Question: Jesus said to the thief on the cross that today he would be with him in Paradise. But when Jesus is resurrected three days later from the dead he tells Mary not to cling to him because he has not yet ascended to his Father. Did he not go to Paradise the day he died?
Answer: When Jesus died he commended his spirit to God. His body went into the tomb, but his spirit went to Paradise. Paradise is most likely another name for “Abraham’s side,” mentioned in Luke 16:22 (NIV), where Lazarus, the poor man is said to have gone at death. The rich man who died after him saw Lazarus at Abraham’s side, but the rich man is described by Jesus as being in Hades and tormented. Hades is usually conceived of as being in the earth.
It seems probable that upon Jesus’ death he went to the place where Lazarus is said to have gone, and that when his spirit was rejoined with his resurrected body three days later, he spent 40 days with his disciples in various appearances to them. When he ascended it makes sense to suppose that he took all those who were in Paradise, or at Abraham’s side, to heaven with him. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:2,4 that he was caught up at one time to the third heaven or Paradise where he heard from God. This seems to be the Heaven that Christians are promised as our place of rest before the resurrection of our bodies.
If Jesus did not move Paradise from the earth to the third heaven at his ascension it would only mean that Paradise was already in heaven, that Jesus’ spirit went there at death and then afterward was joined with his resurrected body to spend some more time with his disciples on earth, only to return there at the ascension.