For most Christians, the thief on the cross represents people on this earth — people who are saved by merely believing in God. We can read the story of this thief in Luke 23:39-43 where Christ was drawing near to His death. One of the criminals who was crucified with Him showed a sign of faith in Christ. Many assumed that Christ granted the criminal salvation at that very hour.

Did the thief on the cross go to heaven with Christ on the very day he died? Many use this to prove that only faith is needed. But what does the Bible say?

The story of the thief is supposed to support the belief that praying the Sinner’s Prayer enables any person to obtain eternal life right then. However, does belief in God and acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice alone save a person? Is faith without works enough to be called sons or daughters of God? Did the thief on the cross really go straight to heaven after his death as most Christians believe?

These questions are valid, and they deserve a clear and accurate answer. We must read the Bible and examine what it really says. In doing so, we will only believe what God says in His word, not what popular Christianity would like us to assume.

A Contradicting Interpretation?

First, let us read the whole story about the criminals who were crucified with Christ. We can find the story in Luke 23:39-43:

Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, “If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.”

But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”

And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

At first glance, it seems that Christ was telling this criminal that He will be in heaven immediately after his death. However, this understanding directly contradicts what other clear scriptures are saying.

The Apostle James tells us that faith without works is dead. This is clearly stated in James 2:17. Even if you read the whole chapter of James 2, you will arrive at the conclusion that “faith” is not enough. It must be accompanied by works. James went on to say that even the demons believe and tremble! (James 2:19)

Since we know that the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35) — the Bible cannot contradict itself — we can conclude that true, living faith results in good works. In other words, having “faith” is nothing if it doesn’t change the way we live. Of course, it is true that we cannot earn our own salvation through our works. However, works are still needed for us to demonstrate the genuineness of our faith in God.

Moreover, Christ said in John 3:13 that “no one has ascended to heaven.” With these verses in mind, it is clear that the thief did not go to heaven then.

Where Was Christ After His Death?

Let us concentrate on the statement of Christ to the thief. He said:

“Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

From this verse, Christ was presumably saying that on that day the criminal or thief will be with Him in Paradise. However, where was Christ on that day right after His death? Did Christ go straight into heaven?

Let us read 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:

“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the THIRD day according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3-4).

Question: Did Christ go to Paradise on that day? Obviously, He didn’t. Instead, we see in the Scriptures that He went into the GRAVE. In some translations, the grave is even called HELL. It is far from the heaven we know.

Moreover, we also need to remember what Christ said to Mary Magdalene when He was resurrected:

“Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20:17).

Christ made this statement after a full three days and three nights have passed after his death (Matthew 12:40). We can see here that Jesus did not ascend to heaven immediately after He died.

Considering all these verses, there is one clear conclusion: the thief on the cross did NOT go to heaven that DAY because Jesus Himself did not go to heaven or any paradise.

With this fact in mind, we can conclude that Luke 23:43 was not saying that the thief on the cross had been saved right at the moment.

A Misplaced Punctuation

If the thief did not go to heaven or paradise on that day when he talked to Christ, then how can we explain Luke 23:43? We need to take a deeper look at what the verse is saying here.  Let us read this passage again for better context.

And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

The KEY to understanding this passage is the comma placed between “you” and “today.” If you put the comma just after the word today, it will entirely change the statement of Christ. Notice:

And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”

With the comma placed after the word today, we can see here that Christ was talking about a future event when the thief will also be given a chance to learn God’s way and ultimately be part of His kingdom.

We need to remember that there are no punctuation marks like commas in the original Bible text. Since this is the case, then there is a possibility that English translators might have placed a punctuation in the wrong place.

Notice what Dr. E.W. Bullinger explained about this topic:

None of our modern marks of punctuation are found [in Bible texts] until the ninth century… The punctuation of all modern editions of the Greek text, and of all versions made from it, rests entirely on human authority, and has no weight whatever in determining or even influencing the interpretation of a single passage” (The Companion Bible, 1990, Appendix 94, p. 136, emphasis in original).

While the translators did a great job in adding punctuation marks for clarity of the text, we can also see that they made an error when placing the comma in Luke 23:43.

Final Words

The thief on the cross did not go to heaven immediately after his death. He went straight to the grave just like Christ did. However, Christ rose again on the third day while the thief stayed in the grave and is still waiting for the future resurrection of the dead until now.

Instead of seeing Luke 23:43 as proof that faith alone is enough for us to be saved, we need to realize that we are commanded to couple our belief with action.

Thankfully, there will come a time when God will give everyone, including the thief on the cross, a chance to obtain eternal salvation in a much better, Eden-like world — what Christ called Paradise.