Capital Punishment and the Cross

November 03, 2012

A Christian Defense of California’s Proposition 34

This year, thanks to Proposition 34, Californians will have the opportunity to vote for or against a repeal of the death penalty. While there are very good practical arguments to be made for the repeal of the death penalty, such as the fact that eliminating the high cost of executions would save California $130 million a year, I feel that these have been better covered elsewhere and I instead want to focus on the theological implications of the death penalty.

In a famous passage of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins remarks to Gandalf the Grey that Gollum deserves to die. In response, Gandalf warns,

“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

There are a couple of observations here that are very important. One, a death sentence is an irreversible punishment–once it has been carried out, there is obviously no going back. Secondly, even very wise and knowledgeable people make mistakes, so justice must be something that is conducted very carefully. These are two complications inherent in any human system of justice.

However, there is someone for whom these complications do not apply. Jesus has power over both life and death and, unlike the rest of us, can give life as well as take it away. He is also both perfect and omniscient–he does not make mistakes because he can see all ends. This gives him the unique position to be the only perfect arbiter of justice. In contrast, human justice will always be substantially less than perfect because we are substantially less than perfect.

Our system of justice, which I happen to be very proud of, is built upon this important assumption of fallibility. Because it assumes there will be mistakes in the carriage of justice, it is founded on the principle that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”.

Christians should be no strangers to the idea that human systems of justice are fallible–our faith is founded upon a monumental failure of justice. The cross stands above every one of our churches as a reminder than the most innocent man to have ever walked the earth still served a wrongful sentence of death.

But wait, doesn’t the Old Testament law clearly proscribe the death penalty for certain offenses?

Yes it does. So what did Jesus have to say about that?

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” [John 8:2-8]

Adultery, like murder, bestiality, working on the sabbath, and cursing one’s father or mother, was a capital offense under the Law of Moses. So how does Jesus get away with being a Softcastle McCormick here?

This is the scandalous mystery of the gospel–that each of us, though we deserve death, receive eternal life because Jesus served our death sentence instead on the cross. He didn’t just look the other the other way when we have done wrong, but instead he came down to Earth to receive the punishment in our place. Jesus generously offers mercy, because in the end he knows there will be justice, even at great cost to himself.

But those people have done horrible things… do they really deserve mercy?

As Christians, Jesus calls us to have mercy on others, just as he has had mercy on us. Mercy is not something one deserves, rather, it is not getting what one rightly deserves. We have the unlimited ability to show mercy because we trust that in the end, our God has the power to set all things right.

Furthermore, we cannot know the plans God has even for “the worst of sinners”, as the Apostle Paul calls himself:

Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. [1 Timothy 1:13-16]

When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, Paul was on his way to find Christians and have them put to death. He was certainly the last person the early Christians expected to become a follower of Jesus.

Similarly, the Pharisees did not understand Jesus’ mission here on Earth and criticized him for associating with and loving those that they felt were undeserving:

When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Matthew 9:11-13]

Mercy Triumphs over Judgment

I’d like to make a couple clarifications. First, I think it is completely reasonable and appropriate to isolate dangerous individuals from the rest of society. I am in no way suggesting the release of dangerous criminals back into society. It is very important to protect the innocent from harm, and a sentence of life without parole accomplishes this purpose completely.

Second, I am making no theological objection to the concept of justice. I believe that it is completely correct for us to feel that evil actions deserve punishment of some kind. But because we humans are notoriously bad at being fair, I believe we should entrust that punishment to God, who is both rich in mercy and solely capable of judging completely accurately and objectively.

The Quakers and the other Christians of the First and Second Great Awakenings were not wrong to speak out against slavery. Nor were Martin Luther King and other pastors wrong to bring their religious views into the political sphere when they campaigned for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s.

Today’s Christians likewise need to stand up for what’s right. Proposition 34 has given Californian Christians a tremendous opportunity. Let’s abolish the death penalty, just as Jesus did at Calvary over 2000 years ago.

Should We Interpret the Entire Bible Literally?

July 05, 2012

According to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey, 59% of U.S. Evangelicals believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and is to be taken literally, word for word. While I whole-heartedly agree that the Bible is the Word of God and should be taken seriously, I fear that the emphasis on interpreting it literally is an oversimplification that will make it impossible for us to correctly interpret God’s Word.

