Christ's death on the cross is one of the best-attested events in the history of mankind. The Bible not only tells us that He died, but also tells us that Pontius Pilate would not release His body until the centurion who was in charge of His crucifixion had certified that He was dead (Mark 15:44,45). That certification required an examination of the body by men who were professional executioners, men who knew the difference between someone who was dead and someone who was not. And, those executioners thrust a spear into Jesus' side in order to make certain that He was dead (John 19:32-35).
In fact, after carefully examining the evidence that Christ died and rose again, Dr. Simon Greenleaf — professor of law at Harvard University and expert on legal evidence — was convinced by the evidence that Christ died on the cross and rose again as the Gospel writers testified. He then published his findings under the title, “An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered In The Courts of Justice”. [Note: His book is not only back in print, but the book, “Evidence That Demands A Verdict” by Josh McDowell, provides a very readable look at the same evidence.]
Crucifixion is one of cruelest and most painful ways of execution ever devised by man. The weight of one's body pulling downward against iron spikes that tear continually at the flesh hour after hour, was pure agony. In fact, the pain was so great that its horror is incomprehensible to people accustomed to all the comforts and conveniences that we take for granted. Furthermore, the trauma of crucifixion caused many complications that only served to amplify the pain. Therefore, if any man ever had an excuse to be hateful or bitter it would have been Christ. Yet, even on the cross He spoke only words of kindness and consideration for others (John 19:26,27, Luke 23:34,43,46). In fact, the battle-hardened centurion who was in charge of the execution was so awed by Christ’s conduct, and by the events surrounding His death, that he was moved to say, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
Although the world sees Christ’s crucifixion between two thieves as a mark of dishonor, because Christ was innocent it is the world (not Christ) that bears the reproach. Not only was Christ’s willingness to die in our stead the ultimate expression of love, but God used the placement of the two thieves (one on His left and the other on His right) to illustrate both the final judgement, and the fact that salvation is by grace alone.
Just as both thieves were sinners, all men are sinners. Just as neither thief deserved salvation, no one deserves salvation. Just as the thieves were separated, one on Christ’s left, the other on His right, on the day of judgement all shall be separated, some on Christ’s left others on His right. Just as the unrepentant thief mocked Christ and died in His sins, in the final judgement Christ shall say to all who are unrepentant, “depart from Me ye cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matthew 25:31). And, just as the repentant thief was told that he would be with Christ in paradise, in the final judgement all who are repentant will be told. “Come ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34, Psalm 16:11).
Now let us look carefully at why the repentant thief was spared. It is perfectly clear that both thieves were sinners. Both had transgressed the Law of God. Both even joined in mocking Christ (Mark 15:32, Matthew 27:41,44). However, the thing that set the repentant thief apart was the fact that he acknowledged his sin and looked to Christ for mercy. He did not try to excuse his sin. He had no works to offer God. Instead he simply admitted that he was guilty and deserved punishment, while asking Christ to remember him (Luke 23:41). What he did not realize, is that by asking Christ to remember him, he was asking for mercy, for God does not remember those in hell (Luke 23:42). In fact, when we read the story of the rich man and Lazarus only the saved (Lazarus and Abraham) are named (Luke 16:19-31). Then, in response to that request for mercy, Christ gave him the promise, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Therefore, just as we are saved through faith in God’s promise, the repentant thief was saved through faith in God’s promise (Galatians 3:14,22). For that reason, the repentant thief is a type of all who are saved. Like him, we are all guilty before God (Romans 3:10-23). Like him, we must all acknowledge our guilt and look to Christ for mercy. And, like him we are all saved through faith in God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ (Acts 4:12, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 3:28 and 5:1-2, Hebrews 11:6).
When Christ told the repentant thief, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise” he was telling him that they would be together in heaven (heaven is “paradise”, 2Corinthians 12:2-4). However, because God is a Spirit not a physical being, heaven is a spiritual dimension not a physical place. All physical places (no matter how large) are mere specks compared with infinity, and God is infinite. When Moses and Elijah appeared to Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration we know that they did not leave heaven, for there is a great gulf fixed so that no one in heaven can ever pass out of it (Luke 16:26). Furthermore, because heaven is a spiritual place, those who die forgiven are in it, while all who die without forgiveness are in hell. There is no middle ground. Either one is forgiven or not forgiven, in fellowship with God or rejected by Him.
There is no such thing as being partially forgiven (1John 1:9). The blood of Christ either covers our sins, or it does not (1John 1:7). All whose sins are covered experience the light and joy of heaven, while those who die without faith in Christ experience the darkness and torment of hell (Mark 16:16, Galatians 3:6, Romans 4:6-8).
Because Christ took our sins upon Himself and died bearing our guilt, without God’s pardon He would have gone to hell. However, because He had no sins of His own, divine justice required that He be forgiven. And because He had no sins of His own, when He received forgiveness, He received forgiveness for our sins. His words, “It is finished” tell us that His work of atonement was complete before He yielded up His spirit. And, His words, “into thy hands I commend my spirit” tell us that His soul went to heaven, not hell. Therefore, if He later entered hell, He entered hell as Satan’s master, not his subject, for Satan’s kingdom is now His kingdom (Romans 6:16, Philippians 2:10). In fact, when the Bible says that He “led captivity captive,” it is saying that He made hell itself (captivity) his dominion (captive) (Ephesians 4:8, compare with Judges 5:12). No one who died without forgiveness ever got out of hell (Luke 16:26)! On the contrary, by His victory, Christ has freed us from the bondage of sin and placed hell itself in bondage (1Peter 3:19,22). And Satan, who would not serve God in heaven, will serve God in hell (Philippians 2:10).
[Note: The unnatural darkening of the sky at the time of Christ’s death was noticed as far away as Rome, and the earthquake as far away as Nicaea. At the same time, the battle-hardened centurion who was in charge of the execution was so awed by those events that he was moved to say, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). (See “Pontius Pilate”, by Paul L. Maier, historical notes to chapter 21.)]
The fact that Christ died is history, but the good news is that He died for our sins, and that through His death, we have forgiveness and eternal life.