The death penalty is a controversial subject for Christians. Believers fall on both sides of the issue. Some believe the death penalty should be part of the criminal code and others do not.
In this article, I want to respond to Katherin Dwyer’s article entitled Should Christians support the death penalty? posted on the Gospel Herald website. In her article, she explains why as a Christian and conservative she opposes the death penalty.
Katherine is a Charles Koch Institute Communications Fellow with Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. Her article was in part sparked by the recent US presidential election, where three states also held referendum votes on the death penalty.
Katherine takes a reasoned approach on her opposition to the death penalty and I believe she made some valid points. But I don’t agree with all her conclusions and simply want to discuss why I believe the death penalty is still a legitimate form of justice, even today.
Eye for an eye
The first thing Katherine delves in to is the “eye for eye” aspect of the law and as well cites passages where the death penalty was subscribed for other things besides first degree murder including adultery, homosexuality and working on the Sabbath.
She says if Christians believe that capital punishment should be in place for first degree murder then it should be implemented for these other issues as well.
It is a very valid point, if this is what the Bible says.
But one thing that has always puzzled me is why there are no examples in Scripture of a person’s eye being gouged out or a hand lopped off as the Jews implemented this part of the law?
So I started to dig around some old Jewish commentaries to discover their perspective on this issue. What I found surprised me.
They all said basically the same thing, that ‘eye for eye’ was never intended as a physical punishment but rather a way of calculating compensation.
They point to several verses on this issue, in particular:
“Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.”(Numbers 35:31 NASV)
In this verse we read that for every aspect of the law, except first degree murder, a ransom could be paid.
The ransom was generally paid to the person who was harmed. For example, if I gouged out a person’s eye, I had to pay compensation to the person I hurt.
The “eye for eye” was simply the formula for determining how much the injured party received.
The injured person held my eye as ransom, and if I didn’t come up with a fair payment, then my eye could potentially be gouged out, but that was never the intent.
As a person contemplated how much their eye was worth, he was essentially loving his neighbor as myself.
The “eye for eye” made sure the payment was equal. It wasn’t two arms and a leg for an eye.
And a ransom was payable in every instance except first degree murder. Adultery and working on the Sabbath were subject to a ransom. It is true some Jews did take matters into their own hands to measure out wild-west justice, but it was not the law’s intent.
Katherine then turns to Jesus and talks about the woman caught in adultery and how the He was able to get her off when the Lord said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone” (John 8:1-11).
As per my earlier point, adultery was ransomable. Certainly, there were some, like the pharisees, who desired a more brutal punishment, but it was mob law at its best.
And this was not the first time Jesus had run-ins with the pharisees on their misinterpretation of the law.
Then Katherine points out that Jesus told his followers to forgive and turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-39). Shouldn’t we be doing this as well when it comes to capital punishment?
I think we need to understand the fundamental difference between the Mosaic Law and Jesus’ ministry.
The Mosaic law set up legislation that would govern a nation, while Jesus ministry focused on our personal response.
If someone murdered a loved one, we need to forgive the person who committed this crime, but the state is still obligated to fulfill its role and bring justice to the situation.
If I forgive a robber or murderer, should the state then let the person go free? Or does it still need to step in and hand out justice?
Katherine, who is writing from an American perspective, gives as one of her final points that the American legal system is flawed. It doesn’t follow many of the provisions of the Old Testament law to make sure innocent people are not mistakenly put to death.
“As a result innocent lives are constantly imperiled. Would Christ support killing innocent people? Of course not, but that’s what what’s at risk with our death penalty.”
There is always a concern that a person could wrongly be put to death. Flawed people and a flawed system will make mistakes.
The Old Testament law required two eye witnesses before a person could be found guilty of first degree murder. With the provision, if the eye witnesses were found to be lying, they would receive the same punishment as the person they were falsely accusing (Deuteronomy 19:15-21).
Even if you knew a person had murdered, without eye witnesses they could not be found guilty of first degree murder. Instead, they would be found guilty of man slaughter and allowed to live in cities of refuge until the High Priest who was ruling then died.
She says that American law does not require this, though it could be argued recent advancements in DNA testing has provided a very accurate way of determining guilt.
But on the other side of the coin, we have dozens of examples of people who the courts sentenced for murder and then went on to kill again after their release.
Some murdered again within days of their getting out of prison. Some were older — late 60s and 70s — when they took another life. You can read a few of these accounts (here and here). One was released and two days later murdered his mother.
These innocent victims would not have died if the death penalty for first degree murder was in effect.
So there are innocents on both sides.
But this is not the issue, because even under the Mosaic law there was a potential for mistakes and corruption. In 1 Kings 21:8-9 , we read the story of Jezebel who ordered judges to find false witnesses to condemn Naboth of blasphemy so he would be stoned and Ahab could seize his vineyard. And of course, even Jesus was falsely accused by corrupt witnesses (Matthew 26:59-63) — again blasphemy was a crime that should be paid with a ransom.
Yet despite this potential for error and lies, the law was still in effect.
One argument that Katherine made that I found compelling was her Biblical examples of redemption — even murderers can turn around.
She cited both Moses and the Apostle Paul. Moses of course killed the Egyptian guard who was beating a Hebrew slave (Exodus 2:11-12), though it could be argued Moses was coming to the aid of another person.
The Apostle Paul was at the very least a co-conspirator in the martyrdom of Stephen, when the people doing the stoning left their cloaks at Paul’s feet (Acts 7:58).
The fact that Paul approved the murder (Acts 8:1), does suggest he was possibly a ring leader.
Despite being murderers, both these men were mightily used by God.
But is this an argument against the death penalty or evidence of how the Holy Spirit can turn a person’s life around if they have truly repented — no matter how bad they were?
Devaluing human life
As I read the Jewish commentators, they said a person was not allowed to pay a ransom for first degree murder is because it would devalue a human life.
Without the death penalty, the value of human life is continually being eroded. It is worth less and less.
This can lead to cases as we recently had in Canada. In 2011, a BC woman, then 19, had successfully given birth at home in secret. She had an exam coming up and didn’t know what to do, so she drowned her baby in a sink.
She wrapped up the body and stuck it in the trunk of her car intending to bury the body later. However, the fire department discovered the body after she lent her car to a friend who then had a car accident.
In her defense, the woman claimed she became pregnant because she believed she was sexually assaulted at a party after passing out.
Despite calling her actions “abhorrent,” the judge sentenced her to two years probation — no jail time — for infantcide.
Or take the case of the worst mass murder in Norway’s history. In 2011, extremist Anders Behring Breivik went to a summer camp and systematically hunted down and shot 69 people, mostly children and young teenagers. He had previously set off bombs and killed eight people in Oslo.
According to an article in the New York Times, he was sentenced to 21 years in jail. The value of each of his 77 murder victims — four months. The article did note that his sentence could be extended indefinitely if the legal system doesn’t feel Breivik has been properly rehabilitated during his time in prison.
Capital punishment is a controversial issue and there are arguments for both sides in Scripture. I wasn’t able to completely cover all Katherine’s points, so I would recommend you read her article and decide for yourself.
- Should Christians support the death penalty?: Gospel Herald
- B.C. mother who drowned newborn son at home before taking university exam gets two years probation: National Post
- New Jersey man completes 30-year murder sentence only to kill mother two days later: Washington Post
- Revealed: The five murderers freed from life sentences to kill again: Daily Mail
- Norway mass killer gets the maximum: 21 years: New York Time
- Profile of several criminals who were on parole when they killed: Herald Sun
- Eye for an eye means you love your neighbor as yourself: opentheword.org