Morality Ch. 24: Visiting Prisoners

Jesus listed visiting prisoners among the marks of a Christian life. Many people seek God in prison, but few Christians consider this a suitable place to work for God.

I have a relative whom I’ve never met and whose name I don’t even know. Actually, I’m not even sure whether he exists or is still alive. He’s someone no one ever talks about, except in whispers I overheard as a child. My best guess is that he was in prison and was disowned by the family, but the generation who kept that secret are now gone, so perhaps I’ll never know. On the other hand, another relative of mine is very open about his time in prison – because he became a Christian there.

Prison is a very common experience. About one in ten men in the US spend some time in prison.1 About a fifth of those in prison are awaiting trial, and about a fifth of these will be found not guilty,2 so there are a lot of innocent people in prison. I’m not suggesting that no innocent people should ever be in jail – sometimes it is necessary to secure someone who might abscond before trial, and sometimes mistakes are made. However, it does help to remind us that those who are locked up are human and just like us.

However, the prison population is also different from the average population in some surprising ways. About one in six prisoners suffer psychiatric delusions, compared to one in twenty-five in the general population,3 and almost half of them have low reading skills,4 which makes it difficult to hold down a job. There are all kinds of reasons people go to prison, and sometimes they are just too confused or ill-educated to do the right thing or to present the right information for their defense.

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Prison in the Bible

In Old Testament times, very few people were imprisoned because prisons didn’t exist. Making a building impregnable enough to hold a prisoner was very difficult. When they did build something that secure, it was usually the house of a rich man or a leader. Of course, the house of a king could have dungeons, so a few high-profile criminals stayed there while being interrogated or simply waiting for execution on a day suitable for the king. Other criminals weren’t imprisoned – they were simply executed when they were found guilty.

It is therefore surprising that quite a number of Bible characters spend time in prison. Joseph is in prison for supposedly raping Potiphar’s wife, and while there he meets two servants of Pharaoh – one is eventually reprieved and the other is executed with no explanation (Gen 40:20-22). Samson arguably deserves prison after he killed more than a thousand men who wanted to punish him for burning their fields (Judg 15:4-5, 9-10, 14-15; 16:21), and perhaps Kings Zedekiah and Jehoiachim deserved imprisonment as sinful leaders whom the Lord allowed to be defeated (2 Kgs 24:12; 25:7, 27-30). However, Daniel and his three friends didn’t deserve imprisonment for refusing to join in with pagan religions, and the prophets Jeremiah, Micaiah, and Hanani were imprisoned because the king didn’t like the message God gave them (Dan 3:12-23; 6:10-16; Jer 37:15; 2 Chr 18:25; 16:10).

In New Testament times, there were more prisons and more prisoners, especially under the efficient judicial system of the Romans and their surrogates, which included Jewish leaders. At different times, those prisons held John the Baptist, Peter, the other apostles, Paul, and Silas (Matt 14:3; Acts 5:17-18; 16:22-24).

When we first meet Saul (who later became the Christian Paul), he is incarcerating ordinary Christians. He puts so many people in prison that the Jerusalem Christians flee and scatter to other cities throughout the country (Acts 8:1-3). Of course, this has the opposite effect from what he was hoping for, because the gospel spreads with them.

The pastor of a Zimbabwean friend of mine was imprisoned for speaking out against President Robert Mugabe. The prisons were so overcrowded with similar “criminals” that he was in a large, overcrowded cell with dozens of other prisoners. After some months, he asked his church to help bribe the guards – not to get him better treatment, but to go into another, similar cell, because all the non-Christians in his old cell had found Jesus.

Finding Jesus

Prison is a great place to find Jesus. A friend of mine in Cambridge offered to work in a prison as a chaplain and found that prisoners were very receptive to the gospel. Of course, many were just as resistant as they were outside, but others were much more open. They didn’t need convincing that something was wrong with their lives, and they had plenty of time to think about the good news he shared with them. After some time, a significant number of people had become Christians, and the prison governor offered him a full-time paid post because he needed fewer guards in the wing he’d been working in.

Paul, of course, spends a lot of time in prison. Some might see it as natural justice after sending so many people to prison in his former life as a persecutor of Christians. However, he rejoices because he is able to spend time writing, and we have at least five letters he wrote from prison (Phil 1:12-18; Eph 3:1; Col 4:18; Phlm 9; 2 Tim 2:9). Actually, I think Paul was rejoicing through gritted teeth, because it must have been frustrating to be stuck in one place when he had helped spread the gospel through so much of the Roman Empire. If only he’d known how important those letters were going to be! He didn’t realize that people would study his words in far more detail than any country’s constitution or speeches made by any national leader throughout history.

God can use prison, but not without the action of his people. Paul needed people to visit him in prison, to bring him news and deliver letters. People who become Christians in prison need help coming to faith and understanding how to live their new life – and they will need help when they come out. But visiting prisoners is not just about adding people to the kingdom. It is also an expression of Christian love to those in need.

Christians help the homeless, the sick, and those in prison because these people need help, and because Jesus expects this. In Jesus’ most terrifying parable – the sheep and the goats, told just before his arrest and imprisonment – he characterizes the sheep as those who helped him: “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When the goats protest that they’d never seen Jesus in these situations, he says: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matt 25:31-46).

Some interpret this parable as referring only to good done to Christians because Jesus refers to those in trouble as his “brothers.” But this would contradict the rest of Jesus’ teaching, such as: “Your Father in heaven causes … his sun to rise on the evil and the good. … If you love … only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:45-47). Christians don’t only help those who are Christians or who might convert. The criterion isn’t whether they are interested in Jesus, but whether Jesus is interested in them.

The test of a Christian

Does this command still apply to us? We can’t apply the test of seeing whether it remains the same throughout the Bible because there is no similar expectation to visit prisoners in Old Testament times, when prisoners were so rare. However, we can apply the test of whether this command is countercultural. It was not common to visit those in prison unless you were a relative or close friend. Prisoners often depended on visitors to bring food or bribe guards to give then an easier time. But you would not do this for someone you weren’t close to, because visiting a prisoner brought suspicion on you.

The idea that anyone would visit a stranger in prison was unthinkable in that society, and yet Jesus says this practice is the test of a real Christian – it separates the sheep from the goats.

Although there are Christian organizations working in prisons, this is a neglected area for many Christians today. I find this strange because Jesus specifically encourages this work. But perhaps it isn’t too surprising because, after all, I’m one of those who has never been involved in this ministry. Prisoners are out of sight and out of mind – we have largely forgotten about them. But Jesus hasn’t.

1^ Nine percent of US men (according to
2^ Twenty-one and a half percent of US prisoners are on remand, and 20 percent of them are not convicted (table 1 and footnote 9 at
4^ Forty-six percent have literacy skills at or below that of an eleven-year-old in the UK in 2015 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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