If you were to die tonight, where would you go? Have you heard that question before? It’s the most important question in life. All of us are going to die. You can’t avoid it. So if you were to die tonight, where would you go? I sometimes use that question to see where people are at in their faith in Jesus. Do you know what most people tell me? “I don’t know.” Or, “I don’t want to think about it.” Or, “I hope I’ve been good enough.” What about you? If you were to die tonight, where would you go? Heaven! Why? By faith in Jesus. Remember this verse? “Whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Yes! But how about this: Do we get to go to heaven right away? Can you prove from the Bible that the moment you die, you go straight to heaven?
It sounds strange to say it, but the best place to learn about life is to watch Jesus’ death. As I reread the story of Jesus’ death on the cross, one thing stood out for me: Everybody made fun of Jesus! The rulers sneered at him, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35). The soldiers mocked him, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself” (Luke 23:37). How do you like it when people make fun of you? When people laugh at you? Isn’t that awful? Can you imagine how Jesus must have felt?
Here’s how bad it got: Even one of the criminals who hung next to Jesus hurled insults at him, ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’” (Luke 23:39). Doesn’t that show how bad we human beings are? No matter how sinful we’ve been, we can always find a way to look down on someone else, can’t we? We can always find someone else to make fun of. Isn’t that awful? Here’s how bad it got for Jesus: Even this worthless criminal, who was dying on a cross, thought he was better than Jesus. That’s how low Jesus went! And nobody defended him. Not Peter. Not John. Not one of the people Jesus had miraculously healed. No one spoke up. No one!
Except one person. The whole time that Jesus hung on the cross, there was only one person who defended him. Who was it? The other criminal on the cross. He didn’t start out much better. In fact, Matthew and Mark tell us that both criminals initially mocked Jesus. But during his six hours on the cross, something changed. Maybe it was seeing Jesus look at the men pounding nails into his hands and hearing Jesus say, “Forgive, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Who says that? Who was this? You can learn a lot about a person from watching him die. Being with Jesus—even as he died on a cross—changed this man’s life.
Suddenly, that second criminal got it. He got what the people and the soldiers and the other thief didn’t. “‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:40-41). What did that man get? He deserved to die for his sins, and Jesus didn’t! The Bible never tells us exactly what that man did. Murder? Steal? Rebel? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Sin is sin, and that criminal knew it. If he was guilty of sin, what did he deserve? Death. Are we any different? When we mock… When we’re proud… When we sin… What do our deeds deserve? Death!
But I told you that this criminal got it. In the face of death, he did the wisest thing of all: He turned to Jesus. Actually, he didn’t turn. He couldn’t! He was nailed to a cross. In excruciating pain. About to die. He couldn’t do anything! So he simply said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He didn’t make excuses. He didn’t ask Jesus to give him a free pass. He simply said, “Remember me.” What more could he say? What a beautiful prayer! Say that with me: “Jesus, remember me.” He was watching Jesus die, but he knew that death wouldn’t be the end for Jesus, and he didn’t want death to be the end for him. “Jesus, remember me.”
I’m so thankful that he said that prayer, because it gave Jesus the chance to say some of the most beautiful words in the Bible: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). That criminal was going to die that day, and where was he going to go? Paradise! What did he do to deserve that? Nothing! Did he hop down from the cross and do some good works? No! This is the ultimate proof that we’re saved by faith. That man couldn’t do anything. He was nothing. But Jesus + Nothing = Everything! When Adam and Eve sinned, God blocked the door to paradise by an angel with a flaming sword. But when Jesus died for us on the cross, he reopened the door to paradise. It doesn’t make sense. It sounds like a contradiction. But death brings life!
When? “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” That little word today makes all the difference in the world. When a believer in Jesus dies, there is no more suffering. There is no torment. There is no wait. Today—at the moment of death—that loved one is in heaven with Jesus. Today! It’s hard to think of any more beautiful words in the Bible. When an elderly person faces death, when a mother or father worries about a sick child, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” So if you were to die tonight, where would you end up? Heaven! When? Today! How do you know? Point to the thief on the cross—death and life right there at the cross of Jesus…
I love sharing this story! It’s so clear. I shared it in a Bible study just a couple months ago. I read these verses. I talked about them just like we’ve done. And a woman interrupted me and said, “You’re wrong. Stop twisting what the Bible says. People don’t go to heaven when they die.” I wasn’t ready for that. I asked, “What do you mean?” “You’re wrong. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ He said, ‘Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.’” Catholics are taught that people go to purgatory to suffer for a while when they die. Is that in the Bible? No! Many other Christians say that no one goes to heaven until Judgment Day.
What should I have said? Don’t be afraid of people who challenge what the Bible says. Use it as an opportunity to study the Bible even more! Jesus says the phrase “Truly I tell you” 74 times in the gospels. Guess how many times he uses “Today”… Just here! The “today” isn’t part of “truly I tell you.” It’s Jesus’ promise of when that man would be in heaven! Want more proof? In the last book of the Bible—Revelation—John gets to look into heaven. Do you know what he sees there? People! All the people whom Jesus saved and are already living with Jesus in heaven.
Don’t ever let anyone take God’s greatest promise away from you! You don’t have to be scared of death, because when you die, you will be with Jesus in heaven. At that very moment—today! Why? Remember how everyone insulted Jesus? “He saved others; let him save himself.” Could Jesus have saved himself? Yes! Why didn’t he? Because if he saved himself, he couldn’t save you. He died, so that we can live. That’s why we have a strange name for the day Jesus died. That saddest day of the year, what do we call it? Good Friday! Death and life at the cross. If you were to die tonight, where would you go? Heaven. Why? Because Jesus says so. Today!