Should Christians Support the Death Penalty? Two Perspectives…

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This post comes after the “botched” execution of a death-row inmate in Oklahoma on April 29th, which, instead of quickly killing him, gave him a long and painful death resulting from a heart attack (source). 

This story has inevitably led to questions as to the legitimacy of the death sentence. Should Christians support the death sentence? This is such a controversial issue, which is why I will leave this question up to two theologians that I respect.

Southern Seminary leader Al Mohler affirms that the death penalty, being rooted in the Noahic Covenant, should be supported. “The death penalty was explicitly grounded in the fact that God made every individual human being in his own image”. This is very true. Every human is made in the image of God, and therefore, should not be killed. A murderer is found not only taking a life, but defacing the very image of God. Mohler also affirms that “in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul instructs Christians that the government ‘does not bear the sword in vain.’ Indeed, in this case the magistrate ‘is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the evildoer’ [Romans 13:4]”. In other words, God himself uses human government to punish those who murder, which implies capital punishment.

Mohler then considers the justice system in America as corrupt in some cases (I heartily agree), and that not all cases of murder should lead to the death sentence. He also says that in a just legal system, all peoples, not just the rich, should get a fair trial (again, agreed). Mohler concludes that “Christian thinking about the death penalty must begin with the fact that the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary, but should be exceedingly rare”. You can read the rest of the article here: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/05/01/why-christians-should-support-the-death-penalty/

Another theologian that I like disagrees with Mohler, however. Theologian and seminary teacher Roger Olson takes exception with Mohler based on the fact that America is not built (it maybe at one time was, but it is no longer, I suppose) on Biblical principles. He says, “Mohler seems to believe that IF the Bible calls for something American government should practice it. That’s a huge leap off the pages of the Old Testament to modern, secular government”. I actually agree with this point, though I don’t like where Olson takes it. Mohler assumes that America should run on biblical principles, which Olson rightly asserts could lead to the mindset that America should be a “‘Christian Reconstructionist’s theocracy”. Should Christians want a type of postmillennial Christianized society? I agree with Olson in saying , “no”. Nor should we ever expect that–in fact that Bible makes it clear that the culture all throughout the world will only digress.

Olson takes the argument too far however in saying, “the Old Testament ‘clearly calls for’ many things—including capital punishment for a broad range of offenses including adolescent rebellion against parents. Certainly for idolatry. Does Mohler think we, as a whole society, should then expand the death penalty for all the offenses for which it is called for in the Old Testament? I doubt it…”. I don’t like this because Olson is now comparing Mosaic law with the Noahic Covenant which came before that. The Mosaic Law applied only to the nation of Israel, while the Noahic mandate applied to everyone. Shouldn’t this delineation be made? I think so. Noah was not an Israelite, nor was Israel even in existence when he was alive — so why should we compare the Mosaic Law with this command? There should be a distinction. 

I will agree however that we really should probe these issues further than Mohler did in his post. And I agree that Olson raises good questions here: should we expect America to run off of biblical principles? If so, which ones? And which ones shouldn’t we enforce? Which ones have been fulfilled in Christ? Which ones still stand today? Is capital punishment still applicable today? Besides this, can we trust a secular society to administer just death sentences? Perhaps Mohler could have pressed the issues a bit more.

Olson concludes his argument, saying, “the fact is that capital punishment is never necessary which is the main reason ethical people, including Christians, should oppose it. Deadly force should never be used when it is not necessary. Capital punishment is absolutely never necessary”. I can appreciate Olson’s point here. Deadly force is often times necessary; self-defense, war, et al. But, in his mind, the death-sentence is not one of those “necessary” forces. You can read the rest of his article here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/05/my-response-to-al-mohlers-defense-of-the-death-penalty/

We should think long over these issues, and really consider what the Bible has to say. We also need to make clear qualified distinctions between Old Testament laws that are fulfilled in Christ (Mt 5:17) and laws that still apply in any given context. I have to say, I was not thrilled with Al Mohler’s lack of scriptural insight concerning these issues. But, neither was I thrilled with Olson’s lack of clarity on exactly when deadly force is necessary with criminals, and exactly what the purpose of the civil government is. Clearly the government yields the sword — if not to kill, then in what way? Either way, we need to be immersed in scripture when thinking over these things.

Finally, as Christians, we should always have a filter when we look at criminals. As much as they deserve death, so do we. And none of us are too far to be washed by the blood of Jesus.

So should Christian’s support the death sentence? I’ll let you examine Mohler’s and Olson’s arguments. It’s a question I’m still trying answer.

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One thought on “Should Christians Support the Death Penalty? Two Perspectives…

  1. Pingback: Should Christians Support the Death Sentence? Part 2: My Answer… | Lucas Hattenberger

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