Q&R: Two Thieves & the Third Cross-piece
I have a question about the cross. I have seen what some call the “Russian Cross.” What troubles me about it is the symbol of the third wooden cross-piece at the bottom, because it contradicts my belief in apokatastasis (ultimate redemption). Can you help me understand the following explanation better or offer an alternative?
“The slanted line reminds us of the two thieves on both sides of the cross. One of them to the right of Christ ascended to Heaven, while the other one sank to Hell. Thus bottom bar of the cross is like the scale of justice and its points show the way to the Hell and Heaven.”
I think much of this is solved simply by understanding that ‘hell’ language can refer to divine judgment (which we do believe in) but that the judgment may be restorative rather than retributive and that in any case, it is transitional rather than eternal. Further, rather than thinking of heaven or hell as two geographical ‘places’ in the afterlife, we think of them as two experiences that come from opposing orientations toward Christ and God’s love. We can illustrate this reality using the two thieves.
On the Cross, we see the all-merciful Judge with outstretched hands, extending forgiveness and offering life to the whole world. The Cross is simultaneously the mercy seat (of the ark of the covenant), where the two men, one on each side of Christ, remind us of the cherubim of the ark (!) AND ALSO the judgment seat of Christ, where the two thieves represent two opposite responses to the Lord.
The judgment is not that Christ condemns either of them, but as the Gospel of John says, “And this is the judgment: the Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). So the Cross stands as the scales of justice for the two thieves. One confesses Christ and the other abuses Christ. They render their own verdict. And that has consequences. Christ says that those who embrace him experience eternal love and those who reject him experience judgment by their own decision. Christ need not condemn anyone (John 3:16-17). We condemn ourselves when, in “the valley of decision’ (Joel 3:14), we turn from the Light.
So, heaven and hell are not to be thought of as two geographical places where we are sent after the judgment, but rather, the darkness or light we experience as we turn from Christ or toward Christ, the One who never ceases to shine on us all.
In that model, then, the thieves are a perfect expression of how the Cross of perfect Love becomes the balance by which our response to Christ determines whether we pass from death into life or into judgment. The good thief will be “in paradise” this very day. The defiant thief will depart into judgment. I don’t think we can get around that revelation, coming as it does (repeatedly) from Christ himself.
But we need not assume, as so many of us had, that the fires of judgment are anything other than the fires of divine love, the refiner’s fire through which we pass to be cleansed and healed and freed for ultimate redemption.
One more fascinating way to see the two thieves: Since John’s Gospel sees Christ as ascending to the throne of the Cross, which is to say “the throne of grace,” which is to say, “entering into his kingdom,” this suggests a rather stunning reading of Matthew 20:23: 20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
- 21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
The immediate “cup” that Christ will drink is the cup of his Passion–his suffering and death on the Cross. But it is, at the same time, the throne he’s chosen from which to reign in self-giving love and where he judges (and drives out) the prince of this world and the fallen world system.
Christ’s response to the mother of James and John is instructive: yes, like Christ, her two sons will drink the cup of martyrdom in due course, but as for who will sit at his right and left when Christ takes the throne and wears the crown, that remains to be seen. And it WILL BE seen…on Good Friday! Who is it that will sit on his right and his left? The two thieves.
Note that despite their two drastically different responses to Christ, and even the two outcomes of paradise versus judgment, both men are envisioned as part of Jesus’s kingdom reign. In the end, our gaze (and theirs!) is set on Christ the King, whose kingdom reigns over ALL, and according to Paul, to whom ALL will ultimately bend the knee in worship.