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.