Most humans conceive of the death penalty in legal terms. That is, whether one if “for” or “against” it, the argument is legal: it is just or it is unjust. Those Christians who are “for” it often contend that “life for a life” is just, while those who are against it, Christian or not, often argue that at least one reason against it is that we are not smart enough and infallible enough to take the life of another — better err on the side of mercy and caution that put to death an innocent person.
Is the death penalty Christian? Would Jesus support the death penalty?
John Howard Yoder, in a new book expertly edited by John Nugent, called The End of Sacrifice, contends that the death penalty in the Bible was not so much connected to justice as it was to sacrifice. Namely, a human was sacred since she or he was made in God’s image, and the whole “life for a life” was about expiation and not justice restored or balanced.
Yoder then adds this point: if sacrifice has realized its end, namely, has found its completion in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ, it therefore has come to an end. The cross of Christ as the completion of all atonement has meant that the sacred act of expiation is no longer needed. Thus, he sees a redemptive trend or a salvation-historical plot that brings to end death as expiation for murder.
He argues other points:
1. That the law, even Genesis 9:6′s “by man shall his blood be shed,” is to be read like Exodus 21:24-25 (law of retaliation’s limit) — that is, as putting the limit of punishment and not as a commandment to exact the death penalty.
2. Within the pages of the Bible, and Jewish texts fill this out, most punishments were becoming fines and imprisonment and not death penalty.
3. John 8, though disputed as a text in canon but not as an event in the life of Jesus, shows that Jesus posed the death penalty over against two issues over which the death penalty fell short: the more authority of the judge or executioner and the authority Jesus had to forgive. Thus, death penalty is put in the context of expiation and not penal judgment.
4. Society has move increasingly away from the death penalty and has discerned an increasing number of mitigating factors, like insanity, etc.. We do not make these judgments infallibly; our criteria are not entirely justifiable; etc. In other words, development has led to reduction — why not go all the way and end sacrifice completely?
5. Romans 13′s sword is not about death penalty but is the symbol of judicial authority. Jesus’ words in Matt 5 show that the lex talionis is put on an entirely different order.
6. Following Jesus is what Christians do and they do this all the time, not just when they are being private or being Christians.
7. If Jesus is Lord, truly, then he is Lord now over all and that means Christians are to live under his lordship and advocate for kingdom ethics, not “realistic” ethics.
8. The theory of deterrence is useless; the death penalty does not deter violence. Those States with the death penalty have more murders; those without it have less. Countries without it have fewer than countries with it.