Capital Punishment

One issue that divides pro-life Christians is capital punishment.  Some see a consistent pro-life position as including opposition to capital punishment in most or all cases.  Others oppose abortion as the killing of innocent people but support capital punishment for people guilty of capital crimes.  The former view seems more common among Catholics and the latter among Evangelicals. In my opinion, these positions reflect either the rationalist approach to scripture, in which extracting principles and creating a rationally consistent philosophy is the dominant mode of thinking, or the more literalist approach that takes scripture closer to face value.  I am in the latter camp.

Two items I have come across lately highlighted this issue for me.  The first was the case of the murder of  Jitka Vesel by Dimitry Smirnov on April 13 in Oak Brook, Illinois.  Smirnov told police he had verified that Illinois had no death penalty before deciding on killing his ex-girlfriend. 

The other was an opinion piece by Roger Olsen, a theology professor from Baylor in the Associated Baptist Press entitled “Capital Punishment is a Sin.”  In addition to citing a number of anecdotes about erroneous or problematic cases of capital punishment, Olsen was good enough to provide a list of specific arguments in favor of his position, for which I commend him.  This provided a convenient set list to which I could respond.  Here is his list with my responses in italics.

“There are several theological and ethical problems with capital punishment.

First, it ends a person’s opportunity to exonerate himself or herself. 

The opportunity to exonerate one’s self is available at a fair trial.  This is not unique to capital cases as an innocent man may die in prison without exoneration.

Second, it ends a person’s opportunity to accept Christ and live a God-honoring life in prison ministering to other inmates and guards. 

The prospect of a swift execution concentrates one’s mind on their need for salvation, while endless imprisonment just hardens a heart.

Third, it usurps God’s place and assumes a God-like right and power to take the life of a person created in God’s image and likeness.

God has delegated the power of executing murderers to man and requires us to carry it out.  Obedience is not usurpation.

Fourth, it has no social benefit. It only serves a blood thirst for vengeance.

When capital punishment is carried out as part of a legal system tied to God’s moral law it serves to reinforce the Law of God in the minds of the people.  It is the Law of God in the minds of the people that restrains murder and lesser offenses.

Fifth, no modern, Western country still has capital punishment.

And few would be called Christian.  All embrace child killing and Sodomy for example.

Sixth, capital punishment is barbaric and cruel — if not to the person being executed (and who can know for sure?), to his or her family.

If capital punishment is required by God this argument insults God.  Life imprisonment is pretty cruel too.  The cruelty inflicted on relatives of the victim by denying them justice just to show how morally superior we are is amazingly heartless.

Seventh, innocent people are executed. A few years ago Ethel Rosenberg’s brother came forward and admitted publicly that he knew she was not complicit in the plot to steal American nuclear secrets and deliver them to the Soviet Union. He fingered her to help himself. She was electrocuted in 1953 leaving behind two small, traumatized boys.

For these and other reasons, capital punishment needs to be abolished and Christians ought to be in the forefront of that effort.

Innocent people are executed and some always will be.  This is a reason for utmost care, not a reason for disobedience or thinking we are wiser or more merciful than God.  If Rosenberg’s brother’s statement is true, which is unlikely, it just means he is guilty of her murder.   Innocent people are shot by police and people thinking they are acting in self-defense.  Should police and citizens be denied the right to self-defense?

Most Christians who support capital punishment rely entirely on Old Testament material which was transcended by Jesus.”

In the New Testament, Jesus Himself affirmed the continuity of the Law and the Prophets.  There is no radical break in the role of governmemnt between the Old and New Testaments.  The saved thief on the cross affirmed the justice of his punishment.  At trial, Paul said that if he was guilty of an offense worthy of death he ”refused not to die.”  Paul said malefactors should rightly fear the civil magistrate who, as God’s minister, does not bear the sword in vain.  Swords are for killing.  Capital punishment for murder is required throughout the Bible.  The death penalty is not optional.

So there you have it.  I invite you to join in the debate.


