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Should Christians support the death penalty?

As I write, Australian citizens Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, two of the infamous “Bali Nine,” face imminent execution by firing squad in Indonesia on drug trafficking convictions.

Other Australians have faced similar fates, including Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, executed in Malaysia in 1986 for drug trafficking; Nguyen Tuong Van, hanged in 2005 for importing 396 grams of heroin to Singapore; and Shapelle Corby, charged with trafficking 4kg of cannabis in Bali and who faced possible execution in Indonesia prior to her conditional release from prison in February 2014.[1]

Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is the execution of a convicted criminal by the state, practiced since the beginning of recorded history.

In Australia, capital punishment was last used in 1967, when Ronald Ryan was hanged in Victoria for fatally shooting prison officer George Hodson during an escape from Pentridge Prison in 1965. The last person sentenced to death in Australia was Brenda Hodge in August 1984, whose sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

The death penalty for federal offences was abolished in 1973, and in 2010 federal legislation prohibited capital punishment in all Australian states and territories. Australia is also a party to international protocols requiring that all necessary measures be taken to ensure that no one is subject to the death penalty.

Figure 1: Dates of last execution and abolition of the death penalty
in Australian states and territories (source: Wikipedia)

abolition-dates

 

Is the death penalty ethically justified?

There are strong arguments for and against capital punishment. Some claim that crimes such as murder, terrorism, drug trafficking or genocide should attract the death penalty. On the other hand, capital punishment may be seen as barbaric and inappropriate for civilized society.

Others favour the return of the death penalty on religious grounds such as shari’a law or notions of theocratic or so-called biblically-based government.

There are occasional calls to reinstate the death penalty in Australia. In 2010, for example, then federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stated that, while he had always opposed the death penalty, there were some crimes so horrific that it may be “the only way to adequately convey the horror of what’s been done.”[2]

The biblical teaching

Christians disagree about the interpretation and application of biblical texts thought to support capital punishment or its abolition.

As Christopher Marshall puts it, “for many devout readers of Scripture, God and the gallows are perfectly compatible.”[3] The Old Testament law in Exodus and Deuteronomy contains most of the biblical teaching on capital punishment.

Capital offences in ancient Israel included murder (Ex 21:12-14; Deut 19:11-13), causing a miscarriage (Ex 21:22-25), owning an ox that killed people (Ex 21:29), cursing or striking one’s parents (Ex 21:15; Lev 20:9), kidnapping (possibly for slavery) (Ex 21:16; Deut 24:7), sorcery and witchcraft (Ex 22:18), bestiality (Ex 22:19; Lev 20:15f), offering sacrifice or worship to other gods (Ex 22:20; Deut 13:6-11; 17:2-5), working on the Sabbath (Ex 35:2), priestly service while drunk (Lev 10:8-11), offering human sacrifice (Lev 20:2), adultery (Lev 20:10-21; Deut 22:22), incest (Lev 20:11f, 14), male homosexual intercourse (Lev 20:13), sexual intercourse during menstruation (Lev 20:13), blasphemy (Lev 24:11-14, 16, 23), false prophecy (Deut 13:1ff; 18:20), contempt for a court’s decision (Deut 17:8-13), false testimony in a capital case (Deut 19:16-19), rebelliousness toward one’s parents (Deut 21:18-21), premarital sexual promiscuity (Deut 22:20f), rape of a married woman (Deut 22:25-29), and rape of a betrothed virgin (equivalent to adultery) (Deut 22:23-27).

These provisions may appear harsh, but they restricted the spirit of natural vengeance common to humankind and the standard of proof for conviction was high. Conviction required two or three eyewitnesses (Deut 19:15; Num 35:30), and circumstantial evidence was inadmissible.

Further, the degree to which the death penalty was actually applied to convicted criminals is not clear. It may be that, like the jubilee laws, the death penalty was viewed by successive generations as splendid in principle but readily set aside in practice. By the time of Jesus, most of these crimes were dealt with by imposing fines.

The most significant biblical passage on the death penalty is Genesis 9:6 – “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.” A similar thought is expressed in Exodus 21:23-25, the source of the doctrine of lex talionis, “a life for a life,” ensuring that vengeance for serious wrongs was proportional to the crime committed.

Those who seek biblical support for the death penalty often observe that the statement in Genesis 9:6 was given to all humankind, not to Israel alone, and that its basis is the unchanging theological truth that humans are made in the image of God.

For such “retentionists” (those who believe the death penalty should be retained or reinstated in the criminal justice system), the sacredness of human life would seem to justify the ultimate penalty for one who deliberately takes a life, and provide the strongest deterrent to potential murderers.

Those who look to the Bible in support of abolition often read Genesis 9:6 as a divine prediction of the future consequences of murder, and not as a divine command indicating the appropriate punishment for murder. They may also argue that New Testament passages such as Matthew 5:38-41 deprecate the OT doctrine of “a life for a life.”

