Why Al Mohler Might As Well Call Jesus’ Teachings “Moral Insanity”

Why Al Mohler Might As Well Call Jesus’ Teachings “Moral Insanity” May 1, 2014

After another botched execution– one where they tried to revive the victim but he died of a heart attack anyway– we’re finally talking again about the death penalty here in America.

The death penalty is perhaps one of the critical issues for this generation of Jesus followers. As more and more Americans are letting go of an American Jesus formed by human hands in exchange for the real-deal found in scripture, we have a tremendous opportunity to subversively make our culture more like the Kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate.

One of those key kingdom issues, is our heinous and ungodly practice of capital punishment. The tide is finally turning against this practice, and we may in fact see this abolished in our lifetime if we have the courage to follow the way of Jesus and insert Jesus principles into the culture around us.

But, not if Al Mohler has anything to do with it.

Today on CNN, Al weighed in on this botched execution with a piece called “Why Christians Should Support The Death Penalty“. In the piece, Al breaks with historic, orthodox Christianity and instead encourages Christians to follow worldly principles of violence, specifically the lex talionis.

Now, he did get one thing right when he said,

“Christians should be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied.”

Absolutely. The death penalty in America is just yet another feather in the cap of a country that is saturated in systemic racism. You’d think that alone would be enough for a Jesus follower to say “I want none of that”, but not so fast– Al wants you to support the death penalty. In fact, he says that if you’re a Christian, you should.

He even goes so far as to say that when we take focus off the condemned and instead place the focus on their state sanctioned murder, that it is a “testimony to moral insanity”.

Funny, because he might as well call the teachings of Jesus “moral insanity”.

Yeah, remember that time when Jesus found himself at a public execution…. of a person who was guilty and deserved death under the law?

Apparently, Al doesn’t. Because what did Jesus do? He flipped the narrative. Not only did he turn attention away from the condemned, but he actually turned his attention on the ones doing the condemning. He “interrupted death” as Shane Claiborne refers to it, and instead pointed out that for one human being to execute another, was a moral impossibility.

According to Al Mohler, what Jesus did was a “testimony to moral insanity”.

I suppose it was also “moral insanity” when Jesus weighed in on the Old Testament law that permitted retributive violence, and actually taught his followers to disobey it. I’m sure the Pharisees would have seen it that way.

Yup, that’s right– Jesus quotes the OT and says “you have heard it said and eye for an eye, but I tell you to love your enemies”. The principle that allowed one to take the life of another, according to Jesus himself, is not to be obeyed by Jesus followers.

Here’s what is perhaps the most ironic: folks like Al Mohler will claim to believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. They’ll tell you that scripture is “plain to understand” and that it should be obeyed at face value. Yet, when you get to the teachings of Jesus where he overturns the permissiveness of retributive violence, those same “literalists” will all of a sudden jump through the same hoops that the most liberal, scripture-rejecting scholar you can find will jump through, in order to justify a behavior or belief that is clearly condemned in scripture.

Sadly, literalists like Mohler believe in the face value truth of the Bible right up until it conflicts with their own cultural values– at which point they do the same thing that folks on the left do. These same folks see no room to reexamine biblical texts that refer to same sex relations, but have zero problem completely writing off what Jesus directly, plainly, and unequivocally taught about retributive violence.

Apparently, it’s okay to view a passage as not being applicable to the modern age, so long as that’s a passage that gives you permission to take a human life.

The American Church is obsessed with violence, and obsessed with explaining away the scriptures to justify her violence.

But Jesus cannot be explained away. Liberals can’t do it and conservatives can’t do it. Liberals are guilty of it, and today, we see again that conservatives are too.

Jesus offers a different way. A way that is neither liberal or conservative– it’s a third way. It’s an “other-world” kinda way.

In fact, that’s how Jesus described it: “My Kingdom is not of this world”.

It still isn’t of this world. The way of Jesus won’t support the death of the unborn any more than it will the most vile criminal. It is still, after all this time, other worldly.

