The Heresy of Capital Punishment

The Heresy of Capital Punishment

Every ethicist chooses one particular social issue on which to focus—at least for a time. Unfortunately, in my opinion, too few have focused on capital punishment for a sufficiently sustained time, giving it sufficient attention during that time, to bring about a sea change in public opinion. Still, to this day, the majority of Americans favor capital punishment for certain crimes—in spite of or perhaps because of the almost overwhelming negative judgment about it on the parts of intellectuals and writers.

One writer, who also happens to be highly intellectual, who strongly opposes capital punishment is John Grisham. Several of his novels are about it—including most notably (and emotionally compellingly) The Confession (2010). His leading short story in Ford County (2009), a much-neglected collection of short stories is about capital punishment and its affect on families. I think stories can do as much or more than arguments to dispel the justifying myths about capital punishment and throw light on its injustices.

Two or three times here before I’ve called capital punishment “heresy.” What do I mean? It is my considered opinion that belief that capital punishment, at least as it is known and practiced in the U.S. today, is a heresy when espoused by Christians. It manifests an embrace of the myth of redemptive violence by humans and flies in the face of the ethic of Jesus which forbids violent retribution. It is absolutely, incontrovertibly contrary to love. And it is, as practiced in the U.S. today, manifestly unjust.

I believe Christian churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. They ought, at the very least, to declare it incompatible with Christian faith and put members who openly believe in it under some kind of discipline (not necessarily excommunication but at least forbidding them to teach it in the ecclesial context). And those who practice it, actively seeking it and participating in it, should be excommunicated from Christian churches. It ought to be a matter of status confessionis—as apartheid was declared by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches which helped lead to its downfall in South Africa.

The state of Texas recently executed its 500th person since capital punishment was restored by the Supreme Court in 1976. That’s more than all other states combined. I have lived in Texas for a total of 17 years and can testify that, for many Texas Christians, capital punishment is almost a sacrament. I have heard Texas “born again Christians” cheerfully declare that they would gladly push the plunger down to start the poisonous chemicals flowing into a condemned person’s veins. When I routinely ask them “Would Jesus do it?” they either look at me as if the question had never occurred to them or stick to their guns (a very Texas thing to do!) and say that he would.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not singling out Texas as if it’s the only place where Christians defend capital punishment. I’ve lived in other states where it is common and proudly defended by the majority including Christians. I’m only mentioning Texas here and now because of the notable 500th execution just a couple weeks ago—something that made national news.

The 500th executed person was a black woman. Not many women go to the death chamber in Texas or elsewhere, but many African-Americans do. Studies have shown that African-Americans are more likely to receive the death penalty than Caucasians—especially when the decision (or recommendation) is made by a jury rather than a judge.

One thing that sparked my thoughts about this, and my decision to blog about it again, besides the recent 500th execution, is that I happened to see a documentary about a notable case of innocent people almost being convicted of capital murder.

Now I know that someone out there is already thinking: “Yes, almost, but it has never actually happened. There are checks and balances to keep innocent people from being executed.” I simply don’t believe they are sufficient to guarantee it. I believe it is highly likely that some innocent people have been executed. I would be willing to bet (were I a “betting man”) that among the 500 people Texas has executed in the past almost forty years there were several innocents. The Innocence Project has been coming up with many innocent convicts and freeing them from prison. One notable case that received national attention happened recently in Texas. A man (Michael Morton) who served 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit was finally exonerated and released. Strong suspicion now exists that the prosecutor, now a judge, hid evidence from his defense attorney that may have caused his acquittal 25 years ago. (It is things like this that cause some people to say that “Texas justice” is an oxymoron.)

A problem is that once a person is executed there is very little motive for attempting to go through the arduous process of proving him or her to be innocent. I believe if as much effort were put into that as into exonerating innocent convicted people still in prison, some executed persons would be found to have been innocent.

So what was the documentary I mentioned three paragraphs above? The case involved a murdered Utah businessman named Kay Mortensen. You can “Google” the story and read all about it. He was brutally murdered in his own home. His son and daughter-in-law happened to come to his home as he was being murdered and were tied up and threatened with death by two gun wielding home invaders. The police and prosecutors (and grand jury) did not believe their stories and accused them of murdering Mr. Mortensen in spite of their adamant denials and no physical evidence against them. The police and prosecutors argued vehemently that their story was unbelievable and put them on trial—or almost. The day their trial for murder was to begin (and even their defense attorney thought they would probably be convicted) a woman called police to tell them who really committed the murder—her ex-husband and his friend.

As it turns out, Mr. Mortensen’s son and daughter-in-law told the truth. The real murderers supported their story—the one police and the prosecutor called unbelievable. One murderer confessed and the other was convicted. Both were sentenced to life in prison. But it is possible Mr. Mortensen’s son and daughter-in-law would have been sentenced to death had they been convicted—which was almost certain until the stranger called to reveal what really happened. Had she not had a pang of conscience and had she kept her silence, the son and daughter-in-law very well may have been executed and nobody would have ever known of their innocence. It is my belief that that has happened in other cases.

Our justice system is not fool proof which is one reason why capital punishment is wrong; judges and juries can never know with absolutely certainty that an accused person is guilty—even if they confess. (Many confessions are made under extreme duress.)

But there are many other reasons capital punishment is unjust. I have explained them here before. In brief they are: (from a Christian point of view) that it takes away a person’s time to repent and believe or to witness to other inmates, leading them to repentance and faith, and (from a secular point of view) it offers no real deterrent to crime and costs the government more than incarceration for life. Also, from just a humane point of view, it is extremely damaging to the families of those executed and is barbaric for a supposedly civilized society such as we claim to be (no country we like to compare ourselves with in terms of social development practices capital punishment).

It’s time for American Christians to wake up and add capital punishment to the list of social evils we oppose. (Even Christians in states that have abolished capital punishment need to join this effort as our federal government still practices it.)

I can just hear someone mocking my question above “Would Jesus do it?” Would Jesus push down the plunger to begin the flow of deadly chemicals to kill a condemned man or woman? Sure, sound arguments can be made that there are things we must do that Jesus would not do. “What would Jesus do?” is a simplistic principle for ethical guidance. But it’s a place to start. If the answer is “no,” then a Christian must offer a strong argument for why it is morally and ethically right for them to do it. I can think of no such argument for capital punishment. It cannot be considered a necessary evil that, even though Jesus wouldn’t do it, we must. There are always ways to restrain a murderer, for example, to make sure he or she cannot murder again. Those are preferable to capital punishment. Jesus would not push down the plunger or pull the lever (or whatever a modern executioner does); we don’t need to. End of story.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Roger,

    Your continuous posting of the evils of over-reaching government give me hope.

