Death Between Thieves


The Crucifixion (after Mantegna), 1861 – Edgar Degas

Today, Good Friday, compels us to remember the death of deaths, when the incarnate God — the essence and source of life itself — chose death so we could participate in his essence. Christian thinkers stand in awe of this day and often drop in profound insights. Sample the following quotes.

CS Lewis, from The Four Loves:

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them.  He creates the universe, already foreseeing – or should we say ‘seeing’? there are no tenses in God – the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up.  If I may dare the biological image, God is ‘host’ who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and ‘take advantage of’ Him.  Herein is love.   This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.

Karl Barth, from Criminals With Him, a sermon preached in 1957 to the inmates at Basel prison:

They crucified him with the criminals‘. Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company? As a matter of fact, both are true! One thing is certain: here they hang all three, Jesus and the criminals, one at the right and one at the left, all three exposed to the same public abuse, to the same interminable pain, to the same slow and irrevocable death throes. Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested somewhere, locked up and sentenced by  some judge in the course of the previous few days. And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him. They are linked in a common bondage never again to be broken, just as the nails that fastened them to the piece of wood would never break. It was as inescapable for them as it was for him. It was a point of no return for them as for him. There remained only the shameful, pain stricken present and the future of their approaching death. (Strangely enough, there are many paintings of Jesus’ crucifixion were the two criminals are lost to sight. It would perhaps be more appropriate not to represent Jesus’ death at all. But if it is done, then the two thieves on the right and on the left must not be left out. In any painting or representation where they are absent, an important, even an essential, element is missing.)

They crucified him with the criminals. Do you know what this implies? Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community. Christian community is manifest wherever  there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance. These may hear that everything he is, he is for them, and everything he does, he does for them. To live by this promise is to be a Christian community. The two criminals were the first certain Christian community.

Consider the fact: Jesus died precisely for these two criminals who were crucified on his right and on his left and went to their death with him. He did not die for the sake of the good world, he died for the sake of an evil world, not for the pious, but for the godless, not for the just, but for the unjust, for the deliverance, the victory and the joy of all, that they might have life. These two companions were evidently and undeniably criminals, evil people, god-less people, unjust people. And he, like them, was condemned and crucified as a law-breaker, a criminal. All three were under the same verdict.

Jurgen Moltmann, from The Crucified God:

The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It does not invite thought, but a change of mind. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned. On the other hand, it is a symbol which calls the oppressed and godless into the church and through the church into the fellowship of the crucified God.


About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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