Theology of Paradise
Paradise is God’s abode. Thus Jubilees 8:19 states that Noah “knew that the Garden of Eden was the holy of holies and the dwelling of the Lord.” The translators of the Septuagint called the Garden of Eden planted by God himself, with a river running through it, paradeisos. Therefore it is remarkable and significant that the Lucan Jesus uses this Greek word on the cross when he tells the criminal, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Although Luke does not tell us where paradeisos is located, Paul understood it to be heaven.
Verses 39-43 is unique Lucan material in which assurances of the rule of Jesus in his kingdom is affirmed by a criminal. The reply of Jesus, “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” assures the criminal immediate entry into paradise.
Why did Jesus grant the Good Thief entry into the Kingdom of Heaven?
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the final part of the unique Lucan triad, the parables having in common the theme of lost and found or recovered. For those who have studied the various implications, it is the story of the ultimate outcast, a person reduced in status to feeding pigs, expressed in the language of economics. Darrell Bock has said the message is that “absolute reversal results from repentance . . . .”
The story of the 'Good Thief' is another example of a story unique to Luke that had one meaning to the High Priest and another meaning for us. The prophets repeatedly told the people 'repent and be saved.' The prophets taught that it was never too late to turn from your evil ways. The Good Thief did repent on the cross and the Lucan Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The High Priest believed that repentance was the key to salvation and therefore would have appreciated this story. It was the ultimate last minute act of repentance. The behavior of the Good Thief was consistent with Jewish belief that even someone who had gone astray could return to the fold of the covenant by repenting. Both the Prodigal Son and the Good Thief had repented.
Matthew and Mark omitted these stories of the Good Thief and Prodigal Son because for them the key to salvation was not repentance. The new focal point is the theology of the cross, which admittedly is missing from the Gospel of Luke.
Although Ravens notes this omission “causes problems,” it would be intellectually more honest to acknowledge that Luke is pre-Pauline and that the doctrine of the theology of the cross represents a later stage of theological development. Luke has no theology of the cross nor does he condemn the animal sacrificial system. The theology of the cross not only replaced the animal sacrificial system and the temple establishment led by the High Priest, it also essentially reduced the need for repentance.
Luke stresses more than any other New Testament writer the need for repentance. With Gabriel's announcement about John to Zechariah while he is serving in the Temple, Luke portrays Israel as a people in need of repentance. The need is repeated in the Song of Zechariah and is implied in John's message of repentance.
Luke's theology of repentance is very Jewish. There could be no remission of sins without repentance. The sacrifices are performed because God commanded the Jews to do so. The sacrifices were only effective if there was true repentance. When the prophets of Israel directed harsh criticism against sacrifice, their real target was not the sacrificial system as such but insincere atonement and the perfunctory way in which the offering was made.
The common denominator in the passages we have examined in our series on “the theology of prayer in Luke” is the connection between Jesus’ prayer and the cross: Luke 3:21;
5:16; 6:12; 9:18-27; 22:39-46; and 23:46. Luke’s theology of prayer primarily connects the cross and prayer. The purpose of the cross is to establish the kingdom of God (9:28-36; 22:39-46), and thus Jesus’ prayer points to the arrival of the kingdom.
The solemn affirmation of Jesus to the request of entry into the kingdom clearly indicates that the death of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom are events in immediate succession. While the criminal expects life at the Parousia, Jesus grants entry “today.” What Jesus promised is clear. The kingdom is either present or immediately follows the death of Jesus. This final prayer on the cross is a firm declaration that the kingdom of God has been established by the completion of the ministry of Jesus.
It arrived for the Good Thief on Good Friday when he entered into Paradise.