Science in Christian Perspective


The Potential of Christianity to Rehabilitate Criminals
D. K. Pace
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Laurel MD
Chaplin, Howard County Detention Center
Jessup MD

From: JASA 37 (June 1985): 93-96.

Dimensions of the Problem

A significant proportion of American adults are criminals. Currently about 200,000 are in jail and over 400,000 are in prison. A quarter of a million persons are on parole and over rive times that number are on probation. The total number of adult criminals either incarcerated or in a supervised status is approximately one percent of our population.1

The cost of crime is staggering. About thirty billion dollars a year is required simply to operate our criminal justice system,2 plus many more billions lost to individuals, businesses, and society as a result of crime.

Many crimes are committed by "repeaters." A very high percentage, most estimates range from one-half to two-thirds, of persons arrested or convicted are repeaters.3 A significant segment of the criminal population, five to ten percent, are "career criminals," each of whom will commit many crimes when not incarcerated.4 Thus, rehabilitation of criminals is an important social issue because it is a way of preventing crimes.

Failure of Secular Rehabilitation

In dealing with criminals the criminal justice system has two primary goals. At least in theory, one goal of the criminal justice system is justice.5 A second and more prominent goal is to prevent future crimes by 1). incapacitation of the criminal (i.e., removing the criminal from society by incarceration or execution), 2). deterrence (i.e., by the example of what is done to one convicted of a crime), and 3). rehabilitation. In this sense, "rehabilitation" is any process employed by the criminal justice system which causes a criminal not to commit future crimes. Thus, rehabilitative efforts include probation and parole supervision of the offender in the community as well as education, therapy, behavioral modification, etc. In essence, rehabilitation becomes prevention of "recidivism," where "recidivism" refers to a criminal committing more crimes after being caught, convicted and sentenced.

A wide variety of rehabilitation programs have been tried on criminals during the past several decades. These have included improved classification programs, use of community institutions, education and training programs, many kinds of counseling programs and related therapies, recreational and social skills training, and even such approaches as "nutritional therapy."6 Many of these endeavors have been acclaimed as successful by correctional officials, their proponents, and participants. However, in those cases where rehabilitation programs have been examined rigorously (e.g., employment of a control group), the conclusion has been that "nothing works" to reduce recidivism.7 In general, recidivism rates are not affected by:8

-the size or character of the institution, whether community-based or the more traditional jail or prison

-the use of probation (and level of supervision) instead of incarceration

-the kind of program (or lack of program).

However, some programs "work" for selected populations. Their success depends upon careful screening and selection of "quality" participants, participant motivation, helping resources available, and luck. A critical factor in the rebabilitation problem is our lack of understanding about the causes of crime.9

Christianity and Rehabilitation

Christians have been involved with prisoners since the New Testament era.10 Formally organized ministry to prisoners began in 1488 when the Order of Misericordin ("Beheading of St. John") was formed for its members to "assist and console criminals condemned to death."11  English Reformers established similar ministries for prisoners during the sixteenth century.12 The roots of the modern American Christian ministry to prisoners under the leadership of correctional chaplains lie in the eighteenth century origins of Methodism, In fact, the very term "Methodists" was initially given to the Wesley brothers and their associates because of their systematic visitation of condemned felons housed in Oxford Castle.13 When imprisonment as a form of punishment replaced flogging, mutilation, or execution, Christian ministry to prisoners played a major role in the development of penological ideology. Quaker leadership in Pennsylvania established the "penitentiary" at the end of the eighteenth century. The idea was to give the convict an opportunity to do "penance,"14 The early nineteenth century saw a prison in Millbank, England, designed to keep religion at the center of its operations.15 Unfortunately, neither of these endeavors achieved the goals intended by their founders and were later abandoned as approaches to rehabilitation. However, Christians ministering to prisoners continued to be an innovative force in penology and generally are credited with pioneering in all aspects of penal reform, including nearly every form of rehabilitation that has been tried in American correctional institutions.16

The present question is not, however, the history of Christian involvement with prisoners or its impact upon the criminal justice system. Instead the question is simply, Can Christianity rehabilitate criminals? The secular rehabilitation programs that grew out of Christian ministry to prisoners have not been able to reduce recidivism rates. Can Christianity do it?

