Christians and the Death Penalty

Christians have a love/hate relationship with capital punishment, often referred to as the death penalty. This relationship is often found in contrast with positions on abortion, which is simply interesting. Indeed, there are many arguments on both sides of the issue, one of which I dealt with here, but are there any good arguments? I have to ask why there is such reluctance to endorse that which God himself ordained in his law to his people in history and established as a guarantee of justice?

If I were to begin with Scripture itself, the death penalty, in the history of Israel, is invoked only for the most severe crimes: murder, rape, adultery, and treason (which makes it similar to other nations in the ancient near east). There is no decrying of its application in the text, except in cases of injustice. Jesus himself, in a parable, invoked it against those who “would not be ruled”. It’s one of those topics where Scripture is somewhat silent in the rightness or wrongness, but intentionally limits its application.

What brings this question up, is a recent post over at the Rhetoric, Race, and Religion blog by Michael Walker, titled, “How Can We Still Condone the Death Penalty?”

His begins with the thesis,

How can a nation that claims to be founded on religious freedoms, and that many calls a Christian nation, continue to condone the death penalty?

The question seems to set up a false dilemma that in order for a nation to have “religious freedoms” or to call itself a “Christian” nation, it must not either have a death penalty or condone it. Simply thinking through the issue, one would have to argue that part of those “religious freedoms,” which can only be meaningfully grounded within a decidedly Christian worldview, would be a freedom to debate the issue openly as a matter of religious belief.

Michael continues,

This is a question that has gone through my head for some time, and I’ve concluded that capital punishment in our Christian killing nation is less about following the teachings of Jesus (or any single religious leader, for that matter), and more about fear.

That’s a mighty strong terms to throw around. I mean, if Jesus is not the authority—in that, I mean if he is not who he said he was, that is the very God of very God, who gave the law that defined the extent and standards of such punishments—then who else are we to appeal to. It seems as though Michael wants to cut Jesus away from his identity as the Incarnate One. Michael says that this is about “fear”, well let’s see if he can substantiate such a claim.

He continues,

Too often the concepts of law and order get thrown into the mix of politics by those who lean more conservatively, especially in recent years and with the support base for the 45th president.  These same supporters also are much more likely to denigrate women and minorities and any who do not follow heteronormative standards.  What is the link? Fear.

That’s an assertion, it’s not an argument. But then I have to contrast this by the fear mongering that was done by the other person who kept insisting that people would lose their livelihoods if they voted for the man who is now the 45th president of the United States. But, shouldn’t politics be about law and order? Just asking the question.

Michael goes on,

Many fundamental Christians continue to think of God as a punishing God, and consider themselves to be the hand of God on Earth as judgments are passed condemning certain defendants to death.  Many Christians use the Old Testament as the basis for the religious-sanctioned killing of another in the name of law and order.

Oh, Michael, Michael, Michael, you’ve got a serious category error going on in your thinking, and it’s showing. God is a God of Justice, and justice sometimes involves—that’s right—punishment. The church is called the body of Christ, and we are here to extend his righteous rule to the nations by making disciples. It’s not “religious-sanctioned,” it is what is “God-sanctioned” in his law to his people.

Skipping down one or two paragraphs, Michael goes on,

Should we condemn a person to death for a crime against another?  Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law, as the Christ said and many claims as the basis for the same God “yesterday today and tomorrow” and, therefore, the Levitical code should still apply.  Where, then, is the death penalty for adultery?


Now, first, notice the hypocrisy: he is, by implication, saying that Christians who are for capital punishment have no right to condemn anyone, and yet, he’s condemning Christians who support capital punishment. Notice that he completely misses the point: Jesus came to fulfill the law, that is everything that was written about him, not abolish it. Again, he thinks that this is about the Levitical code, while it had some civil laws in it mostly centered in chapters 19 and 20, the Levitical code, was about religious order. The whole law is scattered across the Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, but is given it’s civil application in the text of Deuteronomy. “Where is the death penalty for adultery?” He asks. It’s in God’s law, we could—emphasis on could—rightly have capital punishment for adultery if we were so inclined, but our hearts despise the command of God so much that we could not have it. So, this is not an argument. Let’s see if he can actually give us one.

