A Christian Argument Against Capital Punishment

Below is a paper I recently wrote on an argument against capital punishment. It is not meant to include all available arguments against capital punishment; it is simply meant to provide what I think is the proper view of capital punishment for a Christian in the United States (and, for that matter, any other nation not directly or indirectly governed by God Himself). If you have time, and you’re interested, please enjoy:

INTRODUCTION

The struggle against the use of capital punishment for the purpose of criminal justice is not a popular one. Indeed, though an abolitionist himself, John P. Conrad notes, “abolition [of capital punishment] is an impossible political goal. To struggle in behalf of the vicious and wicked requires more tolerance than most people can muster… The cause of these ugly and deformed human beings is one that pushes altruism to an ultimate limit.”[1] Implicit in Conrad’s statement is the notion that this fight is not for the sake of any goodness found within the criminals themselves—or even that those criminals do not deserve death for their crimes. For the Christian, the issue is even more complex. For although the biblical text indicates that God affirms the use of capital punishment in the Old Testament, he or she must decide whether the use of those same principles is applicable in the current society. In other words, is the use of the death penalty justified if it is not applied in the manner God intended for His people?[2]

 

THE PURPOSE OF PUNISHMENT

Before beginning the discussion on whether capital punishment is morally acceptable, a decision must be made on the purpose of punishment in the penal system. Generally speaking, there are three basic views on the purpose of punishment, which are spelled out in Norman Geisler’s Christian Ethics. These three views are rehabilitation, reconstruction, and retribution.


Rehabilitation

Geisler argues that punishment for criminal acts for those who oppose the death penalty is strictly rehabilitative in nature. Justice, rather than being retributive in nature, is remedial and reforming.[3] Typically, those Christians who believe in rehabilitation will appeal to passages of Scripture that affirm God’s redeeming nature. These passages include ones like Ezekiel 18:23, which states “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked… and not rather that he should turn from his way and live” (ESV). Unfortunately, appeals to Scripture in this view tend to proof-text and take specific verses out of context.

Reconstruction

Reconstructionism is often viewed as the opposite of rehabilitation, at least regarding capital punishment. While those who believe in rehabilitation desire the reform of the individual criminal, those who believe in reconstruction believe in applying the death penalty to all major crimes—typically those non-ceremonial crimes that required capital punishment in the Old Testament Mosaic Law.[4] Christian Reconstructionists generally appeal to the unchanging character of God and the fact that Jesus came “not to abolish [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17, ESV). Though this view does seem to place a high level of respect on biblical mandates and God’s character, it is also guilty of proof-texting in some instances. Also, it does not take into account instances in the New Testament when the Mosaic Law was set aside for Gentiles.

Retribution

Finally, Geisler notes that the final possible purpose for punishment is retribution; that is, punishment’s purpose is just that: punishment. Those who are punished by the system of justice in place are punished because they deserve to be punished. Indeed, this is somewhat related to the principle of lex talionis, otherwise known as “eye for an eye.” However, he also makes the distinction that all who believe in a retributive view of punishment also believe in capital punishment for some crimes (generally for capital crimes). Though his intentions may be good, it is necessary to state that not all abolitionists would consider themselves rehabilitationists. It is fair to say that many would argue along the lines of rehabilitation. Nonetheless, there are some abolitionists who argue for retributive justice without the use of the death penalty.

 

BIBLICAL PASSAGES

Genesis 9:6

No matter the circumstances, the Christian abolitionist cannot deny the use (and even affirmation) of capital punishment in the biblical text. While it may only be affirmed in response to intentional murder in this first mention of capital punishment, its use is found as early as Genesis 9:6, which states, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (ESV). Regardless of one’s viewpoint on the morality of capital punishment, the clear intent of this passage is to affirm life and God’s desire for humanity to respect life at all costs.

