I am pro-life — and yet I support the death penalty for those who intentionally murder another person.
Some find my position incongruous and untenable. Quite a few commented as much on my recent post “5 Things I Don’t Understand about Christians Who Voted for Obama.“ The charge goes something like this: how can you claim to be so concerned about the life of the unborn if you support death in any way? Many thought I was, at the least, inconsistent.
I disagree. In fact, I think the opposite is true. It is precisely because I value human life so highly that I must support death as the divinely appointed penalty for those who take God’s authority upon themselves to murder another. And it may be precisely because others do not value human life that they would both support abortion and oppose the death penalty for murder.
Allow me to explain.
A Few Assumptions
- God gives life. This belief under-girds everything else I believe about life, death, abortion, the death penalty, and — yes – a just war (another post for another day). It is the core belief that most who are pro-life embrace. It is also one reason why many who support abortion fail to understand the passion on the pro-life side. For many of us, we see this issue as one on which God as the divine Creator has acted and spoken clearly. Thus, there can be no room for compromise.
- God takes life. Because He gave it, He can take it. And only He can rightly take it. In fact, He has granted authority to take life only to those He has ordained in civil government. Yes, believing this also has implications for euthanasia and similar issues. I, and most who are pro-life, believe that whether or not I may take a life, including my own, is not my call. Those who make it their call, make themselves as gods, taking authority to themselves that is unique to God alone.
- God instituted the death penalty. The first new command given after the destruction of all the known world comes from Genesis 9:6. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. ” Interestingly, when Cain murdered Abel, God let him live to send a message of shame. After the Flood, God gets more prescriptive as to how murder is to be handled. Romans 13 states that the government (those granted civil authority by God) does not bear the sword in vain.
- God makes a key distinction. God created each person in His image. Beginning with Genesis 9 and reinforced throughout Scripture, God makes it clear that whoever intentionally takes the life of one of His image-bearers crosses a line past which no one may rightly demand a return in this life. In other words, the intentional killer forfeits his or her own right to life by taking the life of another. Those who have not done so, such as an unborn child, while guilty of the sinful fate that has corrupted all of us, have not willfully taken the life of another divine image-bearer. They are not murderers. They are innocent, not guilty, of the one crime deserving of death at the hands of divinely-ordained human authority.
I repeat. Underlying all of these basic tenets of a pro-life position is the foundational belief that human life has such high value because God, the giver of life, made us in His image. We are not God, but we resemble Him in a way that nothing else does, including the angels.
The Impact on Society
On a practical level, a society that rightly caries out the death penalty (with due process to ensure a just ruling of guilt or innocence) does three things:
- Makes a statement about the high value it places on innocent human life. The ultimate price for murder should not be spending the rest of your days confined to a narrow box with bars on the windows and cable on the television. Only a humanistic society would see the loss of the freedom to choose as worse than the death penalty for the most heinous of crimes. (More on the unbiblical nature of our penal system another day.)
- Makes a strong statement intended to serve as a deterrent to murder. God has given civil government the sword (an instrument created to produce death) so that evil-doers should be very afraid of them using it. “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for [government] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4) Academic research abounds on all sides of this question on whether or not the death penalty is an effective deterrent to capital crimes. I’ll direct you to this 2012 study by the National Research Council of the National Academies that concluded research on both sides is flawed and should not be used to decide the matter. My appeal is to the Bible and common sense — recognizing that not all murderers are using common sense when they plan to commit their horrific crimes.
- Positions itself for God’s blessing. Although secular critics will discount this point, people of faith will not. Consequently, it factors into explaining why many hold the pro-life positions they do. The worldview based on the Bible as God’s inspired revelation of truth to humans portrays a universe in which nations and individuals are blessed for obeying. Not so much for disobeying. Kind of the opposite actually.
Two Final Distinctions
Two final distinctions should be made regarding why I am pro-life and support the death penalty. First, I support the death penalty only for willful murder. When God himself applied His injunction against murder in the case laws of the Israelites, He gave different penalties for accidental deaths versus intentional and willful murders. Second, and I cannot state this too clearly, God takes no delight in the death of the wicked – or anyone for that matter. Neither should we. Even when Osama bin Laden was killed by Seal Team 6, I refused to celebrate jubilantly as some did. All death is a sad occasion for all the reasons given above.
Death is not how it was supposed to be. Nor, thank God, is it how it always will be.
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