Stress-testing the
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Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


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Are Christians hypocritical to support the death penalty?

When Christians oppose abortion because it is murder, how can they then legitimately support capital punishment?

In a previous post on abortion, Matthew Lee raised the issue of how many pro-abortion advocates bring up the death penalty. By doing so, they hope to show that Christians are inconsistent in saying we should never take human life.

Now, in one sense I think this is a non-issue. The objection doesn’t really get off the ground for at least two reasons:

  1. Even if Christians are inconsistent here, that doesn’t make them wrong to oppose abortion. Perhaps they are simply wrong to support the death penalty. So that doesn’t defuse the pro-life argument.
  2. The objection relies on a fallacy. Christians are concerned with unjustly taking a human life. But the death penalty is the taking of a human life precisely because justice demands it. So the objection trades on a pretty flagrant category error.

So this objection doesn’t do anything to shift the burden of proof away from the person arguing for abortion. But still, the death penalty is a pretty important topic, so Christians should have an answer to that. As Matthew observed,

If you have some New Testament passages you can point me to that you feel support the death penalty, I would truly love to hear them and your reasoning. I mean that with all sincerity. Quite frankly, it would allow me to respond to this criticism in a much more meaningful way. I could say “I agree with you, but many Christians look at Book Chapter:Verse which says such and such and feel that that means God supports the death penalty. Thus it is not inconsistent with a “pro-life” worldview.”

As it stands, when people bring this up and I don’t have an answer they feel they have somehow taken the moral high ground and it tends to end meaningful discussion of the real issue of abortion.

So I’m going to look at this from a couple of angles. The first is with regard to Matthew’s argument that “when Jesus said only the person who is free from sin can act as executioner that is exactly what he meant.” The passage he’s referencing here is John 8:3-11 (LEB):

Now the scribes and the Pharisees brought to him a woman caught in adultery. And standing her in their midst, they said to him, testing him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery! Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (Now they were saying this to test him, so that they would have an occasion to bring charges against him.)

But Jesus, bending down, began to write with his finger on the ground, taking no notice. And when they persisted in asking him, straightening up he said to them, “The one of you without sin, let him throw the first stone at her!” And bending down again, he wrote on the ground.

Now when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, they began to depart, one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone—and the woman who was in their midst. So Jesus, straightening up and seeing no one except the woman, said to her, “Where are those accusers of yours? Does no one condemn you?” And she said, “No one, Lord.” So Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”

1. Why John 8:3-11 can’t be used to build an anti-death-penalty theology

I think there are at least three big problems with building a theology against capital punishment from this passage.

A. The uncertainty of the passage’s authenticity

As the ESV Study Bible notes regarding John 7:53–8:11 (emphasis mine),

There is considerable doubt that this story is part of John’s original Gospel, for it is absent from all of the oldest manuscripts. But there is nothing in it unworthy of sound doctrine. It seems best to view the story as something that probably happened during Jesus’ ministry but that was not originally part of what John wrote in his Gospel. Therefore it should not be considered as part of Scripture and should not be used as the basis for building any point of doctrine unless confirmed in Scripture.

And I think Scripture elsewhere strongly supports the death penalty—so any appeal to John 8:3-11 is suspect from the outset, even if the exegesis is sound. That said, I don’t think the exegesis is sound—which leads me to my second objection…

B. The irregularities of the Pharisees’ conduct

The way the Pharisees go about applying the law here throws serious doubt on what principles we can deduce from Jesus’s response. They’re using this woman as a pretext to trap Jesus. So their concern is not with justice, but with injustice. One clear indicator of this—aside from the fact that it’s explicitly stated in verse 6—is that the law actually commands the death of both parties caught in adultery (eg Deuteronomy 22:22). Moreover, as I understand it, the people who were supposed to execute them were the wronged parties; not the religious authorities.

Yet the Pharisees bring only the woman to be stoned, and seem not to have produced any spouses willing to commence the execution. So it’s far from clear that we should take Jesus’s acquittal of this woman to mean that he is overturning the idea of capital punishment. It seems more likely he is overturning the notion that a mock trial is a valid way to execute someone.

C. It proves too much

The principle Jesus draws on for acquitting the woman is, “The one of you without sin, let him throw the first stone at her.” I think many people interpret that as something along the lines of, “Sinners aren’t qualified to judge other sinners.” That seems to be the kind of interpretation you need if you’re going to draw an anti-capital punishment theology out of this.

