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The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament of baptism is necessary: “Baptism is birth into the new life in Christ. In accordance with the Lord’s will, it is necessary for salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1277). This is why the Church baptizes infants: “All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy baptism” (CCC 1261).
The Church also teaches that some who are saved will go to purgatory before entering heaven: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect” (CCC 1030-1031).
Many non-Catholics think they have found a single biblical passage to refute both these doctrines—a double-whammy in one neat little package.
The salvation of the good thief
Luke’s gospel contains unique details of an event on Golgotha:
“Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with [Jesus]. . . . One of the criminals who were 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 23:32-43).
This is all the Bible tells us about the “good thief,” but several points are clear. First, he is a criminal whose crucifixion for his actions is just. Second, he is contrite. Third, he believes in Jesus. And finally, Jesus affirms his salvation. There is no indication that this man was a Christian, yet Jesus assures him that he is saved and even promises (in most Bible translations) that he will go to heaven that very day.
Therefore, the challenge goes, baptism is not necessary for salvation, since there is no indication that the good thief was—or ever would be—baptized. And, the non-Catholic will add, there is no such thing as purgatory, for if ever a person needed purgation it was this criminal, who repented mere hours, if not minutes, before his death—yet he goes to heaven that same day.
So how can the Catholic doctrines on the necessity of baptism and the existence of purgatory be squared with these contradictions?
The necessity of baptism
First, let’s consider the Church’s teaching on the necessity of baptism and how the good thief could attain salvation. It might come as a surprise to learn that Catholics recognize that the good thief was indeed saved, and tradition assigns him the name St. Dismas. The word translated above as “paradise” (Greek, paradeiso), the place to which Dismas would go, means “the abode of the blessed dead” (A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 339).
Whether or not Dismas had been baptized is unknown. Scripture and other historical records do not contain this information. We also do not know that Jesus had instituted the necessity of sacramental baptism at that point.
Scripture indicates three times when Jesus might have instituted his baptism. First, in his words to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Jesus seems to indicate the necessity of baptism here, but it could be that he speaks of an eventual necessity because his sacramental baptism had not yet been instituted. He speaks later of eventual necessity when he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). Since the sacrament of Holy Communion would not be instituted until the Last Supper, his words here cannot indicate a current necessity. Similarly, when he speaks to Nicodemus it is not clear that Jesus has yet instituted the sacrament of baptism.
Later we see another possibility: “Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people came and were baptized. . . . Now when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again to Galilee” (John 3:22-23, 4:1-3).
It is generally understood that the baptisms mentioned in this passage were not yet Jesus’ sacramental baptism. For example, a footnote in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition Bible identifies them as “a baptism like that of John. The time for baptism ‘in the Spirit’ had not yet come.” Similarly, A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture states that it is “more probably not that baptism which was to give the Spirit, 7:39, but rather a preparatory rite like that of John.” Note the reference here to the later verse 7:39, which states, “As yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” This verse seems to indicate that sacramental baptism would not arrive until after the Resurrection.
The third possible reference to the institution of the sacrament of baptism is found in the words of the great commission given by Jesus after the Resurrection: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age’” (Matt. 28:16-20).
If the sacrament of baptism was not instituted until after the Resurrection, Dismas’ salvation would not be subject to its current necessity. But scholars do not agree on when the sacrament was instituted, so whether or not it was necessary at the time of the Crucifixion remains an open question, as does the question of whether or not Dismas had been baptized.
That said, some will point out that it seems that at least the apostles had received sacramental baptism by the time of the Last Supper, since baptism is the “gateway” to the other sacraments (CCC 1213) and they received the sacraments of holy orders and Holy Communion that evening. We could argue that Jesus was free to administer the sacraments in any order he chose, for “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments” (CCC 1257). But let’s consider that the sacrament might have been instituted before the Crucifixion.
If Jesus did institute baptism before the Crucifixion, and Dismas was baptized, then there is no conflict with the doctrine of the necessity of baptism. But if Dismas wasn’t baptized, does this pose a conflict? Actually, it doesn’t. While baptism is the ordinary means of baptismal graces, the Church holds that there are other extraordinary means that suffice when certain circumstances exist. One of those is baptism of desire. The Catechism explains:
Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery. Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity (CCC 1260).
So it could be that Dismas was ignorant of certain things but he experienced a true conversion on his cross and was saved because he would have desired baptism had he known. Or maybe he wasn’t ignorant but he had not yet had the opportunity for baptism and his actual desire for it sufficed: “For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament” (CCC 1259).
Whatever the case may be, Jesus’ words on the cross to Dismas do not contradict the doctrine of the necessity of baptism as the Catholic Church teaches it.
The Existence of Purgatory
But what about purgatory? Since Jesus told Dismas that he would be in heaven that day, must the doctrine of purgatory be false?
Before we address this issue we should understand that it is not our place to judge the necessity of purgation for any individual, including Dismas. Such judgment belongs to Jesus alone (see John 5:22-30), and it could be that Dismas died in a state of perfect holiness bound straight for heaven. If such is the case, purgatory is irrelevant.
But what if he did need purgation (as it seems reasonable that a criminal dying on a cross might)? The first challenge that arises is that Jesus told Dismas that he would be in heaven today, leaving no time for purgation.
Actually, we’re not sure Jesus’ words indicated that Dismas would be in heaven that day. The Greek manuscripts containing Jesus’ words do not contain punctuation, so it is not certain where commas should be placed. Consider this possibility: “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.” Placing the comma after “today” shifts that word’s association from when Dismas would be in paradise to when Jesus is saying his words.
Another point to consider is that “paradise” does not mean “heaven.” As stated above, the term refers to the abode of the blessed dead, but that wasn’t quite heaven yet, since Jesus had not opened its gates. Peter tells us that, after his death, Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pet. 3:19). The Catechism explains: “In his human soul united to his divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven’s gates for the just who had gone before him” (CCC 637).
So, Jesus went to the abode of the blessed to share the gospel with them and to open the gates of heaven for them. It is there that Jesus said he would be with Dismas that day. Thus, purgation could be done before Dismas entered into the beatific vision.
One final note that might be the strongest counter to this challenge to purgatory is that the Church does not have a teaching on the temporal duration of purgation; such cleansing might happen “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52). So, even if we were to concede that Jesus intended to indicate that Dismas would go to heaven that very day, purgatory is still a possibility.
In the final analysis, it isn’t clear that the sacrament of baptism and its necessity had been instituted by Jesus before the Crucifixion. Even if it had been, we do not know for certain that Dismas hadn’t already been baptized. Whatever the case, he evidently underwent a conversion, so it seems that he would have had an implicit or explicit desire for baptism that would suffice if baptism was a necessity. And if purgatory is a necessary step on the way to heaven, the Church’s teaching allows room for that as well.