Michael writes,

The truth of the matter is that capital punishment is more about fear than about morality.  The statistics on the matter don’t lie – a black person who commits a crime against a white person is much more likely to be sentenced to capital punishment.  In the past 40 years, 20 white people have been executed for killing black people, while 288 black people have been executed for killing white people.  That means a black person convicted of killing a white person is over 14 times more likely to be sentenced to death, than in reverse.

Um, Michael, you do realize that blacks, as a statistical group, commit more crime. A look at just 2015 in table 3 of the FBI Uniform Crime Report confirms that, on average, more blacks commit murder than whites, and table 2 also shows that blacks were more than likely to be murder victims by almost 1500 deaths. In fact the ethnicity table makes the numbers that he cites completely irrelevant because the offender/victim intersection is higher for black-on-white than for white-on-black. If more whites are killed by blacks than blacks are killed by whites, it logically follows that more blacks would be more likely to receive the death penalty than whites. The real question that is being ignored is are more murderers being sentenced to death than not? I don’t care what color they are, I care about what they’ve done and that the punishment fits the crime. Notice that he had to go back 40 years and pull up statistically irrelevant data to make the argument, which has absolutely nothing to do with the question. It’s a red herring.

Michael continues,

Jesus taught us to love our neighbor, to welcome the stranger, and to turn the other cheek with our enemies.  Jesus taught us about grace and acceptance and forgiveness.  How then are these teachings of Jesus congruous with the systematic penalty of execution for black on white crime?  Regardless of racial issues, the death penalty robs the defendant of the opportunity for redemption in this life.


Yes, and Jesus also taught us to,

[Not] judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment (John 7:24, ESV)

We, Christians, are to judge by God’s standards, by what is set out in his law.

He is simply emotionalizing the argument: part of the teaching of loving one’s neighbor is drawn from Leviticus 19, which is preceded by,

[…]reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him (Leviticus 19:17, ESV).

Is Michael excusing the criminal actions of some against others because of their skin color? I would certainly hope not. That would seem to violate what Jesus taught about judging rightly. Notice, this has gone from being about the rightness or wrongness of the death penalty in general to a screed about the number of blacks who have been sentenced to death for killing whites. The inconsistency here is that he has no problem whatsoever with the whites who have been sentenced to death for the murder of blacks, what about theiropportunity for redemption in this life.

But to answer Michael’s question directly we have to deal with the straw man that he has set up based upon his false standards. Michael has to respond to the fact that more blacks kill whites than whites kill blacks. Apparently Michael has no problem whatsoever with blacks being executed for the deaths of other blacks or whites being executed for the deaths of other whites, only he has a problem with more blacks being executed for killing whites when the numbers clearly demonstrate that more blacks kill whites than whites kill blacks. It’s inconsistencies like that in reasoning through this issue destroys arguments. Would it satisfy Michael if every convicted murderer received the death penalty. It would satisfy me because that would be fair. Remove the demographics because they don’t matter. What matters is that someone has played God and struck down another image bearer of God unjustly. What Scripture says is that those who do such have made their life forfeit.

Michael continues,

We are to be a light unto the world, yet the nation in which we live has so much healing and reconciliation still to be done, and we have much to do with a history of systematically persecuting minorities, especially black people, within our own borders.

I agree with that, and the only way that we can reconcile is through the preaching of the gospel. For it is only in Christ that we, black, white, red, yellow, and purple with blue polkadots, can be reconciled first to God as our Father, to love Him and to do what he desires, and then to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, united in the Spirit of God.

Michael, you mean well, but you misunderstand the point. Capital punishment has nothing to do with race and everything to do with justice. You’ve got an emotional argument, and you need to tear it down. And you need to ask yourself a question, what would Jesus, who is the incarnate God do?

Also, check out this video featuring Dennis Prager, and ask, what is just?


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