For every season, there is a message. “Do not be afraid.” “Let my people go.” “Take up your cross.” “I have a dream.”
In America today, I’ve come to believe, God’s Word for us is, “Go to hell.”
Unbeknownst to most Americans, our justice system changed radically in the late 20th century. Like most countries in the modern West, roughly one in 1,000 Americans were in prison in the early 1970s. Today, we incarcerate one in 107 Americans. Over 7 million adults are currently in jails, in prison or on probation. More than 65 million U.S. citizens now have a criminal record, while another 11 million undocumented people live outside the law, subject to seizure and deportation.
Legal scholar William Stuntz has described the past 40 years as the “collapse of America’s criminal justice system.” Noting the ways “law and order” has landed more black men in prison today than were in slavery in 1850, Michelle Alexander calls it the “new Jim Crow.” Or, as Piper Kerman puts it, “orange is the new black.”
But none of this analysis captures what one person experiences when he is cut off from his community, denied any opportunity for growth, subject to constant humiliation and threat of bodily harm, and told that he is permanently condemned to this status of “criminal” or “illegal.” What does it mean to be told, “You’ll rot in prison”?
What does it mean for a nation to condemn our neighbors to a hell of our own making?
For the past five years, I’ve walked alongside seminary students from Duke Divinity School as they study with people who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons. As participants in Project TURN, students learn about prisons, about the people who find themselves there, about their own assumptions and fears. But overwhelmingly, these students learn something about God’s Word to American Christians in our time. And what they learn, they’ve been teaching me.
Strange as it may seem, God is saying to the church in America, “Go to hell.”
“When I was in prison,” Jesus said in Matthew 25, “you visited me.” We find Jesus in prison because prison is where Jesus has established residence here on Earth. We don’t visit to take Jesus to inmates. We follow Jesus into the hell of America’s prison because this is the way God has revealed for us to receive the gift of resurrection life.
I’ll admit, this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I was raised to stay out of trouble – to act right and to talk right and to believe that this contributed to my “Christian witness.” God, I always thought, is happy with those who stay on the right side of the law.
But God said, “Go to hell.” And the people I met in America’s prisons quoted Scripture to me:
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
“No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law. . . . But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”
Toward the end of his life, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth only preached in prison. It wasn’t that the men there needed the gospel the most. Rather, he found that they were able to hear God’s Word as good news in a way that most respectable Swiss people couldn’t.
Barth preached in prison because the living Word was present there.
As I watch students who know their Greek and Hebrew learn the same thing (“It’s like I’m hearing the gospel for the first time.”), I keep coming back to that line from the creed.
He descended into hell and on the third day rose again.
“God’s way up is down,” a preacher said to me when I was young. And he was right. But I didn’t get it. I’m not sure I could get it because, like so many respectable Christians in America, I thought I knew the gospel.
You don’t have to do anything to earn salvation — just this one thing, we say: “Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” OK, two things. But they’re easy, right?
Righteousness according to the law is an awfully slippery slope. And it will cost you your soul.
Which is why God says, “Go to hell.” Follow the One who was numbered with the transgressors to sit among the condemned, the written-off, the outcast. And while you are there, listen. Because Jesus didn’t go to hell to stay there.
Jesus went to hell on the way to resurrection.
“And if we have died with him,” the prisoner Paul asks, “will we not also live with him?”
My friend Billy Neal Moore spent 16 years on Georgia’s death row for a murder he committed when he was 22 years old. Billy is the only man whose sentence the Georgia parole board has ever commuted. After thinking he would fry in the electric chair, Billy got out on time served — a second chance at life. Billy’s a preacher, and he only has one sermon: “No one is beyond redemption.”
“Go to hell,” God says — not to stay there, but to learn what you and I can only hear there: namely, the gospel.
No one is beyond redemption, and the church depends on people gathering together in the common faith that this truth alone can sustain us. Since, in the end, everything else will burn away like dross anyway, it behooves us to follow Jesus into hell even now.
At least, that’s what Project TURN students keep telling me. “It’s like I’m hearing the gospel for the first time.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham, N.C., and is the author of several books. Learn more at jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com.
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