By William Lynes, MD
I have been troubled for some time concerning the eternal destiny of the two rebels, criminals, or thieves, crucified with Jesus Christ on the skull of Golgotha. Tradition holds that the criminal crucified on Jesus’ right was the good thief, whose eternal destiny was Heaven. It also holds that the criminal crucified on Jesus’ left was the bad thief whose eternal destiny was Hell. In reading the scriptures, however, I believe these traditions are overly simplified and much more far-reaching than the Bible specifies.
First, I would like to define the terms used in this essay.
I will use The First Thief to indicate the individual crucified on Christ’s right. The Gospels use the terms rebel and criminal for this individual; however, the term thief is traditionally used. The First Thief has been customarily known as the following:
• The Good Thief
• The Penitent Thief
I will use The Second Thief to refer to the individual crucified on Christ’s left. This individual has traditionally been known as the following:
• The Bad Thief
• The Impenitent Thief
First, let’s examine the Gospel scripture relevant to our discussion. Most information about the thieves comes from the Gospel of Luke.
Luke 23:39: One of the criminals who hung their hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
Luke 23:40: But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?”
Luke 23:41: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Luke 23:42: Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Luke 23:43: Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The other three Gospels give less information about these thieves.
Matthew 27:38: Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.
Matthew 27:44: In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
Mark 15:27: They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left.
John 19:18: There they crucified him and with him two others-one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
Note that Luke does not describe which thief is hurling insults, but rather that it is one of the criminals, and he does not identify which thief is rebuking him, but rather it is the other criminal. Only tradition has assigned the rebuking to The First Thief and the insulting to The Second Thief.
The eternal destiny of the thief that rebuked the thief that insulted Christ is relatively simple. Jesus himself says that he will be with him in paradise that day. The identity of which thief is to be in paradise with Christ is unclear. Tradition, however, assigns this to The First Thief.
The question of what is paradise is not a simple one. Whether this represents Heaven or some other spiritual destination is beyond the scope of this essay. Jesus did not ascend to Heaven with the Father for 43 days, three days in the tomb, and 40 days on Earth. Suffice it to say, The First Thief’s spiritual destination was with Jesus in paradise on the day of the crucifixion.
It is the spiritual destination of The Second Thief that troubles me the most. Tradition holds that this thief’s destination was Hell. This is based on the understanding that The Second Thief blasphemed Jesus. A comparison with The First Thief is often used to reinforce this sinful behavior. The traditional spiritual destination of The Second Thief, then, is based upon the accounts in the Gospel of Luke 23:39-43. If we forget that Luke does not name the blasphemous thief, assigning The Second Thief’s destination to Hell is based upon his blasphemy of Christ.
Can a sinful life be of such a blasphemous degree that one cannot be saved? In Matthew, Jesus answers this question.
Matthew 12:31: “And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”
Matthew 12:32: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
The Second Thief was a life-long sinner of great magnitude. His sins against society have brought him to the point of crucifixion. At the moment of Luke 23:39, he is an unsaved sinner. As Matthew’s gospel indicates, while he has blasphemed against the Son of Man, his sins are forgivable.
We know that we are saved by faith, not by works.
Acts 16:30: He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
Acts 16:31: They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
Ephesians 2:8: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—
Ephesians 2: 9: not by works, so that no one can boast.
At the point of Luke 23:39, The Second Thief is an unsaved sinner. My question is, what happened during that period until his death?
Jesus’ crucifixion began at 9 AM (Mark 15:25), and Jesus died at 3 PM (Mark 15:33), a 6-hour period of time. The two thieves were alive when Jesus died. (John 19:32-33). Then The Second Thief hung next to Jesus for six total hours. What effect would that association have on a man? Would Christ’s love have softened his hardened heart? Would that criminal come to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior?
We have all heard of last-minute salvation. A hardened sinful man or woman has a salvation experience on their death bed or just before death. I always hesitate to assign a spiritual destination to individuals because of this fact.
To summarize, the spiritual destination of the two thieves crucified with Jesus Christ on the skull of Golgotha remains troubling to me.
1. In Luke’s crucifixion account, one thief insults while the other thief rebukes the insulting thief. Assignment of these behaviors to The First or The Second Thief does not occur in Luke or elsewhere in scripture.
2. If we assume that the rebuking thief is, in fact, The First Thief, his eternal destiny is paradise with Jesus on the day of the crucifixion. Jesus did not ascend to Heaven and the right hand of the Father until day 43 after the crucifixion. Then we cannot say that The First Thief’s spiritual destination was Heaven.
3. The Second Thief was a grave sinner who blasphemed Jesus on the cross. As the blaspheme of the Son of Man can be forgiven, his eternal destination depends upon accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior sometime after Luke 39. Would his hard heart have been softened by the six hours of contact with the Savior?
The answer to the spiritual destiny of the two thieves crucified with Christ on Golgotha will have to await our joining Jesus in the afterlife.
All scripture is taken from the New International Version of the Holy Bible.