in the prodigal son. ‘Resurrection’ is happening, but they cannot see it. The story takes for granted that the poor and outcast were rightly being welcomed into the kingdom, and it turns the spotlight on to the rich, the Pharisees, the grumblers: they, too, now needed to repent if they were to inherit the new day that would shortly dawn. They were refused the extra revelation of someone going to them from the dead; the message of repentance was clear enough in Moses and the prophets.

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 255–256.

I stressed in the earlier volume that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is to be treated precisely as a parable, not as a literal description of the afterlife and its possibilities. It is therefore inappropriate to use it as prima facie evidence for Jesus’ own sketching (or Luke’s portrait of Jesus’ sketching) of a standard post-mortem scenario. It is, rather, an adaptation of a well-known folk-tale, projecting the rich/poor divide of the present on to the future in order to highlight the present responsibility, and culpability, of the careless rich. However, while the parabolic nature of the story prevents us from treating it as Jesus’ own description of how the afterlife is organized, it does not prevent us from saying that for Jesus himself, and/or for those who handed on the tradition, this story indicates, in standard Jewish style, a clear belief in continuity between the present life and the future one.

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 438.

In fact, every commentary I can lay my hands on refers to the passage as a “parable,” in large part because Luke includes it with a series of parables taught against the Pharisees. Makes sense.