Deathbed Confession, Paradise, and the Promise of God

“Now, the insurrectionists who were crucified with him mocked him also.”

(Matthew 27:44)

“But one of the evildoers who was hanged, blasphemed him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! But the other one rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God? Are you not under the same judgment? And we justly! For we receive recompense for what we did. But this man did nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”

(Luke 23:39-43)

People often do things that they very quickly regret. Mocking others seems to be one of those things. When you are in a crowd with a lot of people who are making fun of someone, how quickly mocking words can come from our mouths as well. Gratefully, the Holy Spirit often convicts us and puts us in a place to correct our wrongs. That seems to be the case with this man. Sometimes people say that Matthew and Luke contradict one another, that Matthew depicts both men as mocking Jesus and Luke depicts only one as doing so. An answer that is more consistent with human nature is that both men began mocking Jesus and then somewhere prior to the darkness at noon, one of these men has a change of heart and speaks in defense of Jesus.

Passages like this not only serve as a reminder as to the unity of the four accounts, but they point to some important theological truths as well. For example, we sometimes talk about deathbed conversions and whether they are genuine or not. This one was. And if this one was, could not others be as well? At that point, they are in the hands of God. He is the final judge. Some denominations also speak of baptism as being an essential part of salvation. This man was clearly not baptized, but Jesus affirms his confession of faith. In normal contexts, ought we be baptized? Yes, certainly, it is a mark of obedience on the most basic level. But, in extraordinary cases, will being unbaptized block you from entering heaven? No. To suggest otherwise adds works into the equation of one’s salvation and suggests that Jesus is in error in speaking these words to the dying man beside him.

Another question is sometimes asked about is the nature of “Paradise.” Some have suggested that “Paradise” is not so much a reference to heaven as it is a holding place from which Jesus would lead the captives into heaven at his Ascension. This seems to be a largely medieval notion and is not supported in the clear teaching of Scripture. The word παράδεισος (paradeisos) is only used 3 times in the New Testament, and in every case, the natural reading of the text is that of the presence of God in heaven (see 2 Corinthians 12:3 and Revelation 2:7 for the other two references). Even in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, where the word is used more commonly, it is used to speak of an idealized garden setting and largely alludes back to the original garden that God planted that we know as Eden. Once again it is not implied in these uses that Paradise may be a kind of holding place until the Messiah comes.

Thus, though some theologians will take this statement in a different direction, the most natural reading of the text is that Jesus is promising to take this man (spiritually) to heaven on this day…in fulfillment of Paul’s later language when he speaks of being “absent with the body and present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-9). Some object to this in light of Jesus’ statement to Mary Magdalene that he had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17), but those objections can be easily dismissed when we recognize that Jesus’ later words refer to his resurrected physical body and Jesus’ words here are of a spiritual nature.

And so, to the repentant evildoer beside him, Jesus gives grace. To the evildoer who prefers simply to revile, mock, and blaspheme God, there is righteous judgment. This picture is a reminder that in the end, there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who trust in Jesus as their Lord and Savior and those who do not. Jesus is the only way that leads to the Father and to the Paradise of God; all other paths lead to dusty doom. In what or who are you laying your confidence dear readers? There is only one person that can offer you the promise of the Paradise of God — the God-Man, Jesus.

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