If soul sleep is true, then why did Jesus tell the criminal on the cross that he would be with him that day in Paradise?
As I’ve indicated numerous times, I’m a materialist about human beings. I don’t think that I’m an immortal ghost/soul living inside a body. I think that I’m a physical creature. Long before I encountered philosophy of mind or neuroscience, I became convinced that this is what the Bible teaches, making its teaching on human nature stand out like a sore thumb against the pagan Hellenistic theology of the first century.
I also become convinced that since I am not an immortal ghost living inside a body, when my body dies I will not escape death and live on in heaven, or the underworld, or the astral plane or anything of that sort. I think the Bible teaches that death is very real and it puts an end to our life. There is no conscious state of any sort immediately following death. There is noting at all. Of course, I am a Christian and I do believe in the resurrection of the dead, but that obviously doesn’t happen when a person dies, or I think somebody would have noticed by now. The view I hold has sometimes been called “soul sleep” because it views death as a state of “sleep” or unconsciousness. It’s not an ideal term because it can be taken to imply dualism and maybe “person sleep” would be a better alternative, but it’s too late for that. The term has been coined.
Holding and expressing these views rubs some of my fellow conservative evangelicals the wrong way, but for the most part there’s really no disputing that the Bible presents human nature and death this way literally dozens of times in fairly clear language. Affirming dualism and the view that we live on as immaterial spirits after death and go somewhere is a point of view held in the teeth of the biblical evidence. This fact too, I suspect, rubs some of my fellow conservative evangelicals the wrong way.
In spite of the fairly clear overall teaching of the Bible, there is a very small handful of biblical passages (no more than four, in my view) that might be used (and have been used) to suggest that actually the general impression given by most of what the Bible teaches is false, and that really we do survive our bodily deaths and travel to heaven, or hell, or some other place and live consciously there. This should not be surprising. Whether you’re doing surveying, earth science or biblical interpretation, when formulating a theory you’re always going to be confronted with recalcitrant evidence, that is, evidence that at first glance seems to go against the flow of the well-established facts and is in need of an explanation. The existence of such evidence in science or in Scripture does not falsify a theory.
One of those texts is Luke 23:43. Here, Jesus has been crucified, and on that same Friday some criminals had been crucified with him (it was normal for multiple people to be crucified together). Here’s what we read in Luke 23:39-43
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
It’s clear enough how this passage would be used by those who do not share my view: Since Jesus told someone that even though they were going to die that day, they would experience Jesus’ presence later that day as well, it must be the case that (according to Jesus), people survive their bodily death, with or without the bodily resurrection.
Given the essential uniformity that I think we find in the teaching of the bible generally on this subject (namely, that we do not survive our bodily death), I have two choices. I can either say that we have an important conflict between what Jesus said as recorded in Luke 23:43 and the bulk of what the biblical writers said on the subject, or I can attempt to interpret this text in Luke in a way to fit with what the rest of the bible teaches. I think that I can quite successfully do the latter. I make no promises that I will convince those who disagree with me, but I have long held the view that nobody can be convinced against her will. (The other possible course of action – to adopt less plausible interpretations of dozens of other texts for the sake of this one – does not strike me as particularly sensible.)
The argument from experience
The first approach is the less controversial, and it is to point out that even if there is no conscious intermediate state between death and resurrection, Jesus’ words would still be quite true from the dying criminal’s perspective. This is the major argument, and it is the one that I think is the most plausible. Peter Van Inwagen explains:
The words of Jesus are, obviously, supposed to be what The Book of Common Prayer calls “comfortable words.” Let me ask a question in somewhat the same spirit as the question I asked a moment ago. Imagine that the Good Thief dies in agony; “the next thing he knows,” as the idiom has it, he is in Paradise. He presently discovers that over three thousand years have passed since he died. Was he deceived? Was it somehow wrong of Jesus to say to him, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise”? If so, what should Jesus have said? Should he have said, “After the general resurrection, which will occur after an indefinite period that only the Father knows, you shall be with me in Paradise – but it will seem to you as if no time has passed”? Are there not circumstances in which taking extreme care to frame one’s statements in words that express only the strict and literal truth is unsatisfactory from a pastoral point of view? And are there not, in fact, circumstances in which taking extreme care to frame one’s statements in words that express only the strict and literal truth can impede communication? (I know that a certain large structure in Manhattan is a terminal and not a station; nevertheless, I don’t generally call it Grand Central Terminal, because that’s not what most people call it. And from my calling it Grand Central Station you cannot infer that I believe that it’s a station rather than a terminal.) In any case, to suppose that Jesus and the Good Thief would have attached much importance to the distinction between the strict and the lax interpretations of Jesus’ words – the strict being the one insisted on by those who are treating these words as proof text, and the lax being the one I’m pushing – seems to me to attribute an analytical cast of mind to two first-century Jews (in their extreme agony, let us remember) that is probably unwarranted.1
If I told you that you were about to experience being in paradise, and then, from your perspective, you did just that, then there is a straight forward sense in which I have told you the truth.
