Did Jesus Really Say That?
During a conversation yesterday afternoon, a question was raised to me regarding this past Sunday’s Gospel reading — did the criminal who was crucified next to Jesus really go to heaven?
My answer, of course, was “Yes,” since that is what Jesus said:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43 ESV)
The underlying thought in the question was a very human response to hearing clergy people say that yes, there may possibly be some people in heaven who weren’t so wonderful during their earthly walk. Could there be a bunch of murderers, thieves, rapists, and the like walking around in the heavenly realms? Yes. And I agree, this is not a nice thought.
We’d want these bad guys relegated to the coldest – I’m thinking Dante’s “Inferno” – or the hottest rings of Hell, pounding either ice blocks into snow crystals or boulders into pebbles for all eternity. I don’t think any of us want to see Mafia kingpin John Gotti walking down the paved golden road in heaven.
I’ve spoken about it many times: It is awfully hard to believe in God and His promises to us. He tells us through His Word that those who have faith in His Son will be saved.
(Jesus said) “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:14-17 ESV)
It is by faith we have been saved, not the works of the Law. We’ve been rescued from the deathly grips of sin and Satan solely through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. He reached down and tore us from their grasps as we were marked as one of His own through the waters of Holy Baptism – a child of God not because we’re so great, but because our God loved us beyond all measure and did everything to bring us to Him. By the blessings of faith borne of the Holy Spirit, we can say that we believe in Christ and His on our behalf to pay our sin debt to the Father.
But this salvation promise is not just for us individual Christians who attend church every Sunday; who volunteer time at a homeless shelter; who sit with the dying, the pained, the suffering; who hug our children when they bang their knee. For we, too, fall short of the glory of God and are sinners indeed. While on the sin scale, our failures are not as large in magnitude as some others, we’re all in the same, sinful boat.
For to God, a sin is a sin. Period.
In the Old Testament, God prohibited Moses from entering the Promised Land because He sinned against God when, after listening to the Israelites endlessly complain about being thirsty, he brought water from the rock by striking it with his staff instead of listening to God and just speaking to the rock. By his words and actions, as recorded in Numbers, Moses received “credibility” in the eyes of the Israelites instead of giving all credit to God. Some consider this is a little harsh — God could have just ignored that little indiscretion and remembered all the good things Moses did in his life. But this story powerfully shows us how God truly views sin — he abhors it, even those sins we’d consider “tiny” on the whole scale of sin. Even though Moses had faith in God and in His promises to send the Messiah, God punished an earthly Moses by keeping him from entering the Promised Land because of his sin.
To God, sin is sin.
Yet as God’s children, we know that our sins are forgiven. We repent of our failures before God and when we hear the words of the clergy person say that our sins are forgiven, we have the confidence that they are forgiven and forgotten forever. That is all of our sins, not just the little ones. God the Father forgives us all of our sins, even the big ones. In the third grade, I pushed a kid down the stairs and he got hurt. God forgave me that sin. When I was on the telephone with my father this weekend, I raised my voice to him. God forgave that sin, also. On Route 4 yesterday, I drove a little fast. God forgave me that one, too.
My faith in the work of Jesus, who took my sin upon Him and paid the price for my transgressions, is what gives me the confidence to say that I have been saved and have been forgiven.
Though I stumble and fail throughout my life — I am still a sinner living in this fallen world — my faith, strengthened by God through His Word, His Sacraments, and His Holy Spirit, guides me as I take my earthly walk.
However, there are people in this world who do not live by faith, but by their earthly passions and flesh. John Gotti was a murdering thug who, if any of us were playing the role of God, would sentence Him on Judgment Day to that coldest ring of Hell wearing only a pair of shorts and one sock with a hole in the heel. Yet, what if on the day God called an end to his earthly life, John Gotti had faith in Jesus? What if he believed that Jesus died for him and his encyclopedically-long sin list?
What if John Gotti believed in his heart?
To me, and to probably a lot of others, it wouldn’t matter. He’d still be sentenced to Hell because he was a horrible human being who murdered, slaughtered, sold drugs, beat people up, etc.
To God, would He see the faith in Christ?
This is what makes being a Christian so very hard. That criminal on the cross next to Jesus did something really bad – he even tells the other criminal that they are getting what they deserved. But yet, Jesus promises this bad guy that he will be with Him in heaven. Maybe this man had faith. In fact, because Jesus made this criminal a promise of seeing Paradise with Him, we could say that he did.
For that is the only way to to heaven – by faith in God. From the early words of Holy Scripture to the last, that entire book tells of God’s salvation plan for us sinners.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28 ESV)
Justified – declared innocent of our sin – solely by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and what He did for us the cross. This is not just for the weekly church-goer, but all believers.
For us weekly – and daily – church-goers, this sticks in our craw. If the guy down the street doesn’t go to church, steals money left and right, cheats on his wife, hits his kids, is rotten to everyone he meets, doesn’t believe in anything, but on his death bed he “comes to faith,” does that mean God is letting him into heaven?
If it was up to us, the answer would be a stern “No!”
But it is not up to us. If this horribly sinful man becomes a faithful believer, then it is up to God and since He is just, this man would be with the lifelong believers in heaven. And you want to know something? We shouldn’t be angry at this. In fact, we should be happy!!
Isn’t that our hope that all people to come faith? Isn’t that why we do mission work? Isn’t that why we spend a lot of money in church and ask for endless donations to send money to national and international missions? We do so that our money helps spread the seed of faith in the hearts of unbelievers. But we also hope that this seed would be planted in the hearts of those ‘bad guys’ in our midst who do the killing, the stealing, and all those terrible things that come to our minds. We want all people to know what we know — that our God loves us, comforts us, and keeps us for all time.
While the earthly Anthony wants all murderers and wife beaters to rot in Hell, the spiritual Anthony wants them to let God work faith in their minds and hearts so that they can believe in Jesus Christ, their Savior and ours, so they can join us in the heavenly realms singing the eternal Alleluia to our God and King.