Jesus, Pilate, And The Death Penalty

Jesus, Pilate, And The Death Penalty September 9, 2020

Unknown Artists: Christ Before Pilate With Pilate Washing His Hands/ Wikimedia Commons

One of the most unusual defenses some Christians give for capital punishment is to suggest that Jesus gave it his approval. They say Jesus, in his interrogation from Pilate, told Pilate that God had given him the authority to execute people. Since God gave him such authority, he was perfectly in his right to use it. It was a power granted to the state, and its officials are free to use it whenever they want. Thus, they say, Pilate did nothing wrong when he had Jesus crucified.  Their argument mostly comes from their reading of John 19:[1]

When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; he entered the praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer.  Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” (Jn. 19:8-11 RSV).

Jesus did not say Pilate had authority to execute him from God, but rather, from those who were above him (that is, Pilate’s power came to him from Rome). Even if one were to say God’s providence had led to Rome’s power, and so, indirectly gave Pilate the authority, we would be wrong to interpret that as God approves all that had been done by Rome’s use of its power. In many of the prophets, we read of those who serve God’s providence in judging Israel, who, nonetheless are also condemned by God for the evil which they desired to do. Pilate had power, but might does not make right. He had power, but his use of it was still a sin.

Indeed, if we read the text closely, it is clear that Jesus indicated that Pilate was doing wrong. How so? He said that those who handed him over to Pilate had committed greater sin. It would be impossible to say someone committed greater sin than someone else unless both sinned. There would be no comparison possible if Pilate had not sinned. By going along with the condemnation of Jesus, by crucifying him, Christians have long seen Pilate of being guilty of great sin, for he was directly (and not indirectly) connected to the unjust death of the innocent one, Jesus Christ.[2] Pilate, Jesus indicated, had a slight mitigation to his sin compared to those who led Jesus to Pilate, but Pilate still sinned, and his power did not authorize him to execute Jesus.  Thus, Pilate was guilty of sin. Jesus also wanted to make sure Pilate understood his power was not his by right, but was given to him by others. St. John Chrysostom explained that when Jesus spoke of Pilate’s authority as given “from above,” Jesus did so to put Pilate’s arrogance in check:

“He that delivered Me unto thee hath the greater sin.”

Showing that he also was guilty of sin. Then, to pull down his pride and arrogance, He saith,

“Thou wouldst have no power except it were given thee.”

Showing that this did not come to pass merely in the common order of events, but that it was accomplished mystically. Then lest, when thou hearest, “Except it were given thee,” thou shouldest deem that Pilate was exempt from all blame, on this account therefore He said, “Therefore he that delivered Me unto thee hath the greater sin.” “And yet if it was given, neither he nor they were liable to any charge.” “Thou objectest idly; for the ‘given’ in this place means what is ‘allowed’; as though He had said, ‘He hath permitted these things to be, yet not for that are ye clear of the wickedness.’” He awed Pilate by the words, and proffered a clear defense.[3]

St. Augustine, exploring why Jesus said Pilate’s sin was less than those who took Jesus to Pilate, suggested the reason lay in fear:

Of such a sort, indeed, was the power which God had given to Pilate, that he should also be under the power of Caesar. Wherefore “thou wouldest have,” He says, “no power against me,” that is, even the little measure thou really hast, “except” this very measure, whatever its amount, “were given thee from above.” But knowing as I do its amount, for it is not so great as to render thee altogether independent, “therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” He, indeed, delivered me to thy power at the bidding of envy, whilst thou art to exercise thy power upon me through the impulse of fear. And yet not even through the impulse of fear ought one man to slay another, especially the innocent; nevertheless to do so by an officious zeal is a much greater evil than under the constraint of fear. And therefore the truth-speaking Teacher saith not, “He that delivered me to thee,” he only hath sin, as if the other had none; but He saith, “hath the greater sin,” letting him understand that he himself was not exempt from blame. For that of the latter is not reduced to nothing because the other is greater.[4]

The power which Pilate possessed, the power given to him by Caesar, did not exonerate Pilate. The way he used it was sinful. Executing Jesus was a sin. Anyone who would say Jesus approved of Pilate’s use of the death penalty did not pay attention. According to Scripture, even Pilate knew something was wrong, and he tried to ease his conscience by placing the blame on others. But that is not how it works. When we embrace power to do some wrong, we cannot simply wash our hands of the blame. If it were that simple, few people, if any, would ever be convicted of a crime in the court of law, because everyone would find someone else to blame for what they have done. Of course, Jesus made it clear, however much Pilate would have liked to wash his hands of his sin, he freely participated in the process; he used his own power and authority to execute Jesus and so he sinned.

Because Jesus told Pilate that was guilty of sin, how can it be said that Jesus, in this passage, affirmed capital punishment? Jesus made it clear, despite his power, Pilate sinned; having the power to do something does not make it right to do it. The power to execute is an issue of might, not of right. Jesus, far from approving capital punishment, undermines its principles. The death penalty is not tied with justice, but power, and those who confuse the two will never understand Jesus whose death on the cross put an end to all claims of the rightness of worldly power.

[1] The other argument comes from the Synoptic accounts, when Pilate claimed his own innocence:
“So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’” (Matt. 27:24 RSV).  This is a rather odd argument: if all it takes for someone to not be guilty of any sin, let alone of any crime, is to say “I wash my hands of it,” then why would there be the death penalty at all, since all those on death row would have to do so be absolved is claim to be absolved.

[2] Some Christians would suggest Pilate later repented, and in some traditions (such as those proclaimed by the Ethiopian Orthodox), became a Saint. This does not mean he was any less guilty of the sin, but rather, that all sin, including his could be forgiven by Christ.

[3] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St John in NPNF1(14): 314 [ Homily 84].

[4] St. Augustine, Tractates on John in NPNF1(7):426   [Tractate 116].


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