The Problem of the Thief and the Crucifixion
In perhaps what is one of the most perplexing passages of the New Testament, we find a story during the alleged crucifixion of Jesus the Christ that challenges the very core of commonly held Christian beliefs about Christ and salvation. We read from Luke 23:39-43 (NIV) the following:
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
If we were to ask a confessional Christian today (one that knows of and adheres to the doctrinal confessions of the faith) what one needed to believe in for salvation, we would perhaps have a very long list. It would likely include belief that Jesus died for the sins of all, that Jesus was God, that Jesus was both man and God (belief in the hypostatic union), belief that the New Testament is the word of God, belief in the Godhead, in the Personhood of each member of the Godhead who were all co-equal and co-substantial to each other.
Yet the 5 verses from the Gospel eventually attributed to Luke present a severe theological problem that strikes at the very core of Christian theology. The question before us is, what did the thief say, believe and do to be granted salvation? When we examine the verses we can identify only two things:
- That Jesus was an innocent man.
- That Jesus was a King (or would become one at some point).
All the thief had to do to be granted salvation was to accept that Jesus was innocent and thus did not deserve to be crucified, and that Jesus would survive in some form such that he would become a king or have a kingdom. By this standard, all Muslims will be granted entry into the kingdom of God. The thief did not have to believe in the New Testament, did not have to accept the Old Testament, did not have to express belief in the Trinity, did not have to believe in the Godhead, did not have to believe in the two natures of Christ, did not have to even accept Jesus as the Messiah! He did not have to believe Jesus was the incarnate word of God, he did not have to believe that Jesus was the 2nd person in the Godhead…in other words, the thief did not have to believe in anything that Christians today hold to be true.
There is perhaps an even greater issue here. The thief claims that Jesus was innocent and thus did not deserve to be punished. See, Christians necessarily believe that while Jesus was innocent, he deserved to suffer and be punished, because he came to suffer for our sins as an act of grace:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 (NIV).
“And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” – Luke 9:22 (NIV).
According to the above passages, Christ must suffer and must be killed. However, the thief on the cross, seemingly disagrees with these teachings. The thief explicitly says that not only is Jesus innocent, but that he did not deserve to die. In other words, the thief is expressing an Islamic position that Muslims would agree with. Jesus did not deserve to die, he did not deserve to suffer and he was an innocent man. In other words, Jesus rewards a thief and claims the thief would be in the Kingdom of God with him because he denied the core tenets of Christianity while affirming core beliefs of Islam.
The thief in no uncertain words explains that his crucifixion on the cross is justified, but Jesus’s isn’t, however, confessional Christians would argue that in order for sin to be paid, it had to be justified through the death of Jesus the Christ. This presents a problem for Christianity. Jesus rewards a man and accepts him into the Kingdom of God for expressively, clearly and absolutely, rejecting core Christian beliefs about salvation!
Comments by Scholars
These 5 verses deliver a devastating blow to the consistency of the doctrine of salvation in Christianity. These verses essentially approve of Islamic beliefs and indicate that Muslims according to Jesus…would be in the Kingdom of God, since we believe that he was innocent and that the alleged crucifixion was not justified in any way. These are things a Christian today cannot deny, these are things a Christian today has to believe in, yet a thief with Islamic beliefs only accepted two tenets, both of which agree with core Islamic beliefs, and was rewarded and praised by Jesus! The scholars have had difficulty in understanding these passages. It must first be noted that only one Gospel records this incident and this is the Gospel of Luke:
“Luke’s account is noticeably independent of the other three. The three sayings of Christ’s, round which his narrative is grouped, are preserved by him alone. We shall best grasp the dominant impression which the Evangelist unconsciously had himself received, and sought to convey, by gathering the whole round these three words from the Cross.” – MacLaren’s Expositions.
The other three Gospels are noticeably silent on the thieves, except for the case of demonizing them:
“In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” – Matthew 27:44 (NIV).
“Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” – Mark 15:32 (NIV).
The final Gospel, later attributed to John (which John, we don’t know), does not mention any of the words of the thieves, it does not even identify them as thieves or rebels. Instead, this is all the Gospel as to say:
“The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other.” – John 19:32 (NIV).
Resolving the Problem
Some Christian commentators (exegetes) have attempted to navigate around this narrative disaster by implying that the thief/ rebel had other beliefs, that he believed Jesus was a God or that Jesus was meant to die for his sins and thus was saved because of this. The problem with such an argument is that the only Gospel to mention this incident does not indicate any of these things. The Gospel does not indicate that the thief/ rebel believed in anything other than what was recorded. In other words, this is a poor attempt at reading between the lines and should therefore be rejected. If scripture is sufficient for understanding salvation, then the plain reading of these 5 passages should be accepted without having a need to insert anything into scripture, to force it to say something it does not.
These five passages are a disaster for any Christian who takes their faith seriously. Every core tenet that one needs to believe in to be considered a confessional Christian is necessarily discarded by the thief and approved of by Jesus himself. In fact, the very beliefs that Jesus was an innocent man and did not deserve to die, that his death is unjustifiable is an Islamic belief. Thus, there are two arguments to be claimed here:
- According to Jesus, all one has to do to be granted entry into the Kingdom of God is to accept that Jesus is innocent and that his death was unjustified (which affirms Islam’s beliefs about Jesus). Therefore the beliefs of most Christians have been deemed unnecessary and useless by Jesus himself.
- That belief in Jesus dying for the sins of the world is unjustified and that Jesus affirms this, thereby establishing that him dying does not acquit us of our sins (essentially refuting core Christian beliefs about the purpose behind Jesus’s death in the first place).
May God guide our Christian brothers and sisters to the truth of Jesus the Christ, which is to the Oneness of God.
and Allah knows best.