A reader argues with a Bible Only Christian about the Death Penalty

He writes:

I am having a little bit of a comment debate with an acquaintance over he death penalty. He is an evangelical christian and believes God is very much for it citing the Noahic Covenant, Jesus affirming Pilate’s right to kill him the Mosaic Law etc. He is not a catholic, so he would be unimpressed with church documents speaking against capital punishment so I am trying to argue against it strictly biblicaly. I know this subject is an important one for you, and I am wondering if you know of any angles I could advance from.

The problem with “Bible only” Protestantism is that the Bible doesn’t interpret itself (no book does). So the Protestant is always bringing his semi-permeable interpretive membrane of things he does and does not want to see in it and reading it through that. It works this way:

If a thing is condemned by the Church, but permitted by the Protestant (say, gay marriage) the demand is for an explicit text forbidding it (“Show me where Jesus said one word about not allowing gay marriage! That’s just the Church imposing its purely human ideas on what Jesus came to say.”).

Conversely, if a thing is allowed by the Church but condemned by the Protestant, the demand is for an explicit text commanding it. So, for instance, we get demands like, “Where in the Bible do you find anyone asking us to pray to dead people? That’s just the Church imposing it’s purely human ideas on what Jesus came to say.”

If your friend wants to see a command for the death penalty there, he will and no mortal power will stop him. Of course you can also wring “biblical proof” for everything from the Loch Ness Monster (“Behemoth” in Job) to extraterrestrials (the wheels within wheels of Ezekiel) from the Bible too, with sufficient will power. That’s why we need a Magisterium, to situate the text within the Tradition and to read the signs of the times.

So I would suggest two things. Have a conversation about sacred tradition (use my book By What Authority? as the way to start that conversation and then read this essay on why abolition of death penalty is urged by the Church. Hope that helps!

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  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Sure, people can stretch biblical interpretation to amazing lengths as the Loch Ness Monster and alien examples demonstrate. But you don’t have to stretch the text very far (or even at all) to see an endorsement of the death penalty in verses such as this:

    But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death. Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death. Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death… Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. – Exod 21:14-17

    I’m afraid that taking a Bible-only approach against the death penalty leaves you at a severe disadvantage. To argue against the death penalty, you need to go beyond the Bible – be it Church Tradition as Mark suggests, or social/moral reasons why the death penalty is detrimental.

    • Mark.

      Remember the God Hates Shrimp shtick promoted on line a few years ago? If Acts and the Epistles weren’t so clear about Jewish law not being binding on Gentiles, they’d have had a point with the Bible-only lot. There’s nothing so clear against the death penalty in the NT, though.

      • OverlappingMagisteria

        Right. But now were playing the “choose your own interpretation” game again. The Bible-only supporter of the death penalty can easily counter with things like:

        “Which parts of the Torah are no longer binding? The part I quoted from Ex 21 is directly after the Ten Commandments… are they no longer binding either? Are the moral laws not binding or just the ritual ones?”

        “The law not being binding does not mean forbidden. It just means we don’t have to use the death penalty, but we can if we find it necessary.”

        The phrases in Exodus, on their own, are clearly in favor of the death penalty – no interpretation required. In order to cancel them out, you have to use a specific interpretation of the New Testament and convince the person that it is the correct interpretation. To me, that seems like a mess of work, especially if there are plenty of non-Biblical reasons that can be more easily used to show that the death penalty is no good.

      • BPS

        St. Paul in his hearing before Festus says, “If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.” (Acts 25:11) Very clearly this constitutes an acknowledgment on the part of the apostle to the gentiles that the state continues to have the power of life and death in the administration of justice.

  • Jared Clark

    Wait….the reader’s friend is using the execution of our Lord as a justification for executions?

  • Jared Clark

    Also, I think a case can be made for life sentences from Scripture (though it is much easier if talking to someone who recognizes the Church’s authority). Start with the fact that God spared Cain. Not only was Cain not smited on the spot (and, for that matter, Adam was not commanded to execute him), but God specifically marked Cain in such a way that would warn others to not kill him.

    From this fact alone, we know that the moral law does not require us to execute murderers. While the Old Law reflected the moral law, the Apostles did not require us to follow it; we are bound by the demands of justice and protecting society, but not by this particular means.

    Therefore, using time rather than a weapon or poison is a legitimate option for serving justice and protecting society in cases of criminals who ought not to be free men again.

    The Church teaches us that this is the preferred option when resources allow it, but I’d start with just showing that this is a Biblically valid option.

    • sez

      There’s also Ezekiel 33:11: “Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

      And Jesus didn’t condone stoning the woman caught in adultery.

      These examples have the advantage of being later in Scripture – well after the Law of Moses was promulgated.

      Yet, as Mark points out, the sola scriptura believer will believe whatever he chooses to believe, and will find ample support in the Bible for it. Without the Magesterium, even Scriptural text and sound reasoning cannot overcome the pride of the self-made-pope-sola-scriptura believer.

  • capaxdei

    As others have pointed out, the Bible has examples of both severity —
    someone commits a capital crime, and is then executed — and clemency —
    someone commits a capital crime, and is not executed. The question isn’t, is God very much for the death penalty, but when is God for it, and when does He favor clemency?

    To get at that answer, I think you have to understand the purpose of the death penalty in natural (or, for that matter, supernatural) justice as illuminated by faith. What good end is achieved by following the Mosaic Law with severity? What benefit obtains when Pilate uses Caesar’s sword with justice?

    Once that’s figured out, the Christian must ask what new perspectives the light of the Gospel shines on the matter. Does Jesus show us a more perfect way of obtaining the benefits of the death penalty? Do His life, death, and resurrection affect the circumstances under which clemency is the surer virtue?

    Only then, it seems to me, can you get to the specifics of the death penalty under US law, in the concrete circumstances in which it is imposed. The judgment here simply cannot be, “188 Bible verses for, 18 against, motion carries.” That’s not Christian faith, that’s Biblemetrics.