Unless something drastic happens, the State of Tennessee (my state) will execute its first inmate in 9 years. The crime was horrendous. The condemned should never walk free again. But I don’t believe he should be killed. Nothing will be gained from his death. Closure for the victim’s family will not occur. All it will do is cause more pain. More violence. More loss.
This morning The Tennessean had an article about how views on the death penalty divides Christians. The stats the article cited from Pew Research, though not surprising, were still staggering. Especially the number of evangelical Christians who favor capital punishment (73%). In his book, Executing Grace, evangelical activist, Shane Claiborne, writes how most executions today happen in states within the Bible Belt. Recently, he wrote an article summarizing this fact. And just last week, Pope Francis declared the death penalty to be wrong and against the teachings of the Gospel.
As an evangelical, I believe the Bible and the teachings of Jesus, in their entirety, teach against the death penalty as we know it. I believe God is a just God. I believe the Bible teaches restorative justice. I believe capital punishment to be antithetical to God’s will, as well as the biblical understanding of justice. Let me briefly explain some of the reasons I believe this.
The main Scripture people use in favor of capital punishment is Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” This seems to be cut and dry. God said, “If you kill someone, you should be killed.” Closely related to this verse are the verses in the Old Testament Law about eye for eye, tooth for tooth, bruise for bruise, “but whoever kills a man must be put to death” (Leviticus 24:21). It’s easy to dismiss the Mosaic Law because most evangelical Christians understand we are no longer under law but under grace. I know of no one who thinks we should still execute children for parental disobedience, even though doing so was part of the Mosaic Law (see Leviticus 20:9).
According to most evangelical Christians, there are two types of laws in the Mosaic Law – Social/Cultural Laws and Moral Laws. Because of Jesus’ finished work on the cross, we are no longer under the social/cultural laws. We are only under the moral laws that are repeated in the New Testament. The New Testament passage most pro-capital punishment people cite is Romans 13:1-7, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The loophole, that gets people off the Mosaic Law hook, is that Genesis 9:6 is not part of the Mosaic Law because it predates the Law of Moses. Thus, capital punishment is still applicable for people who have murdered another person. However, a simple reading of the text, and understanding of the Law, closes that loophole.
If, because it predates the Law, Genesis 9:6 is still in force, then so is Genesis 9:4-5, “But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellowman.” Thus, if you believe v. 6, then you must also believe it is a sin to eat sushi, a sin to eat a rare steak, and a sin to euthanize your pets. If you don’t believe those things are sins, then you cannot use v. 6 as a proof-text for capital punishment. It just doesn’t work!
Furthermore, if you do believe Genesis 9:6 teaches capital punishment for today, then you have to at least admit that if this is a law of God, it is not an absolute law. Why? Because God did not always require a life for a life! He did not require Cain to die for killing able. He did not require David to die for killing Uriah. He did not require Absalom to die for killing Ammon, and on and on it goes. Capital Punishment cannot be an absolute truth because God cannot violate absolute truths.
I think the entirety of God’s Word teaches that if there is another way for justice to be carried out besides the taking of another life, that is what justice requires.
(One more thing: Saying that God’s covenant with Noah predates the Law and is thus somehow above the Law, is simply not correct. Yes, historically, God’s covenant with Noah came before the Law of Moses. But Noah’s covenant was a precursor to the Law. The Mosaic Law was an expounding and an explanation of God’s covenant with Noah. Historically you can separate the two. But theologically and practically, the two cannot be separated.)
Now lets jump to Romans 13:1-7. The key is v. 4 where it says the government has been ordained by God and does not “bear the sword for nothing.” What people fail to mention is the whole context of Romans 13:1-7 has nothing to do with Capital Punishment and everything to do with paying taxes (see Romans 13:6-7). I know of no one who seriously thinks the penalty for not paying your taxes should be death. However, in Paul’s day, that very well could have happened. Besides, if you truly believe the government has the right to carry out Capital Punishment because the government has been ordained by God, then you have to allow that right for ALL GOVERNMENTS. Thus, we have no right in our country to tell another country that honor killing is wrong (as an example), or even that Hitler was wrong (as an example). The point is, Romans 13 has nothing to do with present day Capital Punishment. Furthermore, in no way does Romans 13 teach that governments, though ordained by God, are infallible.
The story we need to listen to the most is the story of how Jesus dealt with the woman caught in adultery (see John 8:1-11). According to the Law, she should have been executed (as well as the man, but why he is not in trouble is another story). Instead, Jesus said to the accusers, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:8). Everyone walked away without throwing a single rock.
Through this story, could Jesus be saying to us today, “If you believe in the death penalty, examine your own heart. If you have never sinned, then you be the one that flips the switch for electrocutions or mixes the concoction for lethal injections. But if you are not without sin, don’t you dare condemn someone else.”
It has been my experience that most evangelical Christians who support the death penalty do so because the crimes people have committed have been so grotesque. Thus, the condemned are getting what they deserve! In fact, they deserve much worse! However, that argument, to me, sounds more like vengeance and revenge instead of justice. And God is very clear about that! He says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay…Do not take revenge…leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘it is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:19). Hmm, God says the same thing in both the Old and New Testament. Apparently that is still applicable to today.
The bottom line is this: Everyone has been created in the image of God and regardless of what any person has done, God’s image is still with them.
I guess Pope Francis was right when he said capital punishment is always wrong and never acceptable because in all cases it is an attack on “human dignity.” Killing, even state sponsored killing, is an attack on the very image of God in which all of us have been created.