This week Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill abolishing the death penalty in Illinois. His primary concern with the state’s system for capital punishment was possible error. “If the system can’t be guaranteed, 100-percent error-free, then we shouldn’t have the system. It cannot stand.” The next day, Ohio executed a convicted murder using a new, single-drug system similar to that used to euthanize animals.
The death penalty invokes strong reactions from people on both sides of the issue. Some liken it to state-sanctioned murder. Others call it justice. The late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin headed the conference that drafted the church’s “Seamless Garment” document, which claimed that capital punishment was inconsistent with an atmosphere of respect for life.
But does being pro-capital punishment inherently make one not pro-life? I, for one, happen to believe not. I’ve wrestled with the issue for years—I did a college independent study on Cardinal Bernardin’s work in 1985—and have come to the conclusion that, in the end, being in favor of capital punishment is itself pro-life—in theory. Please bear with me as I lay out my reasoning:
Many opponents of capital punishment cite the Sixth Commandment as prohibiting the death penalty, quoting it as, “You shall not kill.” But if that’s what it really says, then God would contradict himself, since there are many places throughout Scripture where His people are ordered to kill. In fact, the better translation is, “You shall not murder.” And the difference between kill and murder is key to the discussion. Killing can be justified for a number of reasons, including self-defense or just war. Murder can never be justified because it is, by definition, the unjust taking of an innocent human life.
The distinction is important, because we are beings with the ability to reason morally. We never accuse animals of murder, even if they kill a human, because we recognize that animals do not have this ability. (We might still kill the animal after the fact, but that’s done for practical reasons, not moral. We’re protecting ourselves from an animal that has tasted human blood and might want more; we’re not “punishing” the animal.)
A better, more definitive passage in Scripture dealing with the death penalty is Genesis 9:6:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man.”
Note that this is the only command in Scripture that is predicated on the fact that man is created in God’s image. Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser explains:
It was because humans are made in the image of God that capital punishment for first degree murder became a perpetual obligation. To kill a person was tantamount to killing God in effigy. That murderer’s life was owed to God; not to society, not to the grieving loved ones, and not even as a preventative measure for more crimes of a similar nature.
In effect, the death penalty is pro-life because it affirms the value of the life of the victim, a being created in God’s image, and because it also affirms the value of the murderer as a human with free moral agency. (See also Genesis 9:5.) That’s why we make exceptions for people who might not have been able to exercise such agency, e.g., the mentally retarded or children. So heinous is the crime of murdering a being created in God’s image that only one punishment will do: death. A life for a life.
Objection: Doesn’t God say it is His place to avenge?
Yes, but when it comes to the above passage in Genesis, it’s clear that the punishment for murder is not to be some future act by God; it is to be carried out by man (“by man shall his blood be shed,” my emphasis). The command in Genesis 9:6 is part of the Noahic Covenant, which is still binding on all mankind. The principle is carried through to the New Testament, which makes it clear that the duty to punish evildoers lies with the state, not individuals. Romans 13:3-4 precludes any appeal to personal vengeance or vigilantism. But the sword of this passage is an instrument of death, not just of governmental power.
Objection: The death penalty doesn’t deter.
Well, yes and no. It doesn’t deter crime in the sense that some people will continue to murder, often in the heat of the moment. Indeed, in 18th century England the punishment for pickpockets was to be hanged. So who did we find working the crowds at the public hanging? Pickpockets. But in another sense, it does deter in that the executed murderer will not be around to murder someone else. (Check out how many times people in prison are murdered, or paroled murderers kill again.)
But the more pertinent response to that objection is, so what? Prison doesn’t deter drug dealing, car theft, or any number of other things, yet we see no one advocating that we do away with prison. More important, you punish people for one reason and one reason only: Because they deserve it. Of course, if deterrence should come about, it’s only a beneficial side effect; it should never be the primary purpose.
It’s the principle of retributive justice, which is part of God’s nature. It’s a natural response to wrongdoing. We see God’s anger burn against injustice, and we, too, have an instinctive reaction to injustice, particularly murder. We’re made in God’s image and share that attribute. Of course, as sinful humans our response might be expressed in a wrong way, but just as anger in and of itself is not sinful, the instinct for retributive justice is also not in and of itself sinful.
Objection: But there were a lot of things in the Old Testament that required the death penalty, including kidnapping, adultery and homosexual acts.
Yes, but with the exception of first-degree murder, every one of these punishments allowed for a form of substitutionary payment or commutation, and as Christians we say that Christ fulfilled the Old Testament law and was our substitutionary payment. But the Noahic Covenant is still operative, and Romans 13 makes clear that the state still carries the sword—an instrument of death.
Objection: But shouldn’t we forgive those who do wrong against us?
Certainly. There are instances of people forgiving a killer, and that’s admirable. But just as the state forbids capital punishment to individuals, the power of forgiveness does not rest solely with the individual. The state has a duty to punish wrongdoers. I could personally forgive the man who, say, stole my car, but nobody would then advocate letting him out of jail for that reason.
Objection: But we know that innocent men have been freed from death row because later DNA evidence has exonerated them.
Yes, and this is the strongest objection of all, the one that Gov. Quinn cites most prominently. And it’s why I think capital punishment should be applied very carefully. I believe the principle behind the death penalty is strong, just, and ultimately pro-life, but I also believe that because we are fallible, we should be extremely careful in its application. We should always err on the side of life. But I also believe that when the guilt of the accused is without doubt, it is an abomination that he is allowed to live. There’s something wrong with the fact that Charles Manson remains alive, supported by the taxpayers of California, while his victims have been moldering in their graves for 40 years now. It would be an abomination if John Wayne Gacy, who seduced and murdered 33 young boys, were allowed to live when the deliberate and cold-blooded nature of his crimes was proven.
In short, it is out of my deep respect for human life, created in God’s image, that I think the only just punishment for a cold-blooded murder is that that life be avenged as God commands. But being human and fallible, I urge the greatest caution and certainty before doing so.