This piece is largely for my brothers and sisters over the world: the issue is not really a current one in the UK and I can’t see us implementing the death penalty anytime soon. But I have some strong feelings on this issue which need to be aired. I should note that I haven’t read much on this topic and so my arguments will only be rudimentary in form. And before my liberal friends express joy at the conclusion and my conservative Christian friends worry that I’ve pandered to liberal social trends, I warn that secular liberals will find little joy in this article. Indeed, I shall be arguing that conservative Christianity has most reason to oppose capital punishment (though NB I do not commit myself to all these theses here): Liberals will probably get as angry at some of the claims here as they would at a piece in favour of it. I will not be dealing with certain practical considerations (e.g. whether we can achieve certainty about a judgment of guilt, or whether the penalty unfairly targets a particular economic or ethnic group), but will try to stick to principled reasons.
Bad reasons to oppose the death penalty
Let me begin with some bad reasons to oppose it. Firstly, that the death penalty is barbaric. It’s hard to see what this should mean. Primitive? Well, lots of primitive cultures got lots of things right (even some of the things modern cultures got wrong). If it’s about moraI sophistication, this really begs the question against the many modern people who support the death penalty. It buys into the myth of the steady moral progress of humanity, and it neglects the fact that primitive cultures could have taught us a great deal about morality which we seem to have forgotten. And, to state the obvious, if it’s about the level of technological sophistication, then modern death penalties are quite clearly not primitive. Cruel? Well, so was the crime, and most death penalty proponents are likely to think that the cruelty of the crime and the need for a proportionate punishment is exactly when we should be being “cruel”. Part of the whole point of punishment (in many people’s eyes) is to cause some suffering as retribution, and if causing suffering counts as cruelty then so be it. Sadistic? Perhaps some death penalty proponents are sadistic. But this is clearly just a strawman against all those proponents who support the death penalty, not because they take pleasure out of seeing suffering per se, but because they think it is just. So the accusation of barbarism ought not be persuasive.
A second bad argument is that it’s a violation of inalienable human rights, or “because the UN said so”. Human rights (in the modern sense) simply don’t appear as a conceptual framework in the Bible, in Jesus’ teaching, or in patristic literature (and it’s hard to see how to justify/ground their existence on a non-theistic epistemology/ontology, too). It’s hard to see that humans have inalienable rights to anything, at least not in virtue of their intrinsic merit. Everything that humans have is a gift from God, and their value comes from God – but this is never expressed in terms of inalienable human rights. To the contrary, there are suggestions that humans do give up their “rights”: by rejecting God fully and permanently, they give up their “right” to life. And even if such rights existed but were not inalienable, it would be hard to see why murderers, for example, should not have given up their right when they violated someone else’s right to life. So this line of argument is profoundly lacking too, I think.
A final bad argument is to say that no one deserves to die. I cannot see how anyone (who has not been brainwashed in liberal ethical obfuscation of the most abject kind) could find this remotely plausible. Perhaps it would be plausible if one denied that anyone deserved anything, but I cannot think of a reasonable understanding of the notion of deserving on which it would make sense to say that absolutely no-one deserved to die. Such a suggestion violates all our ethical intuitions, all our natural language and (for Christians) Biblical considerations. More on this later.
Prima facie dissonance, death as an enemy
So why do I oppose the death penalty? As I said, the reasons are not very well thought out, but it seems to have prima facie dissonance with our witness to forgiveness, grace, mercy and salvation from the powers of death, in Christ. Which Christian response shows people more of the grave, forgiveness and undeserved salvation of God through Jesus – the clamouring for retribution (despite Jesus supposedly taking it, and despite our not being prepared to suffer retribution for our own transgressions), or those who have had family members murdered and who declare forgiveness and service to the guilty, as a microcosm of the gospel? I know which one I think sounds more like Jesus, and which one I think shows people more about the God I worship: “when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul, who himself would probably not have written half the New Testament if the death penalty was applied in the way that most people want it applied, goes on to tell us that “just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Elsewhere, he writes of death as the last enemy, to be destroyed, quoting Isaiah: “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever” and Hosea: “Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?”
