Subject: What Jesus Christ can do: Transforming the Most Violent Prison in America
2Corinthians 5:17 “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
In his 2007 best-selling book ‘God is Not Great’, the late Christopher Hitchens explained why he believes Christianity is immoral: “I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral. The central tenet is the most immoral of all, and that is the one of vicarious redemption. You can throw your sins onto somebody else, vulgarly known as scapegoating… I can’t take your sins away, because I can’t abolish your responsibility, and I shouldn’t offer to do so. Your responsibility has to stay with you. There’s no vicarious redemption. There very probably, in fact, is no redemption at all. It’s just a part of wish-thinking…”
This “vicarious redemption” to which Hitchens refers is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, whereby Jesus substituted Himself in our place to take responsibility for our sins. Hitchens is rejecting the Christian “Gospel”, or the “Good News”. He is also rejecting our feature verse, 2Corinthians 5:17, which explains the effect of the Gospel on any person who receives Christ as their Savior. When you give your life to Christ, the old things are gone and life starts anew. What is being mocked as immoral by Hitchens, because He rejects who Jesus is, is that no person could take my sins from me by abolishing my responsibility. But Jesus has the credentials to do so – He is God! He maintains His moral integrity by refusing to look the other way when it comes to sin, but He then demonstrates His love by talking the punishment for that sin.
So if Hitchens is right, each of us is responsible for our actions, and we take our sins with us to our graves. So what’s his advice? Treat others as you wish to be treated. But then what do you say to someone who has committed horrible crimes, who has already treated others much worse than they want to be treated? Hitchens would say there is no hope for them. There is no “scapegoat” to remove the guilt for their sins. That’s a fantasy – he calls it “wish-thinking”. For these people, they face death and the unknown carrying the weight of their sins. If you are one of these people, his worldview is horrifying – if it were true.
Let me introduce you to someone with a completely different worldview – one in line with Jesus Christ’s – who has proven his worldview, and not Hitchens’s, to be true. Warden Burl Cain just retired in March this year after serving 21 years (1995-2016) as warden of America’s notorious Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. Angola is the largest maximum security prison in the United States, where nearly 75% of the 6,000 prisoners are on life sentences, with nearly 200 on death row. The state’s execution chamber is housed within the prison. Since the 1930’s, conditions at Angola had been so violent that hardened criminals broke down when told they were being sent there.
When Cain was offered the warden job, he accepted on one condition – he would run things his way. In an interview with the Baptist Press, writer Dennis Shere explained Cain’s method: “Cain knew there was only one answer, one way to reach the offenders and convert them into men who genuinely wanted to make something of themselves in prison. He knew there must be a true conversion deep inside, touching an inmate’s very soul in that secret place where no man could fool himself. Cain believed moral rehabilitation had to occur in order for an inmate to lift himself beyond the jungle atmosphere that smothers a prison. The only way for true change was Jesus.” Cain’s mission was to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The result? Since Cain began sharing the Gospel with New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, violence is down 90%. Ravi Zacharias visited Angola Prison in 2015 and tells the story of an inmate he spoke with: “I asked him, ‘How do you handle the prospect that you will never get out of here, and that this is where your life will now be spent?’ The inmate responded, ‘You know sir, if you knew the kind of person I was before I came here, and what I have now become because of the freedom Jesus Christ has brought to my soul, I can only say that if this is what it took to bring me to my senses, I am happy to spend the rest of my life here.’ Then he paused and said, ‘Please pray for my parents. They think they are free, but they are in a prison of their own darkness without God.’ That evening it was all I could do to fight back the tears as I watched this same man leading more than 700 prisoners in worship.”
So vicarious redemption is not wish-thinking. It transforms the most hardened criminals in a maximum security prison to new creations, with a reason to live. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And He is here, today, to transform you – if you let Him.