The Death Penalty is Christian Because It’s Biblical
You might have overlooked it during a contentious presidential election, but on November 8, citizens in three states cast other votes: to support capital punishment, despite the arguments of the most prominent clergymen.
In Nebraska, 61 percent voted to repeal their legislature’s bill which had eliminated the death penalty. In Oklahoma, 66 percent approved an amendment to the state constitution ensuring the use of capital punishment. Even in California — one of the most liberal states — 53 percent rejected a proposed statute abolishing executions.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” — Genesis 9: 6
The Death Penalty is Biblical
The Catholic bishops’ conferences in California and Nebraska went on record opposing capital punishment. So did both Catholic bishops and a cross-section of mainline Protestant clergy in Oklahoma. Their opinions reflect the positions of their respective churches and a growing number of evangelicals. But they reject the divine standards for justice as revealed in Scripture. Those standards first appear in Genesis 9: 5-6, in which God orders Noah and his descendants to execute murderers:
For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.
That command followed a flood that destroyed a morally chaotic world – and it is echoed in every book of the Torah, which provides the Bible’s foundation. Genesis 9:5-6 implies three theological principles:
- If God is the author of life, then God retains the prerogative to define the circumstances under which life may be taken.
- God demands that humanity create just societies to protect the innocent.
- Murder is such a heinous violation of the divine image in humanity that execution is the appropriate punishment.
Exodus 20-23 expands upon those principles in what scholars call the lex talonis, which advocates punishment proportional to the offense – the original meaning of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” Instead of encouraging vengeance, as the advocates for abolition maintain, the lex talonis discourages ad hoc vigilantism – the ultimate form of vindictiveness – in favor of judicial due process.
The lex talonis specifies procedures to deal with those who break the Fifth Commandment, often mistranslated as “You shall not kill.” If that translation were correct, then God would be contradicting Himself when he decrees the death penalty. However, the more accurate translation is “You shall not murder.”
The New Testament Affirms Capital Punishment, Too
In the New Testament, Paul unfolds the philosophy behind the lex talonis. In Chapter 12 of his Letter to the Romans, Paul discourages his readers from avenging themselves by quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 (“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay!”). Paul later encourages them to rely on due process through legitimate authorities who “do not bear the sword in vain.” In fact, they are the “servant[s] of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:4)
Paul affirms the moral integrity of the entire Old Testament by writing in his second letter to Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3: 15-17) Paul wrote that before any of the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles were even composed.
Those who support abolishing capital punishment cite John 8: 1-11, Jesus’ intervention on behalf of an adulterous woman about to be stoned. Yet not even Sister Helen Prejean, an ardent abolitionist, uses the passage to support her position. Nor does Prejean contend that the abolitionist position has biblical roots. As she wrote in her book, Dead Man Walking:
It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this.
Prejean adds that the passage “should be read in its proper context,” as “an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment.” (emphasis mine)
The “Seamless Garment” Flouts the Christian Tradition
Catholic opponents of execution also rely on leftist Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “seamless garment” theory, which essentially equates abortion and capital punishment, since both involve killing. But such an equation results in a morally absurd proposition: An unborn child with no capacity to act is no different than an adult or adolescent who has moral responsibility.
Catholics should know that much more authoritative thinkers have taught exactly the opposite. St. Augustine writes in The City of God:
The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ for the representative of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to the Law or the rule of rational justice.
In Summa Theologica, Aquinas asserts:
If a man is a danger to the community … then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgment. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted.
Regarding repentance and rehabilitation, Aquinas argues in Summa Contra Gentiles:
The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement.
Blaming the Victims
The abolitionist position sometimes produces rank indifference toward victims’ friends and families. In 2001, Timothy McVeigh was scheduled for execution after murdering 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick condemned victims’ relatives for watching McVeigh’s execution on closed-circuit television. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told the Washington Post, “It is like going back to the Roman Colosseum. I think that we’re watching, in my mind, an act of vengeance, and vengeance is never justified.” McCarrick slandered the grieving relatives of murder victims, comparing them with the sadistic mobs in ancient Rome.
One wonders what those widows, orphans, or siblings thought upon reading McCarrick’s words — which were neither Christian nor loving nor even just.