The "Thief on the Cross" was promised by Jesus to be in "paradise" that same day they both died on the cross. While it may be proof that baptism is not required for salvation, it has a greater significance only realized when you understand the 5th Seal of Revelation 6 literally. Find out what really happens when the righteous die.
When we attempt to understand the biblical teaching on the afterlife, the famous “thief on the cross” story must be considered:
Luke 23:42-43 (HCSB) — 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “ I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.”
This passage is another of the difficult words of Jesus we encounter when reading the Gospels. The problem is, how could Jesus make this promise when he himself already said he would not be raised from the dead until the third day, fulfilling the sign of the Prophet Jonah?
One common explanation is the “comma theory” where the word “today” is followed by a comma making it modify “I assure you today,” rather than “, today you will be with me.” This comma theory goes against how English translations render the passage, and is a grammatically awkward way to make emphasis if that was the intent. Jesus never spoke like that anywhere else in the 121 times he says “I say to you...” using “...today,” for emphasis.
Another explanation is that this is simply “beautiful picturesque language” although not literal. However, we should always be leery of deciding that a difficult passage must not be literal just because we cannot readily understand it. There happens to be a literal explanation for it supported by other biblical passages if you look carefully.
Is Paradise Heaven? Not Consciously
First, the strange use of the word “paradise”must be understood. I looked at what several Bible commentaries said on this passage and noticed that the word paradise did not mean “alive in heaven”:
Today you will be with me in paradise,” probably means that as a result of the events of that day, this man would be given salvation. Of course, it is possible that Jesus is referring to some sense in which this criminal and Jesus would be together immediately after death. However, this passage does not demand such an interpretation. The term paradise is used in the New Testament to refer to the future dwelling place of God’s people (see 2Cor 12:4; Rev 2:7). The reader should not become so concerned with the question of the intermediate state that the point is missed. Luke is reminding his readers of that which he has told them often. God forgives penitent sinners, while the impenitent (the rulers, the soldiers, and the other criminal) are excluded from the blessing.—College Press New Testament Commentary: with the NIV
Verse 43. In paradise - The place where the souls of the righteous remain from death till the resurrection. As if he had said, I will not only remember thee then, but this very day.—Wesley's Commentary
In the OT the term “paradise” can refer to a park with trees (Song 4:13; Eccl 2:5; Neh 2:8), a “garden of the Lord” (Gen 13:10), a “garden … in Eden” (2:8), or can be understood in a future eschatological sense (Eze 31:8). In the intertestamental literature and in the NT (2Cor 12:4; Rev 2:7) the expression is used more and more to describe the final abode of the righteous. It is used in this sense here. The criminal would experience salvation. He would not “today” experience the resurrection, for the resurrection of the dead will only occur at the parousia.—New American Commentary
So, paradise is the abode of the righteous dead. Put this together with my earlier explanation of the literal sleeping souls under the altar and it is confirmed that they are literally unconscious. This fits Jesus' statement, “Father, to you I commend my spirit” in Luke 23:46. Why would he say that if he would be conscious for the next three days taking care of (and using) his soul himself?
Jesus Promised a Spot in the First Resurrection
So what did Jesus promise exactly? He was not promising immediate consciousness in Heaven with him to the thief. Instead, Jesus knew that his soul along with the faithful thief's would be returned to God as the Bible teaches and his own final spoken sentence reflected. If they were not both put together exactly under the altar where the other righteous martyred souls were kept according to Revelation 6, then at least Jesus was and the thief was probably someplace else in God's heavenly domain (Jesus died for the truth as a martyr, but the thief died for his crimes). For the thief's soul to be immediately among the other righteous dead (martyred or otherwise) was a guarantee he would be resurrected in the First Resurrection and part of the Kingdom, the promise he apparently had great enough faith in to ask about.
In conclusion, according to the literal understanding of the 5th seal, we can see how Jesus could promise “today” being in “paradise” to the thief. We can see how it is not a Scripture-breaking promise of conscious interaction as Christianity teaches will welcome all believers upon death. It is simply a promise of the First Resurrection and a part in the Kingdom, just as the thief requested. This comes after a period of God keeping safe our resting or unconscious souls.
"Depart From Me, I Never Knew you!" - Jesus
Jesus predicted that he will tell many sincere believers to basically "get lost" instead of welcoming them into the Kingdom. So...who are they and what did they miss or do wrong? In this study, get those answers and the one requirement for salvation Jesus taught (that Christianity misses) so that you can make sure you don't hear these dreaded words yourself!