So death is portrayed as an enemy, an evil (even if a necessary one, for the sake of justice). But the whole point of the gospel is that it is an evil borne by Jesus himself, so that we don’t have to be burdened with it. We already knew that it was an evil – God asks in Ezekiel: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” Capital punishment removes the possibility of this: and it seems to be in clear contravention of what God wants. How much more, then, do we know this through Jesus? Surely the only reason for capital punishment is for retribution – but how can we do this in light of Jesus’ satisfaction of any need for retribution? And why do we limit it to certain cases? I will argue shortly that this “threshold” criterion, or the restriction of capital punishment to particularly heinous cases, fails dramatically. So even if justice does mean giving people what they’ve given of (which is controversial), it seems clear that any need for justice, so understood, was fulfilled by Jesus on the cross.
Biblical injunctions against evil
And if death is an evil (or, at least, if killing is), it is hard to see how Christians can support the death penalty in light of Peter’s command: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” Murder is an evil, sure. And yet here Christians are called to bless those who do evil. Is killing someone back a blessing? Is letting the government kill them a blessing? Surely that is immensely implausible. Paul goes further:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse … do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 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. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doin this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
The relevance of this passage hardly needs explicating. Every single verse is so blindingly obviously against retribution – Jesus has paid retribution for our sins, so that we don’t have to. And if anyone rejects the forgiveness found in Jesus, God will deal with them in the end. It is hardly the case that if we don’t enact retributive justice, no one will. And Paul, at least, is explicitly clear that we are to leave it to God. And if you don’t like Paul, there’s always Jesus himself:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Jesus’ treatment of those deserving of death
It is also instructive to look at how Jesus treated people who deserved death. To begin with, the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 seems to provide overwhelming evidence against the admissibility of the death penalty for Christians. A Christian’s chief moral direction should come from the teachings and actions of Jesus, and this seems to be as good an example as any of Jesus’ attitude towards those who society (and even God) thought deserving of the death penalty. An adultress is brought in, guilty and deserving death, according to God’s law. What is Jesus’ response? “You’re right, this person is beyond redemption, kill her!” Or perhaps “I guess this woman could be a recipient of God’s grace… but this is just so heinous, I think we’d better give the enemy what he wants by killing her.” Or maybe even: “Ah, yes, well as much as I might be against individual humans killing her, the government can totally go for it!” These responses rightly seem ridiculous in light of what Jesus actually says: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her … has no one condemned you? … [No] … then neither do I condemn you.” This final sentence is particularly interesting. Jesus takes the death penalty not to be a God-endorsed function of the state, nor an appropriate means of protecting society, but a condemnation. And yet what does Jesus command elsewhere? “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” And that even he (at least in his first coming) “did not come to condemn the world, but to save it”. If Jesus himself commands us not to judge, that even he did not condemn, and that the death penalty (even when deserved) is a condemnation of a person, what right on heaven or earth do we have to exercise it?
But Jesus’ response is far more extreme than that. Jesus died for those who deserved death – if we are truly followers of him taking up our own crosses, we should be prepared to do the same. Did Christ call for others to kill murderers? Did he call for the government to do it? No, he blessed them, called for their forgiveness, died for them, and asked his followers to do the same. This is seen most powerfully when we examine the threshold view – that the death penalty is warranted only in some extreme cases of moral depravity. For, on this account, first-degree murder is one of the instances most deserving of death. But in the most dramatic encounter between Jesus and murderers – Jesus’ crucifixion itself – what is Jesus’ response? “Father, forgive them”.
But there are far worse problems with this threshold view: not only is it incompatible with Jesus’ actions towards those who deserved death, but it seems to say that God’s grace is not really wide enough. To say that something is just “too far” limits God’s mercy in an almost blasphemous way. For “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Are we saying that God’s grace is not enough to save murderers?
But even this doesn’t get at the most fundamental problem with the threshold view. I was once in a discussion about capital punishment, when someone said (as an argument for the death penalty), “I seem to read [Acts 25:11] as Paul implying that there are cases where someone could be guilty of a crime deserving death.” This understatement astonished me, because the fact is that, according to Biblical Christianity, we are all deserving of death, we are all murderers, and we are all guilty of the most heinous crime imaginable. It amazes me that people talk of murderers deserving the death penalty, forgetting that they themselves are part of a race which has rejected and hated God, and killed his Son. Jesus took the punishment of death for all of us – to say that we don’t deserve death rejects this fact, and to suppose that we are not all guilty of this most heinous crime is simply false. But if we are all guilty of this, it seems absurd to limit the death penalty only to a few people who we think are just extra bad. The fact is that we are all overwhelmingly bad, so bad that God died in place of us. We are all guilty of the worst crime and deserving of death, and yet none of us are so bad that God cannot save and forgive us. As odd as it sounds, even murder, a symptom of this primary sin, pales in comparison. And it seems hugely implausible that our punishment of different humans should vary so dramatically when there is proportionately so little difference in the level and severity of sin between humans.