You can follow the Liberal Kingdom that marginalizes Jesus, you can follow the Conservative Kingdom that marginalizes Jesus, or– you can take the third option, and just follow Jesus into something completely different.

I’m sticking with the third option.


For further reading, here’s 5 reasons Jesus people should oppose the death penalty.

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  • I’d be interested, actually, to hear you detail some examples of how liberals marginalize Jesus. I agree totally with your statements… both sides put Jesus on the sidelines for a number of reasons… but I’m interested in your take as to how liberals do so… it’s pretty obvious how cons and neo-cons do… but the other side is a lot more subtle, I think.

  • Luke Allison

    I completely agree with the whole gist of your post; and I fully resonate with the fact that followers of Jesus must see the death penalty as an abhorrence and a scar on humanity.

    My problem lies with how unfeeling toward the victims of violence some anti-death-penalty advocates can be. If we can’t at least empathize with the mother of a murdered 5-yr-old wanting to see the 40-year-old man who did it put to death, we have no business commenting on the subject. The key here, I think, is in the slow reform of the justice system toward a “restorative” paradigm vs a purely retributive one.

    I watched the Pettit home-invastion/rape/murder trial a few years ago, and was shocked at how disgraceful the defense acted toward the victims; all in the name of trying to spare their client from death. I get it. I really do. But the fact remains that the perpetrator of a heinous crime is the sole responsible party; there wouldn’t be a debate if certain people didn’t decide that their personal urges/needs/desires were more important than another person’s right to exist. Those who oppose the death penalty can get very shrill and insensitive toward victims, all in the name of saving lives. It’s all very confusing.

    Jesus wants to comfort and restore the victims of violence, maybe even prompting the radical forgiveness that can lead to the restoration and transformation of the perpetrator. This is hope. Obviously not every situation works out that way. But a Jesus-saturated perspective has to take both sides of the trial into account. Otherwise, we actually do get moral insanity.

    I choose to believe that Jesus understands moral complexity. I think that’s what we’re called to do; that’s the third way.

  • FLRealist

    1) It’s the defense attorney’s job to do everything they can to win for their client; sadly in many cases, that translates into treating the victims callously. In most cases, it’s not the true feelings of the defense lawyer. 2) I can empathize with the mother of a 5 year old victim while strongly disagreeing with her desire for vengeance. And that’s what it is – it’s not justice being applied, but vengeance. I hope that our system is about justice.

  • Luke Allison

    “It’s the defense attorney’s job to do everything they can to win for their client; sadly in many cases, that translates into treating the victims callously.”

    – Fully understood, but this is inhuman.

    “2) I can empathize with the mother of a 5 year old victim while strongly disagreeing with her desire for vengeance”

    -Fully understood as well. I am always shocked by the parents who get up during the impact statements and spew hateful vengeance. I guess I always hope for better. BUT…I totally get it and hope that I wouldn’t do the same thing in their position. How I respond to people in the mother’s position says a lot about my own character and my own sense of restorative justice.

  • well done, my friend.

  • CroneEver


  • Anthony

    I’m new to this, so forgive me if I cite examples that only represent the fringe of the Christian-left.

    Perhaps examples would include those theological liberals who question the incarnation, who are more concerned with self-improvement/social justice/human rights than they are with bringing new disciples to Christ, who claim that Jesus was “all about love” with no regard for the law or morality, etc.

    I also found this article (below) to be interesting, as it notes that the majority of religious progressives say religion is not the most important thing in their lives.


    Note that I am not offering any of this as a critique, just as possible examples.

  • NCHammer

    First off, the event was tragic and even if one agrees with capital punishment, I cannot imagine anyone wishing that occurrence on another person. I pray for Mr Lockett’s survivors and that somehow someone would seek Christ in all of this.

