“Doesn’t the Bible say that murderers can’t go to heaven?”
That’s a question I was asked almost every week during my visits to the Cook County Jail in Chicago.
The inmate who started my weekly jail visits was a young deaf college student who, in a moment of rage, killed another deaf person at his school.
One day as I was waiting in the large lobby of the jail for my turn to visit, one of the chaplains saw me. He escorted me back to the office to meet the warden, and within a half hour I had my own jail ID badge. My chaplain friend gave me a tour of the facility and introduced me to all the other deaf inmates, each one housed in a different building. From that day on, I was free to roam the jail and meet with each of the deaf men in their own units.
The young man who started my jail visits was housed in a unit reserved for men who were waiting trial for murder. They were considered high risk inmates, so they did not receive permission to work in the facility or go out in the yard for exercise. Their only time out of their cell block was either when they had visitors or when they went to court.
The unit officer permitted me to enter the day room of that cell block, where I could meet with my friend. We sat at a small table. My guy didn’t mind that we were in public view of the other inmates. None of them knew sign language, so we could still hold a private conversation.
During our weekly visits something interesting happened. Every week one of the hearing inmates in the unit interrupted our conversation. Each time it was a different man, but it was always the same question, each time asked with the exact same words. “Pastor, doesn’t the Bible say that murderers can’t go to heaven?”
I answered, “Yes, it does. The Bible says that murderers can’t go to heaven. It says that thieves can’t go to heaven. Liars can’t go to heaven. Adulterers can’t go to heaven. Gossips can’t go to heaven. Those who covet can’t go to heaven. Now, if you are on that list, welcome to the club. So am I. So I guess we are both stuck. But let me ask you something …” I figured their question came up as a memory of some religious training in their childhood, and now they were hoping to find some way to have peace with God. So I asked, “Why did Jesus die on the cross?”
Each time I asked that question, every man answered with exactly the same words. “He died for the sins of the world.”
“Oh, I see,” I replied. “Jesus died for the sins of everyone in the world, but not yours. Is that right?”
“No!” each man answered. “He died for my sins, too!”
“And for how many of your sins did Jesus die?” I asked.
“All of them!” they said.
“OK, I get it,” I said. “Jesus died for 90 percent of your sins, and you are stuck with the other 10 percent that He won’t forgive. Is that it?”
“NO!” each man protested. “Jesus died for all of my sins!”
“Oh, right. Now I understand,” I said. “Jesus died for all of your sins except one. You have that one sin that He will never forgive and so you are just stuck with it. Is that it?”
“NO!” they shouted back at me. “JESUS DIED FOR ALL MY SINS!”
“How do you spell that word ‘all’?” I asked.
“A-L-L. ALL!” they answered.
“Yes! All! Christ Jesus has forgiven ALL of your sins! Do you want to know some famous murderers in the Bible? Moses. King David. The Apostle Paul. If God could forgive, restore, and use these men in His service, God still has a plan for your life, too.”
God’s love is so amazing! He has also forgiven ALL of your sins, and no matter how you have messed up, He still has a good plan for your life in His service.
The Rev. Ron Friedrich is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church of the Deaf in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is engaged in Deaf prison ministry in the Maryland Department of Corrections, and serves as a chaplain at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.