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Several years of prison ministry have convinced me that there are substantial parallels between what we think about incarceration and how we understand salvation. After all, Christians believe that we are imprisoned by sin and that, rather than trying to escape our condition, we need to undergo a personal transformation before we can enter into the full presence of God. True, sin is universal in a way that jail is not. Nonetheless, crimes against the civil order and rebellion against God overlap in interesting and complicated ways, which makes prisoners among the most conspicuous, though certainly not the most hopeless, examples of humanity’s fallen state.

Especially in a democratic country heavily influenced by Christianity, prison is more than a theological metaphor. It is a social reality that reflects our hopes and doubts about what it means to be liberated from our iniquities. If Christians cannot help prisoners find meaning behind bars, how can they expect the Gospel to find an audience among those never convicted of a crime?

Prisoners are test cases of how Christians deal with sinners in extremis. I don’t just mean that compassion for the imprisoned can serve as a corroboration of Christian charity, although that is surely true. I mean that the whole experience of imprisonment is absolutely central to the coherence and credibility of the Gospel message. How can captivity, a great biblical theme, have any meaning today if we treat incarceration as nothing more than “serving time”? How can salvation be proclaimed as the ultimate joy even in this life if we live in a society that continues punishing prisoners long after they have been released?

One of the strongest parallels between prisons and theology has to do with our conceptions of the afterlife. For example, many people treat the possibility of rehabilitation behind prison walls with the same skeptical indifference that even devout Catholics now bestow upon purgatory: We can’t even fathom how moral change happens, if at all, in either place, so we leave its remote possibility up to God. Cynicism at home breeds disbelief abroad. Nobody believes that isolation and humiliation reform criminals, just as nobody really believes that a cleansing fire burns away unconfessed sins in purgatory, yet without any plausible alternatives to humiliation or fire, the healing effect of punishment remains as mysterious for the Church as it does for the judicial system.

Prisons should be purgatorial, not simply punitive. Prisoners are not invited to participate in any effort to resolve the harms they have caused others. Nor are they given any tools to begin the process of experiencing healing for themselves. Like sinners being called to the anxious bench, offenders are left in isolation to ponder their past, with the slim hope that once they reach the bottom they just might decide to turn their lives around.

How can Christians proclaim the joy of heaven if they resent any efforts to lighten the burden of parole? In fact, it is not going too far to say that modern skepticism about heaven typically takes the form of portraying it as a kind of prison. Prisoners, like the saints in heaven, have too much unproductive time on their hands. Without any cogent sense of what we will do “up there” for all of eternity, heaven becomes a source of bemusement or, worse, a source of unbelief. Who would want to be trapped forever with a bunch of righteous zealots singing about their good fortune?

Perhaps restorative justice is given such little opportunity in our prisons because we do not make room for it in our accounts of heaven. Too many Christians think of heaven as an all or nothing affair. You are either completely in or absolutely out, and once in, you are immediately a perfect version of your former, fallen self. We don’t want to think that heaven might give us time (and the tools) to do the hard and joyous work of healing broken relationships. We do not want to think of levels of heaven that might invite us to grow closer to God by becoming part of God’s plan to heal each other’s wounds. We think of heaven as a place where perfect love will render justice unnecessary by showing how impossible it is to achieve in human terms, rather than as the place where the power of love will make justice finally possible.

If that is heaven, then what hope do we have for prisons? If restoration can only happen in the blink of an eye, then we might as well give up on the healing properties of punishment.

I am convinced that the crisis of faith in America today cannot be resolved apart from a reformation in our understanding of prisons. If we do not know what role punishment plays for those convicted of crimes, how can we claim to understand what penance is for souls guilty of sin? Now more than ever we need to rethink the connection between showing mercy to trespassers and seeking forgiveness for our own trespasses. Revival will come to America when Christians begin doing justice to the American prison system. 

Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.

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