Previously, we saw that neither forgiveness nor mercy are compelling reasons to abandon the biblical practice of capital punishment. Now, let’s continue with the religious objections.
Religious Objection: Execution is incompatible with love.
God loves all people, and we are told to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). If we are to love all people, this probably means not killing them.
But there’s an obvious problem here. God, who loves all men, has killed many of them both directly Himself and indirectly through His agents. He killed Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). He killed Uzzah the priest for mishandling the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:3-11). His servant David famously killed Goliath for taunting God’s army (1 Samuel 17). And He seemed quite pleased for Elijah to slaughter the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:17-40). So, here’s the quandary. Either God doesn’t actually love everyone or else it can be a loving thing to kill someone. Either option moves execution off the list of things prohibited because we are supposed to imitate God’s love. The best solution is both simple and counterintuitive.
Is it possible to love someone and execute that person? My emphatic answer is, “Yes.” Loving someone means wanting what is best for that person. Though I obviously admit that many people advocate execution because of hatred for the criminal, it is also possible to advocate it out of love for him. Loving a murderer means honoring him as a moral agent with accountability for his actions and also allowing him to pay for them with the only payment that is proper. Failing to execute him denies him this opportunity to atone for what he has done. Loving the murderer also means preventing him from further defacing the image of God embodied in himself. Failing to execute him only enables his ability to continue his own self-destruction.
Religious Objection: Only God may decide who lives and dies.
God controls life and death. Since only God can create life, only God has the prerogative to terminate life. When we execute murderers, so the argument goes, we are playing God and usurping powers reserved only to Him.
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.