The grace of God is misunderstood by many. Some think God grants His grace to those who do great works in His name. Others think that if they police their own thoughts well enough, they’ll receive that grace. Still more think that a life marked by charity will earn it.
But the tale of the thief on the cross tells a far different truth.
Actor Stephen Baldwin has debuted “Heaven, How I Got Here: A Night With the Thief on the Cross,” a filmed stage production of Pastor Colin S. Smith’s novel. The production shares the fictionalized, yet Bible-based narrative of the thief who was crucified beside Jesus Christ, as the thief tells it from heaven 2,000 years later.
This is a story reveals the true nature of God’s grace—it is a thing that can never be earned or bought. There is nothing we can do with our lives that makes us worthy of it. And yet rather than being a source of despair, this should be a source of comfort, for while we cannot take grace, it is freely offered to anyone who accepts Christ as their Savior.
For more details, we caught up with Baldwin and asked him a few questions about his role in “A Night With the Thief on the Cross.”
What led you to get involved with this production?
“Well, initially, pastor Colin Smith, who had written the book, 'Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross,' contacted me about recording an audio book, and then that led to a conversation about the idea of doing it as a one-man stage play, which I did and performed two Easters ago.
It started as a sermon that became a book, that became an audio book, that became a theatrical play, which is the filmed theatrical play. That’s kind of how it started, and it’s just one of these things where now the audio book has been produced into a storytelling radio broadcast that, this year, will go out to reach tens of millions of people all over the world through the radio. While, simultaneously, we put into distribution this filmed version of the theatrical play.
So yeah—it all just kind of started from a smaller idea and now, as we know, sometimes God has another plan.”
What do you feel like is important to this story?
“I’m going to answer that question by sharing with you the answer to another question.
People say to me, ‘What have you personally gotten out of it the most?’ What I’ve benefited most from it is my growth as a Christian through the teachings of this pastor Colin Smith—this guy who originally got the heavenly download, so to speak, for this idea, which was his book called “Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross”.
And it’s this fictional narrative from the point of view of the thief, now that he’s already in heaven. Now we hear him recounting what happened on that day. Which, as an actor and an artist and a performer, that’s kind of a brilliant perspective. For so many Christians and so many believers who have heard the idea of the thief of the cross and the story—they’ve never really heard it from this narrative.
One of the great phrases Pastor Colin uses about this idea is, ‘On this day I had breakfast with the devil, and supper with the Savior.’ And what I think is the most compelling aspect of the idea of the thief on the cross is this: he wasn’t a Christian, knew nothing about Christianity or what it was to be a Christian. This guy was the furthest thing from salvation, and yet here he is dying next to the Savior.
I think, in this world today, in the minds and ideas and thoughts of so many people who think to themselves, ‘Well, I’m probably not good enough to make it into heaven,’ well certainly, the thief that was hanging next to Jesus probably wasn’t good enough either, but he’s going to go to heaven as well. The idea of the grace of all this is something that we are now very excited to be expressing in this opportunity in a new and different way.
The wonderful part of it is that we get to be a part of an opportunity right now that’s communicating that idea of grace—it’s not about what you do, how many nice things you do, how much charity you do—so many people in faith, particularly in Christianity, believe all that stuff. So when you kind of put a magnifying glass up to the thief on the cross and say ‘Yeah, but what about him? If that’s true, then how did he make it?’ that’s the fun that we’re having in this really beautifully told version of the story.”
How was it taking on so many personas in one production?
“You know, as a performer, when you have the right material—as an actor, when the script is there and you have the right lines, it actually isn’t as difficult as you think so long as you can memorize those lines.
I’ve said this to a lot of people before—and I say this for the humor of it—if you’d have asked Stephen Baldwin 25 years ago, “Do you think one day you’ll be playing the thief on the cross as an audio book and then it’ll be a stage play and then it’ll become a movie,” I never would have believed anything that’s going on right now. But I accept it—no question.”
It’s great that you’ve been given the opportunity to communicate this message of grace.
"What’s interesting is—and it’s nice that we’re circling back to this, because I wanted to—that’s been the cool thing. I get this phone call—‘Do I want to do the audiobook and play the thief on the cross?’ My very first thought after the idea of that question, of course, was arrogance, because I thought it would look really cool on my resume—‘Stephen Baldwin: Thief on the Cross’. And of course I’m joking, but there’s a little truth to that, meaning that how many times might I have the opportunity in my career to play this type of a role or a character that for me, creatively and artistically, is so unique. That was one of my greatest motivations.
So here, this opportunity comes, and God’s doing what He’s doing, and I’m thinking ‘Oh, it’s kind of this normal thing,’ but then through the process of the experience, when you talk about that grace that you’re referring to relevant to the thief on the cross, I actually had to get into God’s word in such a way that the intimacy of it, spiritually, was very challenging and deep, if you can imagine.
Coming out the other side of all that, kind of like when you hear an awesome sermon that really changes your life, or you know, or you hear that Christian song that really shifts you in that moment—for me, this experience was that thing. God wanted me in my own heart to connect with this thing so that it would bless me just as much as potentially the entire opportunity may bless others in the future.”
In your opinion as an actor, do you think the Christian Church makes full use of the arts, or you think there’s some room to grow?
“The first answer is: it’s not my job to try to figure out what God’s doing. A.K.A., shut your mouth, Stephen—you stay humble, focus on your own thing, and let God figure out the rest. That’s my first answer.
And then my second answer is: well of course there’s a whole giant humongous tremendous gigantic opportunity that’s still out there for Christian film.
Is there a rumor out there that most Christian movies are kind of cheesy and dorky and whatever? Yes, but let me tell you something—God uses those movies, as well. And part of what I’m experiencing now, with this project—it’s the first production from my new company, called LIGHTBEAMedia, and its calling is this: it’s to create Christian content unapologetically, that is able to be as excellent in its quality, if not better, than what Hollywood has to offer today.
So that’s how I answer your question. Do I think there’s room for improvement within the faith-based filmmaking community? Of course there is. And let me tell you something—those movies are coming. There’s a tsunami of Christian content that’s coming that’s going to be bigger and better and more excellent.
But I still say God bless the little guy that’s making a short film or—doesn’t matter. We should all aspire to create content for God’s kingdom that’s better than anything else out there. That continue to be our hope and our strive for excellence.
But certainly for my company, LIGHTBEAMedia, part of our brand will be that we achieve that level of success so well. LIGHTBEAMedia aspires to be the Miramax for Christ, so to speak.
And I believe we can do that. God has prepared me for this. I’ve been working in Hollywood for 30 years, made a hundred movies, and now all of a sudden I have the opportunity to start creating our own films, the first one being Thief on the Cross. We have another one already finished that’s being looked at by several distribution companies called Youth Group—it’s a comedy that was developed by a guy named Thor Ramsey. And now, one of the biggest secular Hollywood distributions is looking at our movie, “Youth Group,” for consideration for that to go out around the world.
Like you were asking, certainly LIGHTBEAMedia right now is trying to fill that vacuum of need for better quality Christian content. That’s what we’re aspiring to do.”
The Gospel authors could have chosen to focus only on Christ during the crucifixion—after all, what good is some thief? But Jesus showed the world what the thief's past didn't matter, that anyone could be saved, no matter what they had or had not done.
In the thoughts of Baldwin’s thief, “If Jesus could forgive His torturers, well, maybe He could forgive me.”
Since its debut on April 4th, you can check out “Heaven, How I Got Here: A Night With the Thief on the Cross” at Christiancinema.com.