by Rod D. Martin
September 28, 2015
I receive a lot of letters, and this one — from a good friend who is not a Christian — stood out. She writes about a veteran (we’ll call him Jim) who committed a crime many years ago, spent years in prison, and is now struggling to make it outside. She asked, in part:
I was thinking about redemption, forgiveness, and new beginnings, and how ex-felons basically cannot build an identity apart from what they did. Does forgiveness and opportunity actually exist within this life for those that have been convicted of a wrong?
The following is my answer.
You asked me a couple of very significant questions which obviously deserve whole books in response, so let me tackle this as briefly as seems reasonable but without ignoring the comprehensive nature of your request.
“Does forgiveness and opportunity actually exist in this life…?”
As you know, I am a Christian. I think some people would also consider me an intellectual, and I am certainly not satisfied, nor have I ever been, with fairy tales. So I have always taken the same approach to my beliefs on these matters that I would on a business decision, a legal matter, or an experiment in a lab.
I’m not going to attempt to reproduce that here. I just want to make it clear up front that while I believe God is a person and the He interacts with us in a personal way, mysticism has never had much appeal for me. Is the supernatural real? Certainly, and we would believe that — regardless of what we might call it — if we were atheists. The very idea of a multiverse (now so popular in physics) assumes not only one but an infinite number of existences beyond our own. Every science fiction show now seems to hypothesize higher powers that “seeded the Earth with life” or something similar. So the idea that there might be a Creator, or forces we would perceive as miraculous, is hardly unique to religious thinking. Just talk to Stephen Hawking, or go watch Interstellar. The only difference is in what you believe about the nature of such things.
We can get into that another time (and it would be a lot of fun, I think, to do so). For today, let’s lay out some presuppositions, which are important to understand what I’m going to say.
First, the universe was created, and by a particular Person, Who in consequence of His creation has also necessarily set rules or parameters for how it does and ought to operate. Some of these are impersonal, like gravity. But since He did not stop His creativity at inanimate objects, He also set rules for our own operation, both the autonomic (hearts beating, neurons firing) and the discretionary (how we should treat one another, how we should organize society, how we should relate to Him). Failing to follow these rules is, on an impersonal level, a mistake: it is like deciding not to put oil in your car, or to build a plane with half a wing. And on a personal level, it is an affront to the dignity, majesty and authority of the rightful King of all creation.
In the Garden of Eden, where God first created man and woman, the first sin (taking the forbidden fruit) was not about diet, but about authority: Adam and Eve chose to substitute their own rules for God’s. They rejected His wisdom and His fellowship to get their own way. You will hear this described as pride, or as covetousness, but in fact it was a poorly executed coup d’état. It is therefore not at all surprising that the very next sin recorded in the Bible was a murder: Cain wanted his own way too, and so killed his righteous brother Abel. Stepping outside the law, even in small things, tends to spin out of control.
God allows man a lot of freedom — we are anything but automatons — and so we can make choices like these. We just can’t make them with any hope of a good outcome. And sin tends to result in great harm to others, as I’m sure it did to Jim’s family (and to all who might have benefited from Jim’s work and presence in the years he spent in jail). There really aren’t victimless crimes (which is not to say that everything that is wrong ought to be criminalized, at least by human governments). Whatever we do has consequences, for ourselves, for others, and for God.
Now if God were impersonal, someone who just “wound up the clock of the universe and then let it go,” maybe this wouldn’t matter so much. But He isn’t. He created the first people to have fellowship with them. He made them as we make children, and as we hope that our children will care for the things we do, He placed them in the world to extend and complete His creation. When we create something like PayPal, or your effort on behalf of veterans, or a vaccine for polio, we’re doing exactly that: we are taking the raw materials He’s given us and helping in the completion of His plan for the entire universe. In time, the whole world will be made perfect, and all the people in it. We get to take part in this, practically and not just spiritually.
But more than that, He does want us to be His literal children. Just as I adopted Dolly, Archer and Haley, He adopts us as His own. “Father” is not just a religious metaphor: it is both a reality and a precise expression of His relationship to us.
This is only made possible, though, by reconciling us to Himself. We are estranged because of our sin, just as we would be estranged from the U.S. government if we were to commit some great crime. We are traitors to the King, and the King’s own standards of justice may not be violated. So the King has made a way to pardon us that is not inconsistent with His law. He sent His only begotten (or natural, as opposed to adopted) Son, Jesus Christ, into the world as a man. That Jesus lived a sinless life, was executed on a cross (the then-current Roman form of punishment for criminals and traitors), and rose again on the third day. Afterward He appeared to hundreds of eyewitnesses for forty days, then ascending to Heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father, where He reigns to this day until at the completion of all things He will return.
You would expect a being so much higher than we are to also be a tad more complicated than we are, and that is in fact the case. The Bible teaches a concept we call the Trinity, that God is three persons in one: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the latter of Whom dwells within all who are redeemed. Jesus, therefore, was fully God and fully man, the only one worthy to atone for all our sins, and the only one able to rise from the dead and become the first fruit of a new, regenerated humanity. He paid the price for all that we ever have done, are doing, or will ever do. And while I cannot go out and rob a bank without paying an Earthly price (and justly so), I can absolutely find forgiveness and redemption if I genuinely repent, submit to His Lordship, and adopt His atonement as my own.
Why would He put Himself through such things, much less forgive the transgressions of someone as unimportant and obnoxious as me? Because just as I do with my own children, He wishes to reconcile us to Himself, correct us in love, and make us all that we ought to be, not merely what we are.
Is there forgiveness and opportunity for Jim? There is. The great Apostle Paul was first a murderer. The Apostle Peter three times denied under questioning that he even knew the Lord. King David committed adultery. The “heroes” of the Bible are a motley bunch, entirely in need of a Savior. And they receive that salvation, not because of their works but because of their genuine sorrow for their sins and desire to make things right. Christ’s atonement makes forgiveness possible, and with it humility, release from guilt, and genuine productivity toward worthy, meaningful purpose.
Clearly, many in this world will not see things this way for Jim. And I don’t know enough about his situation to say definitively what ought to be. We put murderers and robbers and rapists in prison for a reason: it’s not just punishment, but safety to others in society, and I cannot know whether he ought to be among them. However, he has served his time, and in the eyes of the state that is enough. He seems truly sorry for whatever it was he did. And we serve a God of second (and third, and twentieth) chances.
So my gut reaction is “absolutely!” It will not be easy, I know (and I have quite a few thoughts on how we could greatly reform our penal system, particularly with regard to nonviolent offenders, to the great benefit not only them but of all society). But I don’t doubt there would be many who would want to help him find his way and become a productive citizen again. And beyond that, the real issues (as you put it) of “redemption, forgiveness and new beginnings” pertain to us all, and are addressed entirely by the unearned grace of our redeemer. We have all done wrong, we are all out of sorts, but we can all find rest, peace, power and purpose, in Him Who made us in the first place.
I have written a bit more than you probably sought. But I would be greatly remiss not to properly answer such a deep, important question. Indeed, I can think of no question of greater importance.