By / Jul 13

Many people are released from prison with little more than a bus ticket and a bit of cash. Walking free can feel exhilarating — and terrifying.

“You’re used to the structured environment and people telling you when to wake up,” says Jason, a formerly incarcerated man from Detroit. “[After prison] your freedom is given to you all over again. I don’t think anything can prepare you for that moment.”

Struggles after incarceration

More than 600,000 people return home from incarceration each year. Jason’s journey out of prison, along with the reentry stories of Jeffrey (“Hajee”) in Virginia and Alona in Oklahoma, begins to unfold on screen in A New Day 1, a new documentary short film by Prison Fellowship®.

Often, people leave prison without much support or stability. Jason, Hajee, and Alona each experienced exceptional levels of support, starting with Prison Fellowship Academy®, a long-term, intensive program, and continuing postrelease with halfway houses, churches, family, and community. And each of them still experienced difficult hurdles on the path forward.

People who commit crimes should be held accountable, seek help dealing with issues underlying their behavior, and make an effort to repair the harm they have caused. Once people have paid their debt to society, they should have a fresh start. But more than 44,000 documented legal restrictions, along with widespread social stigma, can hinder people who live in the shadow of a criminal record. Immediately past the prison gates, they face limited access to education, jobs, housing, and other necessities for a full and productive life. 

Jason struggled to secure a job due to his criminal record, which would make it difficult to pay his bills. Hajee, too, faced hurdles; he found work, but when his company faced financial struggles in the pandemic, Hajee was let go. Jason and Hajee both admitted they had to be diligent to surround themselves with positive influences in their old neighborhoods. Alona took back her responsibility of being a mother and primary caregiver for her three children while trying to follow her probation requirements and rules of the transition home. And the stress took a toll on her. 

All three of them knew reentry wouldn’t be easy. But when reality hit, the challenges could seem overwhelming.

And returning citizens aren’t the only ones who suffer when their past holds them back. When people with a criminal record face reentry barriers, their children and families are impacted, too. Not to mention society at large — the U.S. loses some $78 billion a year in economic output because people with a criminal record cannot participate fully in the workforce. 

Showing the hope of the gospel 

Too often, men and women stay trapped in the cycle: crime, incarceration, reentry, repeat. Not only do communities continue to experience the brokenness of crime; everyone misses out on the hope of second chances — the realized potential of people who have paid their debt to society and desire to contribute.

Each person is made in the image of God, and no life is beyond his reach. Followers of Christ are called to share the grace and truth of the gospel with all people and to minister to those who are marginalized or oppressed. The act of serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families in the name of Jesus is not only a ministry but also a means of worship and spiritual growth. Recognizing the basic, God-given dignity of each individual, we should create a culture that celebrates formerly incarcerated people’s worth and potential, regardless of their past.

Most people behind bars will be released one day. Many of us know someone who is doing time or has been incarcerated in the past, and their criminal record haunts them after they walk free. Your church can respond by addressing the needs of returning citizens and being a place of welcome. 

But we cannot effectively love and serve returning citizens without understanding the unique issues and challenges they face — from barriers to employment, to impact on families, to mental health struggles and social reproach.

 A New Day 1 allows us to witness the journeys of people leaving prison, so we might learn, empathize, and respond to our own formerly incarcerated neighbors with the love of Christ. Prison Fellowship’s free, downloadable discussion guide for A New Day 1 will help you explore next steps for engaging further. Gather your friends, small group, or coworkers for a virtual or in-person screening of the film, and then unpack it together using the prepared questions and helpful information.

By / Apr 14

The fight against abortion is a hearts-and-minds campaign.

Pro-life advocates rightly pursue legislative and judicial means to end the evil of legal abortion, but a large part of our struggle is persuasive in nature. And we need all kinds of arguments in our tool belt as we seek to persuade people both inside and outside of our faith communities that unborn life ought to be defended. We should appeal to Scripture to demonstrate the dignity of all human life, including life in the womb. We should appeal to science to show the undeniable truth that unborn human life is indeed both human and living. We should appeal to philosophy to show the capriciousness of denying human personhood to a particular class of human beings.  

Jesus at conception and the dignity of the unborn

But there are also theological arguments that we can marshal in our fight against abortion. As Christians around the world celebrate the seasons of Advent and Christmas over the next several weeks, it is worth considering a specifically Christological argument that can buttress our belief in the dignity of unborn human life.

Consider that the central claim of the Christian faith is the belief that God the Son—the eternal Second Person of the Godhead—became a human being in the womb of the Virgin Mary. As the classic Christmas carol “O Come All Ye Faithful” puts it, “God of God, Light of Light; Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb!” God the Son became a human being by taking to himself a complete human nature: a true body and a rational soul (see the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon, AD 451).

And the New Testament makes it clear that this assumption of a human nature began at Christ’s conception, not at his birth. This is evident from Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary concerning the miraculous nature of Christ’s conception (Luke 1:26-37). The “power of the most High” would come upon Mary and would “overshadow” her, as the Spirit once hovered over the waters of creation (Gen. 1:2) and as the presence of God hovered over Israel of old like an eagle over its young (Deut. 32:11).

