The Greek word for hell in the New Testament is the word “Gehenna.” When Jesus used it, He was referencing an actual place on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Gehenna was where people brought their garbage and left it to burn. It was the town dump, essentially. The place for the things they wanted nothing to do with anymore. The things they were fine forgetting about.
I’ve been volunteering at a local prison for the last six years. I started when I was a sophomore in college. The particular prison I visit is on the outskirts of town. In fact, until I was invited to go there, I didn’t even know it existed.
An interesting thing about prisons is that although they are called correctional centers, the intent behind them is rarely ever to rehabilitate or “correct” those who live there. Instead, the intent is usually to have a place reserved for society to send people it wants to separate itself from. Oftentimes the ones sent there have committed very heinous crimes. Therefore, it feels nice to have a place designated where we can “lock them up and throw away the key” to forget about them.
In this sense, prison functions like a “Gehenna” in our society. In a very practical way, it serves as a garbage dump for us to send the people we want nothing to do with anymore. Indeed, we’ve done such a successful job at removing them that most of us rarely even think about the men and women who live behind bars.
This is why it sounds so crazy when the writer of Hebrews tells Christians to “remember those in prison …” (13:3, NIV). In other words, he is saying, “Do not forget about those whom the rest of society has forgotten.” This is one of the most countercultural aspects of the Christian faith. We are called to remember prisoners. While the rest of society goes on with life completely oblivious to those incarcerated, we are called to keep them on our mind.
I hang out twice a week with an inmate named Jason. Jason is 24 and covered in prison tattoos. He has a great sense of humor and loves to draw. He watches My Name Is Earl religiously and has a dad and brother in Afghanistan. Jason has been locked up since he was 17 for killing two men he feared were going to kill his family. The state sentenced him to a pair of consecutive life sentences with no chance of parole. Since then, he has been separated from most of society in a building made mostly of concrete and steel. Most of his friends he used to “run with” have moved on with life and they no longer write.
A couple years ago, Jason became a follower of Jesus. God legitimately changed his life. I once heard him stand up before a group of inmates and say, “For the first time in my life, my parents can be proud of me because of the person God has caused me to become.”
I once heard Brian Zahnd describe the Gospel as God’s willingness to transform “garbage dumps into gardens.” He talked about how the Garden of Eden was mismanaged by humanity and then corrupted by sin to the point that the world became a garbage dump. Jesus then entered that garbage dump and began transforming the world and restoring it back to its original goodness. Finally, at the end of Revelation, we see the final culmination of this recovery project as Eden is restored and all things are made new.
Jason is an example of a garbage dump transformed into a garden. Society may have forgotten him, but Jesus has not.
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So why does God want us to “remember those in prison”? After all, most inmates committed very bad crimes to get sent there in the first place. I think maybe it’s because prisons represent humanity’s brokenness more than anything. They represent the fact that we’re capable of doing horrible things. They represent our ability to discard other humans and forget about them. They testify to the fact that we have fallen. As a result, though, they also represent the radically far-reaching nature of God’s mercy and His tireless commitment to saving the world.
A friend once told me the Bible never says to fix or save prisoners. I didn’t believe it at first, because I had spent a lot of time trying to do both things. I relentlessly searched the Scriptures to prove him wrong, only to discover all it says to do is simply “remember” and “visit” them. I think God did it that way because He knows how powerful it can be when people choose not to allow the forgotten to be forgotten. It makes a bold statement that they are valuable and redeemable and that God hasn’t given up on them after all.
In fact, God hasn’t given up on a single one of the 2.3 million prisoners in America today. He is actively at work behind bars. He is in their cell at night when they sleep. He is on the yard during the day when they exercise and lift weights. Like Jesus was on the cross, He is still right in the middle of criminals offering them unmerited hope. He is still busy planting gardens in garbage dumps.
. . .
The thief who hung beside Jesus during the crucifixion said to Him, “Remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” The man had accepted his fate and with his last breath simply wanted to be remembered. He didn’t want to be left in Gehenna where he would be forgotten forever.
Many of the 2.3 million prisoners in America today are the same way. They are longing for someone to remember them. Dreaming of someone from “the outside” who will come visit them in their exile. Someone who will write them a letter. Who will listen to their stories. Who will just think about them. Because deep down, no one wants to be discarded forever. And nobody wants to end up in Gehenna.
. . .
Prisons are full of men and women who have been given up on, because of bad choices they have made. The Good News is that God hasn’t given up on creation; God hasn’t given up on humanity. We shouldn’t either.