Michael Franzese, an ex-mob boss-turned-outspoken Christian author and speaker, delivered a message at Pastor Greg Laurie's California-based megachurch Sunday and stressed the importance of possessing a "healthy" fear of Hell and eternal damnation.
As a former second-generation member of the Colombo Italian-American Mafia crime family in New York, Franzese previously lived his life on the wrong side of the law.
He once held a caporegime rank, an influential role that gave him control over a "crew of soldiers." Working alongside his father, Sonny Franzese, he stole money and engaged in other criminal activities.
After being arrested on 18 different occasions, Franzese served eight years in prison before he was ultimately released in 1994. During his time behind bars, a prison guard gave him a Bible, enabling him to discover the good news of Jesus Christ.
Speaking at Laurie's Harvest Christian Fellowship, the former Mafia "prince" shared how he developed a "healthy fear of Hell" as a former inmate in solitary confinement.
"When I was in prison, I spent 29 months and seven days in solitary confinement [in a] six-by-eight cell, 24/7. Me and God. … That's not easy. We weren't meant to be solo creatures. We were meant to be social. [When] those lights [went] out at night, a lot of guys did not do well; a lot of moaning and groaning," Franzese recounted.
"I dove into my Bible. I prayed every day. It was my closest time with the Lord because I had no choice. That was it. … And thank God, I turned to Him and nowhere else. … But you know what happened in that hole? I developed a healthy fear of Hell."
Franzese encouraged the crowd to envision the reality of Hell's existence.
"I want you to stop for a minute and think of the worst thing that you've ever encountered in your life and realize that that worst thing will never go away. … This is your constant thorn in your side forever. And now put yourself in Hell, which is a million times worse and will never end. That's Hell," Franzese preached.
"[The] Bible is very descriptive. I'm not bringing you bad news. I'm just telling you the truth. The good news is we don't have to go there. There is a Heaven, and there is a Hell."
He said that it is good to have a healthy fear of anything that can potentially be harmful to a person and shared how his sister died of a drug overdose at the age of 27 and how his brother struggled with drug addiction for 25 years.
After seeing what happened to his siblings, Franzese developed a "healthy fear of drugs."
"My father drummed into my head from the time I was a kid that drugs were bad," Franzese shared.
"I've seen so many people die because of drugs. I'm afraid of drugs. I don't mind saying it. I never even smoked a joint because I'm afraid I'll like it. I don't want to be addicted, so I stay away from it. It's good to have a healthy fear of things that are no good for you. That's manly. That's a man's man that can resist that kind of stuff," he added.
Although Franzese said it is "good" to recognize God's call to confess, repent, believe and evangelize, he stressed the importance of sharing the truth in a loving way.
"Jesus was direct when He had to be, but He had a knack for communicating with gentleness," he contended. "Today, our culture seems to celebrate men who speak their mind and pull no punches as if being a bully is an admirable trait. On the contrary, Jesus Himself said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.'"
Franzese emphasized the importance of "gentleness" when sharing difficult truths with non-believers, adding:
"Every time I [share] my testimony, I always go into the back room and I pray and I say: 'Lord … give me the right words. Let me be effective. Let me be passionate enough in delivering this message so that You can reach out and touch the hearts that You want to touch in this room.'"
In concluding his sermon, Franzese urged audience members to consider giving their lives to Christ before it's too late.
"We are living in crazy times," he reminded. "We don't know from one minute to the next what's going to happen in this life. We really don't. And I'm telling you, I've seen people that I love with me one day, gone the next. Shocking. We don't know. We're not guaranteed anything. And what are you waiting for? Why would you want to test it?"
"Why would you even want to think that maybe I'm not ready to go to Heaven? … Why? I told you what the benefit is of emulating Jesus Christ. It's a win-win situation. … You can't lose. … The only way you lose is if you don't confess your sins and accept Jesus as your Savior. But in every other way, you win."