For example, how should we interpret the beginning of John 16, where Jesus states,

“I have said these things to you in figures of speech.”

Obviously, if we interpret this passage literally (as I believe we should), we have to interpret some of Jesus’ preceding statements figuratively, which leads us to a contradiction if we are trying to interpret every statement in the Bible literally.

Therefore it is literally impossible to take every statement in the Bible literally. And I think everyone knows this. Not even the strictest literalist believes that when John said “Behold, the Lamb of God,” he meant that Jesus was literally a quadrupedal, ruminant mammal useful for making sweaters and shawarma out of. He was using the phrase “Lamb of God” metaphorically—to communicate that all of the sacrifices of lambs throughout Israel’s history pointed forward towards Jesus and God’s sacrifice of him on the Cross.

Why Isn’t the Bible More Straightforward?

©2012 Luci Fonseca

The problem is that language, by its very nature, is composed of generalizations. Each word represents an abstract group of similar things, ignoring their differences in order to emphasize their commonalities. Consequently, the more simple a word is, the broader its range of meaning.

Take the word animal, for instance. An elephant is obviously very different in many ways from a snake or a butterfly, but when we say animal we are using just one word to mean millions of species, and trillions of individual creatures.

It is always possible to be more specific and more elaborate in any description, but at a certain point being overly descriptive distracts from the overall message one is trying to convey. We all have friends who tend to dwell a bit too long on the details of their stories and take forever to get to the point. In addition to trying our patience, an overabundance of specificity makes it difficult to hold the whole story in our head.

Take an ordinary map, for instance. The purpose of a map is to allow you to gain an overview of the layout of a given area. As you increase the size of a map, you gain detail, but at a certain point you begin to lose usefulness, until you reach the level of absurdity that Lewis Carroll once wrote about where the map was “the scale of a mile to a mile”. In the same way, language is only useful to describe a real object or concept as long as it is able to reduce the complexity of that object to a much more manageable group of familiar terms and ideas. These words serve as representations of objects and concepts, but they hold only a fraction of the complexity of that which they represent.

However necessary it is in focusing us on the core message, through this process of compression a great deal of information is lost. We can do our best to recover its meaning through historical and cultural context, but at the end of the day, there is no way to be sure based solely on the text.

The Gift of Metaphor

And this is where metaphor comes in. Metaphor is one of the most powerful features of language and therefore one of the most important gifts God has given us for understanding his word.

Whereas generalization allows us to reduce many similar things we are familiar with into a single core concept, metaphor allows us to draw connections between otherwise dissimilar objects or concepts, so that we can think and communicate more clearly about ideas that would otherwise be too large and complex for our relatively tiny brains to hold. For example, our invisible, omniscient, and eternal Creator.

Because of its potential to expand the boundaries of our mind beyond what we can see and touch, metaphor is the primary mental gateway between our tangible, finite world and God’s infinite eternal reality.

Hence, Jesus makes extensive use of metaphor in his teachings. Here are just some of the metaphors Jesus uses to describe himself in the New Testament:

Jesus is not literally any of these things. He is using the power of metaphor to allow us to relate to things that we could not otherwise see or understand. Certain characteristics of these things are like him in important and illustrative ways. When God created the world, he knew that one day Jesus would use these things to teach the disciples about himself.

And of course, Jesus is famous for his use of parables, which are extended metaphors used to teach moral lessons. By applying metaphors to spiritual truths and grounding them in things we are already familiar with and can relate to, Jesus allows us to develop an intuitive understanding of otherwise abstract concepts. Just as Jesus represents the physical entrance of God into the story of humanity, the parables are the incarnation of God’s truth into the stories of our lives.

Metaphor is therefore an essential tool for expanding our minds to comprehend ideas and things much greater than ourselves. It is not by any means a hindrance or obstacle—it is, in fact, a wonderful gift graciously given to us by God in order that we might have the ability to know him. We cannot merely use generalization to understand God, because God cannot simply be grouped in with other similar things.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made… (Romans 1:20, NIV)

In fact, I believe that everything in this world has been created in order that we might understand some aspect of who he is. God has created this world as an expression of himself, and I believe that he has intentionally filled it with things that reflect various aspects of his nature.