But surely God didn’t expect such a high standard when he laid out the law for Israel. Why would he sanction capital punishment at all if he knew no one was qualified to carry it out in the first place? (Indeed, if it would positively be sin for anyone to carry it out?)

Moreover, how could we have a judicial system in the first place if sinners aren’t qualified to judge other sinners? After all, this principle doesn’t just apply to capital punishment. If sinners are unqualified to judge other sinners, then presumably no one is qualified to sentence anyone for anything.

So I think the principle Jesus is drawing out here is not that sinners can’t apply the law. The law was given to sinners precisely so they could apply it. Rather, the issue in this case is that the Pharisees were not actually engaged in justice at all—merely hypocrisy.

(There’s also the fact that Jesus says in Matthew 7:2, “with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” I think there’s a pointed sense in John 8:3-11 in which Jesus is suggesting to the Pharisees that it would be much better for them if they did not seek the nth degree of punishment permissible by law, given where they’re headed on the day of judgment.)

2. Scripture supports capital punishment in both the Old and the New Testaments

The second angle to look at this from—and in some ways it makes the appeal to John 8 irrelevant—is to ask what Scripture says elsewhere about the death penalty. Matthew Lee seems particularly concerned with finding evidence in the New Testament, so that’s where I’ll spend my time. But I’d hasten to add that if God sanctions something in the Old Testament, we ought to sanction it also, unless we have good reasons to think it does not apply to our situation. And God clearly does sanction the death penalty in the Old Testament law—see for example Wikipedia’s list of capital crimes in the Torah.

Moreover, this is by no means an innovation for Israel. Rather, it’s an application of a principle of justice we see articulated very early on: namely, that the wages of sin is death (as Paul puts it in Romans 6:23). We also see this being worked out in terms of capital punishment way back in Genesis, when God names murder as a capital crime:

As for the one shedding the blood of humankind,
      by humankind his blood shall be shed,
for God made humankind in his own image. (Genesis 9:6)

So these principles really preclude us from thinking that capital punishment was just something intended for Israel’s particular judicial system. That’s actually the opposite of what we find, which is that capital punishment is a practical outworking of a theological principle which spans the entire Bible, and the capital laws given to Israel are just specific examples of this.

But let’s look at the New Testament. Romans 13:3-4:

So do you want not to be afraid of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from it, for it is God’s servant to you for what is good. But if you do what is bad, be afraid, because it does not bear the sword to no purpose. For it is God’s servant, the one who avenges for punishment on the one who does what is bad.

Immediately after instructing believers not to take personal vengeance (Romans 12:17ff), Paul goes on to remind them of the means by which God has appointed human institutions to act as his avenger on earth. And he specifically calls out the Roman military institution as an instrument of God’s law, singling out the sword as a tool of justice.

The sword, of course, is designed to kill. That is its purpose. It was the sidearm of the ancient world. Modern police wear pistols; Roman soldiers wore swords.

Now, I don’t think this passage is advocating soldiers summarily executing wrongdoers. Rather, it is emphasizing two things:

  1. The individual soldier carries the threat of lethal force to uphold the law. Behind every law, no matter how innocuous, is the threat of lethal force. If you break that law, and you choose to resist arrest, it doesn’t take much to escalate the situation to the point of your death—and there is nothing illegitimate in the authorities killing you if that’s the situation you’ve forced on them.
  2. The state, as an instrument of God’s authority, uses lethal force (represented by the sword) in the dispensation of justice. The Roman Empire was no stranger to the notion of capital punishment; execution was a common punishment, and often it was most unpleasant (they “popularized” crucifixion, for example). So Paul seems to be explicitly legitimizing the use of lethal force in the dispensation of justice, and saying that even an institution as corrupt as the Roman Empire still maintains law through this method on God’s behalf.

This general approval of the state as an instrument of God is reflected in 1 Peter 2:13-14, and also very notably in Acts 25:11, where Paul is defending himself to Festus against the Jews, who are bringing scurrilous charges against him. He says:

I am standing before the judgment seat of Caesar, where it is necessary for me to be judged. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also know very well. If then I am doing wrong and have done anything deserving death, I am not trying to avoid dying. But if there is nothing true of the things which these people are accusing me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar!

So Paul is not contesting that there are indeed crimes worthy of death—indeed, he says he would not try seek to escape death if he had indeed committed such crimes. It is not because of the injustice of capital punishment that he thinks he should be acquitted, but rather because he is innocent.

