The Good Thief

[April 29, 2016]

What was it like for the Good Thief, after Jesus died? He was left alone on his cross in terrible pain, and the one he put all his hopes in was gone, unmistakably dead. Jesus had not come into his kingdom after all.

No matter how bleak your faith has become at times, it can’t have been worse than that.

I expect we all love the Good Thief. His name is not certain; Russians call him St. Rakh, and to the Copts (and in the West) he is St. Dimas.

At first, it seems, he joined the other thief in mocking Christ:

“And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (Matt. 27:39-44).

“Those who were crucified with him also reviled him” (Mark 15:32).

But then he had a change of heart:

goodthiefparadise17c“One of the criminals who was hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’

But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’

And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23 39:43).

(This icon shows Christ meeting the Good Thief at the door of Paradise, where an angel with a flaming sword had stood since the Fall of Adam and Eve.)

Something changed the heart of the Good Thief, and he put all his desperate hopes on Jesus. He probably didn’t have a very clear idea, theologically, of what was going on at that moment. He wouldn’t have been able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. He certainly would not have understood that Jesus was dying for our salvation, and would rise again. He thought that maybe Jesus really was some sort of king, and that some dramatic, supernatural event was going to take place. When it happened, and Jesus was freed from his cross and revealed as king, the Good Thief wanted to be with him.

His faith couldn’t have been very accurate or mature; but it was still enough to be saved. The Good Thief had repentance, and he had humility. He knew his own abject need. That was enough to make up for his theological imprecision. So he cast all his hopes on Christ

—and then Christ died. And he was all alone.

Whatever he had expected, in that glow of newfound faith, it wasn’t that Jesus would simply die. The soldiers came and broke his legs, to hasten death. He wouldn’t be able to hoist himself up to catch a breath, and suffocation would soon set in. They broke the legs of the Bad Thief as well. But when the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead, they didn’t break his legs. One of them pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, and the Good Thief saw that Jesus was unresponsive; the soldiers could have done anything with that body. Jesus was truly dead. Blood and water flowed from the pierced pericardium, further evidence that this was now a corpse.

What thoughts went through the Good Thief’s head, in his final moments? He hung there beside Christ’s ruined body. There would be no miraculous rescue after all.

No matter how bleak a state your faith might decline to, it can’t have been as miserable as the Good Thief’s thoughts were at that moment.

And yet, minutes later, he was flooded with light and joy. He saw his Lord again, face to face, in Paradise.

When we hear a story about a terrible death, we think: it gets worse and worse and then you DIE. But what actually happens, to those who love the Lord, is this: it gets worse and worse, and then you SEE THE LORD. It gets worse, unbearably worse, and then suddenly it’s over. Suddenly, all the darkness vanishes. All the pain is gone. You are flooded with joy and light. Suddenly you are with Jesus in Paradise.

If your faith is weak, if you have even mocked God, if you doubt whether the Lord would really be with you if you were bound for a terrible death, remember the Good Thief. Your situation can’t have been worse than his. It turned out that he didn’t really need very much to be saved. He didn’t need a theological education, or even a clear idea of who Jesus was. He just needed to cast all his hopes on him. That was enough. And he was with Christ in Paradise that day.

Here’s a beautiful Catholic prayer to the Good Thief:

Glorious St. Dimas, you alone of all the great penitent saints were directly canonized by Christ himself; you were assured of a place in heaven with him “this day” because of the sincere confession of your sins to him in the tribunal of Calvary and your true sorrow for them as you hung beside him in that open confessional.

You who by the direct sword thrust of your love and repentance did open the heart of Jesus in mercy and forgiveness even before the centurion’s spear tore it asunder; you whose face was closer to that of Jesus in his last agony, to offer him a word of comfort, closer even than that of his beloved Mother, Mary; you who knew so well how to pray, teach me the words to say to him to gain pardon and the grace of perseverance; and you who are so close to him now in heaven, as you were during his last moments on earth, pray to him for me that I shall never again desert him, but that at the close of my life I may hear from him the words he addressed to you: “This day thou shalt be with me in paradise.”

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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  1. Thank you for a wonderful article. I read somewhere that the Good Thief converted after hearing Our Lord say, "Father forgive them." Also he did call Jesus "Lord" when he asked just for e remembrance. He may well have known that Jesus claimed to be the Christ. And now at the last hour he believed. What Faith! He believed even after Jesus died. Before the Resurrection.

  2. There is absolutely at least one person whose solitude after the Crucifixion was more terrible than the Good Thief's. That is the solitude of the Mother of God. Being Orthodox, you may not know that Hispanic culture nurtures a particular devotion to our Lady in her solitude — Soledad or Marisol are not uncommon names in Spanish-speaking cultures. The solitude of Mary is recapitulated in a small way by the Church on Good Friday, in the great and terrible silence of a world without God. Being entirely without sin and therefore conformed to God in a way we can scarcely imagine, the Virgin Mary knew and comprehended the full weight of the promises she had received through the Archangel. That she never lost her faith only increased her existential loneliness, as she endured the opportunistic temptations of the Evil One who could not have failed to miss his chance to corrupt the finest flower of all creation. Though she never gave way any more than her Son in his own time of trial in the desert, she had to suffer and overcome it all, and all alone : suggestions that she had been traduced, that God is not good but only the chief tormentor in disguise and that she had been raised above all creatures only as a prelude to an exquisite ritual of torture, that all of life is nothing but a path to death. That is the unspeakable spiritual assault she had to endure to be at one with her Son. Tradition gives us no reason to suppose that she was defended and sustained by angelic assistance; the necessity of crucifixion for the entire Body of Christ convinces me that her suffering was as unaccompanied and unmitigated as that of our Lord. THAT is what it is to have a sword pierce your heart.

    FMG: Well said, thank you!

  3. There are reasons to conclude that the good thief was of a good mental disposition even much before his crucifixion.
    Then why was such a person crucified? Probably because that severe punishment and his prayer to Christ were the challenge destined by God for him even from his early life.

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