    But let me throw a theological twist into your question about Jesus being an executioner. Is not God – the One who numbers our days – our executioner? Does not God both give life and take it too? Jesus surely is the Good Shepherd, but every shepherd knows the end of each of the sheep (at his own hands). The shepherd wants good (and provides protection) for the sheep because the shepherd/owner wants good wool, milk and meat! For every chance disease or accident that results in death, can we not look to God as the arbiter here? If God is not responsible here when it is most important and crucial, then the other responsibilities melt into obscurity are quickly forgotten.

    I would venture that Jesus would not work on behalf of the Roman government and crucify anyone, nor would Jesus work for the American government and inject poison into another. But I would also venture the notion that the life and death of each of us is in His Strong Hands of Love. And there comes a time when God’s Loving hands point in our direction while bidding the Angel of Death “Now is the time”. God pulls a lever.
    Tim
    I will leave others to argue that God instituted the practice in the OT – and who are we to argue with God?

    • Roger Olson

      As a long time reader and former student of mine, I’m sure you won’t be surprised by my response. God is God; we are not. God gives and takes away; we are not permitted to take life in every way that God may take life. Also, I see a great discontinuity between God’s establishments of laws for Israel and Jesus’ teachings about what his followers are to do.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Roger, now you are favorably quoting Job’s saying that you previously rejected – that God indeed takes away. My hope is surging.
        You do understand that I was responding to your question of whether Jesus would end someone’s life. It seems that you wanted the answer to that to be “No” – and that we should follow Jesus’ example. But now that I’ve successfully argued that Jesus/God does indeed “pull the lever” to end life, you switch your argument. Now, “God is God; we are not” so we are not to follow Jesus’ example. Please make up your mind.
        I think that you see great discontinuity between the OT and NT because the OT context were in charge of governing a people. Jesus didn’t address an audience like that. Do you think that Jesus invalidated the OT principle of (just) execution by saying all that is unjust? Aren’t you pitting God against God?
        -Tim

        • Roger Olson

          I see it as a matter of progressive revelation–as I was taught in an evangelical Baptist seminary and have tried to teach my students for thirty-one years.

  • mzellen

    On the other hand, if God the Father said, through His Law, that there are some crimes that so strike at the “image bearer of God” (humanity) that those crime warrant death, does that not give us a hint about how God feels about the just penalty for those who destroy another who bears God’s image?

    Jesus said that the Law is good. Do you have a passage that says “Except for the death penalty part?” If you don’t have Scriptural proof that Jesus would overthrow God’s penalty for striking at the very image of God, it might not be a wise thing to label those who support justice for the victim’s family as “heretics.”

    **HERETICS**…really?

    • Roger Olson

      I am not an Old Testament Christian; I’m a Jesus person. I cannot reconcile Christians believing in capital punishment with the Sermon on the Mount.

      • Frudoc Ponto

        I believe I should be a Bible Christian, since we are making up labels. Interestingly, the very Sermon you refer to shows that Jesus was not simply a “Jesus person,” but someone who did not come to do away with the Law (including that in the Old Testament). But setting that aside, you write, “I cannot reconcile Christians believing in capital punishment with the Sermon on the Mount.” Then make that case! Make that case using the Sermon on the Mount, including all of the Scripture it is referencing, and then wrestling with the way in which Israel was held accountable to the Law while at the same time called to punish and even execute people, but how that is not the case today. There’s the beginning of a good article!

        Listen, this is obviously an extremely important issue to you. You are calling people heretics, for crying out loud! If it is so important surely it deserves better than this article and these comment replies. I hope you might be able to write the book or a good technical journal article on the issue soon.

        • Roger Olson

          I hope to–sometime. But my mind is settled about the matter and I have trouble understanding any Christian who doesn’t share my view. It’s fundamental to me about Christian ethics.

  • Dan Salter

    Bet you get a lot of comments on this one! I have some questions. I’m one of those who simplistically always supported the death penalty. I don’t feel so much that way now, but I have no firm conviction about this. I need my questions answered.
    1. We say Jesus wouldn’t do it. Are we speaking of Jesus the man or Jesus as the 2nd Person of the Trinity? Certainly God would and does it (i.e., ends life thus ending time for repentance) unless we’re deistically inclined, right?
    2. I’m sure there is some reason that you see OT Law as different, but I’m not sure why. In those cases, although it is the command of God, it is still people judging based on circumstance and then ending life maybe before time for repentance. So, I’m fuzzy there.
    3. You’re not saying that since studies show it is not really a deterrent, that’s a reason against it, right? I mean, most people favoring the death penalty seem to favor swift execution (swift as in the time from conviction to execution). Certainly that would raise the level of deterrence, or do you think no?
    4. Do your views of death penalty lodge specifically and only in regard to the law? I’m wondering here about self defense. An armed assailant enters my home and threatens my wife with rape. Am I wrong to shoot the assailant dead? (Some Christians–one notable blog I’m thinking about–says yes, you are wrong.)
    5. Are wars different? Or can an anti-war stance take the same foundation?

    Again, I’d really appreciate your answers because I’ve generally appreciated the way you think. These are all sincere questions that I’ve grappled with–even recently–and am still on the sidelines wondering which team to join. (It is especially difficult for me with a wife who comes from Texas, and whose brothers love to promote Fox News and “taking back America” come hell or high water!)

    • Roger Olson

      I’m sure you can understand that my time is limited. You ask a lot of questions and I don’t have time to construct answers to them all. Let me just say I’m not a pacifist. I believe in just war theory (and think most wars aren’t just). But war is always a necessary evil at best. Capital punishment is never necessary.

  • Dean

    Dr. Olson, this is why I continue to follow your blog, Evangelical Christians need to be called out on a lot of issues and this is yet another. I am baffled at how easily Christians support the death penalty and retributive justice in general and claim that it is Biblical. Here’s the thing though, I have asked the question “What would Jesus do?” in situations involving violence, and there is a common answer, it’s that the Jesus in the Gospels is only one side of him. The other side is the sword bearing, laser-beam eyes, blood soaked Jesus of Revelation. As one popular reformed pastor puts it: “In Revelation (the last book of the New Testament), Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the
    commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I
    cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a
    guy I can beat up.” If that’s your model of who Jesus is, when, then maybe lethal injection is in fact too humane!

    • Roger Olson

      Leaving the notorious Seattle pastor’s strange views aside, I will just say that the Jesus of the gospels is our model for life, not the Jesus of the Book of Revelation. What he will do then, against Satan and his minions, is no warrant for us, his followers, being violent now.

