Jesus tells the good thief on the cross “today you will be with me in Paradise”. How is that possible, when Jesus was in the grave for 3 days before His resurrection?
When Jesus spoke to the thief on the cross, He declared:
LUKE 23:42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”
LUKE 23:43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
Jesus testified to the thief that he would join Jesus in paradise. The Greek word for paradise can also be translated as “garden,” a reference to the Garden of God from Ezekiel 28:13, which could also be described as “heaven.” In other words, Jesus was promising to bring the thief with Him into heaven.
Yet Jesus also said that this would happen “today,” but Scripture records that after Jesus died, He spent three days in the center of the Earth in Sheol:
EPH. 4:8 Therefore it says,
“WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH,
HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES,
AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN.”
EPH. 4:9 (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?
EPH. 4:10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
For more information on what happened to Jesus when He died, please read: When Jesus died, where did His spirit go?
So how could the thief be in heaven with Jesus “today” when Jesus was in Sheol for three days?
The answer is the Bible describes Heaven not as a specific place but rather as multiple places, because Heaven is wherever Jesus is. When Jesus descended to the center of the earth, He occupied a place called Abraham’s Bosom, the holding place for the Old Testament saints. So during those three days, “heaven” was Abraham’s Bosom.
Later when Jesus resurrected, He departed Sheol and ascended to the right hand of the Father, so Heaven became God’s heavenly throne room. Finally, in a future day Heaven will be found on earth as Jesus returns at His Second Coming to rule, and all the saints return with HIm. So Heaven is wherever Jesus is.
Therefore, as the thief died with Jesus on that day, both of them entered Sheol together, and during that short time the thief was in paradise because he was in Christ’s presence. Later, when Jesus departed Sheol, Paul says He set free the captives (i.e., the Old Testament saints), meaning Jesus brought those saints with Him into the Heavenly realm of the Father. At that point, Heaven “moved” with Jesus, so the thief was still in paradise because He remained with Jesus.
For more information on these matters, including Sheol, please read: Where do we go when we die?