Jesus comforts the believing thief.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 April 2019

Mark 15.27, 32, Matthew 27.38, 44, Luke 23.32-33, 39-43.

Jesus was crucified at about “the third hour [after sunrise],” Mk 15.25 and died at the ninth. Mk 15.34-37 Sunrise on 3 April 33, in that latitude (and before daylight-saving time was implemented), is at 5:24 AM. But “third hour” and “ninth hour” are hardly exact times; figure roughly from 8:30 AM to 2:30 PM he was on that cross. Six hours, slowly suffocating.

His cross was in between that of two evildoers Lk 23.33 or thieves. Mk 15.27 Christians like to imagine these guys were worse, like insurrectionists, or highwaymen who murdered their victims. ’Cause karma: If you’re getting crucified, it’d better be for murder or something just as awful. One of these guys implied they were getting their just desserts, Lk 23.41 so shouldn’t that make ’em murderers? Death by crucifixion sounds like way too extreme a penalty for mere thieves.

But we have to remember we’re dealing with Romans here. For them, everything merited death. They didn’t care the penalty didn’t fit the crime: They just wanted thievery to stop. So, one strike and you’re out. Thieves knew this was the risks of the job. But like all criminals, they figured they were smarter than the authorities, and they, unlike their dumber colleagues, would get away with it. These guys didn’t: The Romans caught ’em and crucified ’em. And that’s the way the game is played.

We don’t have their names. But you gotta call ’em something, so Christian tradition calls these guys Gestas and Dismas. Meh; whatever. Since Dismas was the guy who turned to Jesus and got into paradise, he’s now St. Dismas. (And 25 March is even St. Dismas’s Day. How ’bout that.) Whatever his actual name is, that idea isn’t wrong: He’s in the kingdom now.

Two of the gospels make it sound like they neither thief had any love for Jesus. They joined right in with all the non-crucified folks mocking Jesus.

Mark 15.27 KWL
They crucified two thieves with Jesus: One on the right, one at his left.
Matthew 27.38 KWL
38 Then two thieves were crucified with Jesus, one at right and one at left.
Luke 23.32-33 KWL
32 They brought two others with Jesus, evildoers to be done away with.
33 When they came to the place called Skull, there they crucified Jesus and the evildoers,
who were at right and at left.
Mark 15.32 KWL
“Messiah, king of Israel, has to come down from the cross now, so we can see and believe him.”
And those crucified with Jesus insulted him.
Matthew 27.44 KWL
Likewise the thieves crucified with Jesus insulted him.

But at some point during those six hours, Dismas had a change of heart, and when Gesmas was sniping at Jesus, Dismas decided to stand up for him.

Luke 23.39-43 KWL
39 One of the hanging evildoers was slandering Jesus, saying,
“Aren’t you Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 In rebuking reply, the other said, “Have you no respect for God? We’re under his judgment!
41 And we rightly so, for we got the consequence for what we practiced.
But this man did nothing wrong.”
42 He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 Jesus said, “Amen! I promise you’ll be with me in paradise today.”

Paradise? What about heaven?

Popular culture insists when we die, we go to heaven. Popular Christianity tends to do likewise. And it’s sorta true… but it skips an awful lot of stuff which happens inbetween now and heaven.

See, heaven isn’t the place of the dead, but the living. There are no dead people in heaven. Jesus is there—but as you recall, he’s not dead. He got resurrected. The Father is there; angels of various species are there; plus people whom God decided to take to heaven early. Like Elijah. And, according to some traditions, Jesus’s mom.

When we die, we go to the afterlife. Which gets called by various things in the bible. Usually ἅδης/ádis, “hades,” or as the KJV confusingly and inaccurately puts it, “hell.” It’s what the Apostles’ Creed means when it states Jesus “descended into hell”: He went to the afterlife. Not the burning pool of fire and sulfur; that doesn’t exist yet. Hades isn’t necessarily a place of torment. For those who reject God, yes it’s gonna suck. For those who trust God, it’s gonna be peace and comfort as we await our resurrection. It’s going to be, to use Jesus’s word, παραδείσῳ/paradeíso, “paradise.”