In other words, if I told you that you were about to experience being in paradise, and then, from your perspective, you did just that, then there is a straight forward sense in which I have told you the truth. Sure, if “soul sleep” involved believing in a period of relaxed but still conscious rest, sort of a shadowy but comfortable existence in bliss between death and resurrection, then this verse would present a problem. This is another reason why the term “soul sleep” isn’t ideal. However, it doesn’t involve this sort of thing at all. It refers to an absolute loss of all consciousness. From the perspective of personal experience, if your consciousness completely ceased at t1 and then you regain consciousness at t5 (where the gap between t1 and t2, the gap between t2 and t3 etc is one year), even though four years had actually passed you would experience t5 immediately after t1, as though no time at all had passed in the interim. If, just as t1 was approaching, I had said to you “I tell you, in just a few seconds you will be at t5,” then it could hardly be said that I was lying to you. And if this is so (and let’s imagine that at t5 the resurrection of the dead will occur and all things will be made new), there would likewise be nothing wrong with my saying that “in just a few seconds you will be with me in Paradise.” The German Reformer Martin Luther, who also believed in soul sleep, described just this: “For just as one who falls asleep and reaches morning unexpectedly when he awakes, without knowing what has happened to him, so we shall suddenly rise on the last day, and we shall know neither what death has been like or how we have come through it.”2
This approach, although already sufficiently plausible to be taken seriously, is further bolstered by the way that the biblical writers used the Greek word paradeisos (paradise). This term is used in Genesis 2:8 and elsewhere in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) to refer to the garden of Eden. It is used in this connection to refer to the eschatological restoration that God will bring about (Isaiah 51:3). It is used again in Revelation 2:7 in connection with the tree of life, something said (in chapters 21 and 22) to be present on the “new earth.” So there is no suggestion in Scripture that the term should mean “heaven” or some sort of spiritual intermediate state. On the contrary, it suggests a very physical state of existence and is connected with a restored physical world.
If all you were looking for is a plausible and sufficient explanation, you have just found it, and you can stop reading now.
The Grammatical Argument
The second argument is more technical and more contentious, and I freely grant, less plausible. If this argument is unsound, little changes. In Luke 23:43, the words in question are amen soi lego semeron, “Assuredly I tell you today” – and the question is “where does the comma go – before or after the word “today” (semeron)? According to New Testament Greek scholar E. W. Bullinger, the comma really belongs after the word “today.” The reason for this concerns the use of the Greek word for “today,” semeron. Bullinger explains in his lexicon,
When it comes after a verb, it belongs to that verb, unless it is separated from it and thrown into the next clause by the presence of hoti (that).3
Now let’s turn to the verse. The verb after which semeron occurs is “I say,” lego. There are thus two possible translations of this sentence in Luke, depending on whether or not hoti is used. They are as follows.
With hoti, the sentence would read:
“Assuredly I say to you that (hoti) today you will be with me in Paradise.
Or without hoti:
“Assuredly I say [preceding verb] to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.
Bullinger makes reference to other examples where this is demonstrated in the NT (e.g. Matt 21:28, “Go today, and work in the vineyard”), and perhaps more importantly for Luke, in the Septuagint such as Dt 8:1, “All the commandments which I command thee this day shall ye observe to do.”
It is a widely recognised and prominent feature of Luke’s Gospel that the Greek used is clearly influenced by the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. And as you look through the Septuagint, you will see that semeron, translated “this day,” routinely belongs to the preceding verb (in cases where there is a preceding verb, of course). This is not an overly subtle twist or unwarranted claim on my part. It is universally accepted in Lukan scholarship that his Greek reflects the Septuagint.
Commenting on this passage, Joseph Hong, although he opposes what I am suggesting, admits the facts of the case. At a confident moment he asserts that it “undeniably makes more sense to associate the word with the following clause, rather than the preceding clause.”4
But while this is his conclusion, he is forced, when actually dealing with the evidence in the text itself, to back away and acknowledge that this is not really where the weight of evidence lies. Attempting to describe the evidence as uninstructive, he was prepared to say (in contrast to the above quote), “from a strictly textual point of view it is impossible to determine which of the clauses before and after it the word ‘today’ should be associated with” (p. 416). That’s quite a contrast. It is even more intriguing to note that when he is surveying the same biblical evidence Bullinger referred to, he is forced to admit even more: “As a preliminary observation we can say that as a rule, ‘today’ is placed after the related verb.” (p. 412)
So the translation that he claims is “undeniably” more sensible is also the translation which, according to him, is not normally correct. Hong does not say that this observation is necessarily or universally true, only that it is a true preliminary observation. This is wise, because insisting on hard, fast and inevitable rules in the way Greek sentences must be constructed generally paves the way for counterexamples that somebody might be able to hunt down and use to trip you. General observations are good enough. Allowing these observations to be the deciding factor in this case would mean that the related verb would be lego, “I say,” rather than ese, “you will be.”
