I spent yesterday afternoon in prison.
My daughter Julie and I were patted down and admitted to the Sterling Correctional Facility to see a friend doing life for murder. He grew up in terrible circumstances and in a fit of teenage rage killed his abusive mother. Only sixteen, he was convicted as an adult and given life without the possibility of parole.
That was a fourteen years ago and he’s a changed man. He has developed his musical and artistic talents and is working on a college degree. He meditates, writes poetry and handles legal matters for other inmates. He isn’t the same angry youth who struck out so violently at his tormentor.
His appeals for a retrial have been consistently denied. Lady Justice once ruled on his crime and she refuses to reconsider. In her blind eyes, once guilty, always guilty. Never mind that the adolescent brain is a cauldron of volatile emotions. Ignore the mature man for who he is today. The sentence is inviolable.
My heart aches for my friend. I want a wise and compassionate judge to see him for who he is today—not who he was—and extend clemency. Unlike a pardon, clemency doesn’t ignore the wrong or nullify the conviction, it just reduces the penalty.
His story illustrates a problem with the traditional doctrine of hell. It mandates eternal punishment for finite sins done by fallible humans without regard for the possibility of postmortem repentance or reformation (Luke 16:19-31).
Are heavenly grace, mercy, forgiveness, justification, sanctification and reconciliation only available in the eye-blink between cradle and grave? Is physical death an impermeable barrier to forever love?
Most Christians would answer a reluctant “yes” based on a literal reading of passages like Hebrews 9:27 and Matthew 25:31-46. But thinking Christians are torn between these troublesome verses and God’s transcendent character.
We desperately hope Divine Justice isn’t as myopic as we are.