  • williamdiamon

    You are projecting your Christian beliefs and sensibilities onto people who have committed the most heinous crime we encounter. If convicted, they will have as many as 20 years to appeal and find time to repent. “If” they are so inclined. Our laws allow for justice and many of the victims family and loved ones need the punishment to fit the crime to find closure.

    • Roger Olson

      How do you know they’ve committed the crimes? You can’t know–with absolute certainty. And I don’t believe satisfaction of blood lust brings real closure in any meaningful, moral sense.

      • williamdiamon

        That’s why we use DNA, cameras, finger prints, eye witness, etc. Then give the defense years to appeal. “Blood lust”? You are projecting the worst emotion possible onto the victim’s families and loved ones. We also use the death penalty as a deterrent to others.

        • Roger Olson

          But it isn’t a deterrent. And, yes, I don’t know any more descriptive term for the emotion loved ones of murdered people feel. I’m not saying I wouldn’t feel it, too. I very well may. But the loved ones of a murdered person are not rational in that situation. That’s why we don’t allow them to decide on the punishment.

          • williamdiamon

            Not “blood lust” but fairness. When you buy something you pay what you consider a fair amount for it. When you sell you ask a fair amount for it. Taking someone’s life requires a fair price for it. Why do you say it’s not a deterrent? In a crime of passion that may be true, but it has to cross the mind of someone considering capitol murder.

          • Roger Olson

            In some countries of the world “fairness” means cutting off a thief’s hand. Studies have shown capital punishment is not a deterrent.

          • williamdiamon

            But no one is advocating dismemberment for thieves in America. In our world fairness means an eye for an eye, a life for a life. But if you take someone’s life you still won’t get the death penalty. It is reserved for the most evil among us, even serial killers are not put to death. This is probably the reason for these studies finding, it’s not used often enough.

          • williamdiamon

            Actually many times victims of crime are asked what they think the punishment should be, I was.

          • Roger Olson

            I hope if a loved one of mine is ever raped or murdered no judge asks me what the punishment should be. I won’t be in my right state of mind then. Calm reason should prevail; not passion.

          • williamdiamon

            You are right, but there would be a reason for your distress. This distress is something we all understand and sympathize with. When there is a problem (with anything in life) we fix it, hopefully so it won’t happen again. Letting someone who has committed crimes heinous enough to warrant the death penalty live out the rest of their natural life, even in prison, is not fair to the victims family or society as a whole. Know of any on death row who have repented and turned to Jesus? What do you think the percentage is? I’ll bet there are few.

          • Roger Olson

            Who knows? I have heard of several. Your idea of “fairness” is not mind.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Deterrent?
            Make a law saying every murder committed on a Wednesday will have a punishment of execution, then the rate of Wednesday murders will decrease. It is a deterrent. End of story.
            -Tim
            h/t Dennis Prager

    • Casey Glass

      I don’t see how this is projecting Christian sensibilities onto criminals. It is simply saying that the consistent witness of Jesus is that it is not appropriate for his followers to take the life of others.

      • williamdiamon

        Assuming the criminal will someday feel sorry for what they have done is projecting. It’s a noble thought, but not all will ever come to this realization. It is hard for us, who have been raised in a Christian environment and focus our energy into good deeds, to understand true evil. There are many among us who will never care what they have done and only regret getting caught.

        • Roger Olson

          I don’t see how that affects my argument which is based on Christian hope in the Holy Spirit. When are we allowed to simply give up on someone and kill them? I would say never.

          • williamdiamon

            Would you have kept Adolf Hitler in jail? Pol Pot? Stalin? Che? Do you think they would have ever seen the light? I don’t understand why Manson is still with us. Yes, there are those who are pure evil and will never benefit from life or contribute anything but pain and hatred. And you want us to pay $50,000 a year to keep them alive?

          • Roger Olson

            Do you think they were/are human beings created in the image and likeness of God, loved by God, who, during their life long incarcerations might have come to Christ, repented of their sins and been forgiven by God? If not, then you have less faith in the power of the Holy Spirit than I do.

          • williamdiamon

            Yes there is always the chance they will see the light. But we’re not talking about crimes of passion or negligence. We reserve this sentence for the sociopath and psychopath. They would have to be cured of this condition before they could even begin. Have any been cured?

          • Roger Olson

            The question isn’t whether they can be cured; it’s whether they can be forgiven and redeemed. I believe in the power and mercy of God to do that even for those who have very serious mental and personality problems that are not curable by any yet known techniques.

        • Casey Glass

          I’m sorry but I don’t see at all how that is a justification for capital punishment. The fact that “some people” will never repent hardly justifies the killing of another larger group of people. In that case no one will ever repent!

  • jamie orr

    It seems that the majority of christians that are pro capital punishment, these christians are overwhelmed with vengeful passion, to see an eye for an eye view to be carried out, they seem to lack compassion and do not seem to know Jesus very well, As we know hatred only breeds hatred, as Corrie Ten Boom said, you have to forgive even though it is extremely difficult.
    It is very barbaric that it is still carried out anywhere in the world today, but if the judges and other high ranking politicians are blood thirsty, it is very hard to see a abolition for many years to come. It would be nice if all or at lest a hefty majority was against it, so it would give the government clear perspective that christians say that what they are doing is wrong.

    • Roger Olson

      Amen. The movement needs to start with Christian churches speaking truth to power.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Amen and amen.

  • Orthodoxdj

    I agree that the death penalty should be used sparingly, but I cannot agree that’s a heresy (in the way you use the term above). Some crimes are so heinous, and some prisoners are so dangerous that the death penalty is warranted. I think our default setting should be non-violence, but I think violence can be redemptive in some instances.

    • Casey Glass

      Which Crimes? Who decides? What about being wrong? Where does one get their biblical mandate for this? When is violence redemptive (do you have an example)?

  • Perry L. Stepp

    Weak argument. You’re chipping around the edges & ignoring the center. Problems with racial unfairness won’t go away if capital punishment is done away with. Minorities and the poor will be incarcerated at disproportionate rates, because they can’t afford the same level of representation, etc.

    You mention the recent execution of Kimberly McCarthy, you don’t mention what she did to be sentenced to death. She went to her 80-something year old neighbor’s house, gained entry under the pretense of borrowing sugar, then beat her to death and cut off the woman’s finger so McCarthy could sell her wedding ring for drug money. Tell THAT part of the story.

    There are some acts so heinous that the only appropriate punishment is to take the life of the person who committed the act. Romans 13 clearly indicates that the government has this punitive function; “the sword” is clearly capital punishment, pace my colleagues in the NT guild. 

    You want to convince me that I’m wrong? Tell the story of Kenneth Wayne McDuff. Tell of his first murder in the 1960′s, how he was sentenced to death & that sentence set aside. Tell how he was released, and subsequently kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered several women in the Waco area. THEN try to convince me that he shouldn’t have been executed. THEN you can call me a heretic. 

