“I support the death penalty for convicted murderers, and I oppose the death penalty for unborn children.” Douglas Wilson
Abortion has been making headlines this past year in a way that has not been seen in some time. At the same time in Oklahoma the discussion of the death penalty is getting much more media due to a botched execution where a prisoner suffered more than most people were comfortable with.
I am pro-life, meaning I don't think we should kill babies. But I am also pro death penalty. Which means I think that in some cases the maximum punishment for certain crimes should extend as far as the death penalty. I claim that both these views are not contradictory but are in fact the reflection of God, the creator of absolute moral laws and are both merciful and just.
There are several questions that follow from this, is this a contradiction of values, and is this view morally superior to other views? I think that last question is important because if this is in fact a biblical view, which it is, and if God is the ultimate example of justice and morality; then if there was a better way then by default Gods way would be less moral, and God would have inferior morality to whatever man or woman created the superior view.
1. The punishment should fit the crime.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.”
Retributive Justice takes the stance that the punishment should fit the crime. This method of justice is the most common and is found throughout history including the Law of Moses which states an eye for an eye and a hand for a hand. However, this mainly had implications as to the maximum punishment that could be administered but it was not the only punishment that could be rendered. David was guilty of crimes that were punishable by death yet God showed him mercy. So although the maximum punishment permitted the taking of life, it was not a blanket punishment for every time that crime was committed.
Do we not feel as though some injustice has been done if a major crime is met with a minor punishment? The exceptions to this rule seem to be more favorable when the offended party feels sympathy and encourages a lesser penalty. Biblically speaking we can argue that God does not commit injustice by allowing someone else to pay the price for the sins of man since he is the offended party. If the blood of Jesus satisfies the penalty for an individuals sin to God whom the offense is against; it is just and fair.
It would be very hard to argue that Jesus/ God is against the death penalty since the main purpose of Jesus/ God in the flesh was to endure the death penalty as just punishment for the sins of mankind. We see God execute both ends of the retributive justice spectrum; sometimes a life is demanded, sometimes grace is extended multiple times over.
I want to focus on just the crime of murder to make this argument as specific as possible. Should capital punishment be allowed in some cases for when one person takes another persons life?
There are a couple of points that I want to make.
A) Retributive Justice is not fully possible in the case of murder. The punishment will always be less than the crime. This is because the offender took an innocent life, and his innocence is gone. So the taking of his guilty life is less harsh than the crime he committed. This innocence/ guilt is not the biblical version but the social version. Biblically speaking all men are guilty, but socially not all men are criminals. So even though the death penalty seems harsh, it is not equal to the crime, there is simply no other higher price can that be paid in this life. What punishment could repay a man that has killed many innocent people? His life can not be taken more than once so the punishment is less that his crime. This is where biblical ideas of ultimate justice come into play giving ultimate justice to the universe even when justice escapes civil law.
B) The biblical justification has to do with someone destroying the image of God in another person. By doing so they forfeit their humanity. The sanctity of human life is protected by divine sanction. There are crimes one creature commits another creature, and crimes one creature commits against it's creator. Murder combines the two.
2. Death penalty protects others from those who can not be reformed.
Since the death penalty is not what must be done for every crime that has the death penalty as it's ultimate punishment, other options can be considered. All of these involve the loss of rights. The greater the crime, the greater the loss of ones rights. If a person commits a small crime, short loss of rights in a minimum security jail. A major crime carries with it a greater loss of rights in a maximum security prison. However, this does not mean that a murder will stop killing. Violent criminals often get more violent in jail. We then remove from them more of their rights and put them in solitary confinement. Those who are against the death penalty have this as their final punishment for the extremely violent criminals who want no reform. Decades of solitary confinement can have a devastating sometimes even tortuous effect on a person.
This can be seen in a peer review study of the effects of long term solitary confinement.
In a large number of cases such an environment is a slow tortuous killing of the mind. I would argue that a quick and painless death is more loving than slow, isolated insanity. When reform is possible, exhaust every effort. When a person is so violent that they must have every right removed from them but life, take their life out of pity.
3. This is consistent with Gods character and a reflection of his values.
The death penalty does not contradict the character of God, but upholds his perfect justice. It allows the maximum penalty when necessary but encourages and praises grace when it is shown. In no way does this rob someone of the moral responsibility to speak out against abortion. On average 125,000 abortions are performed each day. No crime was committed by the person who looses their life. In 2015 only 27 people were executed for their crimes. Since 1976 1,421 people have been executed. With such a relatively small number of executions it is hard to make the argument against it based upon the exceptions. What if someone is innocent and is executed? These are not flaws in the morality but flaws in the efforts to verify the crime.
In Deuteronomy God speaks specifically on this matter to the nation of Israel.
“One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you.” Deuteronomy 16.
The investigation must remove all doubt, and if a witness is found to be lying then he is to be punished to the extent he demanded the accused be punished. This would greatly deter someone from making false accusations of a crime and seeking the death penalty. If that person woud be found out it would be their life that was taken instead.
I want to preemptively address a few claims and rebuttals.
A) that's just your interpretation
This argument assumes that all scripture is so ambiguous that all interpretations are correct. However, the argument itself is ambiguous. Which scripture is in question? What context? What chapter and verse? To simply make the claim that it's a matter of interpretation without offering a better more consistent interpretation is just a distraction. Hermeneutics and exegesis are not just fancy seminary words but are tools of a literary science.
B) Christianity is self correcting
This issue addresses the fact the people have done terrible things in the name of Christ and their assumption that because of this fact we can not claim a superior moral compass. I do in fact think that Christianity offers the best possible moral code to live by and it does so as a refection of Gods holiness. An ultimate moral law does not exist without an ultimate moral law giver. That argument looks like this;
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
I don't want to enter into a full discussion about objective moral values since this is about the self correcting nature of Christianity. The first thing we should do here is examine the nature of the Christian message. The Christian gospel condemns violence, oppression, injustice and fanaticism – even fanaticism and violence in the name of Christ for the truth of the Gospel.
In his book The Reason for God Timothy Keller writes,
Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian, but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, emphatic, forgiving, or understanding-as Christ was. … What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.
In Jesus’s and the prophets’ critique, self-righteous religion is always marked by insensitivity to issues of social justice, while the faith is marked by profound concern for the poor and the marginalized. The Swiss theologian John Calvin, in his commentaries on the Hebrew prophets, says that God so identifies with the poor that their cries express divine pain. The Bible teaches that our treatment of them equals our treatment of God.
What is the answer, then, to the very fair and devastating critique of the record of the Christian church? The answer is not to abandon the Christian faith, because that would leave us with neither the standards nor the resources to make correction. Instead we should move to a fuller and deeper grasp of what Christianity is. The Bible itself has taught us to expect the abuses of religion and it has also told us what to do about them.
Christianity has self criticizing tools built within it far greater than a non theistic form of criticism is able to levy against it. Christian virtues are true, though historically we see how difficult they are to manifest. This does not mean that the virtues themselves are corrupt. The greatest dangers come when Christianity tries to get in bed with political power. It has always been at the margins where Christianity is best expressed and less compromised.
In conclusion, a virtuous christian seeking after God and living out his moral standard will advocate for the death penalty in rare occasions, while seeking grace and reconciliation as the first priority. The same moral code can also and speak out against and lobby for the murder of innocent children.
Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause. Isiah 1:17
Caleb is lead pastor at Logos Church and enjoys writing about pop culture, Star Wars, Jesus and what effective ministry might look like in Tulsa.