The Christian and Capital Punishment
Capital punishment as a penalty for certain crimes has fallen upon "bad times" recently. Since 1965 there have been but a handful of executions in the United States. The penalty is being reviewed by the Supreme Court as "cruel and unusual punishment" and hence unconstitutional. It is interesting, though, that as fewer criminals have had to suffer death for capital crimes, that the rate of capital crime has skyrocketed. While the two rates are not statistically related to one another by experts, this writer feels that their correlation is direct. As law loses its power to enforce moral standards, then increasingly those standards will be neglected by the citizen and fearlessly disregarded by the evil-doer.
Arguments Against Death Penalty
The arguments against the death penalty are primarilly directed against its abuse: errors of justice sometimes lead to the execution of innocent people. Sometimes the death penalty is applied unequally, mostly to the poor and the defenseless, who cannot afford lawyers, appeals, or alternate pleas.
Some Christians oppose the death penalty or declare "It may be lawful, but I wouldn't throw the switch." The latter view begs the question. If something is "lawful"-pleasing to God-then our squemishness or scruples place us "above" God's will. This position is not unlike the brother who "accepts" the scripturality of church autonomy, but is not willing to make it a matter of principle as far as his life and practice is concerned. It has been said before, but we must be careful that our scruples do not surpass the Lord's.
The former view is primarilly supported by the general pacifist arguments. Basically the idea expressed is that the Christian does not have the right to take the life of a man for whom Christ has died. The death penalty is human judgement (sending a man to perdition without ever obeying the gospel), and thusly takes from God something that belongs only to him.
This view overlooks one crucial point-the Christian (or anyone else) does not have the individual human right to take life outside of law. The question is not whether an individual may take life, for this is granted. Murder or manslaughter is certainly against the law of man and God. One may not seek vengeance by taking the life of one who has committed capital crimes as an individual. "Lynch law" or "Vigilantee justice" has always been abhorrent to God. The question is may government, state, community, the "higher power" claim the life of one who is guilty of capital crime? If the answer is yes, then the individual acting within law as a Christian may operate in any part of that process which brings death to the evil-doer: as a juror, a judge, a lawyer, a policeman, a guard, an executioner, or a lawmaker.
This power is specifically granted in Romans 13:4. Evil doers are to fear the "higher powers" because it carries the sword "to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil." The sword is not a symbol of punishment; it is an implement of death or execution. Government does not carry the sword without reason, Paul claimed. It was given to the government to enable that power to act as God's minister to those who keep law in protecting the community from lawmakers by penalizing the criminal.
Why Kill the Evil Doer?
The question often arises, "Why kill the evil doer? Doesn't life imprisonment act just as well as a deterrent to crime, and keeping the criminal off the street?" The answer is "No." Life imprisonment is seldom for "life." A man is eligible for parole on a life sentence after six years, and many criminals guilty of murder, rape, kidnapping, arson, assassination, lynching, bombing, treason, etc. have been freed after a few years on a "life" sentence. In the month of April in Anne Arundel county in Maryland a man attacked, raped, and almost killed a fourteen year old schoolgirl. Just seven months before, he had been released from a prison where he had served seven years for raping and brutally murdering a sixteen year old girl. This past month the kidnapping of a young boy made headlines in the Baltimore area. After two weeks the youngster was found in Virginia captive of a convicted homosexual child abuser and murderer. It was found that the . man had never been sentenced, but remanded to a state clinic because he had been judged "sick" instead of "guilty" in his earlier murder and abuse of a toddler. When he was arrested the young boy was then able to lead the police to the grave of another young boy that he had witnessed his kidnapper molest and murder. The criminal was sent back to the state "hospital" and placed under heavier security. Before, he had been able to just walk away and was not missed, till a child had turned up missing. Brethren-there are some things worthy of death.
