May 29, 2015

The Justice of the Death Penalty

This week Nebraska’s legislature overrode its governor’s veto of a bill to end the death penalty in Nebraska. Nebraska is the nineteenth US state to ban the death penalty. The editorial board of the New York Times celebrated this decision writing, “But the death penalty has never been about protecting public safety, only exacting hollow vengeance….The Nebraska vote… is an acknowledgment by reasonable people of all political ideologies that capital punishment is an abhorrent and indefensible practice. If that realization can happen in the deep-red heart of America, it can happen anywhere.” Mainline Protestant churches, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Orthodox Church in America, and many self-identified evangelicals oppose the death penalty.

Some Christians argue that the inherent dignity of the human person precludes the death penalty; others argue that Christians are called to forgiveness, not vengeance, and that the death penalty attempts to solve vengeance with vengeance. These claims can be easily dismissed by a cursory glance at relevant texts of Scripture and the logical distinction between Christian persons and the office of the magistrate. Indeed, God claims that vengeance is his and that it is the magistrate who he uses to enact that that vengeance upon wrongdoers. For murder, the penalty is unequivocally death (this pronouncement applies to all of creation and pre-dates the Mosaic law).

A more reasonable and conservative position in opposition to the death penalty is taken by Cardinal Dulles in an article in First Things. Dulles notes that both Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition (and indeed essentially all Catholic theologians until about the 1950s) do not oppose the death penalty. He notes that opposition to the death penalty “has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life” and that early abolition of the death penalty was usually done over the protests of believers.

Dulles, while admitting the right of the State to inflict capital punishment, argues that “killing should be avoided if the purposes of punishment can be obtained by bloodless means.” These purposes of punishment are: “rehabilitation, defense against the criminal, deterrence, and retribution.” He argues that, while the death penalty does not rehabilitate the criminal to society, it may lead him to a relationship with God; he believes defense (in our day and age) can be accomplished by life imprisonment without parole; he believes execution is not effective as a deterrent. His argument against retribution rests on the idea that, in our secular society, execution is viewed not as a ministration of justice, but as an instrument of the will and anger of the people. He argues that, since imprisonment serves the purposes of punishment as well or better and since unjust execution may occur, the death penalty should be avoided as a punishment (though it is not unjust in se).

Cardinal Dulles’ argument, however, fails to take into account the human dignity of the victim who also is made in the image of God. God commands, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” Rather than being a simple proof text, this text reveals the nature of the evil of murder. Made in the image and likeness of God, even fallen man is crowned with the dignity and preciousness that his integrity as a distinct person demands. Human personhood is dependent for being on God, who is Being itself. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the only non-dependent beings; thus, for a man to violate the personhood of another man through murder is to set himself up as God, the only giver and taker of life.

In the case of government, various levels of authority over persons are delegated by God. This is, of course, recognized by St. Paul, but is also noted by our Lord when he says to Pilate, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.” Government therefore, consciously or not, derives its authority over man – especially in the realm of capital punishment – from God; legitimacy is something, perhaps, that government gain from popular consent. Men cannot give government the power to execute, that power can only be delegated by God.

To deny the legitimacy or necessity of capital punishment by the proper authorities of a murderer convicted with surety is to elevate the life of the murderer over that of his victim. Assuming knowledge of the penalty for murder has been promulgated, by murdering another, the murderer has surrendered his own life. Contrary to the arguments of those that oppose the death penalty, the failure to apply the death penalty is a failure to recognize the human dignity of the victim – indeed, God’s command gives no other options for punishment.

In examining punishment, the purposes Dulles listed cannot all be considered equal. Rehabilitation, defense, and deterrence are all secondary to the dispensation of justice (retribution). The blood of the victim calls out from the ground for justice. Indeed, there can be no rehabilitation without justice because without just punishment, the criminal has not expiated his crime. In his command, God established the principle of justice for murder. While it may be up to the state to weigh mitigating factors in its decision, the state is charged with insuring justice. Mercy belongs to God and his Church. When justice is removed as the primary consideration in a punishment, it becomes merely a means to promote good within the criminal and in society. This is fundamentally unjust to the victim.

It is also unjust to the criminal because this approach fails to treat him too as a person capable of making rational decisions and living with the consequences of those decisions. As C. S. Lewis notes, “Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.” The death penalty is the only way of recognizing the personhood of the murderer.

This essay is not intended to argue for the death penalty always and in all cases. Mitigating factors do exist, and our legal system is equipped to examine them. To claim that capital punishment is unjust either inherently or as practiced today is to misunderstand the demands of justice. Capital punishment recognizes the inherent dignity in the personhood of both the victim and the murderer. Capital punishment properly places the demands of justice at the center of the question of punishment. Scripture and the tradition of the Church both proclaim the justice of the death penalty for appropriate crimes; Christians today do not have either the reasons or the right to disagree.

16 Responses to The Justice of the Death Penalty

  1. The principle of why murder is heinous is clear in Gen 9:6, as is the remedy under the Noahic Covenant. But are we then obligated also to eat only kosher food (no blood in the meat, 9:4-5)? The problem is not the principle but the practice of capital punishment, which is then parsed out in the Mosaic Law. Is Maule suggesting that we obey the Law of Moses and stone homosexuals and rebellious sons? After all, the Law is essentially God’s commentary on the principle of Gen 9:6. It is clear that the state has the power of the sword, but the New Testament changed the calculus of how Christians read the Law, which is now written on our hearts. If we are to follow the new law of love clearly taught in the NT, how does that lead us to capital punishment? If we do not follow the Spirit and love because we fear being too emotional, then what are we saying of Paul’s teachings on living by the Spirit? The lines are far too blurry to use one passage to argue that the only biblical response to “murder” (however that is parsed) is the death penalty.