    Secondly, it is interesting to me that you are willing to let the State institute homosexual marriage (and change the bedrock definition of marriage that has stood for thousands of years) even if you are personally unsure of the “sin” aspect of that homosexuals marrying. In fact, you write posts encouraging those who oppose gay marriage on Biblical grounds to at least allow for civil SSM (I believe you place yourself as “theologically unsure, but supports civil SSM”–as an aside, that is a logically indefensible position, but that’s another post). Shouldn’t you be advocating that opponents of capital punishment decouple their Biblical beliefs from what is best for civil society, as you do with SSM, since capital punishment is supported by a majority of US citizens?

    Thirdly, and most importantly IMO, is that the vast majority of political progressives, and many self-professed Christian progressives are pro-abortion. And while the capital sentence gone awry is awful, I would submit to you that thousands of pregnancies were ended by intrusive medical means on the same day the botched execution of Mr Lockett, yet progressives in both the civil or spiritual sense not only say nothing, but many fight to make sure as many or more happen the very next day. And the day after that. And how many of those procedures go horribly wrong and end with a savage death for an innocent baby? Yet, the media and progressives embargo those events. Because every abortion is seen as a victory for women’s freedom. How can progressives justify that type of thought process?

    And ask yourself, what are the motivations behind the vast (somewhere above 95%) of those abortions? I won’t spoil it for you, but there are more numerous sinful motivations behind abortion than capital punishment.

    Ben, despite your best efforts to appear otherwise, you write with an agenda beyond leading people to Christ. I say this because your post start with a pre-determined outcome and you use whatever pretzel-like logic necessary to get you and the readers where you think it’s best to land. You are a progressive, both in civil and spiritual contexts, and seem quite comfortable using the power of the State to accomplish ends you find agreeable. Yet, you consistently point with disdain and faux outrage when conservatives do the same. That’s hardly a third way.

  • One of the things that makes me proud to be a Canadian is the fact that there have been no state executions here since 1962. When the Conservative government held a free vote in 1987 to reinstate the death penalty a coalition group of churches and other social justice groups campaigned against its return. We sent postcards to every member of parliament, wrote letters and actively campaigned against the return of the death penalty. The death penalty has no place in a civilized world and in my opinion no Christian can support the death penalty and be true to the teachings of Jesus.

  • sarah

    It actually makes a lot of sense. They can’t reexamine same sex marriage because it would mean that they have to change their understanding of the power dynamics of marriage. In a gay marriage, there’s no head. No patriarch. For the same reason, they can’t reexamine capital punishment. It challenges their personal authority and power. At least they’re consistent. Personal power trumps all.

  • Ruaidrí Ó Domhnaill

    Ben, do you think modern Christians take this viewpoint because the woman Jesus rescued from the death penalty was “only an adulteress?” Abstinence before marriage and faithfulness during marriage have both become very rare in our society, so doesn’t it follow that people today would feel that this adulteress hadn’t done anything terribly wrong, let alone worthy of the death penalty?

    Now a murder, especially of a young child, now there’s someone who deserves not only the death penalty, but to die a slow and painful death! Jesus would never defend such a person, right?

    I don’t agree with it… but, if I’m honest, I have to be careful not to fall into that pattern of thinking. I think that’s what Proverbs 4:23 means: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

  • Eric Thurman

    Yet another example of how little Mohler and company actually care about the gospel.

  • I don’t think they take the viewpoint because she was only an adulteress… what I’ve usually heard was that she was tricked into the situation and that they were going to unjustly execute her, therefore it didn’t meet the real threshold for an execution. But, not really sure since I can’t answer for them…

  • Tye Darkcolor

    Was Jesus teaching that God’s command to stone was unjust? Is not stoning capital punishment? Was it not The Lord who commanded this for various offenses (some of which are adultery, sodomy, and bestiality)?

    Was it not Jesus who said:
    “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

    So is it better for him that millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned? Is that capital punishment?

    Is not hell capital punishment? How about the Lake which burns with fire and brimstone?

    So I disagree with the writer’s point of view in this article but I was interested while reading it and the comments.

