In Luke’s story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31), Jesus describes both figures 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). Does this mean that Jesus and the robber will be in heaven together that very day?
The first problem with assuming that Jesus and the thief will be side-by-side in heaven after death is the fact that Jesus goes to Hades (or Sheol) when he dies—not to heaven—and he’s raised from there to new life via resurrection. [please click here for Luke’s description of Jesus in Hades according to Acts] Second, before Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he will join him in paradise, the criminal says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). That is, the thief is asking Jesus to remember him when he comes with God's kingdom at the last day (cf. Lk 9:26; 21:27; Acts 1:11). This future event is what Jesus refers to when he prays to God, “Your kingdom come” (Lk 11:2). Rather than telling the brigand that he will “go to heaven” that day, Jesus explains that he will get to enter the paradise that comes down with God’s heavenly kingdom at the eschaton. In the meantime, the redeemed robber will await resurrection in the realm of the dead.
Yet, Jesus tells the man, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). This statement seems to imply that the thief will enter paradise that very day, rather than when Jesus returns with his kingdom. To fix this perceived problem, some have suggested that the English translation should rework the punctuation (which doesn't appear in the original Greek), so that the sentence reads, “Amen, I say to you today: You will be with me in paradise.” This way, Jesus makes his statement to the robber “today,” but the promise of joining him is for the eschatological future. The problem with this proposed punctuation change is that every other time in Luke that Jesus opens a statement with “Amen, I say to you,” the pertinent information comes after this introductory phrase. For instance, Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you: this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Lk 21:32); or, “Amen, I say to you: whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Lk 18:17). Following this pattern, Lk 23:43 should be understood to say, “Amen, I say to you: today you will be with me in paradise.”
Yet, if Jesus says that the thief will be in paradise with him “today,” how can readers reconcile the fact that the paradise of God’s kingdom arrives in the eschatological future? In Luke’s Gospel, “today” (σήμερον; sémeron) can have a kind of temporal elasticity. Often, the word’s meaning is straightforward (e.g., Lk 5:26; 12:28; 13:32-33; 22:61), but Luke also uses “today” to point to the future. For example, Jesus reads Isaiah in the synagogue and applies the prophetic text to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor” (Lk 4:18-19). After reading, Jesus says, “Today (σήμερον) this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). Well, that's not precisely true: at this point in Luke’s narrative, Jesus hasn’t done any of these things; he hasn’t given sight to the blind (or performed any miracles), he hasn't spoken to any poor people, nor has he proclaimed liberty to any captives (metaphorically or otherwise)—and yet, he says that, "today," all these things have been fulfilled.
Later in the Gospel, Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Today (σήμερον) salvation has come to this house” (Lk 19:9). But Zacchaeus isn't “saved” that very day—he will be saved when Jesus returns in God’s everlasting kingdom. Thus, “today” in Luke can signify what scholars call “realized eschatology”: something that has happened “already” but also “not yet.” This realized eschatology is likely at play in Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross. In one sense, the robber has been allotted a place in God’s eschatological kingdom—in the here and now—and that kingdom has not arrived in its fullness yet.
One last Lukan illustration may be helpful: when some Pharisees asked Jesus “when the kingdom of God was coming” (Lk 17:20; cf. 10:9; 11:20), he replied, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, behold, the kingdom of God is among you” (17:20-21). This is quite true, and yet, Jesus continues to pray to God, “Your kingdom come” (11:2). It is this kind of temporal elasticity—or “realized eschatology”—that Jesus employs in his discussion with the thief on the cross: his promise of paradise is trustworthy, and it is for “today,” and the full realization of paradise must wait for the kingdom of God.