Like many pastors during Easter, Colin S. Smith delivered a sermon series about the seven last words of Jesus. A part of it centered on the thief on the cross, whose story he felt was the clearest and simplest story for explaining the heart of the Gospel. After hearing this story, a dying nominal Christian comprehended the concept and value of grace for the first time. Witnessing how the power of storytelling could help drive the point of the Gospel home, Smith then wrote Heaven, How I Got Here: The Story of the Thief on the Cross to deliver the Gospel to a wider audience in a fresh manner. Less than a hundred pages long, the book tells the crucifixion story through the first-person perspective of the thief on the cross.
The book proved to be an effective evangelism tool – selling at least 50,000 copies – so Smith and his team decided to bring it to the next level: producing a one-man play adaptation of the book. They offered the role to the youngest of the famed Baldwin brothers, Stephen (the only Christian among them). He loved the character, but he was wary of accepting at first because he didn’t think he had the live theater chops for it. In the end, he took it. He asked God to give him what he needed to give justice to the premise and role.
And he did. In a span of six shows in three nights during Holy Week 2015, Stephen Baldwin delivered a powerful, sold-out performance to an audience of 5,000 – 70% of which didn’t go to church. The team did it again in 2016, but this time, it was filmed. The footage of which is then made available as a digital movie recently, allowing those like me who weren’t in location to watch it.
Baldwin was truly captivating, taking the role into heart, even naming the thief “Stephen” to make it more personal. The setup is Stephen being Heaven’s “tour guide” while the audience serves as “temporary visitors.” This creates an effective and comfortable environment for and rapport with the audience as he then begins to tell the story of how “he had breakfast with the Devil, and supper with the Savior” through an enthralling mix of artistry, monologues, and testimony.
Heaven, How I Got Here provides a fictional backstory to the thief, as he grew up being instructed in Jewish laws by his mother; witnessing the corruption of tax collectors, hypocrisy of the temple priests, and the oppression of the Roman invaders; and how he developed into a thief and got caught and sentenced to crucifixion. On the cross, he started off as defiant, angry, and bitter. But as he continued to be in Jesus’ presence, desperation and humility eventually came upon him, which led him to stake everything on Jesus.
Both the unfolding of the story and the fleshing out of the character are riveting. Baldwin brilliantly sets the whole thing up with light-heartedness and humor, and then gradually shifts it into a compellingly poignant track. Even with no complicated production value and effects, he successfully tells the narrative with great vividness and emotional impact, with only some music and minimal props to help him. It’s also fascinating how the play explores the thief’s thought processes while he was on the cross and Jesus was dying beside him, hearing the entire range of Jesus’ final words, as his faith was shaped while struggling with varying, complex emotions and ideas.
Heaven, How I Got Here is beautiful, moving, and thought-provoking. Clocking less than an hour long, this one-man play has significantly more substance – theologically and artistically – than most Christian movies I’ve ever watched. Hence, it’s a genuinely gripping evangelistic medium that summarizes the profound truth of the Gospel through Stephen’s simple confession:
“I wasn’t saved by what I did or didn’t do. I was saved by what Jesus did.”