When Jesus was dying on the cross, one of the robbers crucified along with him that day asked Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus’ answer was, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). Jesus promised that the hours of agony on the cross would end and that paradise would come right afterward.
The word “paradise” came from Persian into Greek and then into English. It refers to an enclosed garden, a sanctuary full of beautiful flowers, fruit trees, and herbs, with flowing water and pathways and shade. A paradise was a place of life, romance, abundance, beauty, safety, and peace (see Song of Songs 4:12-16). Such
gardens were built by people of wealth and power, and the word “paradise” became emblematic for the Jews of the “Garden of God,” the original Eden provided to Adam and Eve (Septuagint version, Genesis 2:8), and also the destination of righteous souls in death. When Jesus spoke to the thief of paradise as their mutual destination, he promised they would shortly be together in a place of rest and comfort with pristine pleasures for those privileged to enter.
Jesus’ promise to the penitent son of Abraham was immediate. “Today,” he said. This was not a promise of distant future reward in the resurrection after the judgment, but immediate consolation when they left the flesh behind. And certainly, “paradise” evoked the idea of being welcomed into good things that they would be aware of and participate in, not mere slumber and certainly not oblivion. The penitent man would be together with the Lord that day, they would know each other and they would be in a garden of serene beauty with every need satisfied.
Jesus had previously spoken of such a place in the story of two men, a sick and poor beggar named Lazarus and a rich man who was utterly selfish (Luke 16:19-31). In that story, the rich man died, his body was buried, but he himself was then in Hades. (Hades was the abode of the souls of the dead, both good and bad, also called Sheol in the Old Testament, and was Jesus’ destination when he died, before he overcame death and arose on the third day, Acts 2:25-31, grave/hell = hades.) In Hades the rich man was very much aware of his own miserable circumstances, being “in torment.” That word, “torment,” refers to “the instrument of torture by which one is forced to divulge the truth, trial by torture” (Complete Word Study Dictionary of the NT). What the rich man was experiencing was like the torture Jesus experienced on the night of his betrayal before he was charged or tried by the governor (and see Acts 22:23-26). The other character in Jesus’ story, the poor man Lazarus, had also died and he himself, out of the body, was carried by the angels to the side of Abraham, a place reasonably identified as paradise, accessible only to the chosen few. Abraham and Lazarus were far away from the rich man, impossible to come together, but he was aware of them, and cried out to Abraham. The conversation between Abraham and the rich man demonstrated that the personality of the dead is intact, the rich man had his memories and his attitudes were unchanged. Abraham likewise was completely cognizant and reasonable, knowing himself and those around him. The dead are able to recognize one another, and speak of past life and experiences. Lazarus, meanwhile, was enjoying the comforts of his circumstances, unlike the rich man in torment. The comforts that Lazarus was enjoying at the side of Abraham, quite different than his experiences on earth, fit what Jesus called “paradise” when he hung on the cross. While Lazarus was consoled, the one who had been a rich man in this world knew that the physical world continued, that he had living siblings who were behaving as badly as he had, and dreaded that they would face the same fate he did, if they didn’t change.
When Jesus told the story of Lazarus and the rich man, he was warning his people against unbelief and selfishness, urging them to believe the law and the prophets and so to believe in himself, the prophesied
Christ. The story is fraught with warnings against dying unprepared, but also, like the thief dying at Jesus’ side, it is full of assurance for those who die in faith, putting trust in the Lord and his promises. Those who die in faith arrive, promptly, in paradise, in comfort, personalities and memories intact, together with the faithful who have gone before, including Abraham the friend of God (see also Hebrews 11:39-12:3, 12:22-24), free from the “bad things” experienced in the world of flesh, comforted and provided for in every good way.
To be a guest at Abraham’s side, to be in paradise, is a great life outcome, full of assurance and worth any price, but the scriptures are clear that in itself this is a step toward future glory, which has even more in store for those faithful to the Lord when the resurrection comes and death is destroyed, when the saints are clothed in the immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:35-58), when Jesus comes again and the wedding supper of the Lamb begins (Revelation 19:6-9), in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the home of righteousness (Revelation 21:1ff).
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them” (Revelation 14:13).