I have gotten into a few different conversations with people about my last post on my stance regarding the death penalty. If you missed the conversation, you can read my post here. I want to take a little more time to clarify a few things regarding my stance.
Here is a quote from my conclusion on the death penalty: “While the death penalty is just, there is a new and better way found by faith in Christ. And I’d rather restrain and incarcerate a murderer for life than sentence him to death in the hopes that he would be redeemed by faith in Christ. As a result, I certainly don’t condemn the death penalty, because it’s simply operating on principles of justice and retribution; but neither do I delight in it”.
First, I want to clarify this: I don’t condemn the death penalty. If someone is genuinely guilty of murder, and is put to death, I cannot argue that “life for life” is wrong. But neither do I have to like it, because there is a better way found in Christ.
The Mosaic Covenant as a revelation of God’s holy standards is just and right. But there is a problem: James says that those who want to operate by this standard need to obey the entire set of rules, or they fail at them all (Js 2:10). The Mosaic Law is a pass / fail system. You either keep every command or none of them. In other words, you either be perfect in every way, or you find yourself to be a sinner deserving of death.
And Paul goes on to say that when this standard is placed on the shoulders of sinners, we all fail. The Law silences us (Rom 3:19), makes us aware of our sin (Rom 5:20), and most importantly, the Law teaches us of our need for a new way toward holiness by way of redemption in Christ (Gal 3:24). The Law reveals that we cannot be holy like God is holy. Consequently, the Law reveals that we all deserve death.
And we can be sure that when God gave the Law to Israel, he not only knew they would fail, but he also had a provision in mind for their failure. This provision was the New Covenant. It was a covenant that, instead of operating by “eye for eye”, “tooth for tooth”, it operated by grace. The New Covenant was a way to make sinners worthy of the death penalty holy as God was holy. Paul says that amazingly, God found a way to be a just God and a justifier of sinners (Rom 3:25).
My point here is that God’s response to our own guilt is not to sentence us to death, but to provide a better way to saving sinners. There’s a big difference between what is “good” and what is “better”. Justice is clearly good. But grace is better! And so if God could have justly killed us all, but instead provided a better way for redemption through Jesus, why shouldn’t Christians desire a better way for those sentenced to death? It baffles me that any justified sinner would want a convicted criminal to die under the death penalty and go to hell, considering what they’ve been forgiven of.
So, I’m not arguing that the death penalty is wrong. I’m simply saying that there is a better way found in Jesus. And as redeemed, justified sinners, we should wish to God that convicted murderers would be redeemed from their situation. And lest we think that murderers can’t be rehabilitated from their sin, there are three murderers that I can think of that did just that: Moses, David, and Paul. Have we forgotten that even a “man after God’s own heart” committed murder? God should have killed him; instead, he forgave him (2 Sam 12:13).
Second, I’m not arguing against God’s inherent ability to give and take life. God obviously has the right to take life. 1 Samuel 2:6 says that “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up”. As the ruler of the cosmos, this is his inherent right.
And I just want us to consider this: God is the only objective Being in the universe. And, God is the only Person who can truly judge our hearts. Why is it that God struck down Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the church, and not David for adultery, false testimony, and murder? Well, we have to assume that God new the intentions of their hearts, their repentance and faith, and made a righteous judgment.
But humans are inherently subjective. We do not judge impartially as we should (Js 2:1-13). How can we be sure that sentencing someone to death is the judgment that God himself wants? How can we be sure we aren’t overreaching our authority? I would argue that we simply cannot know. Beyond this, why does one person receive life in prison and another receive the death penalty? Research shows that when one person receives life and the other the death sentence, it “ranks” murder by a faulty system, or at worst, it is arbitrary (link). Not only this, but it traumatizes the victim’s family when one person gets the death penalty and one gets life in prison. My whole point here is that the American justice system, while it may try to be objective, is subjective. We don’t know people’s hearts, which means that only God can truly judge objectively.
Third, I am not arguing that the government isn’t used by God. Paul clearly says this in Romans 13. All of this I will obviously agree with. But I just want you to notice that in Roans 13, Paul is not giving a course on politics. He is commanding believers not to rebel against the government, because God is sovereign and has allowed rulers to govern. He is not speaking with court officials. He doesn’t even say whether the death penalty is right or wrong; and he certainly doesn’t command it. This passage is inconclusive when it comes to capital punishment, mainly because Paul here is addressing Christians and how they should relate to the government: they should submit.
And I’m not arguing against violence involved in war, or violence done through self-defense or by necessary measure. But this is all deadly violence done necessarily, and beyond that, swiftly. But in America, it takes years, sometimes decades, to finally send a guilty murderer to the chair. The justice system in America is wrought with appeals and long court processes that arguably do more harm than good, both to the murderer, and also to the victim’s family. Rather than spending this time toward recovery, the family is left to spend arduous amounts of effort and time in court. And there are billions of dollars sunk into this process. Many organizations (even non-Christians organizations) have argued that if we distribute that money to rehabilitation for the murderer, and recovery for the victim’s family, that it would do far more good (link). I’m not arguing that the death penalty can’t be used by God (he is sovereign after all), I just think that our system of doing things could arguably be better.
For me, when it comes to the death penalty in America, I do not prefer it, and if I were to be asked about it by a state representative, I’d tell them my opinion. But I certainly don’t want to start a revolution either. Nonetheless, the better option for a criminal is redemption, rehabilitation, and recovery for the family of the victim.
Hopefully this helps clarify things.