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Is the Death Penalty “Unchristian?”

An interesting theological discussion occurred in my social media feed recently; a theological discussion that was, oddly enough, prompted by an atheist.  Author, atheist, and CNN host S.E. Cupp had sounded off:

“Capital punishment is immoral, unethical, unjust, unconservative, fiscally irresponsible, AND un-Christian. It should end, full stop.”

While I always find it intriguing when outspoken atheists like Cupp start making impassioned appeals to some absolute moral law that (given her worldview) curiously lacks a Moral Lawgiver, I’m more fascinated by her presumptive preachiness regarding what is and isn’t “Christian.” 

To this point in her life, Cupp has personally rejected the divinity claims of Jesus of Nazareth.  Far from surrendering her own pride to His Lordship, she has rebelliously regarded her wisdom as more authentic, reliable, and consistent than His.  That doesn’t make me angry with Cupp at all; but it does make me gasp at the audacious conceit required to tell others who worship Jesus what Jesus really thinks about something.  I’m inclined to ask Ms. Cupp, if He’s lying about being your Savior as you apparently believe, why would you care what He has to say about the death penalty?  Why would you even bother to cite Him as an authority on any subject?

Cupp is more than welcome to state her opinion on capital punishment of course.  Apart from any fixed absolute morality, which her worldview conspicuously lacks, personal opinions and relative moral judgments are all we’ve got, after all.

But for those who are believers in Jesus, surely we can do better than turning to atheists to articulate what Christian morality teaches about the death penalty.  Though admittedly, at superficial face value, it seems an easy answer.  We see the Jesus of Scripture telling His followers to turn the other cheek, to love and pray for their enemies.  Nowhere does He counsel them to gas or electrocute those enemies or inject them with poison. 

But superficial understanding of the Word is what we should expect from atheists, not something we should tolerate in ourselves. 

Now, before I go any further, I think it is very important to outline the parameters for this piece.  What I am discussing is the morality of the state executing a capital offender.  What I am not doing?

1. This is not a discussion about racial or economic inequality in the application of the death penalty.  It may well be that the punishment is used disproportionately on poor or minority criminals.  I have not done adequate research on that issue to know one way or the other, but for the sake of argument let’s suppose that it is true.  If that’s the case, what we have is a profound argument for fixing inequality in the application of the death penalty.  What we don’t have is a profound argument against the morality of the death penalty itself.

2. This is not a discussion about whether or not our American system of justice results in the executions of innocents.  Even if it were true that this was a problem in our country, what is that an argument for?  Improving the judicial system.  It is not an argument against the morality of the death penalty itself.

3. This is not a discussion about deterrence.  For a multitude of reasons, proving whether the death penalty is a deterrent to violent crime or not is impossible.  But again, this is completely irrelevant information in a discussion focused on the morality of the death penalty itself.

Those issues and many others (sexism in death penalty application, the cost of executions, etc.) are all important and have their place.  But they are also completely peripheral to the pressing question of whether the death penalty itself is in conflict with Christian morality.

To answer that, I offer the following Scriptural considerations:

1. The death penalty is quite apparently not in conflict with the character of God.  Throughout the Old Testament, God administers the death penalty for crimes Himself, and He uses human agents to do the same.  In the two chapters of the Hebrew law that followed the Ten Commandments, no less than 10 offenses were listed that required the death penalty.  And speaking of those Commandments, the penalty for violating the 6th one (do not commit murder), was death.  Thus, any suggestion that capital punishment runs afoul of the 6th Commandment rests on a stunted and undeveloped understanding of the text.

2. The Noahic covenant is still binding and requires capital punishment for murder.  After the global flood in Genesis 6-8, God makes His “everlasting covenant” with Noah and all those who would come after him.  That would include us.  It’s why we Christians recognize the rainbow (part of that flood covenant) as a promise to us as well as to Noah that God would not flood the earth again.  But part of that same “everlasting covenant” was this:

“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting…from each human being too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.  Whoever sheds human blood, by human beings shall their blood be shed, for in the image of God has God made humankind.” Gen 9:5-6

The lesson appears clear: the life of man is inviolable because the life of man bears the image of the inviolable God.  Destroying the life of man must bring with it the ultimate punishment – anything less devalues life made in God’s image.  In these verses God specifically says that He “demands an accounting” for such a crime, and He chooses the word “shall,” not “may,” to prove the imperative.  It is bizarre that Christians who claim to trust the rainbow promise would simultaneously disregard the accompanying command in this same covenant.

3. The New Testament also offers affirmation of the death penalty as a just punishment consistent with Christian morality.  In Romans 12, Paul offers explicit instructions to Christians not to seek vengeance for themselves when they are wronged.  He writes,

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil…Do not take revenge my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Romans 12: 14-21

And how will God avenge?  How will He repay?  Keep reading.  In Romans 13, Paul answers that question:

“Rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.  Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.  They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:2-4

When we are wronged, we are not to take personal vengeance.  God will handle it.  And He will handle it through His “agents of wrath” who “do not bear the sword for nothing.” 

4. When Paul stood before the Roman leader Festus, he submitted to the legitimacy of the death penalty, actually acknowledging that some crimes “deserved” death:

“If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them.” Acts 25:11

5. Similarly, look at the words of the famous thief on the cross next to Jesus, as he rebuked the third man being executed:

“We are justly punished…we are receiving what our deeds deserve.” Luke 23:41

It is telling that Jesus did not correct the man when he stated his deeds were deserving of death.  While that certainly could be logically dismissed as an argument from silence, if the death penalty were truly a scourge in the sight of Christ, it is surprising that He would let such a statement slide. 

Further, when the repentant thief sought forgiveness, Christ gave it to him, but did not release him from his punishment.  In other words, Jesus did not confuse the requirements of civil justice with the expectation of personal mercy and grace.  Sadly, many who claim to be His followers falsely equate the two.

Making the argument that the Holy Scriptures offer a clear instruction to abolish state executions – that is, to say they teach us that capital punishment is “unchristian” – is in error.  In fact, the precise opposite case is far easier to make.

Now, all that being said, let me again reiterate the limited scope of what I’m attempting to do here.  This is a theological discussion about whether the action of the state executing a capital offender somehow violates explicit Christian doctrine.  I do not believe that it does for the reasons stated above.

That is an entirely different conversation from whether or not the civil government of America is applying that morally justifiable death penalty in a morally justifiable manner.  That may seem like splitting hairs, but it’s a crucial distinction.  One can argue against the current practice of executions in America for a host of reasons.  And one or more of those reasons may be significant enough to provoke a Christian to oppose its continuation in our society – I am personally open to such convincing myself.

But what I don’t believe can or should be done is to argue that the death penalty, in and of itself, is “unchristian” by nature, or that it violates the Biblical standard of Christian morality.  The testimony of Scripture seems to stand in the way of such a conclusion, even if professing atheists on CNN are willfully oblivious to it.

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