On November 19, 2015, Jeremy Wilson was released from federal prison after serving six years for impersonating an Army officer, forging a judge’s signature, and stealing a car. By that time he had racked up convictions for fraud and forgery in five states.
What did he do when he got out?
I’ll give you one guess!
Within two months, he was re-arrested.
The charges against him?
Grand larceny, criminal impersonation, possession of a forged instrument, and possession of an unlawful identification card.
And that’s putting it mildly. A month or so after his release, he had already created yet another false identity, posed as a wounded war hero, forged checks and used stolen credit cards to rack up over $40,000 in cash, leased a luxury vehicle, and rented an executive apartment in the heart of New York’s financial district, all under false pretenses. When police searched the apartment, they found over two hundred forged checks.
What a surprise!
You can read all about it here: “Man Accused of Impersonating a War Hero Has a History of Forgery,” by James C. McKinley, Jr., MSN News; and here: “Conman who posed as wounded veteran held on $1M bail after giving ‘full, video-recorded confession,’” by Shayna Jacobs, New York Daily News.
Clearly, Jeremy Wilson—if that is his real name—has settled into a regular pattern of forgery, impersonation, and deception as a way to “make his living.” It’s part of his character. Six years in the pen didn’t even make a dent.
How could such a hardened criminal get to heaven?
A criminal’s character doesn’t just magically change
Some Christians believe that the only thing necessary for such a bad apple to go to heaven is to believe in Jesus Christ. Even a hardened criminal with a lifelong history of theft, fraud, and murder could get into heaven if only, with his last breath, he expressed his faith that Jesus Christ had paid the penalty for his sins.
But that’s just an illusion.
About Christ paying the penalty for our sins, I’m sorry, but the Bible just doesn’t say that. See: “Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?” And about the idea that we’re saved just by believing in Jesus, see: “Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does.”
The idea that someone who has spent a lifetime breaking the Ten Commandments through lying, theft, murder, adultery, and so on could suddenly be wiped clean by a mere profession of faith in Jesus is pure fantasy and illusion.
And it has no basis whatsoever in the Bible. For example, the prophet Jeremiah asks and responds to his own rhetorical question:
Can Ethiopians change their skin
or leopards their spots?
Neither can you do good
who are accustomed to doing evil.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) expands on this Biblical reality:
A popular misconception is that the state of our life can be changed instantly, so that we become good instead of evil. This would be leading us out of hell and transporting us instantly into heaven, all by some direct mercy of the Lord. This is the misconception of people who separate charity from faith and attribute salvation to faith alone. That is, they think that the mere thought and utterance of a statement of that faith, performed with trust and confidence, will justify and save them. Many of them also think that this can happen instantaneously, either before the hour of death or as it approaches. They cannot avoid believing that the state of our life can be changed in an instant and that we can be saved by direct mercy. We shall see in the last section of this book, though, that the Lord’s mercy does not operate in this direct way, that we cannot become good instead of evil in an instant and be led out of hell and transported into heaven except by the ongoing efforts of divine providence from our infancy to the end of our lives.
And he continues:
People who hold this kind of belief have no idea whatever of what evil and good really are. They do not know that evil is the pleasure we find in the urge to act and think in violation of the divine pattern, and that goodness is the pleasure we feel when we act and think in harmony with the divine pattern. They do not realize that there are thousands of individual impulses that go to make up any particular evil, and that there are thousands of individual impulses that go to make up any particular good tendency. These thousands of impulses are so precisely structured and so intimately interconnected within us that no single one of them can be changed without changing all the rest at the same time.
If people are unaware of this, they can entertain the belief or the thought that an evil that seems to be all by itself can be set aside easily and that something good that also seems to be all by itself can be brought in to replace it. Since they do not know what good and evil are, they cannot help thinking that there are such things as instantaneous salvation and direct mercy. The last section of this book will show that this is not possible. (Divine Providence #279)
In other words, an evil and criminal character is a complex, densely interwoven state of mind and heart, in which we actually enjoy engaging in crime so much that it is a basic part of our character. That can’t be changed simply by uttering some magic words—even word’s expressing faith in Jesus Christ’s power to save.
Yes, Jesus Christ does have power to save. But only through a long process of changing the very structure of our character, piece by piece. And that takes a lifetime to accomplish. That’s why we have a lifetime here on earth.
How our character is formed
How do we become the person we are? How is our character formed?
Of course a significant part of it is based on our heredity, our parents, our upbringing, our environment, our schooling, our friends, and so on. All of these have a big influence on the person we become.
But not nearly as big an influence as the choices we make in response to the situations we find ourselves in.
One person born of poor parents in a tough neighborhood may see the swagger and bling of the local gangs, and choose that life.
- Another person born of poor parents in the same tough neighborhood may struggle and work hard for years to carve out a better and more stable life.
For an inspiring example of the better choice, see the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith, which dramatizes the true story of Chris Gardner’s rise from homelessness to financial success.
And related directly to Jeremy Wilson:
- One person may be born in an average middle-class neighborhood, see the lifestyles of the rich and famous, work hard, climb the corporate ladder for many years, and achieve financial success through a solid life of work and achievement.