  • Herro

    1. Corey, do you actually think that the story of the woman taken in adultery is actually historical? Do you even think that it’s original to the gospel of John? I don’t know what Mohler believes personally, but I know that many fundies (correctly) don’t consider this story to be part of the Bible. So it’s unfair to fault him for not taking this story into account.

    2. It’s not at all clear that Jesus (or the author of that saying) was thinking about what **the state** should do when he was “directly, plainly, and unequivocally [teaching] about retributive violence”. And since Paul is clear that the state can punish with “the sword” it doesn’t seem to be irrational to go with the clearer passage.

    3. If Jesus is talking about punishmend by the state in the saying you refer to, then we would have to assume that Jesus was OK with allowing murderers to continue on their killing spree (“turn your other cheek”). That might be true, but surely that would be “moral insanity”.

    4.One can easily point out verses that seem to indicate that Jesus was OK with punishing people violently. E.g. in the sermon on the maunt he says none of the Mosaic laws will be abolished (and they most certainly contain the death penalty), and let’s not forget that he says that it’s OK to punish people with hell.

    5. You say that Mohler “breaks with historic, orthodox Christianity” (is that bad?), but I’m pretty sure Christians almost universally practiced and advocated for the death penalty up until modern times. Was “orthodox Christianity” in the middle ages opposed to the death penalty for murder?

  • I think your entire comment was very well stated, and I’m mostly in agreement (except the parts about Jesus, obviously).

    It’s interesting how Mr. Corey is so confident in his position about this one and struggles with different issues concerning SSM…and I’m the opposite. Your comment accurately lists out many of the things I wrestle with. I do believe that every human life has worth. I do believe that people can and should have the chance to turn their lives around and try to do some good in the world, no matter the circumstances. I am extremely uncomfortable with any sort of government having the power to take the lives of any of their citizens.

    I sometimes don’t know if I’m fortunate or unfortunate that I don’t have a deity to guide me either way.

    And yet when I listen to the people who were victimised by the worst of our species, I find myself entirely on their side. And if you put me in a room with one of the murderers who terrorised Ireland, gave me a weapon, and left us alone, I honestly do not know what I would do.

  • brianskirk

    Maybe I missed it, but where in Mohler’s essay does he ever mention Jesus or any of his teachings to back up his argument? I see Paul mentioned, but it’s telling that he couldn’t find any teachings of Jesus to back up his personal opinions on this topic.

  • Andrew K.

    “…we have a tremendous opportunity to subversively make our culture more like the Kingdom Jesus came to inaugurate.”

    No thanks. I’m happy to let Jesus build his own kingdom through the church, since it can’t work in this world without the power of his Spirit. The common kingdom can proceed on the principle of “lex talionis,” as it always has.

    I’m not really interested in our prisons showing “mercy” and releasing all their rapists and murderers.

  • Chip

    Or is the weight of Jesus’s words upon recognizing your own sin and consequently being merciful, rather than a statement against capital punishment per se? I don’t think the answer’s as clear cut as you make it out to be, Benjamin. While I’m essentially anti-death penalty, I also see that my Christian brothers and sisters who believe capital punishment is Scriptural due to Genesis 9 have a real point. There, capital punishment is linked with the covenant God makes with human beings and the rest of creation, a point that is given force when you notice earlier in Genesis that God’s distress over the world that leads to the Flood is rooted in his abhorrence of human violence. God feels strongly enough about human violence in Genesis 9 to call for the death penalty for murder. For this reason, despite my opposition to the death penalty, I can’t bring myself to conclude a state can never use it.

  • Tami Terry Martin

    I went from disagreeing with some friends over the “justice” served with this execution and the “mercy” the executed didn’t show and therefore didn’t deserve to seeing this post.

    There is just no time in my life where my faith go against the mainstream than when it’s a “love your enemies” or “do good to those who persecute you” sort of issue. Nothing makes my husband scream at me more. Nothing makes my family want to disown me more.

