Capital punishment (CP) is a completely Biblical proposition if properly applied and is actually a pro-life position. Having said that, in my next post I’ll make some arguments from a Christian worldview against capital punishment as currently administered in the U.S. But first I wanted to address some anti-CP arguments that I would not use.
(Note that I don’t use the cost issues in either scenario – i.e., “Putting them in prison for life is too expensive” vs. “The legal costs of the death penalty are too expensive.” Justice ain’t cheap. We shouldn’t go one direction or the other just because it might cost more or less.)
I’ll address these arguments:
- Jesus would forgive
- We might be eliminating the condemned killer’s opportunity to place his trust in Christ and thus causing him/her to miss out on eternal salvation.
- Jesus is against capital punishment / Jesus reversed the Old Testament teaching on capital punishment
- We might be killing someone who is innocent
- Capital punishment is not a deterrent
- The Bible says, “Thou shall not kill”
“Jesus would forgive” – Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason points out that Mother Teresa once used this argument to argue against a California capital punishment. It is flawed for a few reasons.
First, Jesus would forgive if the criminal repented. I don’t know if the condemned killer repented in that case or not, but many times they do not. And, of course, only Jesus would know if the repentance is authentic.
Second, Jesus offers divine forgiveness but He doesn’t always remove earthly consequences of our actions (examples abound – see King David & Bathsheba, other Bible characters, you, me and others).
Third, and most importantly, this argument proves too much. The rationale that “Jesus would forgive” presumably means we shouldn’t apply the death penalty. But those arguing against capital punishment typically drop back to a punishment of life in prison. But if Jesus would forgive, how could we put this person away for life? How about just 20 years in prison? No, Jesus would forgive. And so on. The literal application of the “Jesus would forgive” position would keep us from punishing anyone, ever. And no, that isn’t a slippery slope argument. It just means that if you say society must forgive because Jesus would and you define forgive as eliminating consequences, then why apply any punishment?
Another bad reason for this and the remaining arguments is that the ACLU would just hate them because they mention the “J” word (sarcasm intended). Actually, they might like the arguments. Sometimes people are willing to relax their standards when something benefits their position. I haven’t done precise Venn diagrams on this topic, but it seems like the “Jesus would forgive” crowd overlaps a lot with the “separation of church and state” crowd.
“We might be eliminating the condemned killer’s opportunity to place his trust in Christ and thus causing him/her to miss out on eternal salvation.” I am big on evangelism, and I love to hear the stories of people who repented and believed despite horrible circumstances and backgrounds. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, is a powerful example. I am involved with the Kairos prison ministry and support ministries like Prison Fellowship who take the Gospel to prisoners and care for their families. But this argument just doesn’t work for me.
First, anyone who puts it forth would have to acknowledge that the murder the criminal committed is an even worse crime than the state recognizes. After all, the government is punishing the person for taking someone’s earthly life. If you truly believe that an opportunity for eternal life was taken then the crime is significantly greater, perhaps infinitely so. That would imply the need for a stronger punishment, not a lesser one, so you are arguing against your own position.
Second, this argument ignores the sovereignty of God. Both Calvinists and Arminians believe that God knows which way we’ll choose. If someone holds a different view then they need to revisit my first objection. I don’t think any non-believers will convince God that if only they had lived longer they would have repented and believed.
Third, it takes many, many years before a convicted murderer is put to death. He/she has plenty of time to consider whether to put his/her faith in Christ. Condemned killers probably have more time than their victim did and certainly a greater sense of urgency to consider their eternal destiny.
“Jesus is against capital punishment / Jesus reversed the Old Testament teaching on capital punishment” – This is much simpler to refute than most people realize. Consider the following two arguments:
- Capital punishment for murderers was God’s idea (For example, Genesis 9:5-6: “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”).
- Jesus is God.
- Therefore, capital punishment for murderers was Jesus’ idea.
- The Old Testament clearly teaches that capital punishment is an appropriate punishment for justly convicted murderers – both inside and outside the Israelite culture.
- No New Testament teachings reverse this teaching.
- Therefore, capital punishment is still an acceptable punishment for justly convicted murderers.
Foreshadowing: My next post on “(Somewhat) Effective Biblical arguments against capital punishment” will focus on the “justly convicted” part.
