Jehovah’s Witnesses will go to extremes to try and establish their doctrine. They even go so far as to ignore common rules of grammar and punctuation. One clear example of this is Luke 23: 43– “And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.'”
The New World Translation reads differently. “And he said to him: ‘Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.'”
Notice the subtle difference. The comma is placed after “today” instead of before it. This change places the emphasis on when Christ said the statement instead of when it was to take place. This small difference has changed the meaning of the verse in order to fit into Jehovah’s Witness doctrine. The Watchtower explains their view in the book Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 2 pg. 575. “Luke’s account shows that an evildoer, being executed alongside Jesus Christ, spoke words in Jesus’ defense and requested that Jesus remember him when he ‘got into his kingdom.’ Jesus’ reply was: ‘Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39-43) The punctuation shown in the rendering of these words must, of course, depend on the translator’s understanding of the sense of Jesus’ words, since no punctuation was used in the original Greek text. Punctuation in the modern style did not become common until about the ninth century C.E. Whereas many translations place a comma before the word “today” and thereby give the impression that the evildoer entered Paradise that same day, there is nothing in the rest of the Scriptures to support this.”
The Watchtower teaches that the soul is not immortal so that when a person dies, their soul is extinguished like the flame of a snuffed candle. Thus, when Jesus and the two thieves died, they ceased to exist. If Jesus was telling the thief that he would be with him “today,” then that would prove that souls are indeed immortal. One little punctuation mark prevents Jehovah’s Witnesses from accepting this Biblical truth.
How are we as Christians supposed to refute this interpretation? One suggestion is made by ex-JW elder, David Reed, in his book, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Answered Verse by Verse. On page 69 Reed states, “Ask the Jehovah’s Witness you are speaking with to show you the Comprehensive Concordance that the Watchtower Society published in 1973 for the New World Translation. Since the concordance is arranged alphabetically, have the Witness look up the word ‘truly.’ There you will find a convenient listing of the six verses where the Lord used this same expression in the Gospel of Luke, as well as all seventy-one passes where he used it in the four Gospels. In addition to the chapter-and-verse numbers, the concordance shows the words immediately before and after ‘truly’ in each text. Just glance at the list: the commas all line up, except for Luke 23:43. This is the only verse that they punctuated differently, so as to include the time element in the first half of the sentence – obvious proof that Watchtower translators altered this verse to fit the sect’s doctrines.”
One other idea is to ignore the comma altogether and look at this verse from a completely different perspective. Instead of arguing whether or not the thief will be with Jesus “today” or at some other point in the future, it is important to point out to the Jehovah’s Witness that Jesus said two important things to the condemned man. He would be with Jesus and the place they would be together is paradise.* This flies in the face of Watchtower doctrine for a number of reasons. The organization teaches very clearly that paradise is on earth. “As to the identification of the Paradise of which Jesus spoke, it is clearly not synonymous with the heavenly Kingdom of Christ. Earlier that day entry into that heavenly Kingdom had been held out as a prospect for Jesus’ faithful disciples but on the basis of their having ‘stuck with him in his trials,’ something the evildoer had never done, his dying on a stake alongside Jesus being purely for his own criminal acts. (Luke 22:28-30; 23:40, 41) The evildoer obviously had not been ‘born again,’ of water and spirit, which Jesus showed was a prerequisite to entry into the Kingdom of the heavens. (John 3:3-6) Nor was the evildoer one of the ‘conquerors’ that the glorified Christ Jesus stated would be with him on his heavenly throne and that have a share in ’the first resurrection.’” (Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 2 pg. 576)
This quote also notes that the thief will not be in heaven with Jesus. This raises some serious questions. If paradise is on earth and the thief will be with Jesus in paradise, then shouldn’t Jesus be on earth also? Or, if the man is going to be with Jesus in paradise, as Jesus promised, and Jesus is going to be in heaven, then shouldn’t the thief be in heaven? Either interpretation contradicts Watchtower theology. Regardless of whether you place paradise and the thief in heaven or on earth, the fact cannot be disputed that Jesus said they would be together! How else would the thief have interpreted the statement made by Christ? Imagine the disappointment of the thief once he is resurrected, yet never able to see Jesus again. Would he not feel lied to?
Praise God that we do not have to worry about such a scenario! We can rest assured in the promises of Christ that we also will one day be with him. Will we be with him in heaven or on earth? Personally speaking, I really don’t care. As long as I am with Christ, it doesn’t make a difference to me were we will be.
*A special thanks to Michael Meiring of Defending the Faith Ministries for this insight.