When I walk into the county jail to do a Bible study with the inmates, I know I don’t have anything to offer them besides the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I tell them that. After a couple minutes of casual chitchat, the inmates and I pray before getting down to business.
As the first class began, a young inmate raised his hand and asked if we were going to study Romans. I was impressed he knew Romans was perhaps the most gospel-saturated book in the Bible. “No,” I said. “We’re going to open our Bibles to Genesis chapter one.”
Genesis 1 might seem like a funny place to start talking about the gospel, but different passages of Scripture show us different aspects of the gospel. John Piper has rightly compared the gospel to a multi-faceted jewel; we need different passages to highlight its various facets.
One facet of the gospel that prisoners usually understand is the reality of sin. I ask the men and women who sit before me each week in flip-flops and green striped jumpers if they think they’re sinners, and they all nod their heads “yes.” Most in prison instinctually know they aren’t good people, which perhaps gives them an advantage over a suburban soccer mom who thinks she’s basically good since she doesn’t commit any “major” sins.
Helping prisoners understand they’re sinners isn’t the hard part. What’s difficult is helping them understand they’re created in God’s image, and they have inherent dignity, value, and worth.
And that’s why I take them to Genesis.
On the first page of the Bible, all of God’s mighty acts of creation climax with these words:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)
The crowning jewel of all creation is man, made to reflect the image of God. When God created man, he gave him rule and dominion over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:28). Adam and Eve were meant to be the king and queen of paradise, enjoying God and his good gifts of worship, work (Gen. 2:15), and wedlock (Gen. 2:23–25).
But then Genesis 3 happened. And now, so many years later, we lock people in prisons to protect society and punish the unruly. Rather than having dominion over the earth, human beings are enslaved to everything—from drugs to their fellow man.
This isn’t the way it was meant to be.
One of the prisoners in my Bible study, Mark, is serving 25 years for armed robbery. He was created to be a living reflection of the God of the universe; now he looks into a polished metal plate as he brushes his teeth in his cell. James was meant to have rule and dominion over all of creation; now he’s enslaved to drugs. Sandra was made to rule the earth as a queen; now she lives her life under the rule of other human beings.
One reason I start my classes in the first three chapters of Genesis is so I can help the inmates see exactly how bad sin is. It destroys the goodness of God’s creation and vandalizes his image in us. I want them to see how sin seeks to rob them of their identity as living representations of their Maker.
I want these inmates to know they’re at enmity with God (Rom. 8:7), but I also want them to know one of the reasons they’re at enmity with him is because they’ve believed a lie about their identity. So many men and women in jail simply accept the “fact” that they’re worthless. After all, that’s what they’ve always been told, in one way or another.
But the Bible says something different.
Hope and a Future
An inmate named Christy cried on my shoulder one day after our Sunday service in the county jail. “I’ve always known I was bad. I never doubted that,” she said. “My daddy called me ugly every day of my life, even the days he molested me. My boyfriends treated me even worse. The decent women in society looked at me like I was trash because of the fast life I lived on the outside.”
I looked at her understandingly, trying not to cry as she spoke.
“But I swear, I’ve never had anyone tell me I was supposed to be more than that.” Tears fell down my face as she wiped her eyes on the collar of her striped jumper. “Do you really think I could be a queen? Do you really think God could make me like Eve before she sinned?”
“I do, Christy. That’s the story of the gospel.”