    They rail at me and tell me I’m immature or just crazy, but something in me just won’t let me stoop to that level.

    I think it’s Jesus.

  • Good point, since I am opposed to the death penalty, that must also mean I want all the prisons to just release rapists and murderers into the streets. Brilliant jump, but not sure how you did it.

  • He doesn’t, because if he mentioned Jesus it would sorta mess up the flow of the argument.

  • “Christians almost universally practiced and advocated for the death penalty up until modern times”

    — Not true. Christianity started out as a religion that affirmed total nonviolence. In fact, in the early church, one could not even be baptized if they were in the military or serving in a role that might require the use of violence for the state. The original, core belief in nonviolence did not change until about 400 years later when Christianity became the state religion. Once that happened, it was corrupted by power. But the core affirmation of total nonviolence was a hallmark of historic Christianity.

  • Andrew K.

    You misread me. I never accused you of wanting any such thing.

    But I uphold the one (death penalty) on the same principle upon which I uphold the other (incarceration), whereas I think your position–taken to its logical extremes and based on the teachings of Christ–would entail our legal systems “turning the other cheek” while their citizenry is endangered.

    No, Christ’s teaching was for the Redemptive Kingdom–his Church. “Lex Talionis” is still operative in the common kingdom–until the Kingdom is fully come.

  • Lamont Cranston

    “But the core affirmation of total nonviolence was a hallmark of historic Christianity.”
    Funny that the people who most want to emulate the earliest form of Christianity never seem to get around to that part.

  • Luke Allison

    “And if you put me in a room with one of the murderers who terrorised Ireland, gave me a weapon, and left us alone, I honestly do not know what I would do.”

    To me, this is the only honest answer. I would go one beyond and say, “maybe I wouldn’t do anything now, but if I was the mother of raped and murdered child, I don’t know what I would do.”

    The anti-death-penalty Christian gets pretty sanctimonious sometimes. I am one of them. I just had a hard time last night reading all the attention being paid to this man who had a botched execution, seeing his name over and over again, and wondering how the mother/father of the 19-year-old girl he buried alive felt about that.

    I hope and pray that, if something like that were to happen to me, I would be able to respond with grace, dignity, and maybe even a kind of otherworldly forgiveness. But I don’t know that for sure. I think this is the key to anti-death-penalty advocates being heard more by the other side. Being able to say: “I believe this, but I empathize with the other side.”

  • Herro

    >Not true. Christianity started out as a religion that affirmed total nonviolence. …But the core affirmation of total nonviolence was a hallmark of historic Christianity.

    1. Paul says that the state punishes evildoers with the sword as an avenger of god in Rom 13. That’s a positive affirmation of state-sponsored violence.

    2. Jesus in the gospels (and Paul) talks in positive terms about violence when it’s he himself/god tha commits it, so they’re not opposed to violence in principle.

    But let’s assume that after Paul most of Christianity was against capital punishment, and that it changed ~400. Then we still have ~1500 years of Christians being pro-capital punishment. One might argue that this period defines “historic, orthodox Christianity”.

    Edit: Ok. I could just re-phrase my original claim to be something like this: “When in power Christians have almost universally practiced and preached capital punishment until modern times.”

  • Odd. What time period do you define as the ‘early Church?’ Because in Acts, Paul baptised his own jailer, a position that would have required much state-approved violence. And I don’t recall the Bible stating that he stopped being a jailer.

    And tradition states that the first baptised Gentile convert was Cornelius the centurion, who was (supposedly) baptised by Peter himself.

    Dr. J. Daryl Charles makes the case in ‘Between Pacifism and Jihad’ that Christians were present in the Roman military since at least the 2nd Century. And many sources argue that one of the reasons Constantine converted was because there were so many Christians in the military already, many of them from the provinces, and he wanted to ensure their loyalty. Even decades before Constantine, Diocletian purged the military of Christians. Are you saying that none of these individuals were baptized?

