There lies uncle Manuel. He’s dead. My seven-year-old brain tried to comprehend what was happening as I attended my uncle Manuel’s funeral, beheld his casket, stared into his pale face, held my dad’s hand while surrounded by mourners dressed in black, and witnessed my mother’s tears. It was all very strange. At such a young age, I could hardly understand what death meant, much less what happens next to those whose short life on this earth has ended.
Uncle Manuel’s funeral was almost 40 years ago. Since then, I’ve done a lot of research into what the Bible says about death, burial, and the resurrection. After years of study, I’ve come to the conclusion that when a person dies – whether saint or sinner – they are dead, that is, they lie unconscious in their graves awaiting the “resurrection of the dead” (Acts 24:15). I realize this is a bit different from what most people believe. Nevertheless, I am not accountable to man, but to God alone. To my readers I make this plea: Read my arguments, study the Bible for yourself, pray, and come to your own conclusions. Sound fair enough?
Solomon said that “there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10) and that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Both the Old and New Testaments plainly teach that the dead “sleep in the dust of the earth” (Daniel 12:2) as they await the resurrection (see Psalm 13:3; John 5:28, 29; 11:11-14; Acts 7:60; 1 Corinthians 15:6, 51-55). Jesus Christ said concerning the man who dies believing in Him, “I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44). I have found this to be the consistent teaching of Scripture.
Yet as I mentioned in my last article, there are a few Bible passages that seem to support a different view – that of immediate entrance into heaven, or of instant descent into hell-fire. In my last article we looked at 2 Corinthians 5:8 where Paul wrote about being “absent from the body and present with the Lord.” It’s time to look at another well-known passage.
The thief on the cross (Luke 23:42,43): On history’s darkest day, as the Son of God hung suspended between heaven and earth bearing the sins of the world, a dying criminal crucified beside Jesus breathed hopefully, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). The King responded, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (verse 43). Many interpret Christ’s response as conclusive evidence that the dying thief’s soul was instantly ushered into the presence of Jesus on that very day. I disagree. Here’s why:
First, the dying thief pleaded, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Thus the thief hoped to be remembered at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, not before. Second, Jesus Himself did not go to Paradise that day, but into Joseph’s tomb. Three days later, after rising from the dead, Jesus candidly told Mary, “I have not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20:17). Thus our Lord did not ascend to glory on the day of His death. Thirdly, Jesus clarified that His followers will be with Him when He returns. “I will come again”, He promised, “and receive you to Myself” (John 14:3, italics added). Paul taught the same thing when he wrote that true believers will get to “be with the Lord” when He descends from heaven and resurrects the dead (see 1 Thessalonians 4:16,17). So what did Jesus mean when He spoke to the dying thief?
Believe it or not, the confusion stems from one tiny piece of punctuation called a ‘comma.’ Before we look again at Christ’s exact words to the thief, let me clarify that the Bible calls itself “the Word of God”, not “the Comma of God”. The fact is that punctuation and commas were added to the inspired text many years after the New Testament was written. It is the same with the numbering of verses. Whatever translation you are reading from, your Bible says “43” before Christ’s response the dying thief. “42” comes before that, then “41”, etcetera. Guess what? Luke didn’t write “41” or “42” or “43” or “44.” He just wrote one book of Luke. It wasn’t until many years later that men numbered the verses to make it easier for us to find them. I’m glad they did. It helps. But they also added commas where they assumed they should go. So let’s remove the comma and look at what Jesus Christ literally said to the thief. His exact words were:
Assuredly I say to you today you will be with Me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).
Now, if you place the comma before the word “today,” which is where most Bibles place it, then Jesus told the thief, “today you will be with Me in Paradise.” But if you place the comma after the word “today,” Christ’s meaning is switched entirely. Then Jesus would have said, “I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” In other words, Christ would be telling the thief, “I tell you today” (right then two thousand years ago) that he would be with Him in the future when He returns.
So which is it? Where should the comma go? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. Other verses make Christ’s answer clear. First, Jesus didn’t go to Paradise that day. Second, on Sunday morning He had not yet ascended to His Father (see John 20:17). Thirdly, and most importantly, Jesus never contradicted Himself. He plainly promised His followers, “I will come again and receive you to Myself” (John 14:3). Martin Luther once said, “Here I stand. So help me God. Amen.” This is where I stand. My hope is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
My uncle Manuel was Jewish. As far as I know, he was not a believer in the Crucified and Risen One. Where did uncle Manuel go? And if he is lost (I hope this is not the case!), what will finally happen to him? In future parts of this series, we’ll find out.
To be continued…