Many have imbibed of the modernistic penal philosophy that criminal sentence should be primarially for the rehabilitation of the evil doer. The thought is that man is not as responsible for his condition as society is. The combined qualities of environment, race prejudice, economic deprivation, and schooling failures make criminal behaviour. "Why hold the criminal responsible for what Society has done to him?" This view of criminal behaviour eliminates God's teaching that every man is responsible for what he does, and that all men will be judged individually for what they do, good or evil. While it is true that the criminal is in need of repentance and rehabilitation, punishment is not for his benefit.
Vengeance. Scripture tells us that punishment of the evil doer is fundamentally one of revenge. Now, vengeance is not worked individually. The Christian is not allowed to arbitrarily seek vengeance for wrongs he has sustained (Rom. 12:17, 19; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9). But the restriction God has placed on us in seeking personal revenge does not mean that revenge for evil is wrong. God has sought revenge may times against those who have wronged him (2 Cor. 10:6; Rom. 12:19; 2 Thess. 1:8; Heb. 10:30). 1 might ask the same question that Paul did of the Romans, "Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? God forbid: for then how shall God judge the world" (Rom 3:5,6)? Vengeance belongs to God, and he has placed his sword into the hands of the state "for he is a minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath ,upon him that doeth evil" (Rom. 13:4). When one has lost someone dear due to the bloody hands of a murderer or worse, then God gives us vengeance through his minister of vengeance by the shedding of the murderer's blood. "And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's, brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: For in the image of God made he man" (Cf. Gen. 9:5,6; Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Matt. 26:52; Rev. 13:10).
Deterrence. Punishment is an example as well as vengeance. When God practiced divine retribution against the lies of Ananias and Saphira, the result among God's people at their execution was that "great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things" (Acts 5:11). The threat of punishment by the state restrains the criminal, as well as providing reason for the law keeper to remain within law. Those who argue from statistics that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to crime overlook or forget that the threat of punishment is not effective unless there is an assurance of swift punishment. Today, though there are strong penalties for certain crimes, execution of punishment is seldom brought about. Criminals figure, "cop a plea" "serve time," and then get "out on parole." Punishment that is deferred or not enforced actually encourages crime rather than deterring it. "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Eccl. 8:11). In fact, in many instances the only person who suffers is the victim. What advantage is there in keeping the law when there is no penalty to be feared for breaking law? "There is a vanity which is done upon the face of the earth; that there be just men unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous" (Eccl. 8:14).
But proper sentence speedily executed without respect of persons is a very real deterrent to crime: "And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die. . . and all Israel shall hear, and fear. and shall do no more any such wickedness as this among you" (Dent. 13:10, 11). "When the scorner is punished, the simple is made wise" (Prov. 12:11). "Now these things were our examples (destruction of the Jews in wilderness because of sin 10:6-11) . . . now all things happened to them for ensamples" (1 Cor. 10:6, 11).
Protection of Public. Capital punishment is not only punitive, but it also is defensive. Criminals beget crime, prey on the lawkeeper and the innocent, and destroy the unity and purpose of community. Criminals lower
the value of human dignity and take away freedoms and liberties of all citizens by their abuses. Society must preserve itself from those among it that would prey on its members. We see the way in which discipline protects and keeps the church pure by isolating and negating the influence and power of the sinner (1 Cor. 5:5-8, 13). In society, the criminal who is guilty of capital crime is eliminated through execution. The expression may be crude, but not the concept: "The murderer who is put to death will never murder again." "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace. But the transgressors shall be destroyed together: the end of the wicked shall be cut off" (Psa. 37:37, 38).
Human life belongs to God, and he is not unrighteous to take it. There are some crimes that are deserving of death (Acts 25:11). Christians should repudiate any maudlin sentimentality which does not take crime seriously. Men may try to eliminate punishment for evil doing. God will find vengeance ultimately though men fail in their appointed roles. Men may escape death at the hand of men, but they will never escape death at the hand of God.
Truth Magazine XXI: 10, pp. 140-141