These are the clearest places in which the New Testament speaks of capital punishment and the role of the state. And I think the conclusion they force on us is that, far from denouncing capital punishment, the New Testament assumes the same ethical principle as we find in the Old: namely, that the state has a right to use capital punishment in the administration of justice on God’s behalf.

14 comments

  1. Wintery Knight

    Excellent post, Bnonn!

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Thanks Knight :)

  3. Mike

    How can the death penalty be wrong? The bible is full of murders and rapes…most committed under some contrived pretense to gather booty…both kinds. If god truly did support, condone and ORDER those heinous crimes, the execution of one person by his henchman is nothing.
    It thoroughly amazes me that Christians can even look in the mirror after living (purportedly) by a book that was created several hundred years after jesus’s death and is filled with all kinds of violence. And you say atheists have no morality? The mirror you look into probably shows a pretty sad and confused person. Isn’t compassion supposed to be a characteristic of christian life… a concept borrowed from the Buddha…..where is yours? In my mind I can forgive you. I can see the pain and confusion in your eyes…maybe someday compassion for others will fill your heart and humanist understanding will fall upon you and open your eyes.

    In the meantime, I suggest you expand your reading list.

  4. thom waters

    I think you have missed one of the larger points that should argue against Capital Punishment. Your argument, and I suppose that of the Bible’s, suggests that there is a somewhat infallible nature to our justice system, meaning that every person put to death for a certain type of crime was, in fact, deserving of such. Certainly that is not the case, as many mistakes have been made through the years concerning the application of Capital Punishment and verdicts in general. Your “justice” always runs the risk of executing an innocent person. This is simply one compelling argument against your position and that of the Bible’s.

    Additionally, you must convince me that you can see or picture Jesus being the person who pushes the button, pulls the trigger, or engages the lever. Someone has to do it, and no one has yet convinced me that they can offer Jesus as the Executioner. Pull that one off, and you might convince me.

    thom waters

  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Thom, I guess you could say I missed that, but the truth is I just don’t think it’s all that germane.

    Remember, I’m approaching this from a Christian perspective. That assumes the Bible is God’s actual word. But God never indicates that capital punishment is invalid just because the judicial system is not perfect. He puts checks in place so that no one can be tried on flimsy evidence (he requires two or three witnesses), and so no one can be tried on the sly (all trials must convene at night). But surely he knew that occasionally someone might be found guilty of a capital crime they had not committed. Yet he still gave capital laws. (He would also have known that sometimes the guilty would be acquitted.)

    Unless you think our judicial systems are considerably worse than Israel’s at determining guilt, I don’t see how you could sustain an argument against capital punishment based on the possibility of bad verdicts.

    Additionally, you must convince me that you can see or picture Jesus being the person who pushes the button, pulls the trigger, or engages the lever.

    I’m guessing from this comment that you’re not a Christian. But then, why think Jesus wouldn’t do that if you’re not invested in him?

    On the other hand, if you are a Christian, surely you’re aware that Jesus is God—in fact, the Word of God. In that case, when the Bible relates…

    God spoke all these words, saying, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. (Exodus 20:1-2; 21:12)

    …it is Jesus who is speaking.

    Moreover, in Revelation we see Jesus is a conquering warrior-king:

    Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (Revelation 19:11-16

    And of course, this is just reflecting the language of the Old Testament, where Yahweh’s manifestation on earth (the Word, Wisdom, the Name, the Angel of Yahweh etc) leads God’s army, and performs many deeds of judgment. For example, the tenth plague in Exodus:

    And Moses said, “Thus says Yahweh, ‘About the middle of the night I will go out through the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman who is behind the pair of millstones and every firstborn animal. (Exodus 11:4-5)

    And I will go through the land of Egypt during this night, and I will strike all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human to animal, and I will do punishments among all of the gods of Egypt. I am Yahweh. (Exodus 12:12)

    And in the middle of the night, Yahweh struck all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the prison house and every firstborn of an animal. (Exodus 12:29)

    Remember that Yahweh is the third person rendering of Ehyeh, the covenant name God gives to Moses in Exodus 3:14, meaning, “I Am”. (It’s rather hard to speak of a guy called I Am, so instead they talked about He Who Causes To Be, aka Yahweh.) And what does Jesus say in John 8:57-58?

    So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am!”

    Since Jesus is Yahweh, I’m just at a loss as to why no one has yet convinced you that Jesus commands capital punishment, and in fact executes capital offenders himself. It’s clearly there in both the Old and New Testaments.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Mike, I was in two minds about approving this comment. On the one hand, it’s so ineptly lacking in any form of argument or facts. On the other hand, it’s so ineptly lacking in any form of argument or facts.