It should be noted that rehabilitation is not the primary goal of Christianity.17 The primary goal of Christians is to be faithful to God and to bring glory to Him by their godly lives18 In doing this, Christians will seek to evangelize all men and to edify and disciple fellow believers.19 As they do these things, criminals will be among those who are converted and transformed by the power of Jesus Christ.20 Rehabilitation will be a by-product of Christian ministry to prisoners.

Three topics are addressed in this paper. First, what kind of criminals can be changed by Christ? Second, does Christianity change enough criminals to affect recidivism rates? And third, what factors determine whether or not a converted criminal is likely to be rehabilitated?

Who Can Christ Change?

The power of Jesus Christ is great enough to save and transform anyone, no matter what that person has done. This truth is captured by the verse that contains the Gospel in a nutshell, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life," (New International Version). Salvation is open to all, to criminals as well as to "decent" men and women. The result of this salvation is a new beginning: "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old has gone, the new has come," (II Corinthians 5:17, New International Version).21 Many at Corinth
had been involved in wicked lives prior to their conversion.22 There are many contemporary examples of criminals whose lives have been transformed by Christ, men and women who collectively have committed every kind of crime.23
Thus, the answer to the above question is, Christ can save anyone-no matter what he or she may have done. This is the GOOD NEWS that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Does Christian Conversion Reduce Recidivism?

Secular rehabilitation programs have been found wanting. They do not reduce recidivism rates. Does Christianity? This question can not be answered at this time. First, there are inadequate data from which to draw conclusions statistically about the impact of Christianity upon recidivism. This is one of the conclusions of Richard and Mary Knudten after the most extensive review extant of the literature on the relationship between religion and crime.24 Second, it may be difficult to know which criminals have in fact been converted. Consequently, statistical correlation of conversion and subsequent criminal behavior would contain the possibility of errors even if the sociological data were available. The difficulty in identifying converts can be seen by the fact that even ministers can be unconverted. Two centuries ago, Gilbert Tennent preached a fiery sermon entitled "The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry." That problem still exists. Conversion is primarily a matter of one's spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ and determines one's eternal destiny, whereas rehabilitation is predominantly a matter of ethical and moral behavior.25

Factors Affecting Rehabilitation of Converts

In order to understand what factors impact rehabilitation in the individual convert, a paradigm of conversion is needed. The tripartite description of man as body, soul, and spirit provides this paradigm.26 In this paradigm, the spirit of man is dead prior to conversion and alive after conversion.27 This change from death to life is the essence of regeneration. The spirit is the key to one's eternal destiny. One who dies physically with a dead spirit goes to the place of eternal death (hell). The one who dies physically with a living spirit goes to the place of eternal life (heaven).

The soul (psyche in Greek) is man's personality: intellect, volition, sensibilities. Rehabilitation is primarily concerned with the soul. Here are one's thought patterns, attitudes, habits, and knowledge. Some people are blessed with "good" souls. They are the gems of humanity: stable, bright, compassionate.28 Others have crippled souls, just as some have crippled bodies. In some cases, the crippling is genetic; in other cases it is the result of life events.

The body is the material aspect of man. Because man is a unified whole, each aspect of man affects the other. As one's physical condition (the state of the body, such as being exhausted) can affect one's mental situation (his soul), so one's attitude (a matter of the soul) can affect one's physical condition.29 However, just as conversion, the change from a dead spirit to a living spirit, does not necessarily correct problems in the body (such as poor eyesight, crippled limbs, or decayed teeth), so conversion does not automatically

correct problems in the soul (such as bad habits or low IQ). It is for this reason that some converted criminals are not rehabilitated. However, Christianity offers criminals three resources that facilitate rehabilitation: motivation, guidance, and power.

Many criminals suffer from low self-esteem and a sense of doom because they feel inadequate as persons. Consequently, they have no incentive to try to change their lives. They believe they can not. Examples of converted criminals who have been changed provide part of the motivation needed for a criminal to try to change his life. Such examples can give a criminal hope that perhaps he too can change. Without such hope, most criminals will not even try to change. This is one reason that most effective ministries to prisoners such as Chaplain Ray Hoekstra's International Prison Ministry or Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship use many converted ex-convicts to share their testimonies. The New Testament offer of salvation to all men is another source of motivation for criminals to try to change, ("Whosoever" in John 3:16, "If anyone be in Christ" in I Corinthians 5:17, "Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved" in Romans 10: 13, etc.). As the Holy Spirit works in the mind of the criminal, faith is developed which contains the hope that God may work in that man's life to transform him. From this motivation, a criminal may start the process that will change (and ultimately rehabilitate) him.

The second resource that Christianity offers criminals is guidance. This guidance comes in two basic forms. One is biblical instruction and counsel for wise living, whether directly from the Bible or from books written from a biblical perspective or from ministers, teachers, and counselors. Such instruction involves more than simply "biblical doctrine." It should help the criminal, either converted or unconverted, to understand himself and other people better as well as to understand ways to cope successfully with life's problems. Thus, this instruction may include such topics as how to be a good worker so that one can keep a decent job. As such wisdom is incorporated into a criminal's life, his attitude and actions begin to change. Unfortunately, the church does not do as good a job as one might wish in providing materials that are focused for inmate and ex-offender audiences. Nor do most programs behind bars offer the kind of practical guidance that is needed to assist Christian inmates to cope with the pressures and problems peculiar to their situation.

The second form of guidance that Christianity offers criminals is the fellowship of a concerned community, the church. This community can provide positive peer pressure toward godly living, examples of how to live, and the encouragement and assistance of its camaraderie. Unfortunately, however, many congregations fail to live up to the ideals presented in the New Testament and are cold to ex-offenders and their families, prejudiced, and at times hypocritical and judgmental. In general, ex-offenders and inmate families have special needs. They often have more problems than many others in the church; thus, they need more attention. Converts who were the objects of a great deal of attention from religious workers while behind bars may feel neglected when treated just as the others in most congregations. Unfortunately, many congregations have not given adequate thought to this problem to enable them to minister effectively to the needs of converted criminals and inmate families.

The third resource that Christianity offers the criminal is the power to live a new life.30 Conversion brings new life. A living spirit replaces a dead spirit.31 The Holy Spirit, in fact the entire Trinity, comes to dwell in the convert.32 This power makes it possible for the criminal to break free of past habits, to control himself, and to desire good things for his life instead of evil ones.33 However, the convert starts his new life as a spiritual babe and needs nurturing if he is to mature into spiritual adulthood with the ability to withstand the many temptations to return to his old ways that he will face.34 Basically, the convert needs discipleship. Unfortunately, many religious programs behind bars concentrate upon converting inmates, but few provide effective discipleship training. 35

Even though recidivism rates are not significantly affected by the character of the institution, the progress of individuals toward rehabilitation is affected. Christianity offers personnel involved in the criminal justice system the same opportunities for conversion and godly living that it offers inmates. Converted correctional officers can play a major role in encouraging inmates to consider Christianity as an option, both by their verbal witness and by their compassionate and humane treatment of inmates as individuals whom God loves. Likewise, converted administrative officials can facilitate effective religious programs in their institutions.36 In addition to Christianity's impact on criminal justice system personnel, the Christian community should serve as a "conscience" for the criminal justice system, encouraging it to employ an ideology and procedures that are compatible with biblical concepts of justice and human dignity.37 Thus, it is pertinent to address Christianity's impact upon the entire system. Christian ministry behind bars can provide mechanisms for relief of tension within the institution and ameliorate the alienation among those in correctional institutions. This is a valuable function even if it does not reduce recidivism because it makes correctional institutions safer for both staff and inmates as well as less expensive to operate.38

Concluding Comments

Christianity has the potential to rehabilitate anyone because Christ has all power (authority) on earth as well as in heaven.39 With Him, all things are possible.40 Unfortunately, inadequate data exist to demonstrate that Christian conversion can reduce recidivism. The Christian community has not given criminal society the attention it needs. Christian academics are not addressing the criminal justice system sufficiently to have a major impact on its current ideology or to provide definitive studies about the root cause of crime (i.e., man's sinful nature) and its treatment in a way that can stand the sceptical and sometimes cynical scrutiny of secular professionals. Christian educators have not developed either the materials needed to effectively train converted criminals in godly living or the materials needed to prepare churches for effective ministry to ex-offenders and inmate families. And churches have not provided adequate funds or personnel to minister fully to prisoners.41

God holds His people accountable for ministering to the least of His brethren, including those in prison.42 American Christianity has the material resources to study ministry within the criminal justice system adequately, to produce the training materials needed, and to staff ministry behind bars. The question is, Will we?


