Thursday, July 23, 2009

Reflections on the death penalty at lethal injection number 1,000

Marvallous Keene and three accomplices went on a three-day murder and robbery rampage in Dayton, Ohio that began on Christmas Eve 1992 and left six people dead. His victims included an 18-year old mother gunned down in a phone booth. He was executed on Tuesday and he became the 1,000th person to be put to death by lethal injection in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Keene's crime was horrible and the state was right to take his life but it should have done so through life imprisonment rather than execution.

You might respond that the Bible supports the death penalty. If the scriptures support the death penalty, it certainly cannot be argued that they support a mandatory death penalty. If the Bible supported a mandatory death penalty then Moses would have been executed for murdering the Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew. If the Bible supported a mandatory death penalty then David would have been executed for murdering Bathsheba’s husband. If the Bible supported a mandatory death penalty then Cain would have been executed for killing Abel.

Cain’s case is particularly interesting. Moses and David went on to become biblical heroes even though they were also murderers. But Cain, according to the Bible, had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In the New Testament, 1 John 3:12, we are told that Cain “belonged to the evil one.” Yet, even though Cain is said to belong to the devil himself, God spared this murderer and warned that anyone who dared to take matters in to their own hands by killing Cain would suffer a harsh punishment. So God punished Cain, the first murderer, but he would not execute him and he took steps to see that no one else executed him either. That’s God’s direct pattern to us for punishing murderers based on his own punishment of the first murderer.

So if you say the Bible supports the death penalty you cannot say it supports a mandatory death penalty. However, if you wish to strictly follow the biblical guidelines for capital punishment, then you need to push for some new laws. You need to press for legislation that makes provision for the execution of rebellious children. The Bible allows this (Deut. 21:18-21). I know some parents who may from time to time wish this were the law of the land, but are you ready to start state executions of rebellious kids?

If you want to do the death penalty strictly as the Bible allows then you need to push for legislation providing for the execution of adulterers. The Bible allows this too (Lev. 20:10). I know some spouses who may wish this were the law of the land, but do you think we should have state sponsored killing of unfaithful spouses?

We as a society have never practiced the death penalty exactly as the biblical law allows.


Our culture outlawed slavery over 140 years ago even though the Bible allows slavery. The Bible regulated slavery in a society in which it was strictly the norm as it regulated the death penalty in a society in which capital punishment was strictly the norm. While it could be argued that the Bible allows slavery, historians say principles of the New Testament ended the practice here and in other Western societies. In like manner it is time that the principles of the New Testament end the death penalty as well.

Romans 1:16 tells us that the gospel is "the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes" (TNIV). The power of God is powerful enough to transform anyone, even murderers, but not if we give them lethal injections first. We can protect society from murderers short of killing them. Because life is precious and because the gospel, the power of God, can transform anyone we must put murderers in prison for life rather than executing them.

Evangelical Christians tend to have a serious inconsistency in their thought process on this point and this inconsistency has shown itself several times down through the years, perhaps most pointedly in one particular case. Back in 1998 Karla Faye Tucker was to be executed in Texas for murdering two people with a pickax. But Tucker had also undergone a jailhouse conversion. You may remember the TV news footage showing her worshipping and reading her Bible. By all accounts she underwent a genuine salvation experience. Because of her profession of faith, many evangelical Christians, including the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, began to plea for Karla Faye Tucker to be spared the death penalty.

If she had been unconverted, hardened criminal headed for hell, many evangelical Christians would have said, “Yeah! Serves her right! Let her have it!” But since she had been converted and headed for heaven many fought to keep her alive in her prison cell. Didn’t these evangelicals have this backwards?

I mean, if we care about keeping people out of hell, shouldn’t we be begging for a little more time to witness to those on death row who are headed for hell? Why fight for the lives of inmates going to heaven while pushing for the deaths of inmates going to hell? It does not seem to make good biblical sense.

Do you see the inconsistency here? We believe the gospel is the power of God that can transform anyone, even murderers. We believe that Jesus wants for us to use the gospel, the power of God, to keep people out of hell. But then many evangelicals want to hurry up and execute inmates headed for hell while they try to save inmates headed for heaven.

There is a serious problem in that thinking, and do you know what the problem is? Hate. We love inmates like Karla Faye Tucker that are headed for heaven, but hate the other inmates that we think are going to hell. Did Jesus call us to hate?

"Life for life" is the principle given in Deuteronomy 19:21 and several other passages. I agree with that principle. I am in full agreement that the state should take the lives of murderers like Keene. But this should be done through life imprisonment. Either way they die in state custody where they are no threat to society and with life imprisonment we uphold the biblical principle of "life for life" while also upholding the crucial scriptural principle of the sanctity of human life.

Being true to the biblical principles related to the punishment of murderers does not require us to execute murderers. We can take their lives behind bars where they are no longer a threat to society and where the gospel, the power of God, can still transform them. Study after study has shown that capital punishment has no deterrent effect on crime. Moral questions should not be decided based on money, but if we were to factor in dollars and cents, the death penalty costs a lot more than life imprisonment. Furthermore the Bible does not require the death penalty for murderers even in the Old Testament and it could be argued that principles of the New Testament are against the death penalty.

Would that we could end the death penalty in this country before we get to lethal injection number 1,001. But, since Ohio has another execution scheduled for next month, this seems unlikely.

2 comments:

O' said...

God (the Old Testament one) killed numerous people in the Bible - men, women and even innocent children

Just because he spared one murderer doesn't validate anything.

David Stratton said...

Thanks for commenting. My point is that one cannot use the Bible to make the case for a mandatory death penalty because murderers like Moses, David and Cain were spared. I find Cain's case particularly interesting because one might think him particularly undeserving of mercy since the scriptures indicate that he "belonged to the evil one."

One might say that the Bible allows the death penalty but the case cannot be made that the scriptures teach that the death penalty is required. Since we can adequately protect society at large from murderers through life imprisionment I think the Bible's high view of life compells us to take the lives of murderers by locking them up for life.