    In the end, I decided to let it through so others can see the quality of the “rebuttals” I most often get.

    If you plan to post again, though, I’d suggest that the first thing you do is tell us what ground your moral high horse is prancing about on. What exactly is it that makes God’s actions so morally reprehensible, on your view?

  7. thom waters

    Dom,

    Thanks for responding. I think, however, that there is a confusion that occurs when you attempt to mix corporal punishment of a finite nature with a Final Judgment punishment that seems to be infinite in scope. I think it is a mistake to justify the one on the basis of the other. And, of course, I am dismissing any attempt made to justify the former because you feel it defended or mandated in the Bible.

    I’ll put it another way. Which do you think is worse–That a guilty man should go free, or that an innocent person would be put to death by the State? I believe the latter to be the case, and should be avoided at all costs, especially since we have discovered the fallible nature of verdicts in the justice system. I assume that the Revelation verdicts to which you refer are of an infallible nature.

    And, too, the man Jesus who walks the pages of the New Testament is not someone who fits well with the picture of the Executioner dealing out Capital Punishment. And yourself? If given the assignment of shooting someone before a Firing Squad, could you pull the trigger? By this question, I do not mean to judge you. I only seek to differentiate between experience and interest, especially where interest is done at an intellectual level.

    thanks.

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Thom, I agree that we shouldn’t confuse capital punishment with the final judgment, or even with temporal judgments exacted by God, since as you say these are infallible.

    My point was simply to show that the character of Jesus is completely consistent with his commanding capital punishment. If you’re going to say you don’t think Jesus would pull the lever, flip the switch, push the plunger on the syringe, etc, then you need to give a clear defense of why not. I just don’t see how you’d sustain that position from the Bible.

    And, too, the man Jesus who walks the pages of the New Testament is not someone who fits well with the picture of the Executioner dealing out Capital Punishment.

    But that’s not a problem for me, because the man Jesus who walks the pages of the New Testament had a specific mission. He was not incarnate to judge the world, but to save the world. However, he will return to judge the world, and his sentence for all sin is death. See John 12:47-48; Romans 6:23 etc.

    I’ll put it another way. Which do you think is worse–That a guilty man should go free, or that an innocent person would be put to death by the State? I believe the latter to be the case

    Since I’m basing my view on what God says about capital punishment, rather than my own intuitions, I infer that it is is better for true justice to be served in a majority of cases, than for injustice to reign because we fail to justly punish capital criminals in all cases.

    And yourself? If given the assignment of shooting someone before a Firing Squad, could you pull the trigger?

    I could, yes. I have actually wondered on occasion whether executioner service should not be like jury service—required of all citizens (or perhaps all men) and assigned by random ballot. However, I think the biblical approach is better: a capital sentence is carried out by the wronged parties (in the case of murder, by the family of the victim). I think this is an inspired way of ensuring that both justice and mercy are present in the judicial system, and sharpening people’s grasp of things like sin and grace—which are so fundamental to the gospel and right spirituality—rather than dulling them by dissociating them from the punishment they’re demanding.

  9. thom waters

    Dom,

    Once again, a well-positioned, considered response. It looks like we will continue to take opposite positions with regard to this matter. Two final quick words.

    Let’s assume that you have sat through an entire court proceeding where a person has been accused of First Degree Murder. At the end of the trial, you are absolutely convinced that the accused is not guilty. The jury, however, disagrees with your assessment and convicts this person and the sentence is death. It just so happens that you will be the one asked to carry out the sentence. Could you still pull the trigger? Just a thought.

    Finally, if I understand the premise of Christ’s sacrifice, his vicarious, substitionary death only has efficacy because he has lived a sinless life. I take it therefore that he must be excluded from any activity ( i.e. Captial Punishment) that might carry with it the possibility for error. For that very reason Jesus as Executioner is a picture that is difficult to grasp. Would his participation in such an error constitute ” a sin”. Granted it is not willful disobedience, but the simple participation in such an error would seem to stain him. This being a theological matter, I could be quite in error. Even so, the Man of Galilee as Executioner still seems an oxymoron.

    thom

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Thom, to answer your question, no, I wouldn’t execute someone I was convinced was innocent. I think that’s a no-brainer :)

    For that very reason Jesus as Executioner is a picture that is difficult to grasp. Would his participation in such an error constitute ” a sin”.

