Criminals Need Theology, Not Just Jesus

February 26, 2013 | 0 comments

A recent study out of Georgia State University shows that in some cases sharing the Christian faith with prisoners might cause them to commit more crimes. According to the study’s abstract, 

Through purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance, the hardcore offenders we interviewed are able to exploit the absolvitory tenets of religious doctrine, neutralizing their fear of death to not only allow but encourage offending.

Basically, the criminals took advantage of God’s unlimited ability to forgive and held to the mistaken notion that as long as they ask for forgiveness after their crimes they will still go to heaven.  Here are some of the inmates relating this idea in their own words:

A 25-year-old criminal nicknamed “Cool” said he always says a “quick little prayer” before committing a crime in order to “stay cool with Jesus.” As long as you ask for forgiveness, Jesus has to give it to you, he said.

One 33-year-old criminal, identified in the study by the nickname “Triggerman,” refused to accept the suggestion that a consequence of murder was eternal damnation.

“No, no, no, I don’t think that is right,” he told the researchers. “Anything can be forgiven. We live in hell now and you can do anything in hell. . . . God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him.”

Triggerman espouses a view that is more literal than it first appears—the view that God can’t send people to hell because we already live in hell. A 47-year-old criminal called “Detroit” said, “there is a heaven and there is a hell, but I believe that it is hell on earth, and we trying to fight to get (to heaven). . . . We already in hell, you know?”

While the harshness of inner city life and the collapse of the family can be blamed for some of these bizarre beliefs (as well as human ingenuity in the matter of rationalization), I also think we need to place blame on bad theology. God’s love and mercy are limitless, but when they are divorced from his holiness and justice God becomes a senile grandfather who lovingly, but stupidly, pampers us while we dupe him. 

A loving God would not blindly tolerate sin. He would instead punish it with maximum efficiency. He would especially punish the sin of planning to repent in the future to justify sinning in the present, a sin called presumption. Of course, it is human nature to sin, and nothing we do can earn God’s love or forgiveness. What is the answer?

Salvation: Free, But Not Cheap

The answer is grace. God freely gives us his divine life, and we simply ask for it. This grace transforms our souls and makes us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 4:8). We become children of God, or part of his family, so that with a spirit of adoption we can call God father (Rom. 8:15).

Of course, we can at any point choose to be prodigal sons or daughters and walk away from the divine family. This happens when we commit a mortal sin. We make a shipwreck of our faith (1 Tim. 1:19) and fall from grace (Gal. 5:4). However, if we heed Jesus’ words and persevere to the end (Matt. 10:22) by working out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), then we will be saved (Rom. 5:9).

Salvation is not earned (Eph. 2:8-9). It is a free gift as a member of God’s family. We can walk away from God’s offer and familial covenant and embrace eternal separation from God, although God will forgive us if we genuinely repent and return to faithfully worship him.

Some aspects of Protestant theology (which may be espoused by some of these prison chaplains) does lead to the idea that no matter what a human being does after he has been “saved,” that person will eventually go to heaven.

Once Saved, Always Saved?

But if someone “gets saved” and as a result can never lose his salvation, then wouldn’t he still go to heaven regardless of whether he abandons his faith? A critic might respond that such a person was never saved in the first place.

But this would mean that if a person ever loses his faith, even thirty or forty years after “accepting Jesus,” it only proves his initial acceptance of faith was not genuine. To say such people have never existed or to say there are only saints who persevere to the end and hypocrites who fall away and never truly believed at all stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point.

Under this view of salvation and justification, you could never know if your initial act of faith was real or if you were saved in the first place. It’s always possible that a personal tragedy or crisis of faith could cause you to abandon your faith later in life and therefore be one of those who was never saved at all.

Thus, under the Protestant view of justification, there is no assurance of salvation. I’ll address the biblical arguments in defense of this view (called eternal security) in my next post.


After his conversion to the Catholic faith, Trent Horn pursued an undergraduate degree in history from Arizona State University. He then earned a graduate degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College....

The Salvation Controversy
The Salvation Controversy is a serious work by a serious and supremely-gifted defender of the faith on a topic of central concern for everyone. If it elicits the response it deserves, then all of us, whatever our confessional commitments, will at least be clearer about what really does divide us. And what does not.

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