A few days ago, I started writing this on a few scraps of paper through my theology class, and I don’t think I’ve heard a message that focused the crucifixion like this. Specifically, I want to look at the two criminals that were also crucified alongside Jesus.
I think this is crucial to understanding salvation, and Jesus’ desire to restore humanity. In Luke 23:39-43, we read that one of the criminals mocks Jesus, meanwhile the other defends him. Here it is (in the New American Standard):
One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”
But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”
And [Jesus] said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
First, I want to point out that Jesus died for both of them. This isn’t universalism; it doesn’t mean that Jesus’ sacrifice saved all humanity, and we can continue to live however we want. It means Jesus’ crucifixion is an open invitation, and it’s almost certain between technology and missionaries, that knowledge of Jesus’ sacrifice is available.
Second, Jesus didn’t condemn the criminal who mocked Him to hell. There is this strange rumour going around that God sends people to hell; Jesus is God. I’ll expand on this in a moment or so (depending on how fast you read, of course).
Third, Jesus loved the criminal who defended Him. To understand this, let’s look at the bigger context. If you stood up for Jesus, especially when He’s nailed to a cross right beside you, people are going to mock you more. I know that isn’t big, as the criminal was about to die anyway, but I’m sure (s)he would want to die with as much dignity as possible. Also, at this point on the cross, there is an audience throwing insults, laughs, and maybe even objects at you already. The criminal obviously knew who Jesus was, too. The final words we hear from the criminal was “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” I don’t know how well this criminal knew Jesus, but (s)he understood Him to be God (“Do you not even fear God?”). Jesus essentially responded to the criminal’s request at the end with, “You’re coming with me!” I also want to go on a quick tangent; To recognize God, you need God (ah yes, the paradox!). Check out Matthew 16:13-17.
So, what’s up with this whole condemned to hell thing that people have so much trouble digesting? People believe that God has a check-list of every human being, and He likes some of them, so they go into heaven, the rest go into hell. This isn’t true, and in fact, it’s the reverse. Because of God’s holiness, He cannot be in sin, and humanity is in sin. Through some form of transmission, we all sinned in Adam. I can’t explain that one, but according to the Bible, it’s fact, so I’ll leave it up to you to discern how that happened. But, because we are in sin and we are inclined to sin, we cannot go into heaven. This has nothing to do with God liking some people and disliking others. It has to do with all humanity being destined to hell. This is why we have to come to faith in Jesus; In Christ, He bore our sin at the cross as a worthy sacrifice unto Himself (He obeys His own Law). Until we identify ourselves in Jesus, we are stuck in Adam. When we put our identity in Jesus, our sin cannot enter into that relationship with us, so it is put onto Christ. Because Christ is eternal, then he bares that sin on the cross. This doesn’t mean that we cannot sin any more, but what it does mean is that there is no longer a barrier to our communing relationship with Jesus. I have difficulty believing that sin no longer interrupts my relationship with God, but I know that I know that it is true.
If you are new to this, I know it’s a lot to process, and I encourage you to sort this out. You are free to comment on this, and I’d like to help you sort this out. I’m not going to tell you the theology you are supposed to leave, but if you have honest questions, I’ll answer them the best I can with scripture and my own personal experience (if applicable). You may find this page worth investigating, too.