One illustration will suffice. If a child tells the babysitter that she can’t make him go to bed at 9:30 because she’s not his mother, is he correct? No, because the babysitter has had bedtime authority delegated to her by the parent, within whose natural authority such power resides. If the babysitter walks in off the street and tries to put a child to bed, she is usurping parental authority. If she enforces the will of the parents in absentia, she is honoring that same authority. The issuance of instructions makes all the difference between improperly playing parent and properly discharging duties entrusted by the parents.
How do we know that God controls life and death? The Bible. How do we know that God assigns the authority to execute people to earthly governments? The Bible. Whatever certainty we have about the one equally enjoins us to perform the other. Executing murderers is not playing God. It is obeying Him.
Religious Objection: Execution prevents the possibility of repentance and being forgiven by God.
As Christians, our primary objective in life is to facilitate the reconciliation of sinners to God through repentance and accepting the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for their sins. When we allow our government to execute people, we are deliberately cutting off all chance for those most desperately in need of salvation to receive it. This, according to the objection, is the only thing worse than the homicide itself.
Precisely because I so strongly agree with the spirit of this objection, I am happy to report that it actually endorses just the sort of capital punishment process we currently have in place. Nothing pricks the conscience to consider matters of eternity like the impending danger of death. Foxholes, sinking boats, life-threatening illnesses and death row all serve as excellent motivators to ponder our status with God and do whatever we can to insure the right result.
Knowing you will die on Tuesday at 8:00 a.m. does far more in this way than the general knowledge that you will die at some completely unknowable moment in your incarcerated future. If we really want people to come to Jesus, the best way to raise that likelihood is by telling them when it will happen. Furthermore, people on death row regularly receive visits from the clergy, who are far more motivated to evangelize them than they are the ordinary inmate. Thus, both the murderer himself and those around him are uniquely motivated by capital punishment to secure his salvation. Far from preventing repentance, execution increases the likelihood of it.
Another issue connected to this objection is the idea that people who have genuinely been converted should not suffer execution. Aside from the insoluble problem of distinguishing genuine conversions from forgeries, which would be enough to respond here, there is the fact that anyone who had truly repented for his sins would also be the last one to claim that he deserved to live. If he has embraced the gravity of his corruption necessitating the substitutionary atonement of Christ, he is not going to turn around and seek clemency from the state. More likely, he will embrace the attitude of the thief on the cross, who acknowledged the justice of his own condition during crucifixion beside his Lord (cf. Luke 23:32-43). And, tellingly, the reward for his repentance and faith was the gift of eternal salvation with no reprieve whatsoever for the earthly punishment of temporal death.
In the next column, we’ll look at the three commonly used biblical counter-examples to capital punishment: Cain, King David, and the woman caught in adultery.