    But why think that commanding capital punishment as a general principle of law equates with Jesus actively participating in the execution of a particular, falsely-convicted person? That seems to make as much sense as saying that Jesus commanding paying restitution for theft equates with him actively participating in the unintentional coercion of funds from a falsely-convicted robber. Obviously the principle is just. The mere fact that it can be imperfectly applied doesn’t indicate that Jesus wouldn’t want us to try to apply it perfectly.

  11. thom waters

    Dom,

    If you’ll forgive me, I had a few additional thoughts that came to mind, just things to think about. I’m still thinking about them, and trying to decide how they fit into the greater scheme of things.

    1–The idea of Jesus participating actively in the administration of Capitial Punishment comes from this well-worn phrase I have heard many Christians use during the years, “What would Jesus do?” It seems somewhat trite and, perhaps, of limited utility, but I suspect it makes the point I was pursuing.

    2–It is an interesting exercise to defend a position or “principle” that one did not arrive at through independent, free thought, but was rather told to believe or accept because you find it or think that you find it in a book or somewhere else. It runs the risk, among other things, of abandoning a certain healthy skepticism as it relates to things we are told by others. This doesn’t apply to all things. For instance, some things have the immediate ring of Truth to them and we find such things in the documents upon which this great nation was founded.
    “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is one such example. Not only is the truth of these principles immediately apparent, but once implemented they allow for the benefits of such principles such as prosperity to flourish. Capital Punishment ,as a principle, doesn’t seem the same.

    3–Lastly, and perhaps most fascinating of everything that might be discussed regarding this matter, is the fact that Salvation as found within Christianity only becomes possible through the implementation of Captial Punishment where a completely innocent and sinless man is put to death. The irony here suggests that because of this the inescapable position for a Christian is to support the Death Penalty. To do otherwise would be to deny the very process through which the door to Salvation is opened. I won’t pursue this any further at this point, but the irony is not to be missed. I”m not sure that this should defend the ongoing nature of such a “principle”. Much to be discussed here, or so it seems.

    I have enjoyed the discussion. Best of everything.

    thom

  12. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Thom, I realize you may not reply, but I wanted to offer my thoughts on what you said…

    Re WWJD. Well, I’ve seen that phrase used to justify actions on opposite ends of a spectrum, so it seems rather unhelpful to me. It’s a convenient way for many Christians to justify their actions, or condemn others, based on their personal reading of the character of Jesus in the gospels. As I’ve said, the character of Jesus is revealed throughout the Bible, and the question is not what he would do, but what he commands us to do.

    It is an interesting exercise to defend a position or “principle” that one did not arrive at through independent, free thought

    This begs the question that (a) the Bible is not God’s word, and (b) that thinking independently of God—the source of knowledge and wisdom—is likely to come to worthwhile conclusions. But the first is highly questionable, and the second is just obviously wrong. I get that you disagree about capital punishment, and no doubt also about the nature of the Bible, but if you want to object to the death penalty on moral grounds I think we need to establish just what those grounds look like. Do you have a moral leg to stand on in the first place, so to speak? Or do your ethical views just boil down to your opinion or taste?

    Your third point seems the most dubious to me. Jesus was executed unjustly. So if your logic holds, Christians shouldn’t object to unjust executions…right?

  13. Ben

    Hi Bnonn. I appreciate your work and find the discussions helpful and stimulating.

    Apologies that this relates to an old post though. I have often wrestled with this issue. A few comments/questions:

    1. I think it’s worth noting that many of the world’s cultures have no problem at all with capital punishment. Would it be correct to say that opposition to the death penalty arose from the modern western mind-set?

    2. It seems to me that the role of the defense in today’s legal system is not so much about establishing the innocence of the accused as it is about creating doubt about their guilt. The two are obviously not the same, but can result in the same verdict. One has a greater emphasis on justice while the other can easily lead to injustice. Of course, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, yet the standard of proof – beyond reasonable doubt – seems more susceptible to manipulation given an increasingly skeptical society. Is beyond reasonable doubt a high enough standard of proof for capital cases?

    To put the question another way, is there a difference between sending someone to jail for life, based on ‘beyond reasonable doubt,’ and getting it wrong, and executing someone on the same basis, and getting it wrong?

    3. This week marks the fifth anniversary of a man in Melbourne who threw his four year old daughter to her death from the top of the West Gate Bridge. The crime shocked many people. I recall thinking ‘This man ought to be put to death,’ not as an act of vengeance, nor even as a deterrent from copy cat killers – but because justice demands it. The question that I would ask opponents of capital punishment is, ‘What ought to happen to this man that justice be done?’