    • onemanonewoman says:

      1. God applies justice fairly, not as humans do who consider the emotional side. Without a death penalty, more could be killed. The more lax the punishment, the more others are unafraid to kill. I expect crime statistics to increase for Nebraskans.

      2. Supporting killers in prison for life is borne by taxpayers, and the Nebraskan legislature just added to the total debt.

      • Thanks for your thoughts. We are not a theocracy so God does not “apply” justice in our court systems. He has delegated that to the state, and states are not always just (such as with Sharia Law). Your reasoning is personal and practical, but not biblical–it’s about the values you “feel” are important. The point of my comment was that we are no longer under the Mosaic Law, but are now under Christ’s Law of Love, written in our hearts by the Spirit of God, and we cannot talk about the death penalty without asking what Christ would think about it.

        • onemanonewoman says:

          I cannot imagine that Christ would think that we should financially support a man in jail for a lifetime.

        • onemanonewoman says:

          The Mighty King loves justice. Justice is an important matter of the law (Matt 23:23). Isaiah and the prophets often spoke of justice and admonished those for allowing evil to persist. There are some who minister out of love to those convicted of the death penalty, in order to offer the gift of salvation through repentance of sins, and they will receive their reward. However, God demands justice. That is a function of government. Of course, man’s justice is not perfect, and not every murderer is convicted of the death penalty, either, even when it is a part of the state law, because mercy still abounds.

    • dudleysharp says:


      Your argument is secular and avoids the eternal.

      The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation

      For more 2000 years, Christian New Testament support for the death penalty, from Popes, Saints, Doctors and Fathers of the Church, church leadership, biblical scholars and theologians that, in breadth and depth, overwhelms any teachings to the contrary, particularly those wrongly dependent upon secular concerns such as defense of society and the poor standards of criminal justice systems in protecting the innocent.

      Jesus and the Death Penalty

      “All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

      Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

      Pope Pius XII: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.

  2. Greg Paley says:

    Opposition to capital punishment has nothing to do with justice, it’s all a pose: the people who oppose capital punishment like to present themselves as being more compassionate than the rest of us.

    • Paul Hoskins says:

      It’s the same principle at work among people who oppose spanking kids, except that those people aren’t just faux-compassionate, they are also spineless. It is child abuse not to discipline kids. “I don’t believe in spanking” translates as “I don’t have enough spine to stand up to my own kids.” We know how kids of spineless parents turn out, and our whole society has to live with the consequences ever day.

  3. yolo says:

    Exactly: “Dulles notes that both Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition (and indeed essentially all Catholic theologians until about the 1950s) do not oppose the death penalty.”

  4. yolo says:

    Justice is a foreign concept to the left unless it’s some kind of social mishmash nonsense that holds nobody accountable for individual actions.

  5. brookspj says:

    Everyone seems to make the same mistake when it comes to talking about the death penalty because they either try to place themselves in the place of the criminal or his/her victim(s). The person you should be imagining yourself as is the executioner. You can argue about the powers and roles of the state and government until you’re blue in the face, but the simple fact stands that at the end of the day the state doesn’t pull the switch, fire the guns, tie the noose, or inject the poison. A person does, a human being like just like you and me. We’ve never been comfortable thinking about the executioner as someone like us. Why do you think we used to make them wear ugly black hoods? We always wanted to make them into some abstract entity representing the state or God’s judgment, etc., but they’re just costumes. At the end of the day that person goes home to his or her family and sleeps in his or her bed. How easily would you sleep every night if did that during the day? Could you do it? Would you expect others to? That’s the question every death penalty advocate has to ask themselves.

    • yolo says:

      Ask a prostitute. They have had the same question for 5,000 years. I don’t believe that the question has deterred them. Killing has never deterred military men. We need military men in times of just war.

      • brookspj says:

        Then why don’t we pass a law that requires every American adult to submit their names for execution duty? Like jury duty, only a little different. Why expect only a handful of professionals to do what you clearly believe to be our collective duty? To do what you claim is just and good? Government for the people, of the people, and by the people, right? If it’s the state’s job to execute murderers then shouldn’t we all do our part?
        I don’t have it in me to kill another human being, even in the name of justice. I don’t expect others to do it for me. Maybe I’m coward, maybe I’m self-righteous if not about this than probably something else. I’m not making any claim of moral superiority. I simply don’t think I’m living out the Golden Rule properly if I leave it to others to kll for me.

        • yolo says:

          You are aware that only a sliver of our population, currently, has any connection with current active duty? There is a real bifurcation. Yet, we all get to elect the politicians that can declare war. That isn’t a negative thing, no matter how much the left argues otherwise and it definitely does not justify the duplication of fake “national service requirement” that exist in Europe. That said, there is little doubt that drafted servicemen participated in the post-WW2 hangings of Nazi war criminals.

          • yolo says:

            And currently with drone strikes.

          • brookspj says:

            I’m against drone strikes. The potential cost in human life in war is one of the primary measures in just war theory. Drones have the potential of removing one of the best safeguards against unrestrained warfare.

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