The Death Penalty: How Could a Christian Not Support It?
We have made a new reality in which to live. We are so thoroughly disconnected from our original reality that any time we have to go back to it, we find the experience both painful and difficult. Long distance travel doesn’t entail walking or riding on an animal anymore, but rather flying tens of thousands of feet over the ground at nearly the speed of sound. Eating meat no longer involves the slaughter of an animal from our herd, or the painstaking butchering process. Instead, meat can be had by talking to a box about a brightly lit screen and pulling up to a window where the animal has taken the shape of a sandwich or a nugget. None of us want to be reintroduced to the reality of ancient travel, butchering, or farming. Unfortunately, there is one reality that has stubbornly refused to be domesticated or commodified: justice.
When a cow or a chicken dies, it can become a McDouble or a McChicken, but there is no such thing as McJustice. Either justice is served or it is not. When a criminal is executed, the spotlight of justice burns our eyes and stuns our senses. Men love darkness rather than light, and nothing shines as bright of a light on our human dysfunction as an execution. The forceful tearing of the criminal out of reality in a sense caries us with him and tears us out of our constructed realities of comfort and ease. When a murderer is dropped to the end of a rope, the crowd gasps. And that is the way it should be.
I hear confused Catholics claiming that the death penalty is wrong. It is clearly not; the Bible commands it and God cannot command sin. More informed Catholics make the distinction that although the death penalty is not intrinsically evil, practically speaking it ought not be used. What modern Catholics miss, and what 1900 years of Catholicism and thousands of years of Judaism before that did not miss, is that the death penalty is a good thing.
What does the Bible have to say?
33 You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.
Here is my dynamic translation: “Don’t screw up the promised land. Murder is a major screw up; nothing can fix the damage that you have done. Well, there is one thing...kill the murderer. That will do the expiation.”
Look how the death penalty is being described. It is the only thing that can heal the polluted land. Killing the murdered is medicinal for the land and the people. This shows that it is not just “not evil”, nor just neutral, but it is as I have claimed and it has good consequences.
If that verse did not spell out clearly enough that murderers deserve to die, how about this earlier verse?
31 Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. They are to be put to death.
Take note: In the presence of an alternative punishment (ransom) the Bible decides the treatment of the murderer based chiefly on what his sin deserves. Justice is that which gives to each man his due. Justice in this case is to give this man death because that is what he deserves.
Whoever sheds human blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made mankind.
As you may have noticed, this comes from Genesis, not the later books of the Law. Therefore, the common objection that such requirements simply belong to a now defunct or superseded covenant does not apply to this pre-Law command. Also notice that it reads, “Shall be shed”, not, “Could be shed”. When identifying a just punishment for a murderer, we ought to presume that their life shall be taken unless good reasons are presented indicating this is out of order with justice. For instance, a man catches another man cheating on his wife. Passions are high, a fight ensues, and he kills the man in the midst of blind rage, mostly by accident. This is not the same as Ted Bundy stalking and killing innocent people for fun.
Why ought the murderer be killed? This short section gives the explanation. It is precisely because we were made in the image of God. For those who think an appeal to human dignity, due to the Imago Dei, is an argument against killing murderers, the Bible clearly disagrees with you. In fact, the enormous dignity of the human person is precisely why we are to have the death penalty.
An animal never deserves death as a punishment because it is not a moral agent and cannot earn retribution for moral infractions. Sure, we can put down an animal for attacking a person, but this is only for the purpose of protecting future people. The death penalty is not de-humanizing; it is the exact opposite. What is dehumanizing is punishing humans like vicious dogs and focusing solely on quarantining or retraining when there is a real and pressing moral debt that is rightly and justly paid through execution.
Moving on to the New Testament
3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.
What is a sword for? Cutting an exceptionally large block of cheese? Maybe shaving an abnormally large beard? No, it is a weapon designed to kill people. So why ought we be afraid to do bad things? The text tells us. It is because our rulers have the authority of God, as His servant, to execute wrath on wrongdoers with the power of the sword.
There is not a single verse in the Bible that says capital punishment is wrong, nor is there a single point in the 2,000 year history of the Church where it was ever declared to be immoral. In fact, the Bible has now given us four reasons why it is a good thing.
