There have been some new developments and adjustments in ARC’s prison ministry in the last few months. I’m glad to bring this report.
(FCI) Federal Correctional Institute (Talladega, Al.)
In our last update, a report was given about the Comparative Religions Course taught at the Federal Correctional Institute in Talladega, Al. We taught back to back fall semesters of the course in 2017 & 2018. It was received and appreciated by those who attended and the chaplain who arranged it. However, that chaplain has transferred to another federal prison in Atlanta. He would like for me to come there and teach the course, but logistics for such would have to be worked out. At any rate, that leaves the prison without a chaplain. So, we’re in a “wait a see” mode when we’ll resume some form of teaching the course there.
(BCCF) Bibb County Correctional Facility (Brent, Al.)
In teaching comparative religion in a prison setting, one must be aware of the many different religions present. The environment is a hotbed/incubator/microcosm of religious pluralism. Many of the religions within the walls, like Moorish Science Temple or 5% Nation of Islam, are foreign to most peoples’ understanding of religion. Some inmates who lack basic literacy and theological understanding become easy targets for such groups. I remember one such inmate at the beginning of the semester having a hard time understanding the religious environment that he was now a part of. Yet, he had become familiar with the Supreme Mathematics (mysticism of the 5% Nation of Islam). My heart went out for him because he was easily swayed by this cult teaching. This is why the light of the gospel is so needed in dark places. Pray for him and others like him!
In the early part of this semester I taught on Protestant Christianity. Taking an opposing side, I role-played with the inmates on the gospel. I blurted out, “I am saved by works!” Immediately, the Christian inmates started shaking their heads saying, no, no, no you’re not! Before I could respond to them, one inmate on the front row said “Amen!” He then said, “Jesus said if you love me, you will keep my commandments. You must repent and be baptized. So, you’re right. We’re saved by works!” Then many of the inmates responded to him as they did to me.
Typically, I get right back to my statement “I am saved by works”, but this time I decided to respond first to the front row inmate. I said, “how can you do that (keep the commandments, repent and be baptized) if you are dead?” Judging by the puzzled look on his face, he had never been asked such a question. Deciding to let him think on that awhile, I got back to my original statement. I said, “when I told you I am saved by works, I did not tell you whose works they were!” You should have seen their faces. They could not believe they missed that curve ball being thrown at them. Of course, I went on to explain to them that the works that I’m saved by are not mine. They’re from someone else. I am saved by Christ’s works and not my own. His work on the cross is a gift to me and is our justification before God. “Nothing in my hand I bring, but simply to the cross I cling!”
Back to the front row inmate, I said, “you’re familiar with Ephesians 2:8-9, where it says, for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that is not of yourselves, it’s the gift of God, not as the result of works”. Before I could get all of it out, he said, “yes, grace is of God and faith is what we do!” I asked how can you exercise faith if you’re born spiritually dead? I asked him to look at the context of this passage. Paul begin it by saying “But you hath he quickened (brought to life spiritually) who were dead in your sins and trespasses.” I then said to him, “how can dead man hear, believe, see or have faith unless he is brought from death to life by God Himself, because no one can birth himself if he is born spiritually dead. It is only the person who is already spiritually alive that can exercise life manifested by faith, repentance and obedience. Pray for him as he was interested in further discussion.
The error the front row inmate espoused was/is typical of the Galatian heresy (see Galatians chapters 3-5) that wanted to mix one’s works with Christ’s works as one’s justification before God for salvation. This is still very common today. Near my home there is a church whose sign outside one week posted Mark 16:16, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” The next week the scripture on the sign was James 2:24, “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” The Galatian heresy in Paul’s day of adding the circumcision requirement for Gentile salvation is mirrored in those today who would require baptism for salvation. This deserves more explanation later but notice that even though the Mark 16:16 passage says, ‘he who has believed and is baptized shall be saved’, it does not say ‘but he who has disbelieved and is not baptized shall be condemned’.
Another group I sometimes encounter is Odinism. Twenty years back, most people would have been quite unaware of this Norse pagan religion. However, with today’s culture turning more and more to paganism, there is an overload of its worldview being promoted as entertainment through children’s video games, movies like Thor, and the Viking series aired on the National Geographic channel.
