Today we’re going to examine and address some other arguments which people raise from Scripture against the death penalty, what I consider the weakest and the strongest.
The weakest ones which I’ve heard people cite are the cases in which a biblical character commits murder and yet God didn’t demand the ultimate penalty for them. The ones that come first to mind are Cain, David, Moses, and Paul (in his days as a persecutor). Moses is a little more ambiguous. He seems to be acting on his own initiative, not the Lord’s, when he killed the Egyptian who was beating one of his countrymen. He certainly knew he’d broken Egyptian law since he hid the body. But the problem with this story is that God never comments directly on his actions. He might have been trying to start a revolt against the Egyptians, or it might have just been a fit of anger. Certainly the Egyptians as a nation were guilty of widespread murder (of infant boys), so it’s not like he just waylaid some innocent guy. Like I said, the case for murder against Moses is a little vague. Paul was guilty of murder in God’s eyes, but to my knowledge he wasn’t breaking any human laws when he was persecuting Christians.
David was certainly guilty of cold-blooded murder against Uriah, even if he never directly drew a sword on him. And Cain’s the quintessential murderer of his brother. And God dealt personally with them (going so far as to speak to them directly), and he never demanded their lives for what they did.
I could go into the tall weeds about how David was a special case because of the Lord’s plan for him and Cain was necessary because of the paucity of the human population at the time, but that’d be entirely beside the point. I just have two counterarguments to make. 1) God is the one who has the authority to—for his own purposes—commute sentences as he sees fit. He has the authority to do things which we don’t have, which should be a DUH! kind of statement. Just to clarify though: Just because God does something on his own, that doesn’t affect what he’s commanded us to do as a society. The Torah lists about two dozen crimes for which it calls for the death penalty, including cursing one’s parents, kidnapping, or breaking the Sabbath, and there’s no indication from God’s word that the few cases--in which he chose not to demand the full implementation of his justice--abrogated in any way the general principle that he demands the ultimate punishment for certain crimes.
2) We must distinguish between God’s personal forgiveness of someone in the “vertical” relationship and the carrying out of justice under the “horizontal” relationship of public law. If I have a horrible moment and murder someone and then repent and ask for forgiveness right then, my Father explicitly promises from his word that he will forgive my sin and never bring it up again. Never. That’s his promise, and it’s a glorious one. But under no circumstances does that, nor should it, mitigate my responsibilities before the law to face justice for what I’ve done. God promises that he forgives as soon as we confess and repent, but he never promises that by doing so we won’t ever have to face earthly consequences for what we've done. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be the case.
Quite frankly, some well-meaning Christians really have gotten confused on this issue at times. There was the case of a woman who’d murdered her own children then (supposedly) repented before God, and more than a few Christians asked for her sentence to be mitigated or even pardoned. This wouldn’t work for a number of reasons: A) We have no way of peering into anyone’s heart, so we have no way of confirming/denying if someone has truly repented or not, and B) If we instituted a policy of letting people go if they supposedly repented, that would constitute an open invitation to every would-be criminal out there. There’s NO way we could maintain anything like a criminal justice system if we started doing that.
Now let’s take a look at what apparently is the strongest—at least for me—argument against capital punishment: The very real possibility (playing the numbers game, almost a certainty) that an innocent person is executed. This is a horror upon horror, and it’s no coincidence that this is the argument that abolitionists prefer to make over all others.
I could go into a lot of logical counter-arguments: DNA testing has made it almost a non-issue, every law (including speeding laws) will produce bad consequences for at least a few, and I could go into arguments about the deterrent value. Opponents say it doesn’t really deter crime, which doesn’t seem to agree with what Scripture says—in fact, the opposite is true. If it does deter murders, then it saves a lot more lives than any (alleged) innocent lives it’s taken. If you looked hard enough, then you could find people who were killed by the speed limit, but it saves a lot more lives than it takes.
But I’m addressing a very specific audience here. I’m not addressing someone who doesn’t take the Bible seriously. I’m not talking to someone who picks and chooses which parts of the Bible he considers authoritative. I’m very explicitly addressing those of us—commonly referred to as Evangelicals—who take the Bible as the literal word from God’s mouth. If that doesn’t describe you, then you can move on.
No, this is addressed to those who take it to be authoritative from cover to cover. How we apply certain passages to today is a question we can debate at another time. But if you believe that the Bible is a real record of what God ordered and thinks, that he actually gave the Torah to Israel, then I have something for you to consider in regards to capital punishment.
I’ve discussed this over in the TAWG Blog, but this really bears repeating: To the degree that Christians are naïve about human nature, they’re not reading or taking seriously their Bibles. The Bible has a very realistic, almost depressing, view of human nature. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is a record of a lot more moral failures than successes. Read the books of the Torah or Judges or 1st or 2nd Samuel just for starters. It has, quite frankly, a very low view of human nature. As Jeremiah put it “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
OK, we’ve established that, right? If that’s the case, then abolitionists need to take this fact into account in their arguments against the death penalty: God, who knows human hearts inside and out, had absolutely no problem with instituting it in ancient Israel. If you take the Bible seriously, then this seems to dismiss a lot of arguments against this punishment. Let’s take them one by one. In this present day, we might—and surely have had, and surely will continue to some degree in the future—have:
Unjust judges. Maybe a judge can be bribed, or maybe he’s prejudiced against the defendant for whatever reason.
Poor representation. Maybe he was poorly represented--not having the money for a high-priced or even competent attorney.
The evidence of the case, for whatever reason, wrongly pointing to an innocent person. This happens a lot more on TV than in real life, but there’s always a nonzero possibility that this could happen.
False witnesses. This would be a subset of the above reason. No matter what we do to try to prevent it, there's always a non-zero chance that multiple witnesses conspire to frame an innocent person.
Once again, I want to emphasize that the Bible is not naïve about human nature; in fact it’s the exactly opposite of naïve. And all of these above possibilities existed back in ancient Israel, probably more than today, right? But God, knowing that all these things might--or would--happen to some degree, weighed these in the balances and still decided to institute the death penalty.
Now granted, he also instituted several safeguards against the above possibilities. We’ll discuss those in the next post. But in the meantime, if you actually take the Bible to be what it claims to be, then you need to deal with the above arguments from Scripture if you’re going to cling to your 100 % opposition to capital punishment. Or am I missing something?