Who is praying for McVeigh?

As every movie buff knows, condemned prisoners always get to say a few final words.

Some apologize, while others protest. Some repent. Some rant. All have a last chance to confess to an eternal judge.

A decade ago, an infamous killer in South Carolina quietly offered words of thankfulness and acceptance. When Rusty Woomer died in the electric chair, he was not the man whose Quaaludes-and-whiskey fueled binge had left four tortured and dead.

"I'm sorry," said Woomer, whose prison years included many acts of selfless service to others. "I claim Jesus Christ as my savior. My only wish is that everyone in the world could feel the love I have felt from him."

It's hard not to contrast this with the arrogance shown by America's greatest terrorist, said the Rev. Lee Strobel, a former Chicago Tribune legal-affairs reporter who is now a writer and teacher at the massive Saddleback (Calif.) Community Church. Nevertheless, anyone who takes Christianity seriously must pray for a moment of repentance and grace before Timothy McVeigh is executed by lethal injection.

"After he is declared dead, McVeigh will stand trial once more," said Strobel, before the now-delayed execution date. "This time, there will be no secrets, no defense attorneys, no legal maneuvering, not rationalizations, no excuses. And unless something happens before then, he will be found guilty once again and sentenced to a hellish eternity in a place utterly devoid of hope. ... This will not make God happy."

During his media offensive, McVeigh has said his last blast of political rhetoric will include lines from William Ernest Henley's "Invictus." In this anthem of defiant individualism, the poet briefly thanks "whatever gods may be," yet concludes:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scrolls,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

That doesn't sound like a humble confession of sin. Strobel's sermon, entitled "What Jesus Would Say to Timothy McVeigh," noted that the bomber has refused to apologize and even called his youngest victims mere "collateral damage." Thus, McVeigh has become the soldier from hell -- a poster boy for all that is evil. Can this man be saved?

"God is just, but God also is merciful," said Strobel. "So McVeigh's soul can saved. That is the word of hope that he needs to hear. ... There is always a chance that someone can repent and be forgiven. We are supposed to believe that, no matter what."

Debates about heaven and hell, salvation and damnation, become even more complex when linked to an issue as explosive as the death penalty. Strobel said he opposes the death penalty, in part because of the cracks in the justice system that he probed during his years in journalism. He also would agree with Pope John Paul II that nations today can efficiently fight crime "without definitely taking away the possibility of self-redemption."

Strobel said Christianity clearly teaches that McVeigh -- whatever his legal fate -- can repent and find salvation. So the most disturbing question is not, "Can McVeigh be saved?", but, "Why aren't more believers praying that he will be saved?"

Of course, there are "universalists" who don't believe in hell and, thus, believe that McVeigh will go to heaven with everyone else, no matter what. People who hold this belief tend to stay quiet during the days just before the execution of notorious criminals.

Meanwhile, other believers proclaim salvation by grace, but in practice this doctrine of radical forgiveness tends to make them nervous, said Strobel. Most people find it easier to imagine God forgiving their own "garden-variety sins," or those of a kindly neighbor, than God forgiving the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, Karla Faye Tucker or, should he repent, McVeigh.

But sin is sin, said Strobel.

"If anyone ought to know how much he needs God and how much he needs to be forgiven, it ought to be Timothy McVeigh. But that doesn't mean we're supposed to be cheering as he dies and calling him the world's greatest sinner. Doing that only makes it harder for us to see the sin in our own lives and how badly we all need to be forgiven."