1U.S. Department of justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin: Probation and Parole 1982, and U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United states 1984 (104th edition).
U.S. Department of Commerce, op, cit.
3From the 1920s to the 1950s, about half of those sent to prison had been in prison previously. George B, Vold, "Does the Prison Reform?, " The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 293, May 1954, pp. 42-50. Other estimates place the current recidivism rate at 70-80%, which is more in keeping with the results of various longitudinal studies Such as that by Samuel B. Guze, Criminality and Psychiatric Disorders, Oxford University Press, 1976.

4In 1946, 5% of those committed to prison had three or more previous prison commitments; Vold, op. cit. Studies by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, Marvin Wolfgang, and Peter Greenwood span the past four decades and come to the same conclusion: a large proportion of crime is committed by a relatively small percentage of criminals. This fact is the prime reason that the idea of "selective incapacitation/incarceration" keeps arising within the criminal justice community; but no universally accepted method has yet been devised for predicting who should be incarcerated prior to conviction of a criminal act, keeping this topic a continuing subject of debate within the criminal justice community.

5Leslie T. Wilkins, "Equity and Republican justice," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 423, January 1976.

6Nutritional therapy is one of the approaches to rehabilitation described in Leonard J. Hippchen (editor), Holistic Approaches to Offender Rehabilitation, Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1982.

7For example, Douglas Lipton, Robert Martinson, and Judith Wilks, Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment: A Survey of Treatment Evaluation Studies, Praeger Press, 1975.

Andrew Yon Hirsch, Doing justice: The Choice of Punishments, Hill and Wang, 1976, Chapter 2.

91bid, p, 16. While biblical theologians can identify man's sinful nature as the root cause for crime, even the greatest scholars have not explicated the factors which cause the sin nature in some men to lead them to crime while that does not occur in other men.

10Matthew 25:31-46; Philippians 2:25-30; If Timothy 1:16-18; and Hebrews 13:3 in the New Testament.

11F.C. Keuther, "Religion and the Chaplain," Contemporary Correction, Paul W. Tappan (editor), McGraw-Hill, 1951, p. 255.

12John T. McNeill, A History of the Cure of Souls, Harper Torchbooks, 1951, pp. 223-224; R. R. Korn and L. W. McCorkle, Criminology and Penology, Holt, Rinehardt, & Winston, 1959, p. 406.

13J. Arthur Hoyles, Religion in Prison, London: Epworth Press, 1955, pp. 3ff.

14Dale K. Pwe, A Christian's Guide to Effective Jail & Prison Ministries, Revell, 1976, p. 76.

15Hoyles, op. cit., p. 25.

16This is the conclusion of Max Grunhut, Penal Reform: A Comparative Study, Oxford-Clarendon Press, 1948. Myr] Alexander, former director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, noted that it was a clergyman, Dr. E.C. Wines, who was the "moving spirit" of the First National Congress on Penitentiary and Reform Discipline in 1870; Pace, op. cit., p. 17. "Before the day of organized treatment, chaplains developed schools, wheedled gifts of books and recreation equipment, and worked with prisoners'families." Elmer H. Johnson, Crime, Correction, and Society, Homewood, Illinois: Dorsey Press, 1964, p. 615.

17Christian creeds and confessions differ in their explication of Christian man's primary goal. Perhaps the most familiar is the well known pronouncement of the Westminster Shorter Catechism that "man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

18Matthew 5:16, Titus 3:8.

19Matthew 28:18-20.

20rhis was the situation with Onesimus, the runaway slave (see the New Testament book of Philemon).

21This translation follows a better textual reading, as do most modern translations, than that of the King James Version for this verse.

22I Corinthians 6:9-11.

23Examples of criminals whose lives were transformed by the power of Christ may be found in Chuck Colson's Born Again, Ray Hoekstra's God's Prison Gang, Gene Neill's I'm Gonna Bury You!, and numerous other biographical works about the lives of inmate converts.