A distinction is sometimes made between the responsibility of the individual to pursue forgiveness and mercy and the responsibility of the state to maintain retributive justice including execution for heinous crimes.

Jesus suffered capital punishment at the hands of the Roman state, but there is limited reference to the death penalty in the New Testament.

In John 7:53-8:11 (the woman accused of adultery), abolitionists claim this narrative as proof that Jesus rejected capital punishment, while retentionists arguing that, since no witnesses were actually willing to accuse the woman (cf Num 35:30), Jesus was not rejecting capital punishment but merely assuring the woman that God had forgiven her sin.

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul claims it is the responsibility of the civil government to maintain civil order, and that the state “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!”

Abolitionists interpret the word “sword” as a metaphor for law enforcement, just as “the crown” is a metaphor for government authority. Retentionists interpret the word “sword” to imply the state’s power to apply the death penalty, arguing that Paul accepted this as part of the state’s legitimate authority.

In Acts 25:11, the Apostle Paul, imprisoned for his gospel work and standing before the procurator Festus, appealed to the emperor, saying that “if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death…”

Retentionists use this passage to argue that Paul presupposed that some crimes were punishable by death, and did not seek to escape the ultimate penalty if convicted of a capital offence. Abolitionists respond that Paul’s comment was an assertion of legal innocence rather than a validation of the state’s practice of capital punishment.

Every biblical text relating to the death penalty is contested, and the complex issues of interpretation and application are far from being resolved – if indeed such resolution is possible.

In the absence of clear and incontrovertible biblical evidence either for or against the application of the death penalty to criminals today, we must either abstain from expressing an opinion or base our stance on theological, philosophical and sociological considerations. The main arguments for and against capital punishment are outlined below.

 

Arguments for the death penalty

  1. Justice demands retribution, not rehabilitation.

Criminals are responsible moral agents, not sick patients. The punishment should fit the crime, reflecting its severity. Also, criminals sentenced to life imprisonment can be paroled and those who are often reoffend.

On the other hand, as social researcher Hugh Mackay remarked recently, “We don’t steal from thieves as a way of punishing them. We don’t crash cars into the cars of reckless drivers. We don’t con con men. We don’t rape rapists. Why should we want to kill killers?”[4]

  1. The death penalty expresses society’s outrage at heinous crimes.

Some crimes are so outrageous or monstrous that a society – and the judiciary – must have recourse to the ultimate penalty. Thus Charles Colson, once an abolitionist, welcomed the execution of pre-9/11 U.S. terrorist Timothy McVeigh: “Just deserts, in some extreme cases, demand extreme punishment.”[5] Many Australians share the same sentiment with respect to the Bali bombers.

  1. The death penalty serves as a deterrent against crime.

Since the fear of death is virtually universal, the death penalty is seen as an unparalleled deterrent for people planning a capital offence such as murder or drug trafficking. However, the deterrent argument obviously does not apply to crimes of passion, and there are other deficiencies. For example, statistically there is no relationship between capital punishment and the murder rate in retentionist societies.

One way to settle the question of whether the death penalty is an effective deterrent is to enact a law making murders committed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays punishable by death, and those committed on other days punishable by life imprisonment – and see what happens.

  1. Capital punishment is more cost-effective for the state than life imprisonment.

The cost of the appeals process and the act of execution is usually substantially less than the cost of a life term in prison. Therefore it is in the state’s economic interest to execute rather than incarcerate those who commit heinous crimes.

Costs vary, but as American ethicist Scott B. Rae observes, “the argument frequently advanced by abolitionists, that the death penalty is very expensive due to the exhaustive appeals that are normally pursued, needs to be compared with the actual costs associated with a life term in prison.”[6]

 

Arguments against the death penalty

  1. The death penalty violates human dignity and cheapens human life.

When the state kills a person, it declares a diminished value on human life. Punishment by death for any crime is at best an ironic way of upholding the doctrine of the sanctity of life. As Catholic philosopher James J. Megivern puts it, “Every human being is a person. Every person has universal, inviolable, inalienable rights. Basic to all other rights is the right to life. This right cannot be forfeited by misconduct. Thus everyone has a right not to be killed. Therefore the state has no right to kill.”[7]

In his papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that there may be exceptional cases which justify judicial killing, but not on the basis of retributive justice. The death penalty would presumably be applicable “only in the increasingly rare instances when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”[8]

Some retentionists argue that capital punishment actually affirms human dignity because punishment is seen to be a compliment and not an insult to one’s dignity.[9]

  1. Punishment should be proportional to the crime committed.

Proportionality is a key principle of criminal justice. While execution for mass murder may seem a reasonable punishment on the grounds of proportionality, it may be argued that the death penalty is not a proportional punishment for importing less than 400g of heroin into Singapore.

  1. There is a bias of race, geography and quality of legal representation in many capital cases.

Historically, especially in the US, a disproportionate number of people are executed who are black, poorly educated and the “less well off.” The situation was similar in Australia up to 1967, with recent European immigrants disproportionately represented among those executed.

