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Biblical People

Biblical People: Two Criminals on the Cross

Two criminals are executed with Jesus. Luke records a significant detail that doesn’t appear in the other biographies of Jesus. As the three of them hang on their crosses, they have a conversation. If I were enduring the pain of torturous death, I doubt I’d say anything, but these three men talk to each other.

The first criminal says, “You’re the savior, right? Why don’t you save yourself—and us too?”

But the second criminal has a different perspective. He criticizes the first guy. “What’s wrong with you? We’re getting what we deserve, but Jesus is innocent.” Then he says to Jesus, “Please remember me when you begin ruling in your kingdom.”

Jesus responds with the most amazing, confusing, and comforting answer. “Today you will hang out with me in heaven.”

This second criminal merely affirms Jesus’s innocence and asks to be with him. He doesn’t repent or do any of the things most religious people insist we must do to go to heaven. Even so, Jesus offers him mercy and promises him a place in paradise. How cool is that?

Compare the second criminal to the first. The first one recognizes Jesus as the savior, the messiah that the people have been waiting for. He even asks Jesus to save him. However, Jesus doesn’t physically save him, and I doubt he spiritually saves him either. 

We could interpret Jesus’s promise of “you will be with me” as a plural you and apply it to both criminals, as in “you all will be with me,” but I think Jesus directs his salvation comment only to the second criminal, who admits his mistakes and the appropriateness of his punishment.

Both criminals recognize Jesus for his saving power, and both ask him for help, but only one admits his faults. Is that what makes the difference?

If the second criminal’s conversion doesn’t fit our idea of salvation, what do we need to change in our understanding?

[Discover more about the two criminals in Luke 23:39–43.]

Read more about other people in the New Testament in The Friends and Foes of Jesus, now available in e-book, paperback, and hardcover.

A lifelong student of the Bible, Peter DeHaan, PhD, wrote the 700-page website ABibleADay.com to encourage people to explore the Bible. His main blog and many books urge Christians to push past the status quo and reconsider how they practice their faith in every area of their lives.