This specific verse is found in the midst of the Noahic Covenant—the covenant God made with Noah directly after the flood. In it, God makes an agreement with Noah, stating both what He will do and what He expects from Noah and the generations after him. Though other issues are addressed, of main concern is both verses five and six. Verse five indicates that the offense of murder “ is not against the murdered, nor his family, nor society at large,”[5] but the taking of human life is an act against God himself, for He “will require a reckoning” (Gen 9:5a, ESV). While verse five shows God’s standard for human life, verse six spells out the way in which retribution will take place—namely, through human society.[6]

Numbers 35:30-34

Genesis 9 lays down the foundation for what later became the Mosaic Law. As the people of Israel were becoming a nation and moving into the land God promised them, they needed a more extensive, detailed example of how to govern the society. Much of the laws preceding the book of Numbers spell out different crimes for which people should be punished with death, but Numbers 35:30-34 gives a specific account of how a person is to be dealt with who has killed another human being. The first distinction made is between someone who kills someone else by accident (manslaughter) and one who kills someone with premeditation (murder).

If a man was guilty of manslaughter, safeguards were put in place so that the man would not be given the death penalty. The accused would be allowed to flee to what was called a “city of refuge,” and was allowed to remain there until the death of the high priest. If the accused left the city before the high priest’s death, he would be executed. Essentially, he was “under house arrest as a punishment for taking human life even if with no evil intent.”[7] On the other hand, no place of refuge was given for one accused of premeditated murder. However, this did not mean anyone accused of murder could be executed immediately. Verse 30 makes this clear: “But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness” (ESV). This means at least two eyewitnesses were necessary in order for an accused murderer to be put to death. While it is clear that God’s standard of lex talionis still stood, it should also be clear that “[executing] the innocent is as evil in God’s sight as to exonerate the guilty.”[8]

Romans 13:4

Romans 13:4—though used by many retentionists (those who wish to retain the death penalty as a viable form of punishment) as an implicit approval of the death penalty by the apostle Paul—is a highly debated passage within the capital punishment debate. In this passage, Paul states that the ruler who “bears the sword,” does not do so in vain, but is “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (ESV). While some see Paul’s use of the word sword as a direct reference to the ruler’s ability to bring about the death penalty, it may be better understood simply as “a symbol of power delegated to governing authorities to enforce acceptable social conduct.”[9]

Under these circumstances, the true context of the passage becomes the guide for how best to understand Paul’s message. His purpose was not to implicitly approve of the Roman government’s use of capital punishment. Rather, it was to affirm the Christian’s responsibility to submit to whatever governing authority he is under except when a state no longer promotes proper Christian ideals. In this case, the governing authorities are no longer God’s servant, and must not be submitted to by the disciple of Christ.[10] Thus, while Paul does encourage believers to submit to the authority of the government he or she is under, the context of the passage does not provide enough information to say that Paul is implicitly affirming capital punishment as necessary.

 

MORAL ARGUMENTS

As can be seen, the Christian abolitionist cannot solely rely on Scripture to produce a convincing argument against capital punishment. Although there is no explicit affirmation of the use of the death penalty in the New Testament, it is quite acceptable in the Old Testament. Those Christians who believe this practice has become unacceptable according to a truly Christian ethic, then, must use extra-biblical arguments to support their claims.

Retribution without Capital Punishment

Though Norman Geisler assumes that all abolitionists believe that the purpose of punishment is rehabilitation, his claim is a hasty generalization that assumes the entire group of abolitionists believes in a particular philosophy. As a matter of fact, there are groups of abolitionists who believe strongly that the purpose of punishment is partially (or even solely) retribution. These abolitionists affirm that murderers deserve to be punished for their actions. The only stipulation is that no human being, no matter how evil his actions, deserves to be punished with death by his particular governing authority. McDermott states, “…if the goal of the retributionist is to restore the moral balance that has been upset by the wrongdoer’s act, then committing further evil acts…will obviously do little to achieve this goal.”[11]

Innocent Lives Taken

Another argument for abolitionists lies in the problem of the innocent lives being taken by the death penalty because of a flawed justice system. Unfortunately, there is no real way of knowing the amount of truly innocent people that have been given the death penalty. What real benefit is to be gained by a detective agency for investigating a criminal who has already received the death penalty? Nonetheless, even Ernest van den Haag (a fervent supporter of the death penalty) acknowledges the fact that innocent lives can and have been taken due to the flawed justice system. In a small footnote to an article supporting capital punishment, he states, “Possibly some persons sentenced to death are innocent—one can never exclude miscarriages of justice… But our interest in punishing criminals for the sake of justice and social protection, more than offsets the moral and material cost of miscarriages of justice.”[12] His statement reduces the loss of innocent life because of a flawed system merely to collateral damage—no longer are they people, but simply a material loss.