  • NCHammer

    In a purely pragmatic, purely political sense, I would think most conservatives would concede the capital punishment “win” in exchange for the State getting out of the abortion industry completely.

    From a Biblical standpoint, abortion is indefensible either for the State or the individual. And though I read the Scriptures as allowing for the State to conduct capital punishment, I don’t think it’s a required stance.

    Not apples to oranges, but not apples to apples either.

  • People do not know Jesus, his nature, his reactions. He was interested in people and wanted them to believe in him and follow him, no matter the what they have done. People are so concern about there opinion that they forget to check whether it is in line with Jesus. Jesus cared for the criminal, Jesus comforted the victims family. Yes he believed in Justice, but that is to come. And we better be careful with how we act, if we are not like Jesus, then are we just as bad. The classic story is the prodigal son. I am sure that it broke the fathers heart when his son wanted him dead by wanting his inheritance. But equally hard when his other son cared more about himself and his opinion. The Father cared for them both.

  • Sheila Warner

    I’ve been against the death penalty for many years. Only a handful of people that I know agree with my position. It hurts me deeply that so many people with whom I am acquainted do not see the contradiction between a pro-life stance towards the unborn with a support of executions. Each life is sacred to God, and it is up to Him when any life comes to an end. Jesus teaches us to forgive, not exact revenge. The death penalty is so ingrained in American culture that I doubt I’ll see any change in my lifetime. For now, I pray for the souls of those who are executed, as well as the souls of the ones who were murdered.

  • really appreciate this conversation exchange. I agree both SSM and the death penalty are complex issues involving real human beings. Thanks for reminding us of that.

  • Livin

    While we need to be careful about following religious authorizes like Al Mohler and indeed need to question them like Formerly Fundie dose I believe FF is mistaken on this issue.

    1 Peter 2:12-14

    New International Version (NIV)

    12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

    13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right

    So war and punishment(including death) inflicted by the state is not only consented to but sent by Jesus from Heaven. Jesus himself did not want his disciples to get in the way of Roman law but said the soldiers who carried it out were blameless they were following God’s divine order and did not know what they were doing.
    We just need to follow orders(while doing good where we can) from the earthly authorities put in place by God and have faith good will triumph in the end.

  • I think this argument collapses very quickly under a reductio examination. How about the authorities in Asia that forbid Christianity or proselytizing? Or the authorities that use violence to execute converts to Christianity in muslim nations? Or pretty much everything North Korea does? Is the torture and mutilation of political prisoners ok? No. Like all Scriptures, Peter’s encouragement here is not to be taken without considering the full weight of other revelation.

  • Livin

    Under the reduction fallacy you quickly jumped to the appeal to extremes fallacy which shows me you are not very tolerant of other views.
    But none the less I will examine your claims.
    Some Asian countries forbid proselytizing because they are afraid of foreign control of religious institutions a not totally unfounded claim. One example is the funding of Mosques by Saudi Arabia in other countries.
    So in reverence to the country they live in they refrain from using overt proselytizing methods and associating with too many outside agencies but in reverence to Christ they share their faith by how they live their lives and preach in their houses. This has allowed a flowering of Christianity in China.
    As far as torture do unto others as you want them to do unto you. If by torturing me 100 lives were saved I would expect the person getting information to do it. Otherwise they would be guilty of the 100 deaths that could have been saved. As such it is ok under the correct circumstances using a utilitarian calculation. If you say one wrong person tortured makes it evil 100% of the time then using your appeal to extremes fallacy you would be ok with 1,000 people getting raped and killed for the sake of not torturing one person who would most likely survive the torture. cont…

  • ucfengr

    Don’t you recognize the writings of Paul as canonical?

  • You’ll have to think a little harder than that.”Extremes fallacy”? Lol. Even ignoring the bad grammar, I appealed to actual historical events. Perhaps you could actually think through my objection, which is that you are telling everyone that the Korean gulags are “sent by Jesus from heaven”. To which I respond, kindly, bullish*t.