Yesterday here at Douai we celebrated the solemn feast of our patron saint, the young martyr King Edmund. Today all the Church celebrates the solemn feast of the King of kings, Christ our Lord. This year the gospel passage set for Mass was the scene on Calvary in St Luke’s Gospel in which the Good Thief asks the Lord on the Cross to remember him in his kingdom; our Lord answers him, “Today you will be with me in paradise”.
I heard today someone assert publicly that the meaning of this gospel passage is that our Lord was moved by the Good Thief’s repentance to forgive him everything so that he did not need to go to Purgatory but could join our Lord in heaven that very day. This indeed might be the interpretation of most people who read this passage of scripture. However it has two major flaws.
The first was addressed in the post earlier this month about Purgatory and praying for the dead. To recapitulate briefly, for God to forgive us does not necessarily mean we are spared Purgatory. Forgiveness spares us hell and gains us heaven, but for some of us, most in fact I suspect, we must be prepared for heaven, to dwell in the presence of the All-Holy, by being filled with holiness ourselves, the holiness without which no one can see God (Hebrews 12:14). Those in Purgatory, that state of preparation for heaven, have all been forgiven already, but need the deformations in them caused by sin to be repaired, their imperfections to be made perfect (in human terms) for we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Forgiveness does not in itself spare us the process of Purgatory.
But is being spared Purgatory even the point in this gospel passage? When our Lord promises Dismas, the Good Thief, that he will be with him that day in paradise, is our Lord in fact promising Dismas immediate entry into heaven? Is paradise heaven?
In the creed we profess that when Christ died he was buried and “descended to the dead (and) on the third day he rose again”. And for another 40 days after his resurrection our Lord remained on earth. He did not enter haven until the Ascension, when he went to the right hand of the Father. So if paradise is the same as heaven, then it seems our Lord must have told poor Dismas the thief a lie when he would be with him there that very day, since Christ did not return to God for another 43 days!
Obviously our Lord did not lie. Where, then, did Dismas go with our Lord that day of their deaths? The creed says that our Lord, and so Dismas with him, descended to the dead. This realm of the dead, which in older versions of the creed is somewhat unhelpfully termed “hell”, was the place, or state, where the souls of the dead awaited redemption by Christ. Until that redemption was gained through Christ’s blood then heaven was closed. Yet they were not damned to hell or eternal punishment, as were the souls who were sent to the place of torment, Gehenna in Hebrew, which we would in today’s usage call hell. This abode of the just who had died was a sort of waiting room for Christ, neither heaven nor hell. The Jews called it Sheol in Hebrew, or in Greek Hades. Thus the Psalmist, for example, often spoke of it as a place of silence: “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any that go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).
In the Gospel of St Luke, in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, Christ says that poor Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham”, while the rich and selfish Dives goes to the torments of Gehenna. The bosom of Abraham is Sheol, shown here, in contrast to Gehenna, as a place of relative comfort and peace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #633, offers some teaching on this. In the early Church the bosom of Abraham, Sheol, was identified with “paradise” and as distinct from heaven either as (1) a place of purely natural bliss for those worthy neither of heaven nor hell (in other words, limbo), as for example in St Irenaeus’ Against Heresies; or (2) as a place of preparation for heaven (much like our developed concept of Purgatory), as in Origen’s De Principiis.
To cut to the chase, paradise was not heaven itself, not in this biblical context. For all that, our Lord was obviously promising Dismas something wonderful. He was certainly promising to take Dismas with him to the realm of the dead who awaited him, and whom he would lead from there into glory. I guess we might say that Dismas was promised a brief Purgatory that would lead inevitably into heavenly glory. More marvellously, he was promised that he would be with Jesus. In this sense our Lord’s descent to the dead made of Sheol a paradise by his very presence there after his death, and his proclamation of redemption to the souls who waited there. In effect, in his body our Lord brought heaven into Sheol, to make of it a bud that would flower into heaven.
So the bottom line is the same for all the technical complexities – Dismas is promised glory, though not “today” as such, but certainly. We could say that Christ himself canonised the Good Thief, which is why Christian tradition from earliest times gave him a name, Dismas, and prefixed it with “Saint”.
May St Dismas pray for us who yet await paradise; and may Christ our King reign in our world and in our hearts.