It gets worse than this, though. Consider Jesus’ words: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgemen. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” John puts this even more starkly: Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.” Can anyone honestly say they have never hated anyone? I doubt it. And yet, according to the Bible, this makes us all murderers. How, then, can we call for the death of others and not of ourselves? Such a position attributes ourselves with the most abject false righteousness. To propose the death penalty is to undermine our own sin, and to undermine our own sin is to undermine God’s grace. I submit that only when we really take our own sin and depravity seriously do we really grasp God’s grace – and that taking it seriously undermines any support for a non-universal death penalty. And what is Jesus’ response to all of us? To call for our death? Or to bless us, forgive us, and extend the offer of life? If Jesus extends the offer of life to us while we were his enemies and murderers, how can we fail to do the same to others?
Why conservatives should oppose the death penalty
Let me offer a few final thoughts on why conservative Christian positions ought to lead to even more opposition to the death penalty. Firstly, those who think that one has to be a Christian in this life to avoid hell (i.e. soteriological exclusivists) would be supporting the decision to completely end someone’s chances of eternal life, and so effectively consigning the person to hell. This seems to me obviously completely inadmissible – that, rather than heeding Paul’s wish that “I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ” for the sake of others’ salvation, we are instead in favour of putting an end to someone’s chance of salvation for the sake of retribution which we are told has been paid by Jesus.
Secondly, as I hope has been made clear in the last section, a full and extensive recognition of sin is precisely the kind of view which illuminates God’s grace, and which highlights the fact that, if the death penalty were ever appropriate, we should all be on the receiving end.
Thirdly, opposition to the death penalty comports best with extreme pro-life positions. According to the most conservative Christian positions, even the unborn are, in some sense, implicated in sin. On the most conservative rendering, even they are not innocent. But in that case, it is hard to see why one should be pro-life when it comes to abortion but not when it comes to capital punishment.
Fourthly, the death penalty is at odds with the position of the early church. In light of the passages examined in this article, it is no wonder the early Christians were unanimously against capital punishment, and even against serving in the army. I am thankful that the Roman Catholic Church has preserved at least this former tradition to this day.
So I think there is very good reason for Christians to oppose the death penalty. In my experience, alternative interpretations of the passages given here, and alternative ethical frameworks which accept the passages but still support capital punishment, seem to be much more contrived, and seem to have to squish the Biblical passages into a framework which already holds to capital punishment, for whatever reason. I think it is obvious that the rejection of the death penalty allows us to accept the most natural interpretations of these passages, without forcing us to adopt any contrived or complicated ethical framework. The question we really have to honestly ask ourselves is, what are the most natural interpretations and frameworks? And if we came to the debate with a neutral view, waiting to hear what the Bible had to say on the issue, on which side would the balance of evidence lie? Do we see critics of capital punishment make contrived manoeuvres to try and fit Jesus’ teaching into their pre-conceived framework, or do we see proponents of capital punishment do so? Bear in mind that, if the critics are right, then capital punishment is murder. This suggests that we should be extremely prudent and be really sure that capital punishment is acceptable before allowing it. Can supporters really be so confident that Jesus endorses it that they are willing to risk being complicit in murder? That seems to me extremely implausible. In the end it comes down to Jesus. What sounds more characteristic of him? “You’re all sinners who have rejected God, been his enemy and killed his Son, and you are all murderers because you have hated in your heart, but I am extending this offer of life to all of you, so that you might receive mercy and forgiveness” or “You’re all sinners who have rejected God, been his enemy and killed his Son, and you are all murderers because you have hated in your heart, but a few of you have committed some extra particular sins which I feel make you deserve death even more, so I think the government should kill you”?
To me, it’s obvious.