The sun was out. It was bright and strong. It was still out when the thief heard those beautiful words from Jesus the Messiah, “today, shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.” But almost immediately afterward, in the very midst of his moment of salvation, the thief on the cross beheld the sun go dark at midday. He spent the next three hours in blackness. A saved man in darkness. He could only hear Jesus say, “I thirst,” and they gave him vinegar to drink (Jn 19:29). Then the thief heard Jesus say, “it is finished” and “Father, into Thy hands I commend My Spirit (Lk 23:46). Then, He was gone. The only One Who could have taken the thief down from the cross had died. All those that had come to see the execution of Jesus departed to their homes, beating their breasts with despair, but no one stayed to comfort him in his final hours. His life had borne no such fruit. When all seemed to be lost, the sun began to shine again, strongly, yet waning with the weary rotation of the earth. He watched the pale disk sink until he thought that once again he would be plunged into darkness, but, at that moment, there was a commotion on the hill. The soldiers picked up great iron clubs and came to the other thief. With a devastating series of blows, his legs were broken and his whole frame slumped, stretching his arms up higher. His breathes came in short gasps and then not at all. I imagine that in his mind the thief repeated the words of Christ, “today you will be with Me in paradise” again and again as he watched the soldiers come for him.
Not for a single moment did the thief on the cross receive the world’s good–not one (1 Jn 3:17). Every moment of his Christian experience was filled with fear and agony, and he spent those moments in the very company of death. His conversion experience, exultant as it may have been within, occurred in the sphere of his current suffering from which he received no relief.
The question that then burdens our minds is why did the thief suffer after his conversion? It is simple enough to understand his suffering before his conversion: in fact, the thief tells us himself that he suffered the just reward of all his evil deeds (Lk 23:41). But what about the suffering he did after his conversion? How do we account for it? Was it necessary for the thief to suffer himself for the sins he committed in addition to the death of Jesus on his behalf? To answer that question, it’s necessary to consider what the thief really owed–what kind of debt needed to be settled concerning his sinfulness? According to the scriptures, hell is eternal. Many have disputed this over the years, annihilationists, for example, but the parallelism of Mt 25:46 is sufficient evidence to the contrary to end the discussion forever: “…these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” The life we speak of that is in Christ Jesus is eternal; that is what Jesus preached and that is what the rest of the New Testament scripture affirms. Therefore, we take it that the eternity of punishment spoken of in Mt 25:46 is likewise as real as the eternal life we have in Christ. If we reckon that the thief owes not just death in the body (Rom 5:12) but also eternal punishment in hell for sins (Mt 25:46), then we can understand that there is no possible amount of suffering in his short lifetime in the body that could ever measure up to the eternity he owes in hell. He is like the servant in Matthew chapter 18 that owes his master ten thousand talents–he would simply never be able to pay it. Thus, we find that it is simply an impossibility that the suffering the saved thief encountered after his salvation was somehow salvific; in other words, the thief’s post-conversion suffering in now way contributed to his salvation in Christ.
In fact, there is no post conversion act that can contribute to your salvation. As an example, consider that there are those that teach a Sacrament of Penance: the believer once he has been reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus would need to complete a rite of confession for his sins after conversion. In fact, the Catholic practice is that if a “mortal” sin is not confessed to a priest–and it must be a priest–within a year, then the believer is lost and doomed to hell. The spurious nature of this doctrine has been made plain by the current conditions placed upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic. With all of Italy on lockdown, wouldn’t they that sinned during this time that were unable to get to a priest’s confessional be doomed to hell? Any concession made on this point is tantamount to an admission that the doctrine isn’t worth its salt.
But did the thief need to suffer for the sake of Jesus in order to be saved? Does Jesus command us to suffer for His sake? After all, Paul says that we should suffer (Rom 8:17, 2 Tim 2:13). Was the suffering of the thief after conversion for the sake of Jesus? No! There was never a time in his converted life that he suffered for the Gospel! He was nailed to a tree and left to die. What more could have been done to him? In his body, the thief suffered no insult for the cause of Jesus. When Paul speaks of suffering for Christ, we must consider that Paul many times speaks of himself as being “crucified” with Jesus, but we know that he was not crucified like Jesus. Clearly, Paul speaks in a figure of the receipt of the atonement that Christ suffered. Paul did not suffer the pains of death that Jesus suffered, so how could he say that he bore in his own body the dying of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor 4:10)? Again, in a figure of the atonement that he had received from Christ. Thus, we conclude that suffering in the body is not salvific. The thief did not possess it at the time of his death. As a corollary, we can also add that persecution itself cannot be considered a sign of the true church because it is not always present in a person or a community of faith.
Well, now we know that the thief wasn’t suffering as a means of salvation. It wasn’t a box that had to be checked before he could check in at the pearly gates. Why did Christ suffer? It wasn’t for His own sins. Even the thief on the cross knew that much: the thief tells us that Jesus did nothing wrong–He was perfect (Lk 23:41). This suffering that Christ suffered was all sufficient for the sins of the whole world (1 Jn 2:2). Indeed, Christ tells Paul–a murderer of Christians–in no uncertain terms, that His “grace is sufficient” for him (2 Cor12:9). So likewise it is with us that Christ’s suffering is sufficient for us, and we could never hope to add anything at all to His perfect work upon the cross.