The astounding headline broke early on Saturday morning that financier Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide in a New York jail cell. The Associated Press reported, “The FBI and the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office will investigate how Jeffrey Epstein died in an apparent suicide Saturday, while the probe into sexual abuse allegations against the well-connected financier remains ongoing. Epstein, accused of orchestrating a sex-trafficking ring and sexually abusing dozens of underage girls, had been taken off suicide watch before he killed himself in a New York Jail. Attorney General William Barr on Saturday, in announcing the investigation, said he was ‘appalled’ to learn of Epstein’s death while in federal custody.”
The Attorney General commented, “Mr. Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered.”
Indeed, many questions loom as the nation reels from this story. Epstein’s case represents the intersection of power and crime, sin and celebrity, wealth and politics. He was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and he owned one of the largest homes in Manhattan as well as a private island and a massive western retreat. As it turns out, the island is a key part of the accusations –allegedly having served as a base for the sex-trafficking and assignations with under age women.
In addition to his lavish and horrific lifestyle, Epstein maintained access to powerful friends and allies—it appears that some of these relationships were purchased by Epstein to leverage power in some of America’s most prestigious institutions including Harvard University. He associated with the intellectual, influential, and economic East-cost elites.
All that ended when he was arrested on charges of sex-trafficking. He entered into the now infamous plea agreement with law enforcement officials for having sex with underage minors. By the time more allegations arose against Epstein, it was clear that he was believed to be the center of a sex-trafficking ring, both for himself and his powerful friends.
Any number of famous and influential figures attempted to distance themselves as fast as they could from Epstein, and many had reason to believe that, even if no charges were made against them, their name would be implicated in some way.
After the news broke of his suicide on Saturday morning, immediate moral responses surfaced. The most immediate response in the mainstream media surmised that Epstein cheated justice.
The Editorial Board of The New York Times stated, “By apparently committing suicide in his Manhattan jail cell on Saturday morning, Jeffrey Epstein spared himself a lengthy trial that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life on federal sex trafficking charges… While Mr. Epstein will never face a legal reckoning, the investigations into his crimes and those of others connected to him must continue. His premature death shouldn’t stop law enforcement authorities from finishing the job that they finally took up seriously years after they should have.”
Then, the Editorial Board made this statement, “The evidence against Mr. Epstein was overwhelming even more than a decade ago, but he evaded serious punishment then, thanks to a plea deal with federal prosecutors who later suggested they were too intimidated by Epstein’s legal team to seek more appropriate sanctions.”
In reality, The New York Times and every other major American media outlet were apparently unconcerned about Jeffrey Epstein until these past few months—that points, if nothing else, to Epstein’s success in ingratiating himself with the spheres of political, social, and media influence.
The main point, however, of The New York Times piece is that justice must continue to be pursued for those connected to Epstein’s sex-trafficking ring—even though the center of that ring is dead. Indeed, though Epstein is dead, his victims, according to The New York Times, deserve justice.
While that is certainly right, another major question looms over this entire story: how did a suspect like Jeffrey Epstein manage to successfully commit suicide while in federal custody?
The Associated Press reported, “Epstein’s death raises questions about how the Bureau of Prisons ensures the welfare of such high-profile inmates. In October, Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger was killed in a federal prison in West Virginia where he had just been transferred. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote Saturday in a scathing letter to Barr that ‘heads must roll’ after the incident.” Senator Sasse also stated, “Every single person in the Justice Department—from your Main Justice headquarters staff all the way to the night-shift jailer—knew that this man was a suicide risk, and that his dark secrets couldn’t be allowed to ide with him.”
Senator Sasse highlights the importance of the criminal trial in major cases like the one involving Epstein. Indeed, these trials play a crucial role in determining the truth. Many people think of a criminal trial in the US Justice system as merely the last phase of a prosecution—it’s much more than that, for over the course of criminal trial, ample opportunity for new information and facts are revealed in the testimonies given under oath. Moreover, a mountain of depositions and overwhelming investigation is conducted precisely for the purposes of the prosecution’s preparation for the criminal trial.
The death of Jeffrey Epstein is not just a loss to the cause of justice in this world. It also means an enormous loss of intelligence, information, and knowledge about this pervasive and horrific crime network of sex-trafficking. Epstein’s knowledge of the individuals involved, the process of this criminal network, the scope of all involved is now lost.