- Another person may be born into the same average middle-class neighborhood, see the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but have no interest in hard work, and instead take the “fast track” of fraud, influence, white collar crime, and ill-gotten wealth.
No matter what background we come from, we have choices. And the choices we make, and the way we live our lives pursuant to those choices, will determine the kind of person we become.
- Those who set goals for themselves and work to achieve them by using their brains and working hard every day to build a solid foundation for their success will weave a character that does not shrink from the challenges of life, but embraces them, faces them, and gains skill, experience, and confidence to achieve whatever they set their minds to.
- Those who want a “fast track” to wealth and success will develop a lazy character that wants big payoffs without doing any real work to get them. They may use their ingenuity and even their guts, but they will develop a character that’s always looking for a shortcut, and always looking to avoid any real, constructive effort to achieve their goals.
And if the physiologists are right, these patterns of character become literally woven into the very fabric of our brains: we create nerve pathways and connections that represent the common pathways of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
What scientists say happens in our brains through habit and practice, Swedenborg, over two centuries ago, said happens also in our mind and spirit. To repeat part of the above quote from Divine Providence:
There are thousands of individual impulses that go to make up any particular evil, and that there are thousands of individual impulses that go to make up any particular good tendency. These thousands of impulses are so precisely structured and so intimately interconnected within us that no single one of them can be changed without changing all the rest at the same time.
And so, through our choices and the daily life we make for ourselves based on those choices, we build a complex physical and mental structure of character, consisting of thousands and even millions of individual thoughts, impulses, and habit patterns that all weave together to form a highly interconnected system in which every part reinforces every other part.
That is how our character is formed.
Once our character is formed, changing it is a long, painstaking process
And that is why our character, once formed, is such a stubborn beast.
If you have ever tried to change one of your long-standing habits, and found how ridiculously difficult it can be to stop thinking and acting the way you’re used to, and start thinking and acting in a different way, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
What you may not realize is that you’re fighting against complex structures and patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that have been built up and tightly woven together over many years, and have taken on an organic life of their own.
So when we consider how criminals can go to heaven, the idea that they can just suddenly be “saved” by a mere profession of faith in Jesus is just as preposterous as saying that the brain, with its billions of nerve fibers and synapses, can be suddenly rewired into an entirely different configuration just by snapping our fingers and saying, “Hocus Pocus!”
It just doesn’t work that way.
Hard experience shows that once people have built a settled and hardened criminal life and character within themselves, most of them simply never change. The pattern of their character has been set. Most of them have no desire to change, let alone a willingness to do the hard work necessary to bring about a radical change in their character and lifestyle.
That, and not some desire on God’s part to punish us, is why there is an eternal hell. People who have chosen an evil and destructive way of life grow to love that way of life. They glory in their criminal exploits. And they have absolutely no desire to change.
And so, they continue living the same evil and criminal life in the spiritual world that they’ve lived on earth.
Unfortunately, this means they are living the kind of life that exists in hell. God doesn’t send them there. They go there of their own accord because that’s where they can at least attempt to live the kind of life they love. For more on this, see: “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?”
However, as long as we’re still living here on this earth, we can change our life and character, if we truly want to and choose to.
And if we make that choice, we have a long and sometimes painful pathway of self-examination, repentance, and change ahead of us. We must painstakingly unweave all those old, habitual pathways of thinking, feeling, and acting, and re-weave new pathways of healthier ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.
It’s a long and difficult process.
But if we set our mind and heart to it, we can achieve it.
That’s because the same humanity that enabled us to choose evil and destructive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting also enables us to choose to change the structure of character that we have built within ourselves.
And it’s also because once we make that choice, there are places we can turn for help and support. Counselors, ministers, parents, teachers, old friends. There are many people who would love to help us turn our lives around. And even more than that, God—and for Christians, Jesus Christ—is always there to give us the strength and wisdom to fight and win our spiritual battles.
How, practically speaking, do we bring about that kind of change in ourselves?
Here are two articles to get you started:
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
How Can a Criminal Get to Heaven?
So how can a criminal get to heaven?
What would Jeremy Wilson have to do to break the cycle, and end out in heaven instead of hell?
First, it would take a conscious choice on his part to stop thinking, feeling, and living in the old, destructive, criminal ways. This is what the Bible calls “repentance.” It means being truly sorry for the evil life we’ve been living, and making a firm commitment to begin a new and better life.
Second, it would require following through on that choice and that repentance by spending each day avoiding and throwing out the old ways, and training himself to think, feel, and act in new and better ways. This is what is called “reformation,” in both religious and civil language. It is the process of ripping out our old character building up a new and better character and life for ourselves.
Any criminal who is willing to take these steps can leave behind his or her life of crime, and gradually, painstakingly, and often painfully build a character and a life that leads to heaven.
And if a criminal can do it, so can anyone else. It is a pathway available to every single person on this earth who has fallen into bad ways of thinking, feeling, and living.
Even if that person happens to be you.
For further reading: