How possible can it be to fear God when one is unfamiliar with God? All humans, whether they be Christians or not, have some instinct to know that God ought to be adored and honoured. One does not necessarily have to have read the Bible to know that goodness comes from God. One of the convicts being condemned with Jesus expressed having an idea that God ought to be feared.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “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.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:40-42 NIV).
The meek criminal was condemned for some undisclosed crime. How could he have committed whatever crime if he feared God? Can it be possible to fear God and be a criminal at the same time? The answer is two-fold. Firstly, it is possible to fear God and be a criminal, at the same time. Every human being, living in this sinful world, cannot be found without having committed any crime, one way or the other.
“This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:22-26 NIV).
In Adam, we were all condemned to die. We may naturally be God-fearing and desiring to please God, and yet be found falling short. Without Jesus, we are as good as dead, because there is no other way of accessing salvation. Our condition could be typical of the criminal that rebuked his friend, who got amused by mocking Jesus.
The remorseful criminal was granted salvation, without condition. Jesus didn’t even question the status of his criminality. The salvaging accessed by that criminal was ahead of many of those who considered themselves to be innocent of any crime. Those reading through that story may still consider that criminal with low esteem, yet, safe in paradise with Jesus.
There is a second possibility that the stated criminal may have been condemned to die, for a sin that he never committed. Even when granted a fair trial, there would always be room for human error, in this world. Countless are people languishing in prisons for sins they never committed. Hence, Jesus insinuated that possibility, as would take place on the Day of Judgment.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matthew 25:31-36 NIV).
Many of those prisoners, just like the criminal who was granted salvation, are personally known by God. In our human eyes, there is a tendency to always assume that every prisoner deserves incarceration. However, as far as Jesus is concerned, no one deserves incarceration. It is only the Day of Judgment that gives fair justice, which is different from how justice is conducted in our law courts, today.
The contrast is that of the other criminal who mocked Jesus. This world has plenty of such people. The unfortunate thing is that such people appear wise in the eyes of ordinary people. They get approval, more than those who wouldn’t dare gush out such foolish words can ever be supported.