“1 Thessalonians chapter 4, in referring to the second coming, states “and the dead in Christ will rise first”. I am confused because in Luke 23 Jesus told the thief on the cross “today you will be with me in paradise.” Is there a way to reconcile this difference?”
Hello Louise, when I was a youth pastor at Rod’s church, I was asked a very similar question. The dilemma for the youth at the time was that the Bible is contradicting itself: How can Jesus say “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) and then ascend three days later. Clearly, that is not “today”! In a similar way, how can Paul say, “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16) if Jesus said “today”.
Without getting too deep into theological frameworks on the afterlife, I think there is a more pragmatic answer to this question. While using the word today can refer to a 24-hour timeframe or while there is daylight, the word today can also be used to indicate “starting now”. In other words, “Truly, I say to you, [starting] today you will be with me in paradise”. We know this to be spiritually true. When Christ died on that cross, He defeated death. The thief understood his punishment was just and sincerely believed unto Christ as Lord, however self-seeking it may have appeared given the circumstances. To add to this point, after Jesus said, “today you will be with me in paradise,” He calls out in a loud voice and says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (v.46) In other words, both Jesus and the thief died that day and were committed to the Father. It does not say that the thief would be awake or conscious with the Father in heaven, but it does say that his spirit would be securely with God in the afterlife (John 6:39; Psalm 16:10). Since it is the spirit the enlivens the body, the thief is saved for the resurrection when “the dead in Christ will rise first”. On that Day, the thief’s mortal body will be restored (Romans 8:10-11).
Soul Sleep or Present with the Lord?
I’m not going to delve into this “soul sleep” versus “present with the Lord” debate. What I will say is that from God’s vantage point, it doesn’t really make a difference; the spiritual world doesn’t operate like our world. But from our earthly vantage point, soul sleep makes a lot of sense, practically speaking. After all, Paul refers to the saints who have fallen asleep after Christ’s ascension: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-15) Admittedly, Paul could be speaking symbolically about those who have “fallen asleep” because that is how we see things from our perspective, not how it is in heaven necessarily. Sleep is often used as a symbolic and prophetic parallel for death throughout Scripture for the obvious metaphorical image of looking lifeless and waking up one Day (1 Kings 2:10; Psalm 13:3; Jeremiah 51:39, 57; Daniel 12:2; Matthew 9:24; John 11:11-14; Acts 7:59-60; 1 Corinthians 15:6, 20; Ephesians 5:14). Like actual sleep, when you wake up it feels like no time has passed, yet you are rested. As it may be in the resurrection. While “sleep” may indicate the actual state of a person’s soul in the afterlife (cf. 1 Samuel 28:15), it is still speculation. We do not understand how heaven works, so we speak in terms we can understand (1 Corinthians 13:9-10). And if we cannot grasp heaven in earthly terms, then we cannot speak of heaven in heavenly terms. This is beyond our understanding (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Humility is advised–––but I digress.
The metaphorical use of sleep also has strong ties with the metaphorical use of “rest”. The word rest is often associated with a righteous person who dies will have peaceful rest in God (Isaiah 57:1-2; Matthew 11:28-30) whereas evil and wickedness is often associated with being “restless” (Genesis 4:12, 14; Matthew 12:43; James 3:8). It also has significance in relation to the new heavens and new earth. Finding conscious rest in Christ has profound theological and eschatological symbolism when comparing the Israelite wilderness wandering to the new creation to come, where only those who believed God’s word entered the Promised Land and were given God’s rest. Like the Promise Land, God promises to give ultimate rest in Paradise to those who believe (Revelation 14:13; Acts 3:20-21; Hebrews 4:1-11; Exodus 33:14; Hebrews 3:7-11, 18-19; Psalm 95:7-11).
All that to say–––rest assured! Whether the thief is awake, resting, or sleeping in the Lord, he was still saved by Christ on the day he died.
I hope that solves your dilemma, Louise, and gives you some extra food for thought. God Bless you today!
Matlock Bobechko | July 28, 2021 – 1:00 PM EST