6 Responses to “Capital Punishment”

  1. nancy mauler says:

    I remember a line from a Harry Potter movie that said we have to decide between what is right and what is easy. I t may be that deep down inside some people are really against the death penalty not because it’s wrong in God’s eyes but because it causes them too much unease. It is a terrifying thing to take a person”s life. I don’t want to have to live with that because it would stay with me for the rest of my life. But God has not called us to a life of ease here on earth. Doing what’s right can’t be dominated by how we feel about it. If we really want to know what is right before God we must put aside any outcome we wish for and let God through His Spirit, His Word, and lay aside our selves with much prayer tell us the truth and then obey. That is how we know if anything is true and can have a concious that is at peace. I also think not executing murderers lessens the value of the life of the person murdered. I don’t know if this pricible follows through but if someone took $100 from me I would want the thief to pay back $100. If a murderer stole the life of some I loved I would want him/her to pay for that with their life. I don’t know if that is the same thing but I think it makes sense, it’s just not as comfortable.

  2. Tony says:

    Most of the arguments I’ve heard for not taking a convicted person’s life revolve around the question of absolute certainty in the persons guilt. God, in His law never had a similar standard. In the case of rape, conviction was based on the ability to hear the woman scream. God said if it was too far from the city you assumed she screamed and stoned the man. That was His guidance when certainty was unattainable.
    As far as someone being given the time to make a decision for Christ, if it can’t be done in the few hours before he faces death I don’t believe he will ever make the decision. So I guess the anti-capital punishment position is to leave him in a temporal and eternal hell. I’m for getting him save quickly.

  3. Jeff says:

    I started reading Romans chap 13 today.It is amazing to me to recognize just what the scripture says.Like you I believe that we have to take the scripture for what it says. Verse four ‘…if you do evil, be afraid; for he (rulers/authorities) does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil’. It appears to me that many are calling good evil and evil good.
    I was also reading that Gods truth is narrow but that His grace is very wide.I believe that many feel that Gods’ grace covers the consequence of ones’ sin in this current day.It is ‘easier’ than the work/effort of being obedient.

  4. Emet Stone says:

    When attempting to discern whether capital punishment, as practiced today, has Biblical support, a key question to consider is: who is authorized by God to be judge and/or executioner? Little to no Scriptural support exists for these decisions to be made by a civil court. For a detailed analysis of this perspective, please see: Thanks for reading.

  5. Russ Neal says:

    Emet, thoughtful posting, and good luck with your blog. Gen 9:6 and Rom 13 bracket the whole Israel/Church timeframe. Both seem to say that God has delegated capital punishment for murder to the civil gvernment, Christian or otherwise. I think this has been the historic Protestant view. Thoughts?

  6. Emet Stone says:

    Russ, great question, thanks. While Gen. 9:6 does designate men as executioners it says nothing of civil government and I believe the later verses (cited in my essay) qualify this verse by specifying that executioners follow the direction of priests and congregants, not civil leaders. Regarding Rom. 13, yes God does require us to submit to governing authorities and states that they are appointed by Him. Nowhere does He state that these governments are sinless. While v. 3 states that “rulers are not a terror to good works but to evil” (NKJ) we know from the Old Testament that God has used corrupt nations to conquer His people for disciplinary purposes – had His people been following Him and doing “what is good” this discipline would have been unnecessary. The conquering nations were in these cases ministers of God’s judgment, despite their own sinfulness. Clearly we have seen many instances of corrupt governments in contemporary times as well and will certainly continue to see this as prophesied in the Bible, ultimately culminating in the prophesies found in Revelation. Again, Paul indeed states that world governments get their authority from God – no exceptions are cited. We as Christians need to trust that regardless of the sinfulness of these rulers God has a master plan in which ultimately “all things work together for good to those who love God…” (Rom. 8:28). He can, and does, use all governments as His tools, however unwitting the rulers themselves may be.
    In conclusion, neither of these passages persuades me to believe that God mandates, or even excuses execution by a civil government any more than He excused the Babylon, Nazi, Roman, or any other, government of their sinful actions. Your thoughts?
    Thanks again for your review and feedback.

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