This represents an enormous breakdown in the professionalism of the US Department of Prisons. Reporters from The New York Times stated, “It was Friday night in a protective housing unit of the federal jail in Lower Manhattan, and Jeffrey Epstein, the financier accused of trafficking girls for sex, was alone in his cell only 11 days after he’d been taken off a suicide watch. Just that morning, thousands of documents from a civil suit had been released, providing lurid accounts accusing Mr. Epstein of sexually abusing scores of girls. Mr. Epstein was supposed to have been checked by the two guards in the protective housing unit every 30 minutes, but that procedure was not followed that night… In addition, because Mr. Epstein may have tried to commit suicide three weeks earlier, he was supposed to have had another inmate in his cell, three officials said. But the jail had recently transferred his cellmate and allowed Mr. Epstein to be housed alone, a decision that also violated the jail’s procedure.”
The Washington Post also covered the story, stating, “For anyone familiar with Bureau of Prisons standard operating procedures, Jeffrey Epstein’s apparent suicide is more than mysterious; it is unfathomable… Epstein’s death almost certainly means that astounding blunders occurred, perhaps by multiple personnel at the Bureau of Prisons. If any prisoner in the federal system should have been a candidate for suspicion of suicide, it was the high-profile and disgraced Epstein. All administrative and structural measures should have been in place to ensure it could not happen. And yet it apparently did.”
Former US Attorney Harry Litman, the author for The Washington Post piece, commented on the prison that held Epstein: “It is a high-rise, forbidding administrative detention facility in the south of Manhattan. Its population consists almost entirely of prisoners, like Epstein awaiting trial in federal court in Manhattan. It has been referred to as the ‘Guantanamo of New York’ for its stringent security measures. It is the facility of choice for notorious federal defendants, often in special administrative segregation units, having previously housed John Gotti, Bernard Madoff, Omar Abdel Rahman and, recently, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman. In other words, it is the very place to put a high-profile and potentially suicidal defendant such as Epstein.”
Litman described the personnel of the jail as “the very best professionals in the correction industry.” These were no inexperienced yokels, which raises serious questions about how on earth Epstein was able to commit suicide. Litman queries, “Was Epstein on suicide watch, and if not, why not? Among the reports cascading out in the few hours since Epstein’s body was found are anonymous statements that Epstein had been on suicide watch but was taken off it. If so, the decision to remove him appears to have been a colossal error that must be thoroughly probed.” Another question Litman raises is how Epstein succeeded in his suicide and how he had access to the tools to accomplish his death.
Litman concludes his article, stating, “It seems certain that when the facts are known, this will stand as one of the biggest black eyes in the history of the Bureau of Prisons.”
In addition to the justice related issues, as well as the administrative blunders surrounding the Bureau of Prisons, a third dimension demands attention, namely, the conspiracy theory accounts. Charlie Warzel of The New York Times reported, “Even on an internet bursting at the seems with conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship, Saturday marked a new chapter in our post-truth, ‘choose your own reality’ crisis story.” Warzel argues, “At the heart of Saturday’s fiasco is Twitter, which has come to largely program the political conversation and much of the press. Twitter is magnetic during massive breaking stories; news junkies flock to it for up-to-the-second information. But early on, there’s often a vast discrepancy between the attention that is directed at the platform and the available information about the developing story. That gap is filled by speculation and, via its worst users, rumor-mongering and conspiracy theories.”
Monica Hess for The Washington Post pointed out that “less than 48 hours after his death, we’re already moving away from what the story should be about. We’re already moving into a land of conspiracy theories, where the president of the United States retweets a baseless, bizarre hypothesis that Bill and Hillary Clinton were responsible for Epstein’s death.” Hess argued, “[Epstein] doesn’t deserve to be a conspiracy theory. When you do what he allegedly did, you don’t deserve to be anything but paralyzed in your courtroom seat, as the world watches you go from powerful to pathetic, as your victims make it clear that your money and connections are incidental, that the girls you hurt were the heroes all along.”
This is a massive story, demanding the attention of every major media outlet—it ought to get the attention of Christians as we seek to make sense of all these headlines and offer the world a biblical understanding to this tragic scenario.
There are three great worldview issues proper to our concern.
A Deep Yearning for Justice
The first is the deep, human yearning for justice. Immediately after news broke of Epstein’s suicide, there was immense outrage, and rightfully so, that Epstein’s victims had been robbed of justice. Moreover, Epstein himself evaded or escaped justice, from a human standpoint, by committing suicide.
