The Story: Research has found that many hardcore criminals anticipate an early death, making them less prone to delay gratification, more likely to discount the future costs of crime, and thus more likely to offend. Ironically, many such offenders also hold strong religious convictions, including those related to the punitive afterlife consequences of offending. To reconcile these findings, researchers from Georgia State University interviewed 48 active street offenders to determine their expectation of an early demise, belief in the afterlife, and notions of redemption and punishment.

The Background:  The researchers found that despite the deterrent effects of religion that have been highlighted in prior research, their results indicate that religion may have a counterintuitive effect in certain contexts of encouraging or supporting criminal behavior. As they note in the papers’ abstract, “Through purposeful distortion or genuine ignorance, the hardcore offenders we interviewed are able to exploit the absolvitory tenets of religious doctrine, neutralizing their fear of death to not only allow but encourage offending.”

The researchers found some of the causes to be an incomplete understanding of the precepts, rules, and expectations of their faith. For instance, Que, an 18-year-old male robber, said:

Que: I believe in God and the Bible and stuff. I believe in Christmas, and uh, you know the commitments and what not.
Int: You mean the Commandments?
Que: Yeah that. I believe in that.
Int: Can you name any of them?
Que: Ahhh … well, I don’t know … like don’t steal, and uh, don’t cheat and [expletive deleted] like that. Uhmm … I can’t remember the rest.
Int: How about the Bible?
Que: Yeah I know some of that. You know. Heaven and Hell, and Jesus fighting with the Devil, but for real, I didn’t really go to church enough to know like all the details, just the important [expletive deleted], like Jesus forgives you for all your bad [expletive deleted] if you donate some money to the church, or pray and say you’re sorry.

When the researchers pointed out to Triggerman (a 33-year-old enforcer and hit-man for local drug dealers in New Orleans) that the ‘transcendental penalty’ for murder was eternal damnation (a crime he had committed), his response was,

No, no, no, I don’t think that is right. I mean, anything can be forgiven. We live in Hell now and you can do anything [transgression] in Hell. When it all end … we go up there [to Heaven] and the Devil comes down here. Only the Devil lives in Hell forever man all by his self. God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him.

Cool, a 25-year-old male drug dealer says,

The way it work is this. You go out and do some bad and then you ask for forgiveness and Jesus have to give it to you, and you know wipe the slate clean. So, I always do a quick little prayer right before and then I’m cool with Jesus. Also another thing is this; if you doing some wrong to another bad person, like if I go rob a dope dealer or a molester or something, then it don’t count against me because it’s like I’m giving punishment to them for Jesus. That’s God’s will. Oh you molested some kids? Well now I’m [God] sending Cool over your house to get your [expletive deleted].

Erica, a 40-year-old transgender (male to female) robber and con artist stated:

Why I think that [I’m going to heaven]? Because, I have a good heart. I do, I have a good heart. And I have a good soul. You know, I mean, some of the things that I do, I mean, I still look out for people, you know what I’m sayin? And that’s one of the biggest things that God looks at, you know, what would you do for your neighbor? [Those that end up in Hell] are the murderers, rapists, child molesters. People with no kind of morals or values about themselves or about other people.

Miami, a 40-year-old male robber:

I think [God] is forgiving ‘cause you know, what I learned from going to church, you know, sometimes is that like the guys that was on the cross with Jesus, both of ‘em did wrong, and that at the last minute one of them ask God to forgive him … and I figured as long as I be able to ask for forgiveness before I die I’m going to Heaven, but if somebody shoot me and I don’t get no chance to pray, you know, I’m going to Hell. So, I came up with this great idea, that hey, I ask God in advance if I don’t get a chance to pray, to forgive me you know for what I’ve done and then I feel like God know in my heart that I don’t like what I’m doing but that’s the only thing I know to do.

Why It Matters:  Gene Veith, commenting on the research, says:

Notice the prevalence (ironically) of legalism (giving people what they deserve), Pharasaism (conviction of their own righteousness), self-authority (Hell is here, not a place of future punishment), superstition (pagan manipulation of God such as praying before a crime), and sheer liberal theology (“God has to forgive everyone, even if they don’t believe in him”).

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that we find vicious street criminals making the same sort of justifications for their behavior and beliefs that we find among well-adjusted middle-class bloggers, authors, and pastors. But it shows that despite what many people seem to believe, doctrinal content—what we know and believe about Jesus and his Word—can have life and death consequences.