I can’t quite remember in what medium I said it, but I’m 98% sure I’ve gone on record as saying that Luke’s crucifixion account (Sunday's gospel lesson) is my least favorite. Why? Because of that sappy line spoken to the repentant thief: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Really, Jesus?
I’ve never liked that line because it seems so out of place. The other synoptic versions are far less chatty, and John’s version focuses instead on a conversation between Jesus, his mother, and the beloved disciple. I’ll admit that I’m being overly cynical, but this last-minute conversion reminds me of death-bed evangelism, which I’ve never liked. (I don’t like puppies or cotton candy, either.)
Recently I’ve been forced to give this line another shot. (And it’s driving me crazy.) I taught a class on the peculiarities of Anglican theology, using the 39 Articles as my starting point. One of the classes was entitled, “Did Jesus Go to Hell?” Article III states, “As Christ died for us, and was buried; so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.” Like most of the Articles, it’s pretty simple and ambiguous—trying to hang onto Catholic, orthodox theology without upsetting the Protestants within the English Church. I’ve always taken that doctrine at face-value. Christ really died, which means he went to that place where dead people go. But apparently that causes some problems for other Christians.
This isn’t the place to get into the whole “harrowing of hell” debate—a doctrine I would describe as adiaphoric—but it is worth mentioning that some Protestants completely throw out that line of the Apostles’ Creed (“he descended into hell”) because of this line from Sunday’s gospel: “today you will be with me in paradise.” To hear that argument, watch this video.
Maybe they have a point. Today does usually mean today—not tomorrow, not in three days, not when I come back and raise everyone from the dead. But I don’t buy it. I’m not saying I disagree with Jesus (that would be asking for even more trouble than this post already is), but I am saying that I don’t think this is the sentence in the bible to base one’s rejection of a fundamental, ancient, ecumenical statement of faith like the Creed upon.
So what does it mean? Today you will be with me in paradise. Imagine what that sounded like to the man hanging on the cross. Imagine what it would sound like to a woman lying in a hospital bed in absolute agony as she prepares to take her last breath. Imagine what it sounds like to a man who answers the door in the middle of the night and sees a State Trooper standing there with his hat in his hand. What’s the point? You can’t say that…unless you mean it. And I’m not sure anyone other than Jesus can mean it enough to say it.
This is a shocking statement that no one else can justify. “Hey man, you in agony over there? Facing a certain, tortuous death? Good news, though: today you’ll be with me in Paradise.” That’s the kind of total, absolute, unequivocal reversal that only Jesus and the power of resurrection can convey. Do we believe it? Absolutely. Does today mean today? I’m not sure. But I do believe that the power of the resurrection means that even the most terrible moments have signs of redemption. Just remember to let Jesus do the talking.