Genesis 9:6 - Capital punishment affirms the enormous dignity of mankind made in God’s image.
Numbers 35:31 - Murderers deserve death, therefore it fulfills the principle of justice.
Numbers 35:33 – It makes expiation for sin undoing the pollution of the murderer's sin.
Romans 13:3-4 – If causes wrong-doers to fear retribution and be deterred from doing evil.
Where is this anti-death penalty movement coming from?
Unfortunately, much of the anti-death penalty push is coming from the pro-life movement. I love the pro-life movement and because I care about what they do, I want them to stay on target. I don’t understand how one’s moral vision could be so blurry that the difference between murdering an innocent baby and executing a vicious murder could possibly be conflated.
Maybe some took the slogans too much to heart and think that we are pro-life for life’s sake. No, we are pro-justice, and it is unjust to kill a baby and unjust to not kill a murderer. Being made in the image of God is the same reason that abortion is wrong, and the Bible tells us that capital punishment shall be done.
Those seeking more time for repentance:
My suspicion is that having a date of execution will focus people on the eternal more than anything I could imagine. When is the question of what happens after death possibly more pressing? I seriously doubt that a hardened old criminal pumped full of morphine with mind and body failing will have anywhere near the clarity and urgency of his younger self counting down their days till an impending execution. Yes, with age comes wisdom but this is not always the case; there are plenty of old fools in the world, and at their ripe old age they will stubbornly refuse to be corrected. Based on the fact that the people in question are murderers, I suspect they will become the old fools who will refuse to be corrected even by the specter of death hovering over their hospital bed.
This strategy ignores a lot of other factors. For instance, these are some of the most wicked people on earth and they will be spending time with other prisoners. Have you considered that they could be spending their life sentence smashing any glimmer of religiosity in others? Have you considered the safety of the prisoner that must live, work, and recreate with convicted murderers? These people could be raped, killed, beaten, and abused...and they commonly are.
Some say that those advocating for the death penalty are playing God. However, they are wrong. Romans 13 tells us the power of execution is delegated to the State so that we can participate in God’s good work of punishing the wicked. Here, I turn the charge around: you are playing God by trying to manage salvation with a calculator. On one side of the equation, there is the urgency of the execution, on the other side are the sum of opportunities for conversion until death. Variables such as influence on other souls, the spreading of evil, the proliferation of evil acts on other prisoners, all must be summed and tallied. I cry afoul to this method and claim instead that salvation is God’s work and not ours. We are to be faithful to our tasks such as visiting those in prison, sharing our faith, and executing those deserving of death; all of these we are asked to do in Scripture.
If opportunity for conversion is the only reason holding you back from supporting the death penalty, let me ask you this. What would you do with a convicted murderer who has repented and converted? Their eternal debt is paid in full by Jesus Christ. Are they to be released from their life sentence? I would say no; there is a temporal debt of justice that still must be paid. Should their execution be likewise canceled? Again, no, they still deserve death for what they have done. However, if they are truly contrite for what they have done, they will meet their punishment and pay the debt of their sin with the same combination of fear and gladness that you and I will experience in the fires of purgatory.
Nothing is more definitive and objective than an execution. Therefore, it ought to come as no surprise that moral relativists are unease with such a practice. Some think that punishment is only to rehabilitate, quarantine threats, or possibly deter others. However this is treating people like vicious dogs not humans in the image of God. If you are a relativist, justice can’t be the end goal, because this entails a standard that we ought to conform our actions to. Relativism reduces our moral behavior to a set of preferences, and criminals are those whose actions are in poor taste or sub-optimal for flourishing. A whole article ought to be devoted to the problems with relativism of all forms, especially in the moral sphere, but here we will move on by labeling this silly view for what it is: utter and complete anti-rational self-contradictory hogwash that ignores the reality of the moral realm and the dignity of the human person to operate within it.
Those who erroneously pit mercy against justice
The opposite of justice is not called mercy, it is called in-justice. In God, justice and mercy are entirely unified in His one simple divine essence. Therefore, trying to pit them against each other as if they are mutually exclusive is nonsense.
