The idea centres upon the absence of punctuation in the original text within the sentence (adopted here from NIV):
"Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."
Specifically, the idea focuses on the absence of the second comma – the comma in “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This sentence follows a request by a thief who is hung beside Jesus.
Without any punctuation in the original text, the compilers of the NIV were at liberty to choose punctuation. The compilers undoubtedly used some form of punctuation or grammar style guide just as a major publisher of a newspaper or magazine uses a grammar style guide. So the text could read as (emphasis added for impact):
“Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”, or
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (NIV)
So what is the fuss?
In the alternate version, Jesus is promising Paradise at some later point: ‘I’m telling you today – you will be with me in Paradise (time unknown)’
In the NIV’s version, Jesus is recognising the immediacy of passage to paradise: ‘I’m telling you - It is today! – yes this day! – that you will join me in Paradise.’
The alternate version is favourable to the Catholic Church’s doctrine of Purgatory. The NIV version provides no room for Purgatory.
Having researched the matter I’m opting for the NIV version of punctuation. There are a few clues that assist:
1. Nowhere else amongst thirty occurrences of Jesus saying “Truly I tell you” in four Gospel accounts does Jesus add a further word. If we are to accept “Truly I tell you today,” then it is the only occurrence where “Truly I tell you” is joined with another word.
2. When Jesus says “Truly I tell you” he is in effect saying: ‘Here is a truth’ or ‘Listen up, this is true’. Jesus himself is Truth. The Truth does not need to first say that it is communicating a truth then also emphasis the truth by making it clear that the truth is being communicated today. A judge does not say: “Truly I tell you today that you will be sentenced for ten years in prison”. The judge instead can use the contextual setting of the court to simply say: “You will be sentenced for ten years in prison”.
3. The immediate prior verse: Luke 23:42, helps in understanding Luke 23:43.
Then the thief said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
In this verse the thief is effectively saying: “Jesus remember me when you take your reign as king”. All theological pointers are to how Jesus took that kingship on that day – or certainly within three days after the cross (after the resurrection). The “today” in verse 43 is therefore indicating that the thief - who most likely died within hours of Jesus – was indeed again immediately by Jesus side.
4. The Lazarus story in Luke 16 includes reference to how Lazarus died and was taken by angels to Abraham’s side. There is no indication of a delay in the passage to Abraham’s side. Jesus is greater than Abraham. Jesus can comfort much more than Abraham. Jesus in Luke 23 joins Abraham in death. It is fair to assume that on Jesus taking glory from Abraham that Jesus too would welcome persons by his side.
5. Jesus took his kingship through humility. Jesus knew that it was by being a servant king that he would conquer. In his last hour, with the task almost complete, Jesus knew that nothing stopped him in offering the immediacy of fellowship to the contrite thief.
6. Jesus descended to the dead to breathe life into the valley of the bones of the righteous (Ezekiel 37) . On doing so the bones assembled as a mighty army. Jesus took that mighty army with him into heaven. Death (Hades or Sheol) from that point on only homed the unrighteous dead. Jesus’s immediate promise of Paradise was to a contrite, righteous, heavenly-bound thief.
All of that led to questioning how the text of Luke 23:43 is presented in Catholic Bibles. In the two Catholic Bibles that I viewed on-line the NIV punctuation of the text was clearly used. This suggests that the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory rests on more than just Luke 23:43.