A Biblical Case for the Death Penalty
Perhaps it is because foreshortening a still-redeemable life seems a very dangerous undertaking, permissible only under conditions of the utmost wisdom, caution and objectivity. This campaign does not sound like a call for dispassionate justice, but retribution. Guido only wants to punish by death murderers of children and police. Is the life of an adult less valuable than that of a child? Does a killer of a traffic warden deserve death any less than that of a police woman? He might as well have added paedophiles to the list: these are people whose actions disgust us in a visceral way.
If Christian faith does anything, it should engender humility, an awareness of our own foolishness and fragility. Although in theory capital punishment may sometimes be the most just course of action, the level of knowledge required to make the decision to end a life is surely beyond us. When God commands us to not â€œrepay evil for evilâ€ and to leave revenge up to him, how can we be sure our actions are not equally evil, not motivated by a desire for revenge?
This is no utopian argument- awareness of our own ignorance should not paralyse us into inaction. On almost all issues we must make culture as we want it, fight for justice as we see it, aware that weâ€™ll never get it completely right.
However, in matters such as these we must recognise the limited nature of our justice system. Whether you imprison someone for life, or end it, the parents of the murdered child may have sated their (completely understandable) desire for retribution, but they are not repaid. In the case of this most irrevocable of decisions, humility should hold sway. Finally, as one who believes in an ultimate source of perfect justice, Iâ€™d prefer to leave it in those hands.
What strikes me as I read pieces like Elizabeth’s is that what is missing in the “Christian” response is an engagement with what the Bible actually says. Here’s Paul in Romans 13.
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
It strikes me that Paul makes a very simple argument -when Elizabeth Hunter says that she’d rather leave justice in the hands of God, St Paul says that God has deliberately put such justice in the hands of the State in order that we might see the justice of God at work.
Let me offer some brief thoughts to debate.
- The exercising of the ultimate sanction by the State is a sign to us that there is an ultimate sanction for our sin. The State’s punishment is an icon of the punishment that is to come for sin, a punishment that makes anything that the State does in response to sin pale into comparison. The State punishing (including capital punishment) warns us that this ultimate punishment is coming and that there are consequences to sin.
- Even a sinful State can act as an agent of God’s wrath. For example, Assyria and Babylon acted as agents of God’s wrath against Israel and Judah respectively. In more recent times (and controversially, but needing to be grappled with), both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union acted as agents of wrath against sin in the legal processes of the country for non-political crime. Very little of the criminal code in Germany changed during the Nazi Era or afterwards, and the rule of law in most matters continued as normal.
- Any “Christian” rejection of the notion that the State has the right to carry out the ultimate sanction needs to explain what Romans 13:3-4 means. What does it mean for the State to be the “avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer”? If the State cannot punish as God might punish, what sense does the verse make?
FWIW, I am opposed to the death penalty, but I am notÂ of the opinion that the support of the death penalty is unChristian (for the reasons given above).
I preached on this issue last year (if you’re interested).
Update – Cranmer has some excellent analysis of the biblical, ecclesiastical and legal position here.