Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)
In the verses above, we see a list of unrighteous people—sinners. It is stated twice that such people will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Included in this list are thieves. So why did Jesus, as described in Luke 23:39–43, promise to one of the thieves that was crucified with Him, “
Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise”?
Sometimes the answer to a seeming contradiction is so close that it would bite you if it could. This is the case here. Look at the very next verse in 1 Corinthians 6 to find the resolution.
God no longer held these or any other sins against them because they had been sanctified and justified in the name of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.
And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11, emphasis added)
1 Corinthians 6 is written to Christians—followers of Jesus Christ who have had all of their many sins forgiven and washed away by the powerful cleansing blood of the crucified and risen Savior (Revelation 1:5). Each believer is horribly flawed, and yet, forgiven and living with the promise and hope of heaven (Titus 3:7).
And such were some of you” indicates this list of sins is a record of their past, but they repented (Acts 3:19) and had been freed from the bondage of their sin (Romans 6:5–23). God no longer held these or any other sins against them because they had been sanctified and justified in the name of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit (Romans 3:24–26). Regardless of what kinds of sins they’ had committed, their record of wrongs had been wiped clean.
In the account of the thieves who were crucified with Christ, the same thing took place. One thief rejected Christ and remained in his unrighteous and unworthy state. The other thief recognized Christ as Savior and turned to Him for salvation, thereby becoming washed, sanctified, and justified before God. He became acceptable in the sight of God, because of the finished work of Christ, to inherit the kingdom of God.
Thieves are thought of as “bad” people. Many people would not place themselves in the same category. However, how many times does one have to steal something to become a thief? Only once.
And who among us has not taken something, even the smallest thing that did not belong to us? We are all thieves. We are all unrighteous lawbreakers, unworthy to inherit the kingdom of God (Romans 3:23). So the question, “Can a thief go to heaven?” applies to all of us.
The thieves crucified with Jesus are a fitting picture of all mankind. They show us the only two possible options for entering eternity: to receive Christ’s free gift of salvation or reject it. So there’s good news! When a thief receives Christ as Lord, he is no longer a thief in the eyes of God; his sin is covered and he is able to enter heaven. Scripture makes that plain and without contradiction.