While teaching on the Biblical view of the Trinity this past fall, I encountered an inmate whose father was a warlock and his mother was a witch. Somewhere along the line, the inmate became a follower of Odin. This is understandable since witchcraft and Odinism share a common pagan worldview. Telling me he now is a Christian, he wondered if Odinism’s trinity of Odin, Thor and Freya was compatible with the Christian Trinity. It is common for those in or coming out of a pagan worldview to believe that the Trinity was not original to Christianity but borrowed from other so called ‘older’ sources such as Hindu, Egyptian, or Babylonian triad of gods. With just a few minutes before having to leave I told him that the bottom line is this: If the Christian Trinity truly expresses the one true eternal nature of God and if the three different yet co-equal and co-eternal persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share the one eternal nature that is God, then, the Trinity has always been true. So, it’s not a matter of Christianity borrowing from other sources, but other sources borrowing from Christianity and getting it wrong. The Christian faith is not a copycat faith. The others are! Pray for this inmate’s further understanding of Biblical truth as he was very receptive!
(DCF) Donaldson Correctional Facility (Bessemer, AL)
That’s right, we’ve added another prison where we’ve been asked to teach the course on Comparative Religion. The main chaplain called at the end of last year with this request. Starting the class in the second week of January, we’ve grown from 30 to 60 in attendance. Judging from the very positive responses, it appears that most are Christian in their understanding. However, there have been members from Nation of Islam, 5% NOI, Buddhists, Muslim, and others attending as result of the Christians inviting them to come.
Of the many interesting encounters so far, two come to mind. Both by Muslims asking questions about, yes, you guessed it- the Trinity! It seems that 90% of questions/objections by Muslims always have something to do with the Trinity. One came during the class on Hinduism when I was discussing the Hindu Trimurti of Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva. Some call this the Hindu trinity or triad of gods. Hindus and non-trinitarians want to claim that this is the origin of the Christian Trinity. I had explained that Hinduism was pantheistic (all is God) and all the millions of Hindu gods, including the Trimurti are extensions of Brahman, because in Hinduism all is Brahman and Brahman is all.
At this point the Muslim said the Christian Trinity has Jesus as an extension of God so it’s the same. What followed was an interesting time of explaining that the phrase extension of or manifestation of carries the idea of being a part of something or part of the whole. I went on to explain that although Jesus was God manifested in the flesh, he, like the Father and the Holy Spirit, did not have just a part of the divine nature, because you cannot part out or divide the nature of God. He, like the other two persons of the Trinity, had all the divine nature as Col. 2:9, says, “In him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”
Two weeks later during Q & A, a different Muslim asked if I could show him one verse in the New Testament where Jesus explicitly says, “I am God”. Before I could answer, some of the Christians started saying yes, there are many places, quoting Jesus’ “I Am” verses. The Muslim was not persuaded as he said, “no, I said a verse that says, I am God!” My response was “you’re right, there’s not a verse where Jesus says, “I am God”. However, there are a lot of verses where Jesus says, “I AM”!” With that I went on to explain that every time Jesus made a claim, he prefaced that claim with the Old Testament name for God, I AM. This is the reason the Jews wanted to stone Jesus for claiming he was God (John 10:33). The Jews were quite familiar with the phrase I AM which was the same as Yahweh or Jehovah. This name is used over 6800 times in the Old Testament and easily recognized as the word LORD in all caps. This the name Jesus used every time he made a claim.
The Muslim said, “Ok, I have a statement, then and another question. You say that there’s three but yet there is only one God. As a young boy in Sunday School I heard the Trinity being explained mathematically as 1+1+1=1”. I said, “You did not have a very good Sunday School teacher”! Some of the inmates chuckled and he himself smiled at my response. Typical of those that deny the Trinity, he added Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and came up with three gods. I responded, “There is addition involved, but not with the one divine nature that is God. You add the persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and there are three different persons that share the one divine nature that is God. Mathematically speaking, with the three different persons it is 1+1+1=3, but the one divine cannot be divided. So, it is 1x1x1=1. All three persons have all the divine attributes of the one nature that is God.”
He said, “Let me ask you one more question. Can one of these three exist without the others?” I said, “A better question would be ‘Does one of these three exist without the others?’ As different persons, they have their own personal identity. However, the plurality of persons shares the singular divine nature. That’s what is meant in Gen. 1:26 where God says, “Let us create man in our image.” Pray for this Muslim as he wanted further information on the reliability of the New Testament. Pray for other inmates who have requested information on Mormonism, JWs, Seventh-Day Adventism, Biblical texts that explain the Trinity, proof texts non-trinitarians use to try to disprove the Trinity, and many other topics.
*The chaplain has already asked for the course to taught again in the fall! PTL!!