Question: What is the meaning of “paradise” in the Savior’s statement to the thief?
Answer: Paradise is that part of the spirit world in which the righteous spirits who have departed from this life await the resurrection of the body. It is a condition of happiness and peace.
In the scriptures, the word paradise is used in different ways. First, as mentioned above, it designates a place of peace and happiness in the postmortal spirit world, reserved for those who have been baptized and who have remained faithful (see Alma 40:12; Moroni 10:34). Those in spirit prison have the opportunity to learn the gospel of Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and receive the ordinances of baptism and confirmation through the work we do in temples (see Doctrine and Covenants 138:30–35). If they accept the gospel and their temple work has been done, they may enter paradise.
A second use of the word paradise is found in Luke’s account of the Savior’s Crucifixion. When Jesus was on the cross, a thief who also was being crucified said, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). According to Luke 23:43, the Lord replied, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that this is a mistranslation; the Lord actually said that the thief would be with Him in the world of spirits. In the spirit world, the thief would hear the gospel preached.
The word paradise is also found in 2 Corinthians 12:4, where it probably refers to the celestial kingdom. In the tenth article of faith, the word paradisiacal describes the earth’s glory in the Millennium.
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39 And one of the malefactors (thieves) which were hanged (being crucified) railed on him (angrily yelled insults at him), saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.
40 But the other (thief) answering rebuked him (scolded the other thief), saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?
41 And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds (we are getting what we deserve): but this man hath done nothing amiss (wrong).
42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.
43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
Note: It is a common belief that the thief on the cross went to paradise. This is not the case. The Bible Dictionary states, “The Bible rendering is incorrect. The statement would more accurately read, ‘Today shalt thou be with me in the world of spirits’ since the thief was not ready for paradise.”
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A correct understanding of the doctrine of redemption of the dead makes family history and temple work more than just an interesting hobby. Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of the perspective that Latter-day Saints could use regarding the vastness of the Lord’s work in the postmortal spirit world:
“Often Church members suffer from a lack of perspective, perhaps understandably, as to the vastness and intensity of the Lord’s work in the spirit world. The scope is enormous! Demographers estimate that some sixty to seventy billion people have lived on this planet thus far. Without diminishing in any way the importance of the absolutely vital and tandem work on this side of the veil, we do need a better grasp of ‘things as they really will be’ (Jacob 4:13). Otherwise, we can so easily come to regard family history as a quaint hobby and its resulting temple work as something we will get around to later” (The Promise of Discipleship , 105).
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Sources: Come, Follow Me–For Individuals and Families, p. 95; The New Testament Made Easier, Part 1, Volume 2, by David J. Ridges, 249; Manuals, Gospel Topics, Paradise; Introduction to Family History Teacher Manual: Religion 261, Chapter 9, “The Spirit World and the Redemption of the Dead.”