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A Christian view on capital punishment

There are strong arguments for and against capital punishment. Some claim that crimes such as terrorism, drug trafficking or genocide should attract the death penalty. Others view the death penalty as barbaric.

In the Old Testament, capital offences included murder (Ex 21:12-14), causing a miscarriage (Ex 21:22-25), cursing one’s parents (Ex 21:15), kidnapping (Ex 21:16), sorcery and witchcraft (Ex 22:18), bestiality (Ex 22:19), working on the Sabbath (Ex 35:2), adultery (Lev 20:10-21), incest (Lev 20:11f, 14), gay sex (Lev 20:13), and more.

These provisions may appear harsh, but they restricted the spirit of natural vengeance, and the degree to which the death penalty was actually applied is unclear.

Those who seek biblical support for the death penalty argue that the statement in Genesis 9:6 was given to all people, reflecting the belief that humans are made in the image of God. The sacredness of human life justifies the ultimate penalty for one who deliberately takes a life.

Abolitionists often read Genesis 9:6 as a prediction of the future consequences of murder. They may also argue that Matthew 5:38-41 annuls the OT doctrine of “a life for a life.”

There is limited reference to the death penalty in the New Testament. Abolitionists claim John 7:53-8:11 as proof that Jesus rejected capital punishment, while retentionists arguing that Jesus merely assured the woman of her forgiveness.

In Romans 13:1-7, Paul claims it is the responsibility of the civil government to maintain civil order. Abolitionists interpret the word “sword” as a metaphor for law enforcement. Retentionists interpret the word to imply the state’s power to apply the death penalty.

Arguments for the death penalty

  1. Justice demands retribution. The punishment should fit the crime. On the other hand, social researcher Hugh Mackay said, “We don’t rape rapists. Why should we want to kill killers?”[1]
  2. The death penalty expresses society’s outrage at heinous crimes. For example, Charles Colson welcomed the execution of U.S. terrorist Timothy McVeigh: “Just deserts, in some extreme cases, demand extreme punishment.”[2]
  3. The death penalty serves as a deterrent. However, this does not apply to crimes of passion, and there is no causal link between capital punishment and the murder rate.
  4. Capital punishment is cheaper than life imprisonment. It is argued that it is in the state’s economic interest to execute rather than imprison those guilty of heinous crimes.

Arguments against the death penalty

  1. The death penalty violates human dignity. When the state kills a person, it declares a diminished value on human life. As James J. Megivern puts it, “Basic to all other rights is the right to life. This right cannot be forfeited by misconduct … Therefore the state has no right to kill.”[3]
  2. Punishment should be proportional to the crime committed. While execution for mass murder may seem a reasonable punishment, this may not be the case for minor drug law infringements.
  3. There is a bias of race, geography and quality of legal representation in many capital cases. Historically, a disproportionate number of those executed are black, poorly educated and economically disadvantaged.
  4. 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.
  5. Reform is impossible once the offender is killed. Retentionists argue that the purpose of the justice system is not reform but retribution. Modern criminology generally favours reform.
  6. Death sentences are costly and entail long and costly appeals. There is a significant financial cost associated with convicting and incarcerating a prisoner, ensuring due process, and killing the offender.
  7. Capital punishment celebrates violence. A society that executes criminals is arguably a society that not only condones but celebrates violence.
  8. Better alternatives exist. The prospect of a life sentence is thought to be more dreaded than execution, and demands that our safety depends on capital punishment may later appear illogical.
  9. The death penalty is incompatible with the “consistent life ethic,” which applies the doctrine of the sanctity of life to all situations, including abortion and euthanasia.

Conclusion

I oppose capital punishment because every human person is made in the image of God, and should therefore be treated with commensurate respect and dignity.

I am also persuaded by arguments about discrimination in the justice system; lack of proportionality in sentencing; lack of conclusive evidence that the death penalty has any impact on capital crime rates; and a preference for restorative rather than retributive justice.


Rev Rod Benson is an ethicist and social justice advocate based in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Australia. This is an abridged version of an article that appears on his blog at https://rodbenson.com/2015/02/13/should-christians-support-the-death-penalty


References

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

[2] 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.

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

Categories: articles

Rod Benson

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

1 reply

  1. Excellent analysis Rod. Your very last phrase about restorative justice is the real clincher for me, besides the fact that Jesus was clearly against capital punishment: “He who is without sin should cast the first stone…” — which you could add as #10 since you are addressing this from a biblical perspective and the Bible should not be interpreted by Christians as a “flat” book, but interpreted through the lens of Jesus’ teaching.

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