    • Roger Olson

      I doubt that I’m going to be able to convince you to let go of your blood lust and I’ve seldom had success waiting to call someone a heretic until is convinced of it.

      • Perry L. Stepp

        Then let me restate.

        I think your argument is weak because you build it on the easy cases. You talk about innocents executed. You talk about racial unfairness in the system. But you don’t talk about a Kenneth Wayne McDuff or an Obah Miller. And you don’t deal with Romans 13.

        (You’re also assuming a lot about the nefarious motivations of those who disagree with you. You’re not following your own rules for debate.)

        Again: there are some acts so heinous that the state’s only appropriate response is to dispassionately & humanely take the life of those who commit those acts.

        • Roger Olson

          Why dispassionately and humanely? Why not passionately and cruelly?

          • williamdiamon

            That would be the difference between justice and revenge. But maybe you have a point here, why not keep these people alive and torture them every day until they take their own life? That way they would have time to repent and no innocent would have to pull the switch. I think you have something here we both can agree on.

          • Roger Olson

            If I may say so respectfully, I think you doth protest too much. You are now beginning to step beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse into ridicule. This is my warning to you that you comments need to be constructive and intentional about promoting dialogue.

          • williamdiamon

            The first of my post sentence is real. The rest of the reply
            is a sarcastic reply to a sarcastic reply. I do believe “passionately and cruelly” is ridicule.

          • Perry L. Stepp

            Because my advocacy for capital punishment is not based on bloodlust or retaliation, as you so blithely assume.

            The actions of a McDuff, a Dahmer, a Gacy, a Lucas, etc., are such that to treat them as we treat “normal” crimes is to devalue the lives of their victims & their victims’ families.

            If McDuff had been executed in the late 1960′s, as was appropriate under the law (and there is no doubt of his guilt), how many women (wives, mothers, daughters) and their families would have been spared the terror & suffering he put them through? A half-dozen? A dozen?

            There is no appropriate response for society but to say, “Because of these depraved & sadistic actions, your life is forfeit.” Romans 13: God has given to the state the responsibility of restraining evil, punishing evil-doers, and protecting the innocent.

          • Roger Olson

            Texas (and most states) now has a sentence it did not have then: life without the possibility of parole. That takes care of your concern.

      • williamdiamon

        You are calling his sense of fairness and desire for justice “blood lust”. We go through life’s interactions with our fellow man using “fairness” as a guide in everything we do. We know when we are wronged and it is our sense of “fairness” that demands “justice”. “Blood lust” is a term you should reserve for the act of murder in the heat of passion or madness. You say you “doubt that I’m going to be able to convince you to let go of your blood lust” but expect us to give the evil among us the rest of their lives to do this?

  • steve rogers

    I agree. Capital punishment is a heresy. It is a heresy that is deeply rooted in another heresy that holds that there comes a point when mercy is exhausted and the most extreme retribution remains the only option. In other words, if God has decreed a “death” that includes eternal conscious torture and exclusion from his society for all offenders, does it not follow that when we execute violent offenders we are only hastening them to their destined end? Which, as you know, is a view that has strong biblical backing. Fundamentally, as I see it, the heresy is that God is the great executioner and the judicial system that joins with him in that endeavor is doing God’s work.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Dr. Olson said, “It is my considered opinion that belief that capital punishment, at least as it is known and practiced in the U.S. today, is a heresy when espoused by Christians. It manifests an embrace of the myth of redemptive violence by humans and flies in the face of the ethic of Jesus which forbids violent retribution. It is absolutely, incontrovertibly contrary to love.”

    I agree with Dr. Olson on this issue, but it raises some important questions that neither Dr. Olson nor any of his responders have dared to touch. For example, how can any Christian be abhorred with and against ‘capital punishment’ but, yet, endorse the far worse doctrine of a God-imposed eternal conscious torture of the vast majority of humanity in a so-called hell? Further, how can those who follow this blog, who for the most part are biblical scholars or students, continue to support a hell of ‘capital torture’ at the hands of an angry God who demands of his followers: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28 (NIV)?

    It is my opinion that support for capital punishment will continue to erode in our nation (including Texas) as time goes forward. Concurrently, support for the false doctrine of a hell of eternal torture will melt away for all the same reasons that Dr. Olson condemns the practice of Texas-style justice. No, Jesus would NEVER push the plunger on any transgressor, even though he had the power to do so. He said that if he wanted to do so, he could summon twelve thousand angels to deliver him from the hands of his enemies. But, thank God, he chose to love and forgive them instead!

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Ivan,
      If what you say is correct, then the writer of the book of Revelations slandered Jesus/God by so closely associating God with the wrath that was poured out on so many people. God does push the plunger on us all in God’s time.

  • http://www.gbcdartmouth.ca/ William Emberley

    It is plainly irresponsible for any Christian to advocate a point of view without offering a scrap of Biblical warrant, especially if he wants to label a position “heresy”. Simply put, I am simply shocked! Not sure what I believe about CP, but I will not be convinced one way or the other without scripture.

    • Roger Olson

      How much scripture did slavery abolitionists have when they declared slavery heresy? Are you going to argue that slavery should not be considered heresy because there is no explicit statement against it in scripture? I hope not. Hermeneutics is necessary. Read Slaves, Women and Homosexuals by William Webb to learn some hermeneutics without proof texting.

  • Frudoc Ponto

    Interesting article. That said, it is clear that your view is influenced largely by your soteriology, which is not addressed in the article. Of course, this is just a short article, so fair enough, but it is still something that should be examined if one wants to take this any further. Second, any article talking about heresy and church discipline should engage with Scripture or at least mention some. Finally, some discussion on the differences, if any, between individual Christians and the civil magistrate would have been useful and interesting too.

    • Roger Olson

      What would you say about slavery, then? Wouldn’t you consider an advocate of slavery who calls himself a Christian a heretic? I hope so. And yet scripture says nothing against the institution of slavery itself. Abolition of slavery rested on the same hermeneutical moves I use in advocating abolition of capital punishment.

      • Frudoc Ponto

        Thank you for your kind reply. I will try to answer you.

