Atheists aren’t the only ones who are tempted to disbelieve claims of “finding Jesus” after someone lands in jail for a long stretch. Many people suspect that the criminal is just looking for special treatment or a reduced sentence or perhaps s/he simply wants more attention.
What people don’t seem to realise is that jail-house conversions make perfect sense. We humans are profoundly blind to our true nature. It usually takes a pretty big consequence or awakening to get us to see just how badly we’re screwing up. Spouses, usually men can be heard to express genuine surprise as their wives pack their bags and leave the marriage.
“I didn’t even know she was unhappy.” The men aren’t lying when they say this. They really didn’t get it that their behaviours, usually a lack of attention, was causing that much pain.
“I didn’t think anyone would get hurt,” says the arsonist.
“I thought she wanted to have sex with me,” says the date rapist.
“She was seducing me,” says the paedophile.
“I am not an evil person,” says the atheist.
“They owe me for all the extra hours I work,” says the employee as he steals from his employer.
“They’re just little lies,” justifies the parent to the child who wasn’t supposed to hear.
“I didn’t think I was that drunk,” says the driver after hitting the pedestrian.
Until some consequence hits us upside the head, most of us can’t see how far we are, from where we should be. My guess is that Christopher Hitchens would be surprised to hear from his co dependent wife that it’s not a lot of fun living with an alcoholic.
Nevertheless, winding up in jail for something like murder SHOULD jerk someone’s chain. What we should be surprised at is all the prisoners who don’t cry for help or make a radical change when confronted with the reality of who they’ve become. What I’ve found is that regardless of who it is, or what crime has been committed, wardens and staff have zero regrets when an inmate converts to Christianity. The dramatic change in character for the better, that is so predictable in these cases is welcome news to those in charge of protecting us from “them.” I was involved in the prison system for ten years; six at a maximum security facility and four at a super max. Not once did I see or hear of increased problems from those who turned their lives to Jesus. Nor do I know of any fake conversions. Since the material benefits or system benefits from being a Christian are minimal at best, jail house conversions in order to get something of earthly value appear to be more urban legend or just the cynical imaginings of a sceptical public.
This has been a long preamble to get to my main topic, which is the most famous inmate conversion of all.
They had at most a few hours together and that under extreme conditions. Whatever the first condemned man had said, it had obviously made a huge impact on the second condemned man. The change was life transforming, from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from irresponsible to mature. The eyes of the second man had been opened to a radical new view of life. It was a concept that billions of intelligent, highly educated, “sophisticated” outsiders fail to grasp. Yet this brute of a man was able to comprehend and internalise this new view of reality almost immediately. Was it the manner in which it was taught? Was it the conditions in which he heard it? Was it something more that allowed him to get it? We’ll never know. With only minutes left in his existence on earth, this uneducated, impoverished criminal said to the first man, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Kingdom! They were both condemned to die. There was no way out of their predicament. There were literally nailed to the very spot where they would breath their last. But this simple man got it. This wretch, who by his own admission deserved to die by crucifixion understood at a deep and meaningful level what no atheist is able to figure out. There is another reality, another world, another kingdom just a hair’s breadth beyond our senses. There is another kingdom watching and waiting in anticipation of our next decision. Like other believers before and since, this criminal was able to perceive a “thin place” whereby he could almost touch or peek into the other realm. He understood with the clarity of someone in desperate straights that Jesus is the portal to this other world. He saw that despite all his dumb mistakes, mistakes that had harmed all those who had ever loved him or ever cared about him, he understood that despite all his previous failures he had this one last chance to get it right. Forgiveness was at his doorstep and he was not going to let it get away. “Jesus, remember me!!”
This criminal did what billions of others have done since. He repented of his sins. He asked for forgiveness. He admitted that he could not save himself; that he was not the master of his own fate. And then he joined a community of believers. Because of this man’s faith, Jesus’ replied to him,
“I tell you the absolute truth. Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Jesus’ reply to that criminal, His response to that jail house conversion was the same reply that He gives to any honest seeker. In God’s kingdom there is no favouritism. All of us are on a level playing field. There is no difference in race, or social status or gender or nationality. Today, you can become a citizen of God’s kingdom. No one will be turned away. All are welcomed. Whosoever believes in Jesus for their salvation will be saved. That is the whole reason that Jesus came to earth in the first place - to seek and to save those who admit that they are lost.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above you heavenly host. Praise God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.