It is possible that Jesus could have changed this teaching, but there are no passages to support this notion. The Bible indicates that capital punishment was prescribed for more than a dozen Israelite-specific transgressions. But capital punishment for murderers goes back much farther, all the way to Noah.
Peter and Paul both point to the government having authority to punish people. In Romans 13, Paul specifically mentions that rulers do “not bear the sword for nothing.” Presumably, the “sword” was for capital punishment, not corporal punishment.
When Paul was threatened with the death penalty in the book of Acts, he didn’t object to the penalty itself, he just pointed to his innocence (Acts 25:10-11). Jesus did the same when He was on trial.
The “turn the other cheek” passage sometimes used to assert that Jesus was against CP is a misapplication. That teaching is about personal relationships when you are insulted, not for government punishments of condemned killers. It is hard to turn the other cheek when you are dead. Think about it.
And while turning the other cheek when you are insulted is noble and Christian, turning the other cheek when someone weaker is threatened or killed is cowardice. Read it in context and you’ll see that it has nothing to do with the government administration of the death penalty:
Matthew 5:38-42 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
But what about the command to “love your enemies?” Again, this is a passage to Christians, not the government. It doesn’t even hint that the government wouldn’t hold people accountable for crimes committed against Christians. If someone assaults you, you need to forgive them. But jailing them may be the loving thing to do if it protects others (remember, you need to love your enemies and your neighbors).
Some people misinterpret the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) and think it means Jesus was against capital punishment. First off, the earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not include this passage. If it is authentic, it is not primarily about capital punishment. It is about Jesus out-witting the Pharisses and pointing out their inconsistency and hypocrisy. But note that Jesus applied the Biblical model: There were no longer two witnesses to condemn her. He never revoked the penalty. He told her to go and sin no more. (I wonder if those who quote this against capital punishment also quote it to oppose adultery?)
To make the case that capital punishment in general is un-Biblical one would need at least one passage to that effect. And it simply doesn’t exist. And of course, anyone who likes to argue from silence (“Jesus didn’t say anything specific about ____, so _____”) would have to concede that Jesus did not overturn the death penalty.
“We might be killing someone who is innocent” – If a Biblical model of justice is followed, the odds of this happening are very, very low. And God was willing to take that chance. This argument does have some merit, as the U.S. has drifted from a more Biblical model of justice. I’ll address that in the follow up post.
This is an unusual side note, but please consider that if someone is truly innocent, then their conviction is much more likely to be overturned if they are given the death penalty than if they have a sentence of life without parole. This is because a death penalty sentence has automatic appeals and legal support not available to someone with a sentence of life without parole. Ironically, then, an innocent person sentenced to life without parole is more likely to die in prison than an innocent person given the death penalty. This isn’t a major point either way, just one of those unusual twists.
Keep in mind that many times there is no doubt about the guilt of the accused (Remember Karla Faye Tucker and “Free Tookie,” among others).
“Capital punishment is not a deterrent” – Is so. Romans 13:3: “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, and agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Sounds like a deterrent to me.
Please spare me any statistics that allegedly show that capital punishment increases murders or has no effect. I appreciate a good study, but if you can find one that eliminates all issues like more fatherless kids, less religious influence, etc. – not to mention the interminably long process required to carry out an execution – I would like to see that one. When in doubt, I’ll stick with clear Biblical teachings over man-made surveys.
Also, I think it is rather obvious that stronger punishments are greater deterrents. I can prove it in 10 seconds: Do you think driving behavior would change at all if traffic tickets only cost a nickel, or if the punishment was life in prison? I rest my case.
And of course, we can be 100% sure that capital punishment certainly deters murderers from killing again. Many murders have taken place when murderers were set free or when other prisoners were killed. If we love our neighbors we will seek to protect them.
Does it deter everyone from killing? Of course not. But since when was that part of the criteria for establishing laws? We have a criminal justice system because we know that some will always break the law.
“The Bible says, ‘Thou shall not kill’” Actually, it says you shouldn’t murder, which is killing an innocent human being. And that is such a great crime that it brought the death penalty. People who think that is ironic to kill murderes are missing the point. Life is so valuable that to take a human life is to commit the greatest crime possible.
Anyone making that argument had better be pro-life, or they need to be prepared for me to point out the hypocrisy of being for the legal killing of innocent human beings and against the destruction of guilty murderers. Also see Abortion and Capital Punishment.