  1. Mistakes can be made and are irreversible if the accused is dead.

Where a person’s life is extinguished, and later evidence proves their innocence, the miscarriage of justice cannot be rectified. “The death penalty has no room for second thoughts or for correcting mistakes that are an inevitable part of an imperfect judicial system.”[10]

Examples of judicial mistakes in capital cases are well documented. In the US, 123 death row inmates were released between 1973 and 2006 after new evidence emerged to establish their innocence.[11]

  1. Reform is impossible once the offender is killed.

The execution of a convicted criminal necessarily removes the prospect of his or her rehabilitation. In addition, those who remain on death row long enough to be rehabilitated are still executed, even though they might have become productive members of society.

Retentionists often argue that the purpose of the justice system is not rehabilitation or reform but retribution. Modern criminology generally favours reform of the individual.

  1. Death sentences are costly and entail long and costly appeals.

In modern democratic societies there is a significant financial cost associated with convicting and incarcerating a prisoner, ensuring that due process is followed, and finally executing the person.

Abolitionists often argue that life imprisonment is a cheaper alternative as well as being more just. Retentionists may claim that execution is actually more cost effective than life imprisonment.

  1. Capital punishment celebrates violence.

A society that executes criminals is a society that not only condones but celebrates violence.

Abolitionists challenge the connection between violence and justice as illogical. Retentionists view the violence of capital punishment as the price of justice for capital offences.

  1. Better alternatives exist for punishing criminals and protecting society.

Abolitionists reject capital punishment as unjust and inhumane, even when compared to long prison sentences without parole. The prospect of a life sentence is thought to be more dreaded than execution. Further, urgent and emotive demands that an individual must be killed to make a society safe may appear illogical and manipulative in hindsight.

As Hugh Mackay notes, “the punishment fits the crime when its severity matches the severity of the crime, not when it reproduces the crime.”[12]

  1. The death penalty is incompatible with the “consistent life ethic.”

Some who strongly support the death penalty for heinous crimes also strongly protest against the practice of abortion and euthanasia. A consistent life ethic applies the doctrine of the sanctity of life to all situations.

 

Conclusion

Political, philosophical, social and religious convictions all play a part in forming one’s view on capital punishment. History and geography also play a significant part, as the quite divergent discourses in the U.S. and Australia illustrate. For Christians, there are different approaches to biblical interpretation, and the application of biblical teaching to present concerns.

I have sought to set forth the main contours of the biblical teaching on the death penalty, and the key arguments commonly marshaled for and against capital punishment today. Readers will come to their own conclusions on the matter.

I absolutely oppose capital punishment, primarily on the grounds that it violates the fundamental biblical principle that every human person is made in the image of God, and is of infinite worth in the eyes of God, and should therefore be treated with commensurate respect and dignity.

As Christian ethicist Roger H. Crook argues, “Although crime must be dealt with if the social order is to survive, and I believe it must, we cannot deal with crime in any way that violates the fundamental element in that social order, the nature of the people who constitute it.”[13]

I am also persuaded by abolitionist arguments about discrimination in the justice system on the basis of race, gender and poverty; by the lack of proportionality in sentencing for some capital cases; by the lack of conclusive evidence that the death penalty has any impact on capital crime rates; and by the conviction that the past cannot be changed whereas the future can be, and we should therefore be less concerned to impose retributive punishment, especially capital punishment, and more concerned to encourage the reformation and restoration of those who disobey laws.


Rev Rod Benson is an ethicist and social justice advocate based in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia.


References

[1] Michael Walton, “The death penalty in Australia and overseas,” NSW Council for Civil Liberties Background Paper 2005/3, p. 12, dated 29 March 2005, available at http://www.nswccl.org.au/docs/pdf/bp3%202005%20dp%20paper.pdf.

[2] “No changes to death penalty – Government,” 20 Feb 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/latest-news/no-changes-to-death-penalty-government/story-fn3dxiwe-1225832487098

[3] Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament vision for justice, crime, and punishment (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2001), p. 214.

[4] Hugh Mackay, “Chink appears in armour against death penalty,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 13-14 Jan 2007.

[5] Charles Colson, Preserving the dignity of man: The case for capital punishment,” BreakPoint Commentary no. 010608, available at http://www.leaderu.com/socialsciences/colson-dignity.html.

[6] Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Christian Ethics (third edition; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), p. 214.

[7] James J. Megivern, The Death Penalty: An historical and theological survey (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), p. 487.

[8] Samuel Wells & Ben Quash, Introducing Christian Ethics (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010), p. 227.

[9] Norman Geisler, for example, argues this point in his Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options (second edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), p. 198.

[10] Rae, Moral Choices, op. cit., p. 216.

[11] David Nason, “Time running out for a cruel and unusual punishment,” The Weekend Australian, 30-31 Dec 2006.

[12] Mackay, op. cit.

[13] Roger H. Crook, An Introduction to Christian Ethics (sixth edn; Boston: Pearson Education, 2013), p. 241.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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