        I believe Scripture teaches that, in the context of an indentured servant culture, “slaves should obey their earthly masters” (Eph. 6.5), and masters should “treat [their] slaves justly and fairly, knowing that [they] also have a master in heaven (Col. 4.1). That said, ultimately, relating to salvation (which also speaks to equality and value), “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free” and all are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3.28), and relating to value and equality, such is established in our bearing the image of God (Gen. 1.27), and the fact that we all come from one blood (Acts 17.26) with one Father (Mal. 2.21). The slavery you are referring to was not (or at least very rarely) a form of mutually agreed debt repayment, but was largely based on racism. This being the case, not only do the above verses apply, but Scripture against racism: we are all one blood or race (Acts 17.26); we are to love our neighbor as ourself (Matt. 22.39, etc.); and all have sinned and we are all in need of the same salvation (Romans 3.23-25). So, only briefly considered, abolitionists fighting against slavery stood on very firm and specific Scriptural grounds, whether they wanted so-called proof-texts or a consistent testimony of the whole of Scripture.

        That said, my original points stand. 1) Your view is largely influenced by your soteriology (e.g. “…that it takes away a person’s time to repent and believe or to witness to other inmates, leading them to repentance and faith…”) which, despite obvious related controversy and disagreement within the church, you do not note, elaborate on or reference. 2) You speak of heresy and church discipline without engaging with Scripture (I acknowledge the possibility of different “hermeneutical moves” but I don’t find what you have done here sufficient or persuasive, especially given the seriousness of the issue and charge). 3) A discussion of personal vs. magistrate duties and responsibilities would still be helpful or at least interesting.

        As I said, space is limited in articles like these, but when what *is* included and what is left out all lead to further questions that bear on the issue, it is fair to point that out. Your soteriology, which so impacts your view that you offer it as the Christian justification for your view, is exposed in the quote above; the lack of Scripture engaged with is evident; and the lack of contextual or category considerations is also apparent. I believe these are all important and relevant parts of a discussion looking to charge Christians with heresy and subject them to church discipline. Understand, this has nothing to do with my view on capital punishment, soteriology or the role of the civil magistrate. I am *not* simply being contrary or defending an opposing view. Frankly, I might even agree with you on one or two points. I am saying that this issue deserves far more and more careful consideration than has been given here. Space considerations are legitimate, but a footnote or two can make people aware of the further reading necessary to handle this issue as responsibly as possible.

        • Roger Olson

          This blog is called my “musings.” I make no pretense here of providing detailed, in-depth arguments for everything I say. Take what I say for what it’s worth to you–which is obviously not much. Others (e.g., Stassen and Gushee) have provided more detailed biblical arguments against capital punishment. Frankly, I don’t think a strong case can be made against capital punishment from any chain of proof texts; one has to base it (as I do) on a hermeneutical trajectory beginning with God’s character revealed in Jesus, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, etc. I think the same is true of slavery; none of the verses you cite add up to a strong case against slavery without theological interpretation of scripture (e.g., imago dei and its implications). If you disagree with my soteriological arguments against capital punishment, why don’t you state your own soteriology and why it is incompatible with mine and my arguments based on it. I’m not even sure exactly what you mean by this repeated accusation that my argument is based on my soteriology. What soteriology doesn’t fit my argument?

          • Frudoc Ponto

            1) I recognized the limitations of a blog article, and so admitted in my first comment. In my second, I suggested that a footnote or two pointing out further related issues might be helpful.

            2) I believe you are careless in the way you refer to proof-texts vs. other hermeneutical moves. “Proof-texts” is a loaded term and one that is easy to use to dismiss people. You say that none of the verses I include add up to a strong case against slavery without theological interpretation of Scripture, but of course, the verses i provided are fundamental to the Scripture that one would be theologically interpreting. Surely you intend to interpret Scripture that is relevant? That’s what those are and dismissing them “proof-texts” is unhelpful. I clearly used them as the beginnings of a foundation on which a firm and confident anti-slavery theology is built. Virtually any defense of abolition will appeal to texts like these and they will not be considered proof-texts.

            **Understand: referencing Scripture apart from providing a detailed analysis and interpretation is not necessarily proof-texting, especially in a forum where space is limited and all the more so when qualifications are made, all of which apply in this case.** If calling them “musings” justifies your lack of Scriptural engagement (and it might) or even a footnote (possible but less likely), surely I can’t be faulted for offering even more in less space? The Scriptures I offered amount to at least as much as your repeated appeal to the Sermon on the Mount—which even that did not begin until your replies after people asked for some Scriptural justification. Also, you say that your “hermeneutical trajectory” begins with “God’s character as revealed in Jesus, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, etc.” You did not mention this in your article but apparently expected people to assume it. But now you are not assuming it for me when I provide even more, but instead just assume I am proof-texting.

            3. I’m sorry if I was not clear regarding my comments on soteriology. I tried. You are clearly Arminian, or some form of it. You believe, among other things, that if a person had more time they would have more time to repent or witness so that others might repent. As you know, this stands contrary to other Christian thinking, most commonly Reformed thinking. Still, you offer it as the “Christian point of view” when any informed reader knows this is not necessarily the case. I have no problem with you assuming it. I would be surprised if you didn’t! I am simply saying that when a huge portion of the Christian church places the crux of salvation solely on God’s providence and not on how much time they have—as if one more spin of the wheel might get them there, God hopes—it might be a worthy rabbit trail and an interesting discussion.

            My soteriology is entirely beside the point. My very first comment should have made it abundantly clear that I am not arguing against your position, but your argumentation, particularly in light of the seriousness of your charges. I wrote, “…should be examined if one wants to take this further,” “…should engage with Scripture,” and “some discussion on the differences, if any…would have been useful and interesting.” I further clarified in my next reply when I wrote, “I am *not* simply being contrary or defending an opposing view. Frankly, I might even agree with you on one or two points. I am saying that this issue deserves far more and more careful consideration than has been given here. Space considerations are legitimate, but a footnote or two can make people aware of the further reading necessary to handle this issue as responsibly as possible.”

            From the beginning, I merely pointed out that, essentially, any serious discussion on the topic would benefit from more in depth discussion on these points, on things that are not addressed in the article. I even admitted that such things might not be expected in an article like this and suggested that a footnote or two acknowledging these things might be a good idea. Just as I said before, more than once, I still believe that further discussion on all of these things would be interesting and profitable and even necessary before drawing any firm conclusions. Frankly, your initial reply could have been one agreeing that there is obviously more to the argument, appealing to the limited space and nature of blog posts, and admitting that perhaps a foot note or two might have been helpful for some.

            Anyways, thank you for the discussion. I have reached my character limit! I will leave it at that. I will keep an eye out for any more work you do on the topic. I am still working through issues like this one and can use all the help I can get. I obviously don’t want to be a heretic! ; )

  • Jay Mullinix

    Thank you for this post Dr. Olson. I used to be a fevent advocate for the death penalty but eventually came to see it (to a great deal through the writings of Stanley Hauerwas) as incompatible with the gospel. You once wrote here that an evangelical pastor who questioned capitalism from the pulplit could likely receive a harsher response from his congregation than for denying the Trinity. I think that’s true of this topic too. When I posted a link to this post i was stunned at how angrily many of my friends and fellow evangelicals reacted. It was as almost as though questioning capital punishment was tantamount to taking a shot at the gospel. We need more evangelical voices like yours.

