For most Christians the story of the Good Thief who died next to Jesus shows us that we can repent and come to Christ at any point in our lives and receive salvation. No crime is too heinous, no age is too late.
For many Protestants, however, the story of the Good Thief is also used to attack the concept of purgatory. Most hold the view that when Jesus says to the man hanging next to him, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, he is telling us that we will all go immediately into heaven upon the moment of death should we simply believe in Christ. While the issue of purgatory is not the subject of this post, this issue is a good demonstration of a larger concern. Too many Christians come to biblical verses with a pre-conceived notions and then repeat a single interpretation of the text which they believe supports their desired outcome.
With that in mind, let’s look at what Jesus said on the Cross, ‘I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise’. Protestants say - ‘See, the thief is going right to heaven, so this is proof there is no purgatory.’
Let us instead approach this subject without any preconceptions and look at all of the most likely interpretations.
1) We can agree that the Good Thief will go right to heaven at the moment of his death but maintain that his is a unique case. Why? Because he came to the Lord in his time of greatest need on the cross and offered what comfort he could (telling the other thief that Jesus had done nothing wrong) and therefore Jesus rewarded this person and he did not first have to stop in purgatory. This approach overcomes the very common Protestant error in which they apply statements within the bible as necessarily applicable to every human being ever born.
2) We can say that this thief repented on the cross, his soul may have already been well on the way to ultimate cleansing. Though unlikely, perhaps he was not a thief at all, in fact, perhaps he had been unjustly convicted of his crime. Perhaps seeing Christ on the Cross itself was enough to bring him fare along his ultimate path to heaven.
3) We can of course use the biblical reality that to God a day is like a thousand years, and therefore when Jesus said ‘today’, that ‘today’ could refer to an extended period of time.
4) We can also say that in Jesus’ view, since this man was destined for heaven (perhaps after a lengthy stay in purgatory), his path to paradise was starting with his death ‘this day’.
We may debate which of these interpretations is most correct considering the context. The main point is that there are many possibilities beyond the concept that this promise of Jesus to the Good Thief disproves purgatory.