Two Dangers

So if metaphor is so important to understanding God, why is there even a debate about it? The problem is that people who choose to interpret the Bible metaphorically often use it as an excuse to dance around parts of the Bible that make them uncomfortable.

It is an easy thing to do, and if we are honest with ourselves, we all have a tendency to do it to some extent. On the other hand, those who consider themselves literalists fall into a similar trap: people who like to think they are interpreting the Bible literally are pridefully assuming their interpretation of God’s word is the correct interpretation.

Since there is no such thing as a purely literal interpretation of the Bible, anyone who thinks they have one is deluding themselves, mistaking their interpretation of God’s Word for God’s actual Word, and deafening themselves from hearing God’s correction. This is why Jesus called the Pharisees “the blind lead[ing] the blind” (Matthew 15:14)—the Pharisees had a strict interpretation of what they thought the Bible meant and refused to hear any other opinions on the matter, even when the Author came to give a Q&A session.

In different but similar ways, both sides are avoiding the corrective, transformative work of God’s Spirit by interpreting the Bible in a closed-minded fashion. Both have come to the Bible already having decided what it should say rather than coming with an open mind to learn what it truly says.

The flaw common to both types of misinterpretation is pride, which is why above all we need to approach and interpret the Bible with humility.

Interpreting the Bible with Humility

So how do we interpret the Bible with humility? I’m definitely no expert in this department, but I’m happy to share a few things I’ve learned over the years that have been helpful for me (in addition to of course, the lesson that the penitent man kneels before God).

This is all very much a work in progress for me, and I expect for all of us, which is why it is important for us to help each other along the way. I would love to hear from any of you lessons God has taught you about how to approach his Word with humility.

Dungeons and Dragons and the Theology of Free Will

May 24, 2012


For those of you who are not familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, it’s basically a game of structured make-believe and cooperative storytelling, called a roleplaying game, which is usually played by a group of friends gathered around a dinner table talking, reading or taking notes, and occasionally rolling dice.

The following clip from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons episode of Community, is not only hilarious, but a fairly accurate depiction of how the game basically works:

I highly recommend watching the whole episode, which can be found on Hulu Plus, iTunes, or Amazon.

In D&D, each player has complete freedom to have her character attempt any action they can imagine. It is then up to the Dungeon Master, or DM, to determine the result. Usually the DM will do so in accordance with the rules of the game, making calculations using dice and the character’s stats to decide whether the action is successful. But the DM is in no way required to obey these rules if she should see fit to alter or break them. As far as the game world is concerned, the DM is a “god”.

What makes D&D really special though, is the storytelling. The DM and players are working together to tell a story. A good DM can tell an engaging story in an entertaining way. But what separates a merely good DM from a truly great one is incorporating the character’s actions and decisions into the overall narrative—making the character’s choices truly matter. Because D&D is a game played by humans on both sides, it allows for more freedom and creativity than any pre-written story—book, film, or video game—can offer.

Free Will

In fact, I believe free will in our universe works not that differently than in D&D. I subscribe to a libertarian view of free will—I believe that God in his omnipotence has chosen to bestow each of us with truly free will—the ability to try to do whatever we choose. Obviously, we couldn’t succeed at everything we try to do, as our free will would collide with that of others—two opponents can’t both win at a single game of chess. On the other hand, we couldn’t fail at everything we try to do, or the illusion of free will would quickly be broken, just as it is in D&D when the DM attempts to force the players down a predetermined path.

Like any good DM, God has an overall plan for where the story will go—the eventual restoration of creation to a right relationship with him (and itself). But he has given us the opportunity to be active participants in filling in the details of that story, because when God created us in his image, he gave us the ability and the desire to create like him.

Of course, God could accomplish his purpose with or without us. But one of many crazy things we Christians actually believe is that God has chosen to entrust part of his mission to us. This is bound to be a messy process—he could certainly do it much more effectively if he were to do it himself. But because of his great love for us, like a father letting his daughter push the shopping cart around, he has invited us to become his coworkers in the redemption of all creation. Because he is the greatest storyteller ever, the characters in his story are not simply scripted characters, but people with free will that are able to make choices as they see fit. To his great glory, like a great DM, he is able to work with us and to get us, albeit at times kicking and struggling, to work with him in accomplishing his great artistic vision:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

[Rev. 21:1-5a]