    • Roger Olson

      Thank you. I wish Stanley would write more about capital punishment. I asked him and he referred to one article he wrote some years ago. But I haven’t been able to find it.

      • Jay Mullinix

        I’m guessing it’s his article “Punishing Christians.” That’s the only piece of his i’ve read that deals exclusively with capital punishment. I read it in an essay collection called Religion and the Death Penalty. It was reading this that threw a massive wrench in my thinking and started me questioning my support of capital punishment.

        • Roger Olson

          For those who may now know, this is about Stanley Hauerwas’s one and only (so far as we know) essay strictly about the death penalty. Stanley always throws a monkey wrench into my brain when I read him. I haven’t read this, but I will try to locate it and do so. Thanks!

  • gpahl

    Here in Canada, capital punishment has was eliminated in 1976. Other countries with similar cultural values – all
    western European countries, Australia and New Zealand – have abolished capital
    punishment long ago. Just do a “Google” search to see which countries still
    practice capital punishment and you will see the wonderful bedfellows the USA has
    in this regard. Granted, we in Canada abolished capital punishment mainly
    because of humanitarian, judicial caution, and political concerns and not
    Christian principle convictions per se, I believe it was the right and moral
    thing to do at almost every level of consideration. It never ceases to amaze me
    how the USA, with its “best in the world in everything” attitude (a friendly
    neighbourly dig, and yes, we do spell neighbour with a “u”), and especially the
    Christian community in Canada, USA and anywhere who know and preach the love of
    Jesus, can in any possible way support this profound and irreversible practice of taking a life. The efficacy of
    this practice is dubious except as some sort of strong show of outrage and vengeance,
    something we know our Lord would not endorse. To say it is punishment for the
    purpose of rehabilitation rather than outright harm seems strange since the
    punished can’t benefit from the experience. What is accomplished through such
    “punishment”? If it is to appease the loss of victims, this too is a sorry
    state of affairs in our societies and where Christ’s message of love and forgiveness has a palce. In my mind, let’s leave the sacred
    judgment of taking a life in retribution to the Lord to deal with on judgment
    day in his own perfect way. Now, if I were a Calvinist and a “every life and
    all history unfolds according to a blueprint” believer, I guess there would be
    no need to be concerned or struggle with this issue.

    • Roger Olson

      Thank you for this–from a neighbor to the north (and yes, we spell it without the “u” :). I agree with everything you say here.

  • Sjoerd de Boer

    “It’s time for American Christians to wake up and add capital punishment to the list of social evils we oppose.”

    Dr. Olson,

    Assuming you are taking it upon yourself to be a spokesman for Christianity (at least that is what I get from the above quote from your article), it appears to me that your reasoning and conclusion is more based upon humanism than biblical Christianity.

    As a Christian I have more confidence in the apostle Paul’s reasoning in Romans 13,

    “1 Let every soul be in subjection to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those who exist are ordained by God. 2 Therefore he who resists the authority, withstands the ordinance of God; and those who withstand will receive to themselves judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Do you desire to have no fear of the authority? Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the same, 4 for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil. 5 Therefore you need to be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.”

    Truth being said, there is absolutely no place for personal vengeance, but that is actually a different topic. That is why I do not understand why you did not take this contextual part of Scripture into consideration in your article.

    That “the authority does not bear the sword in vain” is by many Christians denied to mean capital punishment, but that is more based on humanistic thinking than Biblical thinking.

    • Roger Olson

      Fist, Romans 13 does not imply that Christians must agree with whatever government does. In the past governments executed people publicly and with great pain (often beheadings took several blows on purpose). Are you suggesting Christians ought not to have lobbied for humane executions based on Romans 13? I hope not. As for humanism–I posted here about being a Christian humanist before. Go back and read that. I think Christian humanism is the only true humanism.

      • http://patrickfranklin.wordpress.com/ Patrick S. Franklin

        Yes, and the only true Christianity (consistent with the Incarnation and Resurrection)!

  • Brother Al

    That’s a far reach to call it heresy. You pull on a lot of emotional heart strings. But if we are try and say this is the way Christians should think, and if you are going to go so far as to call it heresy, where is your biblical support? If the Bible is our final authority (and it is), then back your claims with Scripture.

    • Roger Olson

      As I have said to others–would you care to argue that since no scripture explicitly condemns slavery abolitionists should not have declared it a sin and a heresy?

  • Chris Thomas

    I think Jesus would say, “Let he who is without sin throw the switch or depress the the plunger.”

    I also like to point out to people that David committed two capital offences and he was forgiven.

  • William

    I think something missing from this is the case for justice. What is justice? It’s when the accused receives a punishment that fits their crime. Our God is a God of justice and still expects our governing authorities to promote justice, look at Romans 13:1-5 clearly it says there that the authorities who ‘does not bear the sword in vain’ is a servant of God, and carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. I think you’re right to ask ‘what would Jesus do?’ But that really depends on who’ve you’ve made Jesus out to be, I myself think that Jesus would say the two thieves on the cross beside him were receiving justice. Jesus wasn’t however, he’s the only man ever to have lived who doesn’t deserve death. However one of the thieves in that moment humbled himself and Jesus received him into paradise that very day.

  • Steve Cornell

    Occasionally I am asked how I reconcile my pro-life position with my support of capital punishment. I answer by showing how both positions (pro-life and pro-capital punishment) endorse the sanctity of life by opposing deliberate acts of homicide. Scripture emphasizes that life is precious because humans are made in God’s image.

    • Roger Olson

      I don’t know what to call that except twisted logic.

    • Karen Vander Molen

      When someone is executed by the State, “Homicide” is listed as the cause of death. I can’t think of a more “deliberate act of homicide” than the State putting someone to death. How can the State teach others NOT to kill by killing?

      PS – I wish you could meet my friend Ndume who was on death row for 20 years before the legal machine decided there had been a Brady violation and changed his sentence. He was actually innocent, but served as the “fall guy” so a case could be closed. As far as we know, the real perpetrators were never pursued in spite of lots of leads. If he had been in TX, he’d be dead right now instead of happily married and doing all he can to make this world a much better place very effectively. I thank God he finally got his freedom (total of 28 years incarceration).

    • Esther O’Reilly

      I’d refine that just a tad to say that we oppose deliberate acts of MURDER. “Homicide” is a general term that can encompass justified killing such as self defense, combat, and yes, capital punishment. But I got what you were saying.

