Today you shall be with me in paradise
It is inspiring to me that while he was dying on the cruel cross, Jesus Christ was filled with love and empathy for others. He found the strength to minister to the thief on the cross next to him in the account we read in Luke 23. All that the Savior did was focused on others and blessing their lives, giving them hope, encouraging them to live better lives. I love him. He is my inspiration, my Savior, my everything. I do not believe humanity will ever know in this life just how great and awesome he is.
The statement by the Savior, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” has caused many in Christianity to believe that all that is needed for salvation is that we confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The revelations of the Restoration teach that there is a spirit world where the righteous and the wicked await the resurrection. After the resurrection mankind will be assigned to one of three degrees of glory or perdition for those who choose to abide there. Much of the Christian world believes that spirit paradise and spirit prison constitute the final state of man, that is that they either attain heaven or hell. So by the teachings of traditional Christianity, Jesus Christ promised the thief that he would attain heaven and live with him forever. The thief is saved by his belief in Jesus.
How do we interpret this text? Is this what is being taught? Can a person live a destructive life contrary to the teachings of Christ, then confess the name of Jesus before they die, thereby attaining heaven? While I do not know the totality of how all of this works, it would seem contrary to the nature of heaven that we can say one thing and do another, and attain heaven simply by saying a few words. Surely our beliefs are manifest by our actions. Otherwise, why did we come to earth in the first place? Why not simply confess Jesus (as we all have done previously before we came to earth) and be ushered into eternal paradise?
Elder Bruce R. McConkie put it this way:
“…the great doctrinal problem growing out of this episode is concerned with death-bed repentance. Can men, after a life of wickedness, as they stand at death’s door, confess the Lord Jesus with their lips and thereby gain salvation in his kingdom? Many who do not have the light that has come with the restored gospel suppose this to be the case.” 1
One case of a last second conversion is the story of the Emperor Constantine, who supported the Christians and made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine was not baptized until just before his death, probably so that all of his prior sins would be cleansed. Some have assumed he did this to assure his salvation.
But we know that baptism is for those ready to be reborn and live a new life in Christ, not necessarily for those ready to die. The whole idea of death-bed baptism or death-bed repentance seems contrary to all that we know of Heavenly Father’s plan.
Latter-day Saints reject the idea of death bed repentance. It is contrary to the idea of being sanctified and changed into such a state whereby we would want to be in God’s presence in the first place. Our actions have to mean something.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “There has been much said by modern divines about the words of Jesus (when on the cross) to the thief, saying, ‘This day shalt thou be with me in paradise.’ King James’ translators make it out to say paradise. But what is paradise? It is a modern word: it does not answer at all to the original word that Jesus made use of. Find the original of the word paradise. You may as easily find a needle in a haymow. Here is a chance for battle, ye learned men. There is nothing in the original word in Greek from which this was taken that signifies paradise; but it was—This day thou shalt be with me in the world of spirits: then I will teach you all about it and answer your inquiries. And Peter says he went and preached to the world of spirits (spirits in prison, I Peter, 3rd chap., 19th verse), so that they who would receive it could have it answered by proxy by those who live on the earth.” 2
Orson F. Whitney said:
“[Some] uninspired minds have drawn the conclusion that the penitent thief was promised immediate heavenly exaltation, for repenting at the last moment and professing faith in the Redeemer…Jesus never taught such a doctrine, nor did any authorized servant of the Lord. It is a man-made theory, based upon faulty inference and misinterpretation. The Scriptures plainly teach that men will be judged according to their works, and receive rewards as varied as their deeds. It was best for the thief, of course, to repent even at the eleventh hour; but he could not be exalted until prepared for it, if it took a thousand years.” 3
- Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 1:824.
- Joseph F. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Deseret Book, 1977, p. 309.
- Saturday Night Thoughts, Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1921, 290 – 291.