Love and Christianity are apparently synonymous. If love is innate in Christianity, how should Christians view the death penalty?
Pew Research Center reports 1 that Judaism and Buddhism oppose the death penalty. Hinduism holds no clear stance. Islam favors the death penalty. American atheists and agnostics are split almost equally on the death penalty.
Pew Research Center also reports 2 that from among the Christian denominations, Baptist, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist oppose the death penalty. Assemblies of God and Mormons do not have an official position on the death penalty. Southern Baptist and the Lutheran church – Missouri Synod favor the death penalty.
Although denominations may hold official positions on the death penalty, individual members do not necessarily adhere to these official positions. A case in point is that 53% of US Catholics favor the death penalty contradicting the official position of the Catholic Church.3
There are three major positions in the context of the death penalty.
First, Christians favoring the death penalty (Reconstructionism) quote Genesis 9:6, Numbers 35: 33 etc. Their arguments are three-fold:4
- Old Testament law reflects God’s unchanging character.
- Jesus did not come to abolish the law.
- Capital punishment is prescribed in the New Testament.
Charles “Chuck” Colson, who served as a special counsel to the American President Richard Nixon, founded “Prison Fellowship” in 1976. Chuck Colson’s view as a Christian and as one who had vast experience in serving prisoners should be diligently considered.
Chuck Colson opposed the death penalty initially. Subsequently, he changed his views and supported the death penalty.
These are Chuck Colson’s words, “…For as long as I can remember, I have opposed capital punishment. As a lawyer I observed how flawed the legal system is, and I concluded, as Justice Learned Hand once remarked, that it was better that a hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man be executed. I was also influenced by very libertarian views of government; I distrusted government too much to give power to take a human life to the judicial system…
…But I must say that my views have changed and that I now favor capital punishment, at least in principle, but only in extreme cases when no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice.
…Perhaps the emotional event that pushed me over the (philosophical) edge was the John Wayne Gacy case some years ago. I visited him on death row. During our hour-long conversation he was totally unrepentant; in fact, he was arrogant. He insisted that he was a Christian, that he believed in Christ, yet he showed not a hint of remorse….
…So in spite of my misgivings, I’ve come to see capital punishment as an essential element of justice. On the whole, the full range of biblical data weighs in its favor. Society should not execute capital offenders merely for the sake of revenge, rather to balance the scales of moral justice which have been disturbed.” 5
Second, Christians who oppose the death penalty (Rehabilitationism) would argue as follows:6
- Neither Christ nor Paul called for the death penalty upon the adulterers they encountered.
- God does not rejoice in the death of wicked (Ezekiel 18: 23). God did not enforce the death penalty upon Cain and David for murdering Abel and for the adulterous affair with Bathsheba, respectively.
- Criminals should be allowed to reform or repent.
- Christians are called to love another and not pay evil for evil (cf. Matthew 5: 38-39 & Romans 12: 19).
But what if a psychopath who was shown clemency escapes from the prison to continue killing people?
A secular argument against the death penalty is that the crime rate has not decreased despite the death penalty; hence the death penalty should be abolished. Is not this a weak argument since abolishing the death penalty need not necessarily reduce crime?
On the contrary, abolishing the death penalty could fuel increased killings by rank evil minds. What would prevent sociopaths and psychopaths who know for certain that they would live, to stop murdering innocent lives?
Allowing unrepentant and rank evil murderers to live is unjust.
It is considered humane to abolish the death penalty. But is it humane to murder innocent lives?
It is merely on humanitarian grounds that a murderer be excused and allowed to live. Humanitarian grounds posit an argument that is “in favor of life.”
But the murderer has killed another life! So allowing this murderer to live unconditionally is a violation of justice. The only condition that would probably allow this murderer to live is if the murderer repents.
So a murderer cannot live if he remains unrepentant. Even if a murderer repents, how would anyone know whether his repentance is true or not? This is the weakness of this position.
A third position also exists. This favors the death penalty for certain crimes, such as a murder of a child (Retributionism). The arguments in favor of this position are: 7
(a) The primary goal of justice is punishment (cf. Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:4).
(b) If it’s cruel to kill an offender then it’s cruel to kill an innocent person (e.g. child) for which the offender deserves to be killed.
Man does not possess God’s knowledge to determine who dies and who lives. God who knows everything would perfectly know if a person is capable of repenting or capable of repetitive murder. This knowledge is vital to decide the fate of a criminal.
If we certainly knew that a criminal would continue to kill or violate the sanctity of life, then by all means it is safe and reasonable to execute him so to prevent further violations against innocent life.
If we certainly knew that a criminal would not repent but holds a murderous mindset, it is safe and reasonable to execute this criminal, for he could either escape (and continue to kill) or motivate others outside the prison to kill. But if a criminal repents of his sin, then he deserves to live a changed life although in the confines of the prison / correction center.
This then is the knowledge the judiciary should possess to establish justice. Unfortunately, this knowledge is privy to God alone. In the absence of such knowledge, the judiciary could merely examine the circumstances and evidences presented to decide appropriately.
Finally, would God intervene to save a criminal, who is about to be executed before repentance via a wrong decision by the judiciary, but would have repented if allowed to live longer? I believe that God, who does not rejoice at the death of the wicked, would intervene to save this person, for HE knows perfectly that this criminal would repent.
What would God do if a criminal who could have repented is executed before he repents? Would this criminal gain eternal life because of man’s (judiciary) wrong decision? If the omniscient, omnipotent and just God allows a death, it implies that that criminal would not have repented even if allowed to live longer. Hence it follows that this criminal would not gain eternal life.
All said and done, innocent people should not die. May the authorities ensure this at all cost.