  • Micah

    Fascinating article and I too share a mutual disgust over the state of capital punishment.

    Calling it heresy seems a bit far, though. Are we–as descendants of Noah–not still bound to the Noahic Covenant? In which case murderers, at the least, would still be subject to the death penalty.

    • Roger Olson

      It has never even occurred to me to think that Christians are under some “Noahic Covenant.”

  • TerryJames

    I’ve always thought the best argument is the one you note–time for repentance. Even the most horrific criminal can repent–it should bring us joy when the change takes place.

    The soul lives on. Certainly we can give it all the time possible to respond to grace. It troubles me greatly that there is glee among some Christians when an execution takes place. Even if one agrees with capital punishment, shouldn’t there be tears when it happens?

  • Rob

    It definitely sounds strange for Christians to be involved in capital punishment because it certainly seems like Jesus enjoins us from shedding blood, but does it follow that Christians should pressure the government to stop capital punishment? The OT law prescribes death for several crimes. I agree that Jesus’ teaching entails Christians from wielding that power, but I disagree that Jesus’ commands to his followers entail that capital punishment is in principle wrong. If capital punishment is wrong in principle, then God commands Israel to do something wrong.

    • Roger Olson

      How do you reconcile this argument with God’s commands to the Hebrews in the OT to stone rebellious children? Should Christians in countries that do that not speak out against it?

      • Rob

        I am unaware of Hebrews being commanded to stone rebellious children if by ‘children’ you mean a prepubescent. If you are referring to Deuteronomy 21, I think that is a deliberately crafted interpretation to make a point about capital punishment without any attempt to understand ancient culture.

        First, the word there signifies the person’s relationship (son) to the subject of the instruction and not that person’s age. For example, Jerome makes it clear by translating it with ‘filium’ which does not connote child whatsoever, only the relationship of being the son of someone. There were several terms like puer (boy), gnatus (son, child), natus (son, child), infans (child), ephebus (adolescent) that would communicate that we were talking about what we would call a ‘child’ in English. Jerome does not use any of those but picks the term that connotes only the relationship. We are talking about an adult son here.

        In the ancient world, a son remained under the authority of his father as long as he lived with him so there is absolutely no reason to assume that we including children here. much less talking only about children.

        Finally, simple context shows we are talking about an adult son. Parents were instructed to beat bad kids, so it just takes a little bit of charitable interpretation to infer that spanking isn’t an option in this case because the son is more powerful than his father. Fathers exercised authority within their own household in a way foreign to us, but here the father has to go to the community and the best explanation for why he must go to them is because he is incapable of exerting authority over this son himself. If that isn’t enough, they call the son a ‘drunkard’.

        Adult men abusing their parents is no laughing matter and it would have been more prevalent then considering their domestic arrangements. I know of a man currently doing prison time for beating his elderly mother. Is capital punishment a little extreme? Sure, but it is not unthinkable in a case like that. Not too long ago people could be executed for rape.

        • Roger Olson

          And one reason we don’t do that anymore is because we have discovered that many men are wrongly imprisoned for rape. No single false conviction has led to so many exonerations by DNA. As for stoning a “child.” It doesn’t matter how old the child is; I wasn’t even referring to age. My point is that IF you are going to use the OT commands about capital punishment to justify contemporary capital punishment you have to be willing to expand the scope of crimes for which people should be executed vastly.

          • Gabriella Valente

            Reasons for stoning in the Old Testament:

            For cursing or blaspheming
            Adultery
            Not being a virgin on wedding night
            Disobeying parents (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21)
            Breaking the sabbath
            Cursing the king
            Not crying out when raped
            Touching mount Sinai
            Stealing
            Women wearing men’s clothes
            Men wearing women’s clothes

          • mzellen

            The Noahic Covenant, God’s Covenant with all mankind, for all future generations doesn’t mention any of that “expanded scope”

          • Bob Brownn

            I do think that it was God Himself Who established Capital Punishment for murderers in Genesis 9. It was not originally an idea of man. God’s leniency with Cain resulted in a violent civilization. I believe God had no choice but to establish capital punishment as a warning and a deterrent. It was for murder and murder only.
            I do not believe ‘progressive revelation’ has changed the covenant God established here. The Apostles in Acts 15 referred to this Covenant when applying the law that Gentiles were to abstain from the drinking of blood making this covenant valid still since it is a covenant binding on all of mankind, not just the Jews.

            The Sermon on the Mount is about personal morals and ethics. Truly no one has a right to take the life of another person. I don’t believe Jesus was undoing this law He established with Noah. He did warn about the proper teaching of the Old Testament.
            I do believe the governments of the world have a God-given right to execute the murderer acc. to Romans 13 and Genesis 9.
            Thanks for the discussion.

          • Roger Olson

            As happens so often, many people have taken my comments about Christians and capital punishment in a different direction (from what I originally said). I said capital punishment is a heresy–i.e., advocating it, participating in it. That applies only to Christians, of course. There’s no point is calling a government, for example, “heretical.” A person can agree with me that advocating and participating in capital punishment is a heresy for a Christian while at the same time believing that God has “given the sword” to the state to execute murderers. In fact, that was, at one time, a major view held by many “peace churches”–just like war (for governments only, not for Christians).

  • Tim Chesterton

    Roger: Well, I’m not an American (I’m a Canadian) and I’m not a member of a denomination that makes biblical inerrancy a cardinal doctrine. So I may be on a different wavelength from many here, but I’d just like to point out that if we’re going to appeal to the authority of the God of the Old Testament to support capital punishment, then logically we are going to have to support capital punishment for far more than first degree murder. In the Old Testament God is of course also on record as commanding capital punishment for several other things: for example, a son who curses his father, for being a witch, for homosexuality, and for breaking the sabbath. He is also on record as commanding genocide and ethnic cleansing.

    New Testament Christianity teaches that Jesus is the Word of God in all its fulness, the Word made flesh. Since his authority is paramount, everything in the rest of the Bible must be interpreted in harmony with his teachings. We do not bend the teaching of Jesus to harmonize it with the Torah. Rather, we bend the Torah to harmonize it with the teaching of Jesus.

    • Roger Olson

      Amen to that! I hope you won’t mind if I use your comment in a post.

  • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

    As you may know, one Christian theological ethicist did talk and write about this frequently, and his arguments would support yours here: see here and here.

  • Roger Olson

    Well, yes, there’s something to that. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” Sometimes violence is a necessary evil; capital punishment is never necessary.

  • essexpostie

    Never thought too deeply about this as it’s not an issue in UK but is Romans 13:4 relevant? Why would he bear the sword?
    For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

    • Roger Olson

      Read my responses to others who referred to Romans 13 and my follow up post.

