This post originally appeared on Theology Rocks
You know those conservative “Christians” who are quick to be “pro-life” for babies, but want to kill everyone off on death row- Is that what Jesus would have done to the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8)? She deserved a death sentence according to Mosaic law, but Jesus let her slide. Shouldn’t we Christians do the same? Okay, well this really has just been a silly introductory paragraph to get your attention.
NO EASY TASK
Regardless, figuring out the consistent Christian view of the death penalty is no easy task. I don’t plan for you to have settled your opinion on the matter decisively, simply by reading this one blog post. But, hopefully this will help start you in the right direction in properly understanding the debate. First, we must decide why we punish any criminals at all. There are four major views on the purpose of punishment: rehabilitationism, deterrentism, restitutionism, and retributionism (that’s a mouth full, or a bunch of made up words…).
Rehabilitationism is the idea that we should punish criminals in order to provide rehab to ready them to re-enter society. Deterrentism punishes criminals in order to deter others from committing the same crimes. Restitutionists punish wrongdoers to pay back those harmed by the crime. Retributionism says punishment is criminals receiving what they have earned.
WHY DOES GOD PUNISHES SINNERS?
The best way, methinks, to really boil down the different views and their end goals is to figure out why God punishes sinners for all eternity in hell. The eternality of the punishment immediately rules out rehabilitationism (cf. Matt. 25:41, 2 Thes. 1:9, Rev. 20:10). God does not “refine” sinners in hell to prepare them for heaven. Also, the sole purpose for hell is not to merely deter sin (though it may have that effect). God is also not seeking some type of payment from people in hell. He is not some sadistic egomaniac needing and taking pleasure in the torture of the wicked (Ezek. 18:23). Nor can anyone owe God anything. Paul concludes his great theological treatise with such a doxology! He claims God already has all things for Himself. How can anyone owe Him anything?
OH, THE DEPTH OF THE RICHES AND WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE OF GOD! HOW UNSEARCHABLE ARE HIS JUDGMENTS AND HOW INSCRUTABLE HIS WAYS!
FOR WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD,
OR WHO HAS BEEN HIS COUNSELOR?
OR WHO HAS GIVEN A GIFT TO HIM
THAT HE MIGHT BE REPAID?
FOR FROM HIM AND THROUGH HIM AND TO HIM ARE ALL THINGS. TO HIM BE GLORY FOREVER. AMEN.
Say your boss comes to you and promises a large bonus to completed a certain task or for working extra hours. You need the extra cash to make it to the end of the month (you were considering getting a second job for a while). So you work extra hard because you need this bonus. Your boss walks in after you finish with sweat beading on your forehead. He puts on a hardy grin and slaps you on your shoulder with his big hand, “Oh, I was just kidding about that bonus, but great work anyways!” Most people hearing this case would scream out “injustice!”– and rightly so. This employee worked hard to earn what he was promised and didn’t receive it. Why is it injustice? Because justice is receiving what we earn, our just desserts. Whenever we sin, we earn death (Rom. 6:23). So why does God punish wrongdoers for all eternity? He is simply giving sinners what they have earned.
So we can conclude that if a criminal has earned for themselves the death penalty, justice demands they receive what they have earned. Sadly it’s not as cut and dry as everyone who commits a capital crime immediately should always receive capital punishment. For example, in some countries proselytization is a capital crime! Hopefully these four easy tips will help you to (specifically in the American context):
1)Voice your opinion to the government (especially in light of democracy/popular sovereignty).
2)Let your opinion be informed by Scripture.
3)Ask for grace or justice for a particular person on death row. This should be done respectfully (not rudely demanding) and by proper means (i.e. write a letter to a governor, peacefully picket, et. al.).
4)Not say the government “did wrong” for enacting capital punishment on someone who truly committed a capital crime, or for giving grace to a criminal who truly committed a capital crime. The government has the authority to act within the parameters of its law.