While numerous commentators make very brief comments of disagreement towards the suggestion of Bullinger, these dismissive comments tend not to incorporate evidence based in New Testament Greek. Evans, in his commentary on Luke, says that in fact there are some early manuscripts that do punctuate the verse in this way (of course the very earliest mss had no punctuation at all).5 That manuscript is Codex Vaticanus, the oldest extant Greek copy of the New Testament, written in the fourth century.
Just as in the case of other contentious issues (intelligent design, global warming, the case for America’s invasion of Iraq), what one makes of even tangible, visible evidence like this is always going to be controlled to some extent by one’s prior commitments. Online apologists for the traditional view have argued at length that the mark here must be an either accidental “blot” or an incorrect punctuation mark added by an unknown editor at an unknown time, while some Jehovah’s Witnesses (whose New World Translation places the comma after “today”) claim this manuscript as solid proof of their position. Such blots do occur in New Testament manuscripts. It is at least possible that this dot that resembles a comma in precisely the place where some people argue that a comma belongs is just a lucky (or unlucky) coincidence. I accept that, although we would have to acknowledge, at the least, that it is quite a coincidence if it was accidental (and remarkable coincidences do occur). It is also possible that an early scribe added the mark because of an existing view that the sentence should be read in the manner Bullinger later suggested, which is significant because it would indicate that the view had some currency, and it would also resolve any objection that there is not enough space between the letters for a comma to have been intended, because this explanation would involve a scribe inserting a mark into a space that was indeed too small for it. I favour this explanation for why the comma is present in this spot in this manuscript. Much more importantly, however, I heed the advice of New Testament textual scholar Bruce Metzger, who warns: “The presence of marks of punctuation in early manuscripts of the New Testament is so sporadic and haphazard that one cannot infer with confidence the construction given by the punctuator to the passage.”6 This evidence is tenuous, but it should be considered evidence nonetheless. The grammatical argument, however (which is also tentative), must be considered with or without the manuscript evidence. It is an observable fact, as best I can tell, that when semeron is used and there is a preceding verb and hoti is not used, semeron does belong to that verb (setting aside Luke 23:43 for now). Bullinger’s claim is that Luke 23:43 should be treated likewise.
Although the evidence that I have seen in the New Testament supports Bullinger’s claim, I take seriously the charge that his claim is too strong.
Although the evidence that I have seen in the New Testament supports Bullinger’s claim, I take seriously the charge that his claim is too strong. Maybe the rule is not hard and fast. Maybe someone might at some point dig up an unambiguous case where hoti is not used and where semeron belongs to the following verb in the same clause. At very least, Bullinger has drawn our attention to a possible burden of proof. There are undeniably plenty of cases where semeron belongs to the preceding verb, and there are cases where hoti is used, clearly forcing semeron into the following clause. What we now know as a result of this is that anyone who insists that semeron must attach to the following verb where hoti is not used must shoulder the burden of proof and provide clear evidence for why this choice must be made, since there does exist a tendency for this practice to not be followed in the New Testament. One way of making that case is by claiming that this rule, being based on a fairly small amount of data, is weak, and should give way to a better established rule, namely the pattern in the New Testament of how the writers use Amen lego soi (“assuredly I tell you”) as a unit by itself. This phrase is used more than 70 times in contexts where it is an introductory phrase, and Luke 23:43 would represent an exceptional case. So, the argument goes, we should treat Amen lego soi as a unit here, too.
Theologically, the translation that Bullinger proposed says nothing contentious. Unlike the traditional reading, it does not suggest a timeframe for the fulfilment of Jesus’ words to that very day, but neither does it deny that time frame. It says nothing about when the criminal should expect to be in paradise, only that he should expect it.
My worry is that since the second explanation of Luke 23:43 that I have offered (the grammatical argument) takes so much longer to unpack, readers might think that I am attaching significantly more weight to it than to the first argument. I am not. I think that the first argument is more compelling and actually renders the second argument moot. But the second argument is sufficiently interesting that it should be considered as well.
On the whole, then, I do not think that Luke 23:43 should be used as part of a larger attempt to reverse the wider biblical picture of human nature and death. At most it should give us pause, but we can say with confidence that there is at least one very plausible way to resolve this pause, perhaps even two.
- Peter Van Inwagen, “Dualism and Materialism: Athens and Jerusalem?” Faith and Philosophy 12:4 (1995), 484.
- From Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar, 1883-), cited in Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966), 414.
- E.W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 810-811.
- Hong, “Understanding and Translating ‘Today’ in Luke 23:43,” The Bible Translator 46:4 (1995), 416.
- C.F. Evans, Saint Luke, TPI New Testament Commentaries (London: SCM Press Press, 1990), 874.
- Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 3rd Edition, 1975).