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.