Sunday, April 02, 2006

Every Christian In The Thief On The Cross

Next week we celebrate Good Friday. Jesus wasn't crucified alone.

A dying thief was told "today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Christians throughout church history, especially Protestants, have been moved by this passage, and it's given them much joy and peace. The thief has found his way into a lot of popular theology, literature, and music. In his popular hymn "There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood", William Cowper wrote:

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.

The thief isn't baptized, nor does he do anything else to attain Paradise. Though he still had time to sin in his thoughts and with his lips, as he had earlier that day (Matthew 27:44), Jesus assures him of his future in Heaven.

Heaven, that is, not Purgatory. He would be in Paradise today. Is it any wonder that this passage has been especially appreciated by Protestants and is often cited in disputes between Protestants and Catholics? No baptism. No threat of losing his salvation and not going to Paradise after all. No Purgatory. It's understandable why Protestants cite this passage often, while Catholics dismiss it as some sort of highly exceptional passage (Most people have to be baptized, but the thief didn't have to be; It's dangerous to assure most people of their future in Heaven, but Jesus assured the thief; Most people have to go to Purgatory, but the thief didn't have to).

Luke's account of the dying thief is so moving, so characteristic of Jesus' love, such a powerful example of God's grace, that even many people who don't want the thief to be seen as normative in some contexts will cite him as normative in other contexts. Though various forms of justification through works were popular among the church fathers, we often see them describing the thief on the cross as an example for all believers. Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 5:5:1, 5:31:2) refers to all believers immediately going to the same Paradise that Jesus and the thief went to, not Purgatory. Tertullian speaks of the thief as if he's normative (On Modesty, 22). Arthur Just cites examples of Origen, Leo the Great, and other fathers referring to how the thief was given Paradise as a result of his faith, how the thief represents the salvation of all people, etc. (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament III: Luke [Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003], pp. 363-367). David King has drawn my attention to the following passage in John Chrysostom:

"Let us see, however, whether the brigand [dying thief] gave evidence of effort and upright deeds and a good yield. Far from his being able to claim even this, he made his way into paradise before the apostles with a mere word, on the basis of faith alone, the intention being for you to learn that it was not so much a case of his sound values prevailing as the Lord’s lovingkindness being completely responsible." (Robert Charles Hill, trans., St John Chrysostom: Eight Sermons on the Book of Genesis [Boston: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2004], Homily 7, p. 123)

But comments like these in the fathers are accompanied by other comments that are more dismissive of the thief, such as these remarks by Augustine:

"Accordingly, the thief, who was no follower of the Lord previous to the cross, but His confessor upon the cross, from whose case a presumption is sometimes taken, or attempted, against the sacrament of baptism, is reckoned by St. Cyprian among the martyrs who are baptized in their own blood, as happens to many unbaptized persons in times of hot persecution, For to the fact that he confessed the crucified Lord so much weight is attributed and so much availing value assigned by Him who knows how to weigh and value such evidence, as if he had been crucified for the Lord. Then, indeed, his faith on the cross flourished when that of the disciples failed, and that without recovery if it had not bloomed again by the resurrection of Him before the terror of whose death it had drooped. They despaired of Him when dying, - he hoped when joined with Him in dying; they fled from the author of life, - he prayed to his companion in punishment; they grieved as for the death of a man, - he believed that after death He was to be a king; they forsook the sponsor of their salvation, - he honoured the companion of His cross. There was discovered in him the full measure of a martyr, who then believed in Christ when they fell away who were destined to be martyrs. All this, indeed, was manifest to the eyes of the Lord, who at once bestowed so great felicity on one who, though not baptized, was yet washed clean in the blood, as it were, of martyrdom. But even of ourselves, who cannot reflect with how much faith, how much hope, how much charity he might have undergone death for Christ when living, who begged life of Him when dying? Besides all this, there is the circumstance, which is not incredibly reported, that the thief who then believed as he hung by the side of the crucified Lord was sprinkled, as in a most sacred baptism, with the water which issued from the wound of the Saviour's side. I say nothing of the fact that nobody can prove, since none of us knows that he had not been baptized previous to his condemnation. However, let every man take this in the sense he may prefer; only let no rule about baptism affecting the Saviour's own precept [John 3:5] be taken from this example of the thief; and let no one promise for the case of unbaptized infants, between damnation and the kingdom of heaven, some middle place of rest and happiness, such as he pleases and where he pleases. For this is what the heresy of Pelagius promised them: he neither fears damnation for infants, whom he does not regard as having any original sin, nor does he give them the hope of the kingdom of heaven, since they do not approach to the sacrament of baptism." (On The Soul And Its Origin, 1:11)

Augustine's reasoning here is less than convincing. His treatment of the thief on the cross wasn't one of his best efforts.