  • Ray Wilkins

    In an article some time ago by Stassen and Gushee, Stassen stated that a pro-life position can indeed support life in prison as a way of defending justice and protecting society without taking another human life. I do understand this logic and the driving force behind it, but as a person whose brother has been a maximum security prison guard in California for 15 years, it doesn’t seem quite so “simple” and “neat” to me. Most often, those who are called “lifers” exhibit the same disregard for human life behind bars as they did on the outside. They continue to rape and murder behind bars with the ultimate prize being the guards.

    You mentioned the emotional trauma perpetrated upon the family of “Death Row” inmates but have you ever investigated the emotional trauma that the guards and their families endure due to the policies of the prison system which places the “rights” of the prisoners ahead of the safety and rights of the guards? Thus, I don’t think the “life in prison without parole” position is as simple as it is made out to be. Many more lives are placed in jeopardy and experience psychological and emotional trauma in an attempt to keep someone incarcerated who has shown no respect for human life and dignity. It is not just the life of the victim that is at stake here, it is the lives of those who now have to guard the murderer. Thus, in my opinion, the State at times must execute the murderer, in order to prevent greater harm and trauma to the innocent.

    • Roger Olson

      The obvious solution is prison reform–not executing prisoners.

      • Ray Wilkins

        Sounds simple but in reality does not solve the problem. No amount of prison reform will reform the heart of a murderer. You still seem to be advocating placing innocent life in harms way in order to keep from executing a person who has shown no respect or regard for human life. For me, the issue is similar to the Christian position toward war, sometimes we must engage in an evil act, in order to prevent greater evil.

        • Roger Olson

          When was the last time a person sentenced to life without the possibility of parole escaped and murdered someone? I haven’t heard of it in America recently. Even if one did, the system can be fixed rather than take recourse to unnecessary killing.

          • Ray Wilkins

            I am speaking of murder and assault behind behind bars. Happens nearly every day. The most common perpetrators are those who are serving life. Now, if by reform you mean going back to a “Shawshank Redemption” type of prison system then perhaps that will work. But in the Post-RFK prison reform era where Alcatraz was considered inhumane, it seems that you are still placing a higher value on the life of the murderer than those who are charged with guarding them. Whether the guards chose that profession or not does not matter. We have a responsibility to honor their life and security as well.

          • Roger Olson

            How many prison guards are murdered by those they are guarding these days?

          • Gabriella Valente

            Prison murder overall is extremely rare. The murder of a corrections officer is even more rare. Many states haven’t had a single corrections officer killed in the last 30 years. Prison staff are 82 times less likely to be murdered by an inmate than the average person outside.7

    • Gabriella Valente

      Prison guards choose to be where they are. Overcrowding of prisons is the reason for the problems you describe. Do you realize that there are more prisoners in America than in any other country, including china and India which have over 1 billion citizens each. The solution is not the death sentence. America’s legal system must be changed so that non-violent criminals are not routinely incarcerated.

      • Ray Wilkins

        Having lived and traveled in several Third World countries my response to America’s incarceration rate is that we place a higher value on crime and punishment than many other countries. Although off-topic, how do you know a crime is non-violent? Is not theft a violent assault against the sovereignty of another individual and his/her labor?

        • Roger Olson

          That would seem to stretch the word “violent” so as to make it less meaningful. Then we’d have to invent a new word for real violence.

          • Gabriella Valente

            Thank you roger you took the words out of my mouth.

  • Rachel

    David isn´t the only example of a man of God who committed capital offenses. What about Paul (or Saul as he was then?) He may not have actually cast the stones, but he was certainly responsible for the death of many Christians. That´s not ok, it’s not right, but it is a testimony to how God can change someone’s life around and still use them. I´m not advocating no punishment though. Life without parole seems an appropriate option to me.
    Also in the Old Testament times when someone was guilty of a capital offense, God often showed the people without a doubt who the person was. Anyone who thinks that the criminal justice system of any country is always 100% safe and accurate in declaring someone guilty, is sadly decieved. How can we justify executing even one innocent person in the name of justice? Plus when we look at the statistics, the death penalty in the states is racist. A black person murdering a white person is far more likely to receive the death penalty than vice versa. Like Roger, I struggle to understand how Christians can agree with the death penalty.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    “I believe Christian churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. They ought, at the very least, to declare it incompatible with Christian faith and put members who openly believe in it under some kind of discipline (not necessarily excommunication but at least forbidding them to teach it in the ecclesial context). And those who practice it, actively seeking it and participating in it, should be excommunicated from Christian churches. It ought to be a matter of status confessionis—as apartheid was declared by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches which helped lead to its downfall in South Africa.”

    That’s serious business you’re talking there. But, may I ask, would you demand the same thing for Christians who are “practicing, actively seeking and participating” in a pro-choice philosophy?

    If you believe it should be legal for babies to be executed in the womb, but you get this emotional and up-in-arms over the legal execution of a heinous murderer, I can only say that your moral compass is, not to put too fine a point on it, wacked. But presumably you’re not THAT bizarrely inconsistent… right?

    • Roger Olson

      I resist being put on the defensive on my own blog. I have commented here about abortion and will in the future again. For now I’ll just say that I subscribe to the “consistent pro-life” position spelled out by (former) Lutheran bishop Lowell Erdahl of Minnesota in Pro-Life, Pro-Peace (1986) (which doesn’t mean I agree with him about everything).

  • http://www.fivedills.com Greg Dill

    When I first became a Christian over 20 years ago, I had not formulated an opinion about capital punishment quite yet. I was still searching. Once during a Bible study I had an elder (in the literal sense, not the church title), tell me that all Christians should support capital punishment because it is what God designed. He referenced Genesis 9:6 as the basis to support and use capital punishment. In the back of mind I was thinking to myself, “Isn’t this something from thousands of years ago? And, this is what you are basing capital punishment from”. I digress. It was good enough for me to believe and I became a proponent of capital punishment for most of my Christian life. Fast forward many years later… I read two books that changed my view on violence and capital punishment. “The Myth of a Christian Nation” by Gregory Boyd and “The Confession” by John Grisham. I became a new believer in abolishing capital punishment. I have sense become fully pro-life (both for in the womb and out of the womb). This includes supporting any laws/bills that abolish capital punishment, abortion, and promote stricter gun control laws.

    We as Christians should be very careful and use discernment in what we choose to promote and support when it comes to laws and ethics. We shouldn’t blindly hop on any socio-political bandwagon without first praying about it and reading ALL of what Scripture has to say about the matter. We must not cherry pick verses to support these views, but be honest and allow God’s word to instead read us.


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