Mercy never ignores justice, rather it accomplishes it out of love for another and on their behalf. If someone sees a hungry person in need of a meal, it is merciful to buy them a meal. It would be wrong to steal a meal for them. The infinite value of Christ’s love through the Incarnation, His life, death, and resurrection, was credited on behalf of humanity because He was human...and it was infinite in its value and perfection because He is God. Jesus did not steal forgiveness for us, instead He paid the price for us. Justice was accomplished and mercy was triumphant without a shred of contradiction or tension.
Writing to a largely Catholic audience makes this point easier to drive home. Is Purgatory a place of mercy or justice? If you answered both, you are correct, because what is experienced are the fires of divine love. God chastens those He loves as an act of mercy. In purgatory, we have the glorious opportunity to pay for the temporal debts that we owe, all the while looking ahead to the eternal reward won for us by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When a murderer is rightly put to death, this extinguishes the temporal debt he bears for his crime. The opportunity to do so is an act of mercy to his soul, and justice to God and neighbor all at the same time.
If a murderer deserves death as a matter of justice, as Numbers 35:31 states, not executing this person is in-justice, not mercy. Though these souls may never experience purgatorial fire, they ought to experience a purgatorial firing squad.
If I had my Druthers:
Criminals ought to be publicly executed in the community from which they come. This shatters the fiction that the community is functional when it is not, and forces the community to reckon with the ways they created or allowed evil to persist in their midst. Furthermore, open and public execution exposes the destination that others on similar paths are headed towards. McJustice may not deter crime, but the spotlight of real justice will send evil fleeing like a cockroach when the lights turn on.
Objection: So many people on death row have been exonerated by groups like the innocence project. With a system so flawed, we can’t risk putting innocent people to death.
Answer: Much of this is due to the application of DNA analysis to old cases that didn’t have this tool. Today, all cases have this potentially exculpatory evidence. Therefore, the age of overturning convictions is likely over, since no such new tools are on the horizon which could possibly have the impact that DNA analysis has had.
Answer: This fails to consider the alternative: being locking in a cage for the rest of one’s life. Both life in prison and death are ways of taking away one’s life. In both cases, a flawed system punishes the innocent. If this argument really was as powerful as some propose, then it would prove too much. We should not imprison any people. The fact is, the standard of evidence should be high if we are to punish someone as a murderer, regardless of the method. All of us can agree it is bad when the system fails and that the system needs correction. This does not mean we ought to suspend punishments for those that we have very good reason to believe are, in fact, guilty.
Objection: Capital punishment was only permitted because there was no way in the ancient world of safely imprisoning others that would not be burdensome to the community.
Answer: Right off the bat, this is an admission that capital punishment is not evil, because it is always wrong to do evil in order that good may result and Scripture commands people to do this, therefore it cannot be an evil act to execute someone.
Answer: This is historically illiterate. 10,000 Spartans kept 200,000 helots in grinding slavery for hundreds of years and extracted valuable labor from them. Slavery was common for prisoners of war in every place and time in human history until the present. A survey of history will show you that plenty of institutions kept violent and uncooperative people contained.
Objection: The death penalty is just not necessary anymore.
Answer: Is justice not necessary anymore? Because the Bible makes it clear that murderers deserve death. Did you miss the list of reasons that the death penalty is a positive thing? I listed four. Is following the commands of Scripture not necessary anymore? Remember it says, “Whoever sheds human blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made mankind.”
Objection: Capital punishment is unbelievably expensive, in part because of the legal burden of all of the appeals that are allowed.
Answer: It seems very unlikely that a hanging or a firing squad would be more expensive than feeding, housing, guarding, clothing, and providing life-long medical care for the duration of a person’s life. I guarantee the cost of an execution can be dramatically lower if halfway capable people put their minds to the task of making it so.
Answer: This is not just an financial question, it is a question of justice and ought to be settled as such. In the words of the Bible: “Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. They are to be put to death.” Or in my (very) dynamic translation, “Yes, there can be financial reasons to consider other punishments. However, justice is the main concern and a murderer deserves to die. Therefore, they ought to be executed regardless of financial considerations.”
Objections: You are removing the opportunity for repentance when you kill them. You are putting earthly justice ahead of eternal salvation.
Answer: If this were true, is the Bible making the same mistake? I think not.
Answer: Fact check me if you please, but as an empirical matter I believe that more conversions happen on death row than among those who spend life in prison.
