The Death Penalty: A “White Paper”

The Contemporary Issue
The topic of capital punishment is one which incites debate not only in our society at large, but among honest, Biblically sincere Christians as well. The issue was again brought to the fore by the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, only the second woman executed in the U.S. since the reinstitution of the death penalty in 1976. Well-known proponents of the death penalty such as TV evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell rallied to Karla Faye’s defense and engendered public criticism of their supposed hypocrisy for so doing. Opponents of the death penalty seized upon the execution as a rallying point to advance their agenda. The issue is one which will likely not go away soon, and it is important as Christians that we weigh the issues and arrive at a sound position in accordance with both the whole counsel of God and with the realities of our current American legal climate.

The Biblical Witness
There are several passages of Scripture which bear upon the subject of the death penalty. The main passage used in support of the death penalty is Genesis 9:6, which states “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (NIV). This standard, introduced before the giving of the law, seems to have the earmarks of a timeless principle upholding the sanctity of human life by making the penalty for the taking of that life the forfeiting of one’s own life. The basis of this extreme sanction is the image of God resident within man as God’s special creation. Interestingly, though, God did not exact this penalty upon the first murderer, Cain (Gen. 4). Exodus 20 contains, of course, the 10 Commandments, one of which is “Thou shalt not kill”. The Hebrew word is rasah, which is one of seven verbs which could have been used to denote killing. Rasah refers to “deliberate, premeditated killing”. This word is never used of 1.) killing animals for food; 2.) self-defense; 3.) accidental killing; or 4.) manslaughter. Nowhere in the law is given the possibility of substituting a ransom for rasah, whereas in other forms of killing which would call for capital punishment, ransom could be made to save the perpetrator’s life. Exodus 21 records the frequently-quoted “eye for an eye” principle, which may have been given not so much as a requirement for retribution as a limit upon the extent of retribution. Deuteronomy 17:6 (cf. Numbers 35:30) gives the requirement of the law relative to actually carrying out the death penalty: it should never be done unless there were at least two witnesses to the crime. Turning to the New Testament, the definitive passage on the role of human government is Romans 13:1-7. Government is ordained of God (a good thing to remember in times such as we live) and the essential operating element of the state is force. According to Paul, government “bears the sword”. While some suggest that this merely refers to the instrument used to keep order within the courtroom, it seems to me that this implies the legitimacy of the use of force by the government to enforce compliance from the citizenry. The sword is an instrument capable of inflicting the ultimate penalty, death. Some make appeal to Christ Himself; while He did not speak directly upon the subject in recorded Scripture, there are at least two instances in which it might seem that he gives at least tacit approval to the use of this force by the state (John 19:11; Matthew 26:52). Most of the above Scripture would be quoted by supporters of the death penalty in order to back up their view. There are other Christians, however, who would see in Christ’s teachings the idea that “mercy triumphs against judgment

in Christ’s teachings the idea that “mercy triumphs against judgment” (James 2:13). They would argue that while the first covenant, which was not perfect, perpetuated revenge, we now live under the new covenant in which provision is made for mercy (Hebrews 8:7). After all, they would argue, we no longer follow the old way, but the new way of the Spirit (Romans 7:6), and thus mercy takes precedence over judgment. Additionally, they would point to all of the people in the Bible who would have been put to death under the death penalty, but many of whom God chose fit to use in tremendous ways: Cain, Moses, Joseph’s brothers, David, Paul, the woman taken in adultery, etc. In fact, the death penalty was never consistently applied even in the Old Testament economy. Also, no one would seriously advocate that we apply the Old Testament law in its strictest sense to our current situation. The law provided for capital punishment in the following cases:

Murder Rape Blasphemy
Kidnapping Parent-cursing Witchcraft
Wizardry Beastiality Working on Sabbath
Adultery Having a stubborn/rebellious son
Lying Sacrificing to a false god
Perjury in a capital case
Certain incestuous relationships
Failing to control a dangerous animal

A Biblical principle that defies classification as either “for” or “against” the death penalty is the oft-repeated mandate for the believer to “do justice” (Micah 6:8, to name one among many). We might be tempted to think of this command in a way that would apply it only to victims of violent crime, but we cannot justify such a restriction Biblically. To do justly also means that we have a responsibility to the accused as well.
It seems clear that this issue is not the “open-and-shut case” that some would make it ought to be, even considered from a purely Biblical standpoint.

Pragmatic Arguments

Supporters of the death penalty would add certain pragmatic arguments to the Biblical arguments cited above. One idea that has been floated recently involves making the death penalty apply to drug dealers, with the reasoning being that drugs destroy many lives and that these “pushers” represent the very worst of society, preying as they do upon young people and making money off of the suffering of others. Another idea that is frequently heard is that capital punishment is acceptable due to the runaway crime statistics. Our inner cities are little more than urban battlefields in some places, and the consistent application of the death penalty would have a significant deterrent effect upon crime.
Opponents of the death penalty would cite certain pragmatic arguments against its enforcement in the United States. From the ACLU website, I list the following eight arguments against the death penalty:

1. Capital punishment is not a deterrent to capital crimes.
2. Capital punishment is unfair.
3. Capital punishment is irreversible.
4. Capital punishment is barbarous.
5. Capital punishment is unjustified retribution.
6. Capital punishment costs more than incarceration.
7. Capital punishment is less popular than the alternatives.
8. Internationally, capital punishment is widely viewed as inhumane and anachronistic.