    4. There does seem to be some discontinuity between the OT and the NT – that is, in the NT it is the pagan state who is responsible for administering justice. That being the case, do you think there is any discontinuity regarding the types or crimes that demand the death penalty?

    5. Would a capital offender who repented of his crime and other sins, and whose crime and sins have therefore been atoned for in Christ, still be required to be put to death?

    Appreciate your time and thoughts.

    Ben

  14. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Ben, no problem about commenting on an old post. I leave comments open because they are half the point, and I’m always glad to have good ones.

    Would it be correct to say that opposition to the death penalty arose from the modern western mind-set?

    Well, I’m not well-qualified to comment, being neither a historian nor a sociologist—but from what I’ve seen and read, I think basically yes. But not so much a general modern western mindset, but specifically a coddled, oblivious mindset fostered by one of Christianity’s enduring legacies: peaceful societies. No doubt you’re familiar with the idea of the feminization of society (and the church) in modern times. I think this has something to do with it. And combined with the fact that most people live very sheltered lives, so they have no first-hand experience (or even any serious knowledge of) genuinely death-worthy crimes.

    Whereas people living in ancient times, and still in third-world countries today, have quite a different perspective. Life is harsh and often cruel. Nearly everyone is affected by vicious people committing atrocities of various kinds. I can imagine the response of a Ugandan or Sudanese refugee to some overgrown white kid living in his parents’ basement telling him that capital punishment is unjust or backward or cruel. Probably a swift thwack to the head. To be honest, if anyone is familiar with a man like Joseph Kony, and doesn’t think he deserves death, that person is “ethically challenged”, to put it politely.

    Is beyond reasonable doubt a high enough standard of proof for capital cases?

    What other standard would you propose? If we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that someone deserves to die, isn’t that sufficient to execute them? If we were to raise the bar to something like “beyond the possibility of doubt”, we couldn’t convict anyone, because we can always invent wildly implausible but nonetheless possible scenarios in which they are innocent.

    is there a difference between sending someone to jail for life, based on ‘beyond reasonable doubt,’ and getting it wrong, and executing someone on the same basis, and getting it wrong?

    There’s an obvious difference: in one case, the guy is dead; in the other, he isn’t! I think anyone would tend to agree that being wrongfully executed is worse than being wrongfully imprisoned. The question is, how does this bear on whether we should execute people or not? As I argued to Thom, I don’t see how, as Christians, we can sustain an objection to capital punishment on the basis of false positives, unless we think courts in ancient Israel were significantly better at determining guilt than modern courts with all the forensic science they have available.

    do you think there is any discontinuity regarding the types or crimes that demand the death penalty?

    Possibly. For example, in the sermon on the Mount you clearly see Jesus preparing the way for a markedly different approach to law, given that the covenant community was going to change from being a monolithic political nation, into individuals living in many nations and social circumstances. So, for example, that’s why we don’t punish people for eating pork any more, or have purity laws, etc. The covenant community is no longer a national community that needed to be distinct from its neighbors by merit of its social and religious laws. With regard to capital punishment specifically, I can’t think offhand of any capital laws in the Old Testament which have actually passed away, but there certainly could be some. But laws regarding sodomy and adultery and so on are, I think, still valid, in the sense that the moral principles they represent are still true. It is still wrong to engage in homosexual sex, or to sleep with another man’s wife. Whether or not a given society chooses to punish those crimes with the death penalty (or even punish them at all) is an open question; but I don’t think it would be unjust to do so given the Old Testament precedent.

    Would a capital offender who repented of his crime and other sins, and whose crime and sins have therefore been atoned for in Christ, still be required to be put to death?

    Well, that’s a good question. As a general rule, in a Christian context I think genuine repentance demands forgiveness. However, in a broader social/judicial context, there is a serious truth behind the expression that justice must be blind. By committing a crime you accrue a debt to society which must be repaid regardless of your feelings about your actions; and for a judicial system to function, it must demand payment from everyone. That isn’t to say judges should ignore factors like repentance, but I don’t think they are obligated to let them mitigate punishment either. Again, this is somewhat out of my field of expertise, but I would tend to say that a repentant murderer can still justly be put to death (and would indeed recognize and acknowledge the justice of it); but equally, his repentance could be treated as a factor in his favor, allowing for a reduced sentence. I think a wise judge would favor the latter, since genuine repentance leads to a changed life, and a changed life can help change society for the better; so once his sentence was up, such a man could be a powerful force for good in his community. Seems silly to kill him.

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