24Richard D. Knudten and Mary S. Knudten, "Juvenile Delinquency, Crime and Religion," Review of Religious Research, Vol, 12, No. 3 (Spring, 197 1), pp. 130-152. The nearly 200 references of this article make it the most extensive review of this subject extant. The conclusions which it reaches have not been changed by materials published since, For example, see Dale K. Pace, "Religion and Rehabiliation" in Leonard J. Hippeben (editor), Holistic Approaches to Offender Rehabilitation, Charles C. Thomas Publisher, 1982, pp. 387-412.

25Matthew 7:21-23 illustrates the possibility of a person believing that things are right between himself and God when, in fact, he is rejected by God. This emphasizes the danger that some may believe they are converted, but still be lost. The question of how to tell on earth who are the "elect" is one that has perplexed theologians for centuries. A serious discussion of this issue may be found in G.C. Berkouwer's chapter on "Election and the Certainty of Salvation" in his book, Divine Election (Eerdmans, 1960).

26It is not necessary to enter the debate over man's nature, whether he is tripartite or bipartite. The trichotomic view of man was common among Church fathers of the second and third century, but lost favor as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It only began to reappear in the middle of last century. At this time, Evangelicals are about evenly split between a view of man as a dichotomy and one of him as a trichotomy. While the Scriptures maintain the perspective of man's unity, it makes a clear distinction between man's body and the non-body part of him. A variety of terms (soul, spirit, mind, etc.) are used for the non-body part of man, as can be easily seen with a concordance or lexicon. Many of these terms are used interchangeably at times and with overlapping connotations at other times. However, in I Thessalonians 5:23, the Scripture makes a distinction between "spirit" and "soul." It is this distinction that provides the paradigm used in this paper to discuss conversion am rehabilitation.

27For example, see Ephesians 2:1-7.

28Many in prison have crippled personalities. Often they come from homes which denied them love and security as youngsters, producing insecure No anxious adults. They may have limited intellectual capabilities and have developed habits of immature emotional responses to many kinds of situations. In addition, they may have damaged their brains by alcohol and drug abuse. The picture painted by Guze, op. cit., indicates that the vast majority of convicted felons suffer from one or more of the above problems. Even after conversion, many criminals will still be severely crippled in their souls.

29The relationship between man's body and his noii-material aspects is one thm the contemporary emphasis upon holistic medicine and therapy recegnizes. Works such as Morton Kelsey's Healing and Christianity (Harper and Row, 1973) or Howard and Martha Lewis' Psychosomatics (Vddn 1972) provide ample examples of both positive and negative aspects of the body-soul/spirit interactions.

30See John 3:3, 1 Corinthians 5:17.

31See Ephesians 2:1, 5; Luke 15:24, 32.

32See John 14:23; 15:5; 1 Corinthians 6:19.

33See Romans 6.

34Hebrews 5:11-14 describes how the maturing process teaches one to eboom good instead of evil.

35An example of a serious discipleship program behind bars can be found in thr articles by Gerald C. Adams in the Association of Evangelical Instaw tional Chaplains journal, "Discipleship Training in a Jail" (No. 1, 1946 pp. 14-21) and "Modifications to a Jail Discipleship Training Program(No. 4, 1977, pp. 18-25).

36The potential of a supportive and interested staff to facilitate effective religious programs is indicated in articles such as D.K. Pace, "Religiom Programs in jails," Corrections Today, (April 1982, pp. 46-49, 76), and E Preston Sharp, "An Administrator's Perspective on the Chaplain and Religious Programs," Association of Evangelical Institutional Chaplain Journal, (No. 4, 1977, pp, 2"0).

37The Christian academic community has not addressed the ideology of the criminal justice system sufficiently in recent years to have the same impact as it enjoyed previously when the writings of Christians about justice and penology were dominant molders of contemporary ideology.

38A significant portion of the operational costs of correctional institutiow involves replacement of materials destroyed by inmates and extra personnel costs during times of tension or crisis. An effective ministry within a correctional institution helps to reduce these costs.

39Matthew 28:18.

40Matthew 19:26.

41For examples, many correctional institutions have very limited, and in some cases no, religious programs. Most state and federal prisons have chaplains paid by the institutions. Less than 20% of other correctional institutions have chaplains when such have to be financed by the church; Dale K. Pace. A Christian's Guide to Effective Jail & Prison Ministries, (Revel), 1976). pp. 21-22.

42Matthew 25:31-46.