Commentators on Luke's gospel rightly note that the thief's immediate justification, upon placing his hope in Jesus, isn't something unique to the thief, but is a theme we see over and over again in the writings of Luke (Luke 5:20, 7:50, 17:19, 18:10-14, 19:9, Acts 10:44-48, 15:7-11, 19:2). People are justified as soon as they believe, before or without baptism or any other work. The thief is an example of the rule, though a dramatic one, not an exception. All of us have to approach God in the same way, with nothing in our hands, not even baptism. And all who do so have the same assurance of future Paradise without works and without Purgatory.


  1. It is interesting how you apply Jesus' words to the thief to every Christian, but do not apply His words to John ("This is your mother," regarding Mary) to every Christian. Hmmmm.

  2. How interesting that you Catholics remember "I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven" only when it was spoken to Peter, and not when it was spoken to all the disciples... Hmmmmm.

    Answer: Because every Christian has sins that need to be forgiven. But not every Christian can say he personally cared for Jesus' mother in his home.

    Or are you seriously arguing that Dismas got special treatment not available to other believers?

    It is a huge stretch from "Behold your mother" ("he cared for her, because she was an elderly, vulnerable widow") to the Catholic Marian doctrines ("Mary cares for us, because she is a powerful co-redemptrix".) The message here that's applicable to all Christians is: Be like Jesus, who even amidst horrendous suffering, cared for his family/ for widows.

    Evangelical "implications from Scripture" amount to connecting dots (1 God + three persons = Trinity). Catholic "implications from Scripture", OTOH, amount to allow theological speculations and pagan influences to creep into the church and then casting around, centuries later, for isolated proof-texts that sound like they have something to do with the matter.

  3. Anonymous,

    Tom has already answered your objection, though the weakness of your objection is so obvious that you shouldn't have needed anybody to explain it to you. As I mentioned in the article, the justification of the thief on the cross and his assurance of Heaven the day he died are identical to what we see over and over again with other people in scripture, in Luke's writings and elsewhere. I don't deny that we could view the thief as an exception if we had evidence leading us to that conclusion. But the evidence goes in the opposite direction. There's no reason to see the thief as an exception. He's dismissed as an exception by people who have to dismiss him in order to maintain their false view of the relevant issues.

    As far as Mary is concerned, I don't see what the problem is with the common Evangelical interpretations of John 19. Apparently, Joseph was dead at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. Mary needed to be taken care of, and Jesus' siblings were in a poor spiritual state. One of Jesus' disciples, such as John, would be in a better position to give her proper care. We can learn larger principles from the passage, such as the love of Jesus and the importance of caring for relatives, but the sort of non-Evangelical principles Catholics derive from the passage are neither necessary nor demonstrably probable. The text doesn't lead us to a Catholic view of Mary, and the New Testament authors and the church fathers widely contradict the Roman Catholic view of Mary, so why should we think that John 19 is intended to lead us to something like the Catholic view of her?

    After John records the relevant words of Jesus, he explains what happened as a result of Jesus' statement (John 19:27). What does John tell us? Does he tell us that, from that point onward, all Christians across the world recognized Mary as their spiritual mother? Does John tell us that, as a result of Jesus' comments, Christians began honoring Mary as Roman Catholics honor her? No, what John tells us is that, as a result of Jesus' comments, John took Mary into his home. So, we have John himself telling us that Jesus' comments had the sort of effect Evangelicals would expect, without any additional Roman Catholic implications mentioned. If you want us to accept the additional implications you're deriving from the passage, you need to prove those implications rather than just asserting them.

    By the way, why don't you interpret verses 28-30 for us also? Is John referring to some sort of primacy of sour wine? Should we perhaps view sour wine as the drink of all drinks, the beverage Christians should prefer above all others? What larger implications should we draw from John 19:28-30, similar to the larger implications you want to draw from verses 26-27? Or do we selectively only engage in this sort of eisegesis when it's beneficial for Catholic apologetics, such as in passages about Peter and Mary (but not passages about Abraham, David, Joseph, John the Baptist, Paul, etc.)?