Answer: When death is far off, we don’t tend to think of what our eternal destiny will be. For those in prison for life, the years will pass by unexamined. When they are dying, it will be only after decades of habituated vice coupled with the stubbornness that comes with old age. However, if one has a date with the gallows in short order, it sparks a frenzy of self examination and a desperate grasping for what death may hold.
Answer: We are also removing the opportunity for that person to spread their evil and affect other souls with their viciousness.
Question: Are you advocating for the death penalty only for murderers?
Answer: Certainly for murderers, but it ought to be an option for violent rapists, child molesters, those who commit treason, and other equally evil acts. The Bible supports the death penalty being expanded past the execution of murderers. For instance, if you rape a woman you are to be killed (Deuteronomy 22:25-26).
Objection: If your standard for applying the death penalty is Deuteronomy, then all sorts of people should be executed, including those who violate the Sabbath. This is clearly ridiculous in our time and place. When the nation is a Theocracy with God as the head, maybe this is possible, but today it is wildly unjust and unfair.
Answer: I don’t plan to copy and paste from Deuteronomy at all. Instead I have listed crimes against one’s neighbor that are grave enough to warrant death. Rape in that section of Deuteronomy is compared to murder and receives the same punishment as murder. I think that this principle from the Law continues past the age of the Law.
Answer: As for other things in the law like violating the Sabbath or blaspheming God, these are not sins against one’s neighbor, but against God. Because God is not synonymous with our government, as was the case in ancient Israel when under theocratic rule, our government cannot prosecute these crimes. The only offenses that a secular government can punish with death are grave offenses between people.
Objection: Justice is important but so is mercy. Where is the mercy in killing people?
Answer: This fails to consider the alternative. I could ask where is the mercy in locking people in a cage for their whole lives?
Answer: Mercy and Justice are not meant to be placed in opposition. Instead, they ought to be brought together in the form of repentance. Execution does offer the possibility of repentance and nothing prevents those on death row from receiving the mercy of God on their souls. Forgiveness of sins does not entail retraction of temporal punishment, instead that punishment ought to be faced in humility as a means of making restitution for one’s wrongdoing and satisfying justice.
Objection: I don’t want my crooked and dysfunctional government to have the power to execute people.
Answer: Really? God wanted the Romans to have this power and Paul tells us as much in the passages cited earlier.
Answer: Our crooked and dysfunctional government has the power to imprison you forever, or to declare you a terrorist and ship you overseas to a detention center. They can explode you with a drone if they so choose. If governmental power is your concern, then that ship has already sailed my friend.
Answer: If the government is evil enough to kill innocent people without just cause, I seriously doubt it will stand placidly behind the wall of paper and ink that is a proposed law prohibiting capital punishment.
Objection: How can we teach people not to kill others by killing?
Answer: That is like asking how can we teach people not to steal by confiscating their stolen property or levying a fine. This is like saying, how could we possibly show the Nazis that it is wrong to invade other nations by invading their nation?
Answer: Murder and execution are not the same thing.
Objection: There is a racial disparity in capital punishment.
Answer: If this is the case, then your problem is with racism, not capital punishment.
Objection: It gives too much publicity to the murderers.
Answer: Fine, ban the media, throw a sack over their head, and hang them.
Objection: Executions are commonly at the hands of doctors who have sworn to never take a life.
Answer: Don’t use doctors as executioners.
Objection: Capital punishment is just about revenge.
Answer: It is retribution in order to bring about justice, not violence to bring about suffering.
Objection: It encourages revenge and corrupts the public.
Answer: No, it delivers retribution and that is a good thing because it satisfies justice. For Christians making this objection, are you really claiming that God’s Holy Law written in the Bible made people corrupt? Seems like it was supposed to make people holy; I don’t think God messed up.
Objection: Execution is de-humanizing.
Answer: Execution is because the murderer is human. See Genesis 9:6- your argument is backwards.
Objection: How would we decide who gets to live and what cases warrant death?
Answer: The same way we decide who gets 10 years and who gets their life taken from them with a life sentence: prudence.
Objection: Thou shall not kill.
Answer: “Kill” in the original language and in that context means murder. Execution is not murder.
Objection: God doesn’t believe in killing people even if they are wicked or evil.
Answer: The Flood.