Christ, then, was “conceived by the Holy Ghost” and “born of the Virgin Mary,” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it. (We could also point to the parallel account of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception and his capacity for Spirit-filled joy even in the womb of his mother Elizabeth; Luke 1:15, 44)

The problem with denying personhood at conception

To fine-tune this argument a bit, consider the Christological implications of denying the truth that the Son’s assumption of a human nature began at the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb. Consider what must be the case if the Son assumed his human nature at some point after conception—perhaps at birth or at some later point during the pregnancy of Mary.This position would entail that there was an already existing human nature, independent of its personal assumption by the Son, which was at some later point taken by the Son in personal (hypostatic) union.

So what was the status of this human nature before its assumption by the person of the Son? Did it constitute a human person on its own right? If so, then this position would entail the ancient heresy of Nestorianism, the view that there are actually two persons in Christ: the person of the eternal Son and the human person of Jesus, who was adopted by the Son at some point in his life.  

If the human nature in Mary’s womb did not constitute a distinct human person, then what was it? Did it have a soul as well as a body? The nature and timing of “ensoulment” is an interesting and somewhat debated issue in the history of Christian theology, but the most compelling position maintains that the human body and soul come into existence simultaneously (see, for example, the arguments of St. Maximus the Confessor against the Platonic idea of preexistent souls). This body-soul composite is what constitutes a human person.

But what if ensoulment (and thus personhood) occurs at some point after conception? This would entail a heresy of its own when applied to Christ. If the human nature in Mary’s womb existed for a time without a human soul, then we are left with another Christological heresy: a kind of “temporary Apollinarianism,” as Oliver Crisp puts it, in which the Son’s human nature was temporarily incomplete, being comprised of a body without a soul. All of these Christological problems can be avoided, if we attend more closely to the church’s traditional understanding of the Son’s incarnation.

The historic position of the Christian church

The historic position of the Christian church is that the human nature of Christ was “without a person” (anhypostatic), in the sense that it did not constitute a human person distinct from the person of the Son. Instead, the human nature of Christ was personalized (enhypostatic) by its assumption by the person of the Son. So there was never a moment in the history of the human nature of Christ when it was not assumed by the person of the Son.

When we are confronted with Jesus of Nazareth in the gospels, there is no person there other than the eternal person of the Son of God in his incarnate state. This is precisely what makes the redeeming work of Christ efficacious for the salvation of the world. Nor was there some impersonal human nature (whatever that would mean) that was assumed at some point after it came into existence. No, the human nature of Christ was assumed by the person of the Son at the very moment of its conception.

So, at least in the case of the incarnate Christ, personhood began in the womb. If we assume that Christ’s experience was paradigmatic for human personhood, then the same would apply to all human beings: human beings in the womb are human persons. And, thanks be to God, it was for the sake of fallen human persons that the divine Son of God abhorred not the Virgin’s womb, but took to himself a human nature “for us men and for our salvation.”

This article originally published on December 21, 2015.

By / Dec 16

In recent months, several videos have surfaced that show officials from Planned Parenthood discussing the sale of body parts from aborted children. These conversations include details about the monetary value of specific body parts and how “less crunchy” techniques may procure more intact parts. The language used and the cavalier tone in which murder is considered is gut-wrenching. Not only are the bodies of the most vulnerable crushed in our society, they are then sold for profit.

The current season of Advent speaks directly to the Planned Parenthood videos and the culture of death that seeks to destroy the lives of the youngest in society. Advent celebrates one of the most important events in human history: the Incarnation. Christians around the world proclaim that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” In Matthew 1 and Luke 1-2, we find one of the most outrageous, yet foundational, claims in the Christian faith: that the divine Son assumed a human nature.

John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Incarnation teaches us that the divine Son took upon a human nature to reveal his Father and to reconcile all things. The incarnational ministry of Jesus didn't begin at his birth, as the creed points out, but at conception. Jesus was a fetus.

Indeed, the eternal Son of God, who created all things and who holds all things together (Col. 1:16-18), came into the world in a womb. As he sustained the universe and held the stars in their places, the body of his mother sustained him. He came into the world to crush Satan, sin and death, and in doing so he took upon a human body that was itself crushable. Right there, in Mary’s womb, was Immanuel, God with us.

The Incarnation did not begin with the birth accounts portrayed in the Gospels; the Incarnation began at the moment the divine Son was conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ first moments on this earth were not in the manger, but in Mary. Jesus’ body, his muscles and bones, formed in the cavity of her body.

The Lord of the universe came to his creation in embryonic form. The Son of David’s body was vulnerable enough to be sucked out of his mother by a vacuum. The Lamb of God had the kind of body that could be flattened by forceps.

One of the reasons Christians are pro-life is because Jesus was a fetus. If we lose the essential truths that are bound up in the Incarnation, including the full humanity of Jesus, we lose the gospel. The humanity of Christ that we see in his conception is also on full display in his crucifixion. Though forceps did not crush Jesus’ body, it was crushed by a cross.

In the midst of a culture of death, we must promote and embody the culture of life—in every way possible. The culture of life has not just come under attack in recent decades but since the Garden of Eden. The church promotes the kingdom of God because our King, though once dead, now reigns in life and power. The culture of life is still under assault from the culture of death; the Planned Parenthood videos are just the latest piece of evidence. Yet, in the face of death, the church continues to preach the conception, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ until the consummation of his Kingdom, when only the culture of life will remain.

Originally published here.