In Luke’s story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), Jesus describes both individuals dying and going to “Hades” (ᾅδης)—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Sheol (שאול), the realm of the dead (16:23). [On the shared postmortem location of Lazarus, Abraham, and the rich man, please click here and here] However, this view of the afterlife seems to conflict with what Jesus tells his neighbor while he’s on the cross: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Jesus’ promise seems to suggest that after he and the robber die that day from crucifixion, the two will be together in heaven. So, which is it? Do the deceased go to Hades or Heaven?
In ancient Jewish literature written in Greek, “paradise” (παράδεισος; parádeisos)—a Persian loanword—usually refers to one of two places: (1) the Garden of Eden in Genesis; or (2) the heavenly paradise in which God lives. According to the Septuagint, “The Lord God planted a paradise (παράδεισον) in Eden and placed there the human he had formed” (Genesis 2:8 LXX). Speaking of God’s dwelling above the earthly realm, Paul describes a visionary experience in which he saw the “third heaven”—a place that he calls “paradise” (παράδεισον; 2 Cor 12:1-4). Revelation combines these two locations when Jesus declares, “to the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (τῷ παραδείσῳ τοῦ θεοῦ; to paradeíso tou Theou); Rev 2:7). In their visions of the divine abode, neither Paul nor John has entered the afterlife; they see the heavenly realm in visions, but they have not “died and gone to heaven.”
Instead of envisioning one’s soul traveling to heaven after death, ancient Jews believed that God’s heavenly paradise would come down to a renewed earth in tandem with the end-time resurrection of the dead. Revelation clarifies this view of the last day on which the risen dead emerge from Hades to be judged before God: “The sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Rev 20:13). Just three verses later, John states, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… and I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling of God is with humanity’” (Rev 21:1-3). According to this apocalyptic vision, the paradise of God comes down to earth at the resurrection of the dead, and the righteous dwell in the divine kingdom—not in “heaven,” but on a renewed and everlasting earth.
Yet, in Luke 23:43 Jesus tells the other crucified man that “today” (σήμερον) he will be with him in paradise. Doesn’t this mean that Jesus and his interlocutor will end up in heaven immediately after their deaths? The biggest problem with this interpretation is that according to Acts—Luke’s second volume—Jesus goes to Hades (Sheol) after he dies, not to heaven. Thus, in order for the robber to be “with” Jesus that day, he would have to join him in the realm of the dead. In a speech to the people of Jerusalem, Peter cites Psalm 16:10—“For you will not abandon my life to Sheol (שאול), or let your holy one see decay”—as a prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection. The disciple asserts that the psalm “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to Hades (ᾅδης), nor did his flesh see decay. This Jesus God raised up [from Hades], and of that we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:31-32). This Petrine conviction about God’s ability to raise the dead comes from texts like 1 Samuel 2:6, in which Hannah proclaims, “The Lord kills and he brings to life; he brings down to Sheol (שאול) and raises up.” If Jesus had gone up to heaven at the moment of his death, then his return to life would not have been a “resurrection” but rather a “descension” from the heights of heaven back down to earth. For Jesus to be “raised” only makes sense if he is taken up from the underworld of Sheol, and he does not ascend to heaven until after that resurrection (cf. Lk 24:51; Acts 1:9-11).
Thus, when Jesus tells the thief, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43), the place that they will both be that day is in the “bosom of Abraham” (16:22)—a place of postmortem peace and repose with the righteous who await resurrection. While Luke locates the patriarch’s bosom in Hades, those who reside in this Abrahamic section of Sheol are not separated from God. As the psalmist declares of the Lord, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there, and if I make my bed in Sheol (שאול)—look, it’s you!” (Ps 139:8). This is why Jesus can call out before he dies, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46; cf. Ps 31:5). For Jesus to wind up in Sheol for a few days does not mean that he is closed off from God; on the contrary, “Sheol and Abbadon lie open before the Lord” (Proverbs 15:11), so that the pre-resurrection afterlife is not an existence without God.
Still, this is not the whole story. Jesus tells the robber that he will be with him in “paradise,” which means that he will live forever with the Messiah when God’s kingdom comes down from heaven at the last day. The fruition of Jesus’ promise will have to wait for the arrival of the Lord’s eschatological reign on a renewed earth. But if this is so, then why does Jesus tell him that he will partake in this paradise “today”? Unpacking this terminology will require another installment next week, so stay tuned for more on this complex topic.