Racism in Capital Punishment

The loss of innocent life is not the only flaw found in the justice system. Though it is a large one (and perhaps the most important), other flaws, like racism, surface as well. The prejudice against people of color is well documented in the capital punishment system. For example, in a small article, Freedman gives the statistics for blacks and whites sentenced to death during the five-year period after capital punishment was reinstated in the state of Georgia. When a black person killed a white person, 20.7% were sentenced to death; when white killed white, 5.7%; when white killed black, 2.9%; and when black killed black, 0.8% received the death penalty.[13] Granted, these statistics are from one southern state, between 1976 and 1981. However, studies have repeatedly shown that this has been the case since the reinstatement of capital punishment across the nation in 1976.[14]

 

CONCLUSION

These arguments are by no means exhaustive. They are simply an attempt to balance both Scripture and moral arguments in search of the proper Christian view of capital punishment. Due to the inherently flawed justice system of the United States, the burden of proof lies with the (Christian) retentionists. They must prove that the Old Testament system of capital punishment can be administered as effectively in today’s society. For the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament was given to the Israelites—who were meant to be a theocracy. They were bound by the law given to them, and specific safeguards were put into place so that innocent lives would not be taken in the process. Marshall rightly notes, “To appeal to the death penalty in Old Testament times to justify its use in the penal systems of modern secular societies is…anachronistic.”[15]

The Christian abolitionist must realize that God places a high value on human life, though not by saying the murderer does not deserve death. Rather, by establishing the lex talionis principle, God made it known that taking “a life for a life,” satisfied His own requirement for the spilling of human blood (not by some act of human revenge). However, the Christian retentionist must take into account the flawed justice system of the current society. Is it acceptable for a Christian to reduce the taking of an innocent life to a statistic or a material loss? Is it acceptable for a Christian to support a system that chooses its victims based on race? The answer, of course, is no. Though capital punishment itself is not inherently wrong—and is even mandated by God in specific situations—the inherent flaws in a secular government do not allow for a Christian to pursue the death penalty as a morally acceptable form of punishment.


[1] John P. Conrad and Ernest van den Haag, The Death Penalty: A Debate (New York: Plenum Press, 1983), 9.

[2] The intent of this paper is only to address one particular argument against capital punishment, and is not meant to be a comprehensive review of the entire issue.

[3] Norman Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 195.

[4] Ibid., 199.

[5] Kenneth A. Mathews, “Genesis 1-11:26,” The New American Commentary (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 403.

[6] Ibid., 405.

[7] Charles Dyer and Gene Merrill, “Numbers: Pilgrimage to Covenant Possession,” The Old Testament Explorer (Nashville, TN: Word Publishers, 2001), 125.

[8] Ibid., 126.

[9] Robert H. Mounce, “Romans,” The New American Commentary, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 244.

[10] James R. Edwards, “Romans,” New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 307.

[11] Daniel McDermott, “A Retributivist Argument against Capital Punishment,” Journal of Social Philosophy 32 (Fall 2001): 317-333, Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2012), 319.

[12] Ernest van den Haag, “New Arguments Against Capital Punishment?” National Review 37, no. 2 (February 8, 1985): 33-35, MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2012), 35.

 [13]  Eric M. Freedman, “The Case Against the Death Penalty,” The Death Penalty (San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001), 67.

[14] Robert Badinter, “Death Be Not Proud,” Time Europe 157, no. 120 (May 21, 2001): 36, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 18, 2012), 36.

 [15] Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 240-241.


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