In Luke 23:39-43, Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, we see that next to Jesus on the cross are two thieves. One thief ridicules him along with the rest of the unbelieving crowd, but the other thief actually believes Jesus’ claims about Himself (He’s the son of God, Messiah, Lord, King). He turns to Jesus and says “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus responds to Him by saying “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This thief on the cross next to Jesus who receives Christ as his Lord and Savior actually had 3 things to teach us theologically. What are those 3 things?
1: Humans Have An Immaterial Soul That Survives The Death Of The Body, And This Soul Goes To An Intermediate State Prior To The Bodily Resurrection.
I think The Bible is clear that when Christians die, they go to Heaven as a pure soul/spirit/ghost before they are resurrected in the new universe God will create some day (see Psalm 102:25-26, Revelation 21:1). The narrative of the repentant thief on the cross is an excellent proof-text for such a doctrine, which is usually denied by Jehova’s Witnesses and Christadelphians who teach “soul sleep”. It also refutes those minority of Christians who deny that humans have an immaterial soul. Jesus said to the man on the cross next to Him "today you shall be with me in paradise". But if a person is just his body (meaning he has no soul to survive it’s death) and if there’s no intermediate state between death and resurrection, then what do we make of this circumstance in The Bible? Jesus wasn’t resurrected until 3 days later and the thief still hasn't been raised. (Luke 23:43). If Heaven is only the new universe God will create someday then Jesus was wrong about the thief next to him being in paradise that very day. Clearly both Jesus and the thief went to Heaven as pure souls prior to their resurrections. That’s the only plausible way how they could be in paradise that very day yet not be resurrected until later.
2: Death Bed Conversions Are Possible.
The narrative of the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus also shows us that death bed conversions are possible and completely legitimate. Anyone who has studied the historical details of crucifixion knows just how bloody and extreme of a punishment it is. Prior to being flogged, the condemned person would remove their clothing except for a loin cloth, they would be tied to a pole, and the Roman centurions would take whips of braided leather thongs with sharp pieces of sheep bone. C. Truman Davis describes it this way “At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows.
Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue. When it is determined by the centurion in charge that the prisoner is near death, the beating is stopped.”
The person goes into hypovolemic shock. The cross kills a person by suffication due to the position that the person is put into while on the cross. The person’s lungs are forced into the inhaled position. The only way to breath is to push up on your feet to exhale, then come back to inhale, then go back up to inhale and so on. Eventually exhaustion takes over and the person cannot push themselves up any longer in order to breath.
So, this thief on the cross (including Jesus Himself) were in the process of dying. Yet this man, shortly before his passing, received salvation from his sins. We know this because Jesus said to him “Today you shall be with me in paradise”. The Lord saved this man while he was dying. This tells us that it’s possible for someone who has spent their entire lives not living for Christ but changed the course of their eternal destiny at the last minute.
Some people reading this might think that because of this, they can play the system. Living a life of sin and selfishness and then asking for God to forgive them while they’re dying. If this is their mindset, then they won’t be saved. God knows what is in every person’s heart (1 Samuel 16:7, Deuteronomy 31:21, Psalm 44:21, Psalm 139:2, Proverbs 15:11) and He therefore knows if we truly regret not living for Him during our lives. You can’t fake repentance and remorse with God. You can’t play the system like that. If you’re going to commit to Christ, do it now! Don’t wait until later!
“Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” – Proverbs 27:1
3: Baptism Is Not A Requirement For Salvation.
There are those who will argue that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. They will say that if you aren’t baptized, you’re not saved. Aside from the fact that this is a works based doctrine (we’re saved by grace through faith, not by works. See Ephesians 2:8-9), this instance of the thief on the cross appears to refute baptismal regeneration. The thief on the cross wasn’t baptized. He was a brand new Christian! Plus, he was already in the process of dying (as already stated above). There’s no way he could have managed to get down from the cross in order to get baptized before he died, AND YET Jesus told the repentant thief “"today you shall be with me in paradise". Was Jesus lying to thief? Surely not. Baptism must not be required for salvation.
That isn’t to say we shouldn’t do it. We should definitely get baptized. Scripture commands us to after all. But you’re not going to Hell if you die without the opportunity to be baptized…though if you have the opportunity to be baptized, you certainly should.