Editor's note: While based on the biblical story of the two men who died on crosses beside Jesus, this is an imaginative retelling of what one of those men might have been thinking.
“God our Savior … wants all people to be saved.”
—1 Timothy 2:4
He slowly lifted his head at the sound of a distant shout. From his lofty perch on the hill called Golgotha, the man on the cross could make out a mob heading his way. He was not surprised, because a rough-hewn beam next to a newly dug hole a few yards away portended yet one more crucifixion on this, the day before Passover. He pushed himself up to get a better look. He saw a brandishing of spears, heard the dissonance of anger. He watched as a wooden beam was taken off the back of one man and placed on another pulled from the crowd. Prodded by a soldier’s whip, the man slowly dragged it toward the hill. The crowd seemed more intent on disparaging the just-relieved man, who seemed to have been beaten considerably; it was all he could do to stay on his feet. The shouting and jeering got louder as the mob began making its way up the hill, its bedlam heavy on the sultry air.
He looked over at his companion, bound to a cross a stone’s throw away. Earlier this morning both had been escorted to this hill, tied to Roman crosses and hung up to die for their crimes. Their ascent went unnoticed, accompanied only by their executioners. Clearly the new arrival, driven before the storm of a boisterous mob, was no ordinary criminal.
He watched as the miscreant was stripped of his bloody clothes and stretched onto the crossbeam, his arms secured not by ropes but by spikes driven through his wrists. He winced as the cross, stood on end by soldiers, thudded into the gaping hole. It struck him as odd that the man seemed at peace and had very little to say. And when he did speak, the noisy mob became quiet, the soldiers paused in their routine. In a measured voice he spoke of forgiveness, a ring of authority underlying his words.
It dawned on him that this beaten, bedraggled man must be the notorious rabbi, the one they called Jesus, who had caused so much controversy and trouble in Jerusalem and beyond. It seems his enemies had gotten the best of him at last. So that’s what all the hullabaloo these past couple of days before Passover was all about! The Sanhedrin had caught him out at last, and now he hung on the hill between two fellow criminals. He heard the man on Jesus’ left voicing his frustration and challenging the miracle worker to get the three of them off their crosses.
He had heard about this Jesus, how he had cured folks and driven out demons. He had caught a little of what the man had said to the crowds from the top of a hill across the lake. Why, he had even eaten some bread from the leftover chunks his disciples had gathered up after Jesus had fed them. He couldn’t understand how this miracle man could end up on a cross.
He berated his crucified companion and told him to shut up. He heaved at his restraints, trying to make sense of what was transpiring on this hellish hill. This Jesus was behaving in a way that puzzled him. Why was he not raging at the injustice foisted on him? He had heard him speak of a God in heaven, had called him Father. Why did his divine father not get his son off the cross?
He had heard rumors that this Jesus had forgiven bad behavior: a hated tax collector up in a tree, a whore who cried tears onto his feet, a woman about to be stoned for adultery. Perhaps, he thought, he too could be forgiven. But was it too late? Had his crimes been too heinous? Something stirred deep within him. Tears he could not wipe away flowed down his cheeks. A lump he could not swallow rose in his throat. He felt despair dissolve in courage. He turned to this Man of Sorrows and blurted, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” His words surprised him. Life after death? A waiting kingdom? Such prospects seemed ridiculously out of place on this horrid hill under this broiling sun, with ropes chafing his aching arms. But the words had tumbled out, and he held his breath.
He turned his head and his eyes met those of the suffering man. “Today,” he heard him say with confidence and promise, “you shall be with me in Paradise.” He heard the words, but it took the rest of his ordeal that afternoon to fully understand that his future had become secure and lovely. As the day wore on, the man in the middle spoke more words, and with each word he felt his misgivings dissolve and his confidence bolstered. And then it suddenly got dark and cold. When the sun finally reappeared, the man they called Jesus, the man who had welcomed him home, spoke his last words and took his last breath. As his head dropped, so did the noise from the few remaining bystanders at his feet. The silence gave way to the ringing words of the centurion: “Surely he was the son of God.”
By the time a trio of soldiers trudged up the hill, the scorching sun had begun to set and the stinging flies had left him alone at last. His pain-wracked body had become numb, but his mind remained keen with anticipation and wonder. A soldier clubbed his legs; another stuck a spear into the side of the man whom he would soon meet in Paradise. His questions and doubts had given way to assurance. As he hung dying, he knew for a fact that the man in the middle had saved his life.