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Luke 23:43 - Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

At first glance, I casually assumed "paradise" was referring to heaven, but if Jesus was dead for 3 days after His crucifixion and didn't ascend to heaven until much later, what is He referring to here?

A prerequisite question may be: where was Jesus during the 3 days after crucifixion?

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Why do you assume that the eternal timeline is congruent with our own? In other words, why do you suppose time works the same way on heaven as on earth? –  Affable Geek Oct 24 '12 at 8:38
    

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While this isn't a universal view, many traditions believe that Paradise is distinct from Heaven. Our Church (a Baptist Church) teaches that "Paradise" is a temporary holding place for those who have died and are awaiting Christ's return.

Some other references that point to Paradise being a temporary place, distinct from the final Heaven promised to those who have been saved:

http://www.bible-uk.com/paradise.htm

So what IS Paradise?

The concept of a place of limbo, somewhere between heaven and earth, some kind of celestial waiting room is not one that will be found in the pages of scripture. What about a park or garden? Now we are on a firm biblical path! We know of a garden from the early pages of Genesis, called the Garden of Eden. We know, because Adam and Eve were thrust out of it (Genesis 3:24) and were unable to get back in again, which fits well with original Persian concept of Paradise being an enclosed garden. Equating Paradise with Eden is not something new or unusual. It is the rationale behind Milton's book, "Paradise Lost", for instance.

Also:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/november/24.79.html

http://www.wor.org/Books/p/Paraking.htm

There are many more, so I'll stop here. I'd also like to post a disclaimer tat I don't agree with all of the things said in the last article linked to. It was included just to show that diverse traditions hold the view, and that it's not a "fringe" view.

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Thanks for providing a good answer for the primary question - I'll add another question for the second. –  Keith Oct 25 '12 at 0:44

It may be wortwhile to note that, during the time of Jesus, the Jews had a concept of two places in the afterlife: Geihinnam (variant spellings exist), and Gan Eden, also known as "the Garden of Eden." The Talmud and midrashim are replete with such mentions.

What does this have to do with "paradise"? Well, we derive the English word "paradise" in the KJV and other English translations from the Greek word παράδεισος, the same word translated into English as "paradise" in Luke 23:43. (Yes, there is an earlier Old Iranian root, but that's not the point.) This same Greek word is used in the Septuagint (LXX) to translate the Hebrew phrase גַן־עֵדֶן (gan eden) in the Tanakh. What this tells us is that "paradise" is equivalent to "the Garden of Eden."

Hence, Jesus was saying that the thief on the cross would be with Jesus in the Garden of Eden that day. Did this happen?

Some insist that it did not because Jesus' body was 3 days and 3 nights in the sepulcher ("the heart of the earth"). This is true, but Jesus wasn't just a body. His spirit went to paradise that very day, along with the spirit of the thief on the cross. If you carefully read Paul's writing in 2 Corinthians 5 (e.g., "in this we groan" --- what does "this" refer to, and who does "we" refer to?), it should become evident that we continue to exist although our bodies remain in the grave.

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Welcome to Christianity.SE! This is a great first answer, and I hope you'll stick around! :) –  El'endia Starman Oct 26 '12 at 4:28

One of the difficulties with this question is that the likely answer is not discussed very much in actual scripture and comes more from Jewish tradition.

Here is a general analysis of what the different ideas are.

From what I have read, the Jewish tradition was essentially that when a righteous man died, he went to a place that was similar in concept to hades, called "Abraham's bosom." The belief is that in order to be "with God" one has to be completely void of sin, which before Jesus' death and resurrection, sin was not 100% paid for, so prior to the resurrection people could not enter God's presence and therefore heaven. Instead of going to heaven, they instead went to a special set aside place in hell called Abraham's bosom, (also referred to as "paradise) where they would wait until Jesus' resurrection. This is elluded to in the story of Lazerous and the rich man and may also be where the idea in the Apostles' Creed comes from about Jesus descending into hell.

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Welcome to Christianity.SE! For a first answer, this is actually not bad, but it would be excellent if you could provide a reference to this. –  El'endia Starman Oct 26 '12 at 4:23

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