But paradise is gonna be temporary. ’Cause once Jesus returns, he’s raising all us Christians from the dead. 1Th 4.16 And at the very End, he’s raising everyone else from the dead. Rv 20.12 Those who reject God are going into the fire, Rv 20.15 and those who don’t will live forever with God in New Heaven. Rv 21.1-4 That’s when we go to heaven. Not right away. But eventually.

People don’t always wanna hear that. They much prefer the pop culture idea: “We’re going to heaven! To be with Jesus forever!” And maybe even become angels, like the pagans believe; and watch over our loved ones, and listen to them whenever they talk at our graves. Unless they’re boring and ramble on and on and on, ’cause I’ve been to the cemetery and heard people talk to dead spouses; if they’re listening to that day in and day out, they’re clearly not in any good part of the afterlife. Egad.

Most of us figure when people are in mourning, now is not the time to correct their theology. Problem is, they never correct it any other time, and let ’em keep on believing heaven is the afterlife. And that we never leave this afterlife.

Well. The Pharisees taught there is an afterlife, and paradise within it. They even located it in the “third heaven,” 2Co 12.2 seven heavens below the place where God dwells (and five below the stars in the seventh heaven), so technically it’s not the heaven, God’s heaven. But it’s not on earth either.

This is the paradise Jesus spoke of. He and Dismas would die that day: Jesus from running out of strength due to his flogging and blood loss and sleep deprivation, and Dismas from the Romans breaking his legs Jn 19.32 so it’d be impossible to pull himself up to breathe, and he’d suffocate quicker, and be dead before sundown. But they’d be in the afterlife together—in the good part of the afterlife, in paradise.

I know; plenty of Christians have explained paradise away as a “spiritual paradise,” as Thomas Aquinas put it: He meant heaven, right? ’Cause everybody knows when people die they go to heaven. And thus we embrace our favorite beliefs instead of what Jesus likely meant. As usual.

Was this the answer the thief wanted?

Realistically, I doubt Dismas ever heard Jesus’s statements to his students that he was gonna die yet rise on the third day. So if he knew anything at all about the resurrection—that Jesus would die that day, but rise once Sabbath was over and take possession of his kingdom—this info had to have come directly from the Holy Spirit. There’s no possible way Dismas could’ve deduced it.

But if the Spirit had told Dismas no such thing, what could we reasonably expect him to think? Two possibilities.

  • He imagined Jesus was gonna get rescued (miraculously or not), survive crucifixion, and see his kingdom come.
  • He was delirious from pain, and didn’t know what Jesus’s condition was—but deep down believed Jesus is Messiah, so it was only a matter of time before he took possession of his kingdom.

Either way we’ve got faith there. Wrong or wack, but still faith.

But Jesus’s response referred to paradise, not the kingdom. The afterlife, not the present, nor even the age to come. Death, not life. He and Dismas were gonna die; he to come back in a few days, and Dismas to come back once Jesus takes his kingdom. Either way, it’s not a timeline Dismas expected. Heck, even Jesus’s students had it wrong, and he’d told them how many times he was gonna die and come back?

So Dismas may not have expected to hear this response from Jesus. But I believe Jesus meant it as comfort, and I expect it was comforting. Dismas had every reason to assume he’d never make it to a good afterlife. More likely something hotter, something which stank more than crucifixion. But instead, thanks to God’s grace, he was gonna be with Jesus, and receive comfort instead of torment. So there’s that.

It probably bugged Jesus that he couldn’t offer Dismas anything more at that time. Usually Jesus didn’t just offer kind words and nothing more, like some pathetic chaplain who doesn’t really believe in miracles (and frankly, won’t always mean it when they offer stale platitudes): Jesus cured the suffering. But at the time, the healer couldn’t heal. Just like his enemies taunted.