Does Jesus' Promise to the Criminal in Luke 23:43 indicate that humans have an enduring soul?

by Luke Wayne
6/23/17

A central aspect of Jehovah's Witness doctrine is the denial that there is any soul or spiritual component of a person that continues to exist after the person dies. Death is the cessation of all personal existence. This view, of course, does not fit well with a normal reading of Jesus' words to the repentant criminal who died alongside him on Calvary:

"And he was saying, 'Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!' And He said to him, 'Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.'” (Luke 23:42-43).

If, as Jesus promised, the man would be with Him in paradise that very day, this obviously implies conscious personal existence after death. To get around this, Jehovah's Witnesses change the punctuation in their version of the Bible so that it reads:

"And he said to him: 'Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise,'” (Luke 23:43 NWT).

By moving the comma over, it changes the meaning of Jesus' words so that He is not promising that the man would be in paradise that very day. Instead, He is speaking on that day, but promising that the man would be in paradise without specifying when, allowing it to be in the distant future at the time of the resurrection. The Jehovah's Witness will point out that there were no punctuation marks in the original Greek and will insist it is our translators who are inserting the comma in the wrong place. It is fairly easy to see, however, that the traditional placement of the comma is correct and that the Jehovah's Witness is altering the text to force it to fit their doctrine.

First of all, the Jehovah's Witness version doesn't make sense. Why would Jesus emphasize that He was telling that man today? Of course He was telling Him today. He could not be telling Him yesterday or tomorrow. By definition, any time you tell anyone anything, you are telling them on the day you tell them. How could you not be? It is a frivolous waste of a word, which is especially hard to imagine when Jesus is gasping for breath while slowly dying during a Roman execution. But even if they had been chatting comfortably over dinner, the phrase would have no meaning. One might emphasize that they are telling you today if they were apologizing for not telling you sooner, contrasting it with something they said previously, or emphasizing your need to remember and obey on into the future the thing they are saying this one time. None of those things apply here. There was simply no reason for Jesus to put emphasis on the day he was speaking rather than on the immediacy of His promise. In the context, the only meaningful way to read the verse is the traditional form, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."

Secondly, the Jehovah's Witness translation of this verse is inconsistent with the rest of the gospels. Earlier in Luke, when Jesus is talking to Zaccheus, we read even in the Jehovah's Witnesses New World Translation:

"At this Jesus said to him: 'Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham,'" (Luke 19:9 NWT).

Not that we do not read:

"At this Jesus said to him today: 'Salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham,'"

Today is when salvation has come. Today is not superfluously pushed over to the clause about Jesus speaking. In the same way, today is when the criminal will be in paradise and should not be meaninglessly pushed over to the clause about Jesus speaking. Indeed, Jesus consistent pattern of speaking testifies to this. Jesus prefaces His statements with, "I say to you," "Truly I say to you," and even "truly, truly I say to you" very frequently in all four gospels and even once in the Book of Revelation. This is something distinctive and unique about Jesus' own speech pattern. No one else in the Bible talks this way, but Jesus speaks this way all the time. Interestingly, as often as He does this, one never finds him adding a superfluous "today," or anything of the sort, to the phrase. There is a consistent use of this phrase throughout Jesus' life and even after His resurrection, and never once does He frivolously add the detail that He is truly saying something to you "today." The Jehovah's Witnesses are mistranslating the passage here to avoid the obvious implication.

Thirdly, elsewhere in the New Testament, the word "paradise" is used for a present heavenly abode. Paul says to the Corinthians:

"I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter," (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

Paul speaks of a man who was caught up to paradise, parallels this to being caught up to heaven, and is clear that this was not necessarily just a vision by was, perhaps, a bodily experience. Paradise, then, must refer here to a heavenly abode that currently exists. Paul, writing infallibly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, defined Paradise as a present, heavily reality to which a man could ascend either in or out of the body. It is also worth pointing out that early Christians frequently used the word "paradise" to describe the conscious state of believers' souls between bodily death and future resurrection. Irenaeus, for example, defined paradise as a place of Edenic comfort where the righteous go upon death awaiting future immortality on the day of resurrection, and indeed the place to which Enoch and Elijah were caught up alive in the body and presently dwell.1 To take another instance, Tertullian connects the idea of Paradise with the picture in Revelation 6:9-11 of the conscious souls of those who have died in Christ awaiting the day of final judgment and future resurrection.2 These early Christians are, of course, fallible human beings and their writings are not perfect or devoid of error, but they show us how the earliest readers would have understood Jesus' words. Clearly, they saw Paradise as the place to which the criminal would ascend immediately after death. They believed in a conscious human soul. This understanding of Paradise fits what we find in Paul's writings, and makes the most sense out of Jesus' promise to the dying man.

Lastly, even if, purely for the sake of argument and against all evidence and plain reason, we accept the Jehovah's Witness version of Jesus' words, it still leaves them with a problem. If "paradise" means future, bodily resurrection on a restored, Edenic earth, then for Jesus to be with the man in paradise would require Jesus to descend from heaven and dwell upon the earth again. Jehovah's Witnesses, however, deny that Jesus will do this. They believe that Jesus' "return" is a figurative reference to a purely heavenly reality. According to Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus is an archangel without a physical body and He will never again come literally back to the Earth. They claim that Jesus will rule over Paradise earth from heaven, but will not actually be there Himself. So, even on their modified version, they still have to mince Jesus' words so that, not only would the man not be in Paradise that day but actually thousands of years later, the man would also not be with Jesus even when he did finally rise again in Paradise. Jehovah's Witnesses simply do not believe Jesus' words to this man. Jesus is saying something that Watchtower doctrine absolutely cannot accept. It is just one more place that the Bible and Jehovah's Witness teachings are in irreconcilable conflict.

 

Inside the Bible

Jesus says
Luke 16:19-23, "Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom."

Paul says
Philippians 1:21-26, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again."

John says
Revelation 6:9-11, "When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?' And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also."

 

Inside CARM

Jehovah's Witnesses and the Human Soul
Jehovah's Witnesses claim that there is no part of a man that continues to exist consciously after death. They insist that human beings entirely cease to exist at the moment of physical death. They deny that humans have a "soul" or any spiritual component to their being. The Bible, however, teaches otherwise.

Jehovah's Witnesses, the Psalms, and the state of the dead
Jehovah's Witness teach that death is the complete cessation of conscious existence. There is no soul or spirit of a man continues to exist when the body dies. When we breathe our last, we are completely wiped out of existence. Perhaps their most compelling argument in defense of this doctrine is to turn to a variety of verses in the Psalms which, on the surface, seem to imply that man is, at best, wholly unconscious after death. The reality is, however, that these verses are not denying the existence of the human soul.

Jehovah's Witnesses, Ecclesiastes 9, and the state of the dead
Jehovah's Witnesses teach that humans have no soul and that when someone dies, they cease to exist as a person and their lifeless body is all that remains. One of the primary texts they use to defend this belief is Ecclesiastes 9. They ignore, however, the context of this chapter, the flow of the book, and the rest of biblical teaching.

 

  • 1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 5
  • 2. Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 60