Paradise and Forgiveness in Luke 23

In Luke 23 Jesus says "today you will be with me in Paradise." Paradise is capitalized as if referring to a place. In my research so far, I am finding reference to it meaning "God's garden", the Garden of Eden, an intermediate place that isn't heaven but where those who die in faith go, and there is also reference to Paradise in reference to Heaven. Which is it?

Also, that statement by Jesus and the earlier statement, "Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing," stand out to me as key. Can you discuss, please?

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Today you will be with me in Paradise - Luke 23:43

The word paradise (Gk. paradeisos) was originally used to describe a garden or a park that belonged to a king and it is in this sense that is used in Genesis 2:8-10. There were many such gardens in Babylon and since the creation narratives originated there, it is natural then that the biblical authors would borrow information from their cultural context and adapt it to their story.

During the so called Intertestamental or Second Temple period, going from 167 BCE to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, a number of writings, among them 1 Enoch and The Apocalypse of Abraham, use the paradise to speak of the place where the righteous dead go upon death, without having to wait for the final resurrection. Paul seems to be of this opinion in 2 Corinthians 5:8 and Philippians 1:23, as is the author of Revelation, in 2:7. Luke affirms this idea in this passage where he has Jesus promising the thief instant access to God’s bliss rather than having to wait for a future kingdom. This notion is also present in Luke 16:23 where the poor man Lazarus, upon death, is carried immediately by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.

In my opinion, Paradise is not an intermediate state where people wait for the final resurrection/judgment but another way of speaking about the final state after death. The biblical authors were not modern systematic theologians. They were theologians, yes, but first century ones who, when wanting to convey an idea, were able to express it using different terminology. That is how we can understand the apparent contradiction between a final resurrection of the dead and an instant access to God’s presence upon the believer’s death. Both ideas coexisted without tension. We see this throughout the New Testament.

Author: Osvaldo D. Vena, Th.D.
Meaning of Paradise in Luke 23:43
This is a good question about the meaning of “Paradise” in Luke 23:43. Readers often skim over words like this, assuming that we know what it means, and therefore that ancient conceptions of death were similar to ours. But it’s much better to stop and ask if this was the case. There seem to have been a number of different ideas regarding “where people go when we die” in the New Testament period. “Paradise” is not a term that’s widely used, so it’s hard to say exactly what Luke meant here.
Here’s what we do know about “Paradise”:
  • The Greek term, paradeisos, was used to translate the Hebrew word referring to the garden of Eden. So many suggest the use in Luke 23:43 suggests a return to the harmony of God’s original creation.
  • But the word paradeisos simply meant “garden” in its conventional use. Often it suggests a very pleasant place, to be sure, but it’s not a technical term for “heaven,” whether in the Old or New Testaments or in the culture at large.
  • Luke also uses other words to describe the afterlife. In 16:23, he uses the Greek word “Hades,” and seems to convey a place where everyone goes after death, although they’re separated there according to their deeds. Hades is certainly very different from some contemporary Christian notions of the afterlife, where people are divided into separate locations of heaven and hell.
Here are two other factors to think about:
  1. Commentators often try to make a word like this mesh with either their own understanding of the afterlife, or what they thought ancient people knew. So one idea is that Jewish people like Paul imagined that people would die and only later (whenever the resurrection of the dead/day of judgment happened) would they rise again. So some people describe “Paradise” as that place. But there were multiple ancient concepts, and I don’t think there’s anything in Luke that specifically connects them.
  2. Similarly, modern interpreters try to fit the text to their own theological views (so some make Luke’s paradise sound like purgatory). This isn’t a good idea because it takes modern concepts and imposes them on the ancient world. 
  3. The story in Luke 23 is a really interesting interaction between Jesus and one of the criminals, who suggests that he deserves his fate while Jesus is innocent. Jesus rewards the man by saying they’ll be together “today” (presumably after they die). And that is interesting, because it says that Luke thinks being with Jesus is a kind of reward and that this man who was a criminal but acknowledged Jesus’s innocence is worthy of this reward. However, the story doesn’t really tell us any detailed information that would help us decide what “Paradise” is. This is a problem that we often encounter reading biblical texts. We have questions of our own that we want answers to, and sometimes there aren’t clear answers that fit our questions. But I think we are still right to ask the questions and to ponder the Bible in our quest for answers.

Author: Susan E. Hylen




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