Some of these arguments are more compelling than others,
but all are used to advance the argument that we should do away with the death penalty in the United States.

Some Pertinent Questions for Discussion

1. Do you agree with this statement: “Better to let 100 convicted murderers live than to execute 1 innocent man”?
2. If abortion is murder, as we believe, should the abortionist face the death penalty? What about the mother?
3. Should we, if we exercise the death penalty, insist upon the minimum Old Testament requirement that there be at least two corroborating witnesses to the murder?
4. Should the death penalty extend beyond the crime of murder to other crimes, such as drug dealing? If so, which? How about vehicular homicide? Should there be any idea of “degrees” of murder?
5. Is there a difference between what the Scripture requires of me on a personal level and what it requires of government?
6. Is there a better possible alternative to capital punishment?
7. Do we have enough faith in our judicial system to “get it right” when it comes to the honest and impartial implementation of the law as regards the death penalty?
8. Were Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell necessarily being hypocritical in pleading for Karla Faye Tucker’s life?

Arguments I Find Compelling

I have struggled to find a secure place to stand on this issue of such import to our society. I empathize deeply with the victims of all crime, especially the crime of murder. I am also compelled to be concerned that justice is done for all concerned. With these thoughts in mind, I offer some of the reasoning I use in reaching my conclusions:

1. I find it very compelling that we have in Genesis 9:6 that which has the earmarks of a universal principle: that when human life is taken wantonly, an appropriate response is to take the life of the perpetrator of the crime. This Scriptural command is given prior to the giving of the law of Moses, and seems to communicate a logical principle: that if life is created in the imago Dei, then we have a responsi-bility to guard it as a sacred trust. Those who commit murder deny the image of God in the persons they kill, and this is an affront to God. There are those who argue that the taking of any life, even the life of the murderer, cheapens the value of all life. This argument does not seem compelling to me, since the teaching of Genesis 9:6 would seem to refute that notion. God doesn’t seem to look at it that way!
2. I find it compelling that the state is acknowledged as having the authority to exercise justice through the use of force. Romans 13 seems to be clear enough on this subject; the state bears the sword for a reason, and it isn’t to use to butter toast.
3. I find myself compelled as well by a couple of the pragmatic arguments against the death penalty. Specifically, I find two arguments highly relevant to the exercise of the death penalty in the United States:
A. Capital punishment is unfair. Dick Dieter, in a recent report entitled With Justice for Few: The Growing Crisis in the Death Penalty, stated, “far too often, people are given the death penalty not for committing the worst crimes, but for having the worst lawyers.” Sadly, this rings true; having witnessed the travesty of the “O.J. trial”, we should be all too aware of this fact. In 1990, the General Accounting Office issued a report to Congress that concluded that their investigation “shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty after the Furman decision (reinstituting the death penalty)” and that “race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process.” In other words, people are executed far more frequently for killing white people than for killing black people. Further, “approximately 90 percent of those on death row could not afford to hire a lawyer when they were tried.” For Christians concerned with justice for all, these thoughts ought to at least give us pause to think.
B. Capital punishment is irreversible. Since 1900, in more than four cases each year an innocent person was convicted of murder. These span the years and the geographical regions of the United States. To question #1 asked previously, I answer an unqualified “YES!”

In addition to these two arguments which I find compelling from the previous list of eight, I find arguments 1.), 6.), and possibly 7.) to be true, but not nearly as germane to the issue.
I would add that I do not find the New Testament Scriptural arguments used against the death penalty particularly compelling in view of the fact that none seem to directly address the question at hand.


My conclusion, based upon a consideration of the evidence presented above, is that I believe in the death penalty in principle but I oppose it in practice as currently administered in this country. It is my belief that we would be better off, then, not having a death penalty at all than having what we have currently. I base my conclusion on several things:

1. I do believe that the death penalty is valid if fairly administered. Again, I cite Genesis 9:6 as my primary basis.
2. I do not believe that we currently administer the death penalty in a fair manner. I seriously doubt the ability of the U.S. judicial system to administer justice fairly, and if this is the case, and if we must err, it seems to me that we ought to err on the side of mercy.

Final Considerations

1. We must never cheer the death of another human being, no matter what our belief.
2. We must remember that doing justice involves doing justice to everyone involved.
3. If the death penalty is to be enforced, then it seems at the least that the law regarding two witnesses be our standard. Colson estimates that 98% of all death row inmates were convicted on circumstantial evidence.
4. Justice ought to demand the following penalties in the absence of the death penalty:
A. 25 years imprisonment minimum before any parole consideration. In many cases, no parole possibility.
B. All prisoners should work jobs with dignity.
C. Most earnings ought to pay for prison costs and restitution ought to be made to victims’ families.

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