The record will never show that Epstein faced these charges, was tried by a jury of his peers, and found guilty. That is indeed a great and tragic loss for human justice. The outrage expressed over the weekend reveals that deep yearning for justice innate within all humanity. Where does that yearning come from? Why is it pre-cognitive? According to the Christian worldview—the only worldview equipped to answer these deep questions—the pre-cognitive yearning for justices comes by our own innate, moral knowledge of God’s character as a just God. Our determination for justice expresses the infinite character of God who is perfect in truth and absolute in his justice.
As creatures made in God’s image, we bear that quality which demands justice. Though we are fallen, the corrupted residue of that impulse for justice remains. We demand and yearn for justice because God himself is just.
The Christian worldview bears the eschatological knowledge that no single person will ever escape justice. This fact remains true for those who commit truly heinous crimes, as well as for every sign human being who did not place their faith in Jesus Christ as their only hope for salvation. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Forgiveness for sins comes through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. He purchased our atonement. He satisfied the just condemnation for us and for our sins.
Moreover, the Christian worldview places its hope in the perfect, complete justice of God. Even if Epstein had gone to trial, found guilty, and sentenced to 10,000 years in prison, full and adequate justice for these crimes will still not have been paid.
If left in our temporal frame, we are doomed. The eschatological hope in God’s justice, however, is a sure and lasting remedy that provides hope for a world marked and mired with sin and rampant injustice. On the final Day of judgment, full and lasting justice will descend from the judgment seat of the perfect, glorious, eternal God.
On that Day, all humanity will be found guilty and will deserve the full measure of God’s wrath. There is only one remedy—one place to cling for hope and deliverance, namely, the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the cross, men and women are united to Christ by faith. Christ stands as our advocate and, furthermore, his wounds are our plea. Christ’s atonement accomplished the full and absolute penalty for a lifetime of sin. He paid the penalty because we cannot. Those who place their faith in Christ will have their sins forgiven. That is not to say that those sins go unpunished or that justice is not satisfied. Indeed, our sins have been judged at Calvary on Christ’s cross; our sins were accounted to Christ in that double imputation—our sins are imputed to Christ and his righteousness is imputed to us.
The Responsibility of Government
Secondly, the Christian worldview understands that governments, as institutions ordained by God with the power of the corporeal sword, must, in this life, pursue justice. Government has, therefore, the divine responsibility to conduct a police investigation, arrest persons based upon evidence, conduct a criminal trial, and keep the defendant ready for that day of trail.
In short, the United States Justice system failed, and it failed colossally. When government fails int his kind of responsibility, then there is huge outrage that often morphs into ridiculous conspiracy theories.
What Attracts Us to Conspiracy Theories
This is the third aspect of the Christian worldview that must be applied to this unfolding story. When human beings face unanswered, moral question, we will sometimes fill the gap with fiction rather than facts. We want our consciences assuaged and all the moral quagmires answered—when those answers are denied, many turn to theories that help explain the shadows of controversial cases.
Moreover, human beings do not accept cognitively complex coincidences. We can handle a simple coincidence. We can even handle a series of simple coincidences. But a series of complex, morally confusing, massive coincidences collides with the construction of our intelligence and our consciousness. We hold complex coincidences in suspicion and derision because it conflicts with our conception of how things ought to be. They do not appear plausible.
Senator Sasse rightly understood that a great loss in this case was the dark secrets that died with Jeffrey Epstein. Many powerful people, no doubt, wanted those dark secrets to stay secret. Given that reality, we can understand why many people are baffled by a series of complex coincidences—like a high-profile inmate who was on suicide watch taken off of suicide watch even as more information came to light regarding his sex-trafficking; which also coincided with the transfer of his cell-mate.
While some conspiracy theories turn out to be true–most of them, by definition, are false–if left unanswered, such conspiracy claims are incredibly difficult to refute.
As creatures made in the image of God, we live as pattern-seeking creatures, moral satisfaction-yearning creatures. God made us this way.
Indeed, this points to the fact that humans, by virtue of the imago Dei, are truth-seeking creatures. The desire for the truth consumes us, it detains us until we arrive at what we believe to be the truth.
All these moral realities surfaced from just one—though certainly important—headline over the weekend. And, on this story, brace for more headlines to come.