Will the Thief on the Cross Go to Heaven?

Many people think some things are true because those things are repeated repeatedly and become true in our minds. This phenomenon creeps into religion.

  • Did Adam and Eve eat an apple?
  • Was Elijah taken to heaven in a chariot of fire?
  • Did a whale swallow Jonah?
  • Does the Bible say, “cleanliness is next to godliness?”
  • Did three wise men visit baby Jesus while He lay in a Bethlehem manger?

But upon closer examination, we learn:

  • The Bible never tells us what type of fruit Adam and Eve ate.
  • A whirlwind took Elijah to heaven.
  • A “great fish swallowed Jonah.” 
  • Cleanliness, while admirable, is not next to godliness as far as the Bible is concerned.
  • And Jesus was given three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – but the Bible never states the number of wise men, and they likely arrived when Jesus was nearly a year old.

These are just a few examples of how ideas become true in people’s minds because we repeat them repeatedly.

The Thief on the Cross is Another Example

The thief on the cross is another example of this phenomenon. I believe the thief on the cross went to heaven because Jesus promised him, “today you will be with me in paradise.” Many believe the thief on the cross proves 

  • All you need is faith to be saved.
  • One does not need to be baptized to be saved. 

It’s this last idea I want to examine. Does the thief on the cross show us that baptism is unnecessary for salvation?

Assumptions about the Thief

How do we know that the thief was never baptized? The story contains all that we know about this thief. Anything else we think we know about him is speculation. 

Here are a few facts worth bearing in mind:

  • For the four preceding years, John and Jesus preached, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 
  • Both John and Jesus taught a water baptism for the remission of sins as a part of their preaching.
  • Both John and Jesus practiced a water baptism (though the disciples of Jesus did the baptizing, not Jesus).

The thief had some knowledge of Jesus based on what he said to the Lord. Although he initially ridiculed Jesus, he later rebuked his fellow thief, recognizing that Jesus was righteous. He asks Jesus for a place in His kingdom. This indicates that the thief had heard the message, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Another Possible Interpretation of the Thief on the Cross

Is it possible the thief was once a disciple of Jesus who went astray? And, is it possible that he had been baptized by either John or the disciples of Jesus? If that possibility exists, can we assume with certainty that the thief had never been baptized?

Thus, I think it prudent to avoid declarations like, “The thief on the cross proves one does not need to be baptized to be saved.” How do we know for sure the thief had never been baptized?

Baptism After the Cross

Regardless of what we assume about the thief, we know that the meaning of baptism changed after the death of Jesus. Baptism after the cross is now to be done “in the name of Jesus Christ.” We obtain salvation AFTER the cross through the name of Jesus: 

“Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

When Paul met disciples in Ephesus who had only experienced John’s baptism, he told them their baptism was inadequate; “When they heard this,” Luke says in Acts 19:5, “they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” After the cross, both salvation AND baptism are in the name of Jesus.

Baptized Into His Death

Paul reveals more important details about baptism in Romans 6:3-7. In these verses, Paul states baptism symbolizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. After the crucifixion of Jesus, one is now baptized “into the death of Jesus.” One cannot be baptized “into the death of Jesus” unless Jesus has first died. 

Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ unites believers with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus had not died as he spoke with the thief. The thief could not be united with the death and resurrection of Jesus if Jesus had not died.

Buried and Raised with Jesus

Jesus forgives sins in baptism because he died and was raised again: Paul says in Colossians 2:11-12, 

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, [12] buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

Paul compares baptism with the Old Testament sign of circumcision. In circumcision, the priest cut off an unnecessary bit of flesh. In baptism, we experience “a circumcision made without hands”: Jesus cuts off “the body of the sins of the flesh.”

The death and resurrection of Jesus make all of this possible.

  • We are “buried with (Jesus) in baptism.” 
  • And we “(raise) with Him through faith in the working of God.”

Changes in Baptism

Baptism changed in meaning and purpose after the cross. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are saved and baptized “in the name of Jesus.”

  • We are now baptized into the death of Jesus, united with His death and resurrection.
  • And by His death and resurrection, our sins are removed.

As Jesus hung on the cross and talked with the thief, the meaning and purpose of baptism had not been realized. It was only with the death and resurrection of Jesus that baptism gained its entire meaning and purpose. 

A Change in Covenant

And not only did the meaning of baptism change, but the death of Jesus changed the covenant itself.

During His ministry, Jesus kept the Law of Moses, and He encouraged others to keep the Law. Scripture attests that “Jesus was without sin,” indicating that He followed the Law of Moses to the highest degree. When cleansing a leper, He directed the man to 

go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as a testimony to them, just as Moses commanded (Luke 5:14).

So Jesus lived faithfully to God under the Old Law and encouraged others to do likewise.

A Transition to the Kingdom

But although Jesus operated under the Old Covenant, His ministry represents a time of transition.

The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it” (Luke 16:16).

John the Baptist represents the beginning of a shift. The time of the law and the prophets preceded John. But the time of the kingdom of God begins with John.

Jesus picked up where John left off. 

  • Jesus preached about the kingdom of God and urged folks to become a part of it.
  • Jesus revealed one must be born again of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God – John 3:3-8.

So, although Jesus lived faithfully under the Law of Moses, His ministry represents a shift from the time of the Law and prophets to the kingdom of God.

From Old to New Covenants

The death of Jesus represents a change in covenants. The covenant under Moses was insufficient, a point the writer of Hebrews stresses in chapters 8-10. God predicted in Jeremiah 31:31-34 that He would form a new covenant with humanity. God predicting the replacement of the covenant under Moses indicates the covenant was flawed (Hebrews 8:7). And when the New Covenant goes into effect, the Old Covenant will be “obsolete and growing old, ready to vanish away” (Hebrews 8:13).

We needed a new covenant, and God instituted it through the death of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 9:15 calls Jesus “the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death.”

But notice something else in Hebrews 9:15, 

And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

The offering of Jesus cleanses all of the sins after His death. And it also pays for the sins of those who lived faithfully under the Old Covenant. So the death of Jesus pays for all sins before AND after the cross.

The Old Law Abolished

Paul says the death of Jesus abolished “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (Ephesians 2:15). When Jesus died, He fulfilled all the rituals, ceremonies, holy days, and sacrifices required under the Old Law. This is why the meaning and purpose of baptism changed – the entire covenant changed when Jesus died on the cross. It’s why Jesus says AFTER His resurrection, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)

Therefore, baptism in the name of Jesus represents a change from the Old to the New Covenant. These were all spiritual realities the thief could not have known as he hung on the cross, pleading with the Lord to remember him.

A Change in Covenant, a Change in Baptism

So as Jesus assured the thief, “today you will be with me in Paradise,” He did so under the Old Covenant based on the death He was about to die. But now that the covenant has changed do the same rules apply?

Wait a Second…

But what if someone died in a car wreck before being baptized? Would their faith be enough to save them?

Do we believe God holds death and life in His hand? Does God have the power to protect and preserve life? If God can protect and preserve life, does He not have the power to protect us long enough to keep His command to be baptized?

  • He sent Philip from Samaria to a remote area on the road to Gaza to preach to an Ethiopian eunuch traveling home by chariot.
  • He sent Paul across the Aegean Sea to preach to Lydia in Philippi.

All sorts of things could have happened to Lydia and the Ethiopian Eunuch while Paul and Philip traveled to them, but God preserved them. Does it not seem possible that God could protect us long enough to go from the decision to be baptized to the waters of baptism? Why would God command baptism, tell us it was necessary for salvation, and allow us to die on our way to be baptized?

This leads me to a question we must contend with. By entertaining this hypothetical, are we expressing doubts about the doctrine of baptism? Or are we doubting the providence of God?

In Closing

In closing, I believe the thief went to heaven because I believe what Jesus said: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

But upon closer examination, I find it difficult to believe the statement, “The thief on the cross proves one does not need to be baptized to be saved.”

A faulty set of assumptions underlie this statement. We don’t know if the thief was never baptized. Many assume that was the case, but no one can say with certainty.

Regardless, after Jesus died and was raised, baptism changed its meaning and purpose. Salvation and baptism are in the name of Jesus. We are baptized into the death of Jesus, united with His death and resurrection. Our sins are removed when we are buried and raised with Him.

We also should remember that the thief, like Jesus and John, lived under the auspices of the Old Law. John and Jesus represent a transition from the Law and the prophets. But the change was only complete once Jesus died.

With the death of Jesus, the covenant changed. And with the change in the covenant, we see a shift in the need for baptism.

To believe in the Biblical meaning and purpose of baptism requires us to trust in the power of God to protect us from the moment we believe until the moment we are baptized.

Additional Content:

Modern Confusion on Baptism

Having Nailed It to the Cross

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