The Death Penalty and Purple Theology

The Death Penalty and Purple Theology December 13, 2005

Tookie Williams was executed last night, at the stroke of midnight. I do not know enough of the facts to judge whether or not California was just, nor do I want to comment on the Tookie Williams case. My view is that the death penalty is just, especially in American jurisprudence, but Christians should oppose the death penalty. Here is my line of thinking and I’d like to know where some of you stand on this one.
Oh, and don’t forget to vote on the poll. I’ll vote later on today.

First, the OT clearly contains legislation about capital punishment. The famous lex talionis of Exodus 21:24 (Lev 24:20; Deut 19:21) legislated “an eye for an eye.” The person who kills murders a human is put to death. Most think the lex talionis is designed to curb revenge, and it limited punishment to compensate for the crime.
Second, the Cities of Refuge provided for criminals unintentional slayers a place of refuge while waiting trial (Exod 21:12-14; Numb 35:6-34; Deut 4:41-43; 19:1-13). These Cities are near-equivalents of a prison system. There is an admission of the potential use of improper revenge written into the fabric of the Cities of Refuge. [Added later: They exist because the avenger was justified to put murderers to death. The Cities prevented avengers from meeting out “injustice.”]
I conclude from these two sets of evidence that the death penalty is legislated in the Torah and that the death penalty is understood in the Bible as just. I see no reason to pretend that the Torah is barbaric: there is logical force in “human for human.”
But, there are other considerations that point to a purple theology and another way:
Third, Jesus clearly undermines the lex talionis. Not because Jesus didn’t believe in justice, or that the death penalty was unjust. Here’s what Jesus says:

Matt. 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

The Torah of Moses specified justifiable revenge; Jesus contends that his followers are to extend grace. He knows what justice permits; he just doesn’t think that is the way to proceed for his community of faith. Yes, he seems to be saying, the lex talionis is just, but among my followers there will not be the pursuit of revenge.

Fourth, forgiveness is a notable emphasis of Jesus, of his followers, and of the Christian faith. In Jesus Creed, chp. 23, I explain that forgiveness, or at least the emphasis given to it, takes a path that the Judaism of Jesus’ day was not prepared to take. And, I would contend that Jesus and the early Christians sensed this shift: they were to create an alternative community, one not marked by a justice system of offense and punishment, but of offense and redemption/forgiveness.
Grace and forgiveness unleash the power of God that re-makes humans. That is the way of Jesus.
Fifth, the system of embracing grace in the Bible sabotages the system of justice. God’s love for us restores us by forgiving us. God’s grace is a system in which revenge is denied and punishment absorbed. Cracked Eikons are restored to be glory-producing Eikons as a result of this gospel.
And herein lies the reason why I think Christians ought to oppose the death penalty. Not because the death penalty is unfair, or it doesn’t work, or because it is too hard to prove someone guilty, or because it costs too much — these are all pragmatic reasons with some merit, but not enough as far as I’m concerned.
The reason Christians should oppose the death penalty is because they believe that (1) humans are Eikons of God who, because of the redemptive work of the trinitarian God in the Cross, Resurrection, and Pentecost, (2) can be restored to union with God and communion with others. Christians can oppose the death penalty because they have hope and believe that God’s grace can undo what has been done and remake the criminal into a person he or she was not previously.
I do think life imprisonment is just, but I see no reason to go any further than that: of course, it is not just to keep someone alive who has murdered another human (who is also an Eikon), but the system of grace taught by Jesus deconstructs the system of justice by taking it to an entirely new level. Not the level of offense and punishment, but the level of offense and punishment-with-redemption.
Perhaps time and efforts on our part will lead that person to the sort of honesty before God that discovers that God’s redemptive work can make murderers anew. The Apostle Paul is a good example.
We should write to our senators to oppose the death penalty.

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  • Regarding lex talionis:
    Those who use this line seem to conveniently ignore all the other things for which the death penalty was applied in the OT! Rebellious children, adultery…
    Jesus clearly offered life for that which used to bring death. Christians ought to offer that too.

  • Bill

    It would be interesting for you to comment on Romans 13. Also if forgiveness is really what we are offering people then why put them in jail for life? As you finally acknowledege practicing biblical forgivenss does not mean that people do not suffer the ramifications for their sins social or personal. The real issue seems to whether it is appropriate for humans to shorten the period of a person has to come to their senses. I assume as you do that it is morally acceptable to shorten the period.
    As for God, he does not overlook or fogive the person without them coming to their senses otherwise every person would be redeemed. I suppose a person could say that we are to leave the justice up to God. Well then that point needs to be proven from the scriptures. My point is that the Scriptures do not seem to equate the offer with forgivenss with the cancellation of all of the effects of the fall. Secondly, I think it allows a legitiamate place of the government to execute justice and so do you based on your comments about life in prison. I agree that I do not have the authority to personally carry out justice. Why in your view would it not be more gracious to let the prisoner go free since that would be even more gracious? Again it seems the issue is whether a government has the authority to execute justice

  • Bill

    Sorry for a couple of mistakes on the previous comments. Trying to get out the door. I did not mean to say that you believe it is appropriate to shorten someones life. At least a Christian should not be a part of shortening someones life.

  • Scot,
    Thanks for the thoughtful post on a subject I’ve long strugged with (first from a left-of-center and now from a right-of-center perspective).
    How does Rom 13:1ff square with your view? Paul says that the governing authorities are the servant of God for our good, not bearing the sword in vain and carrying out God’s wrath on wrongdoers. (Interesting that sword, machaira, is the same word used in Rom 8:35 to indicate that death is not something that can separate us from God.
    So I guess my questions for you are: (1) how to you understand “sword” in Rom 13:4, (2) in your framework, how do the governing authorities fit as positive avengers of God’s wrath?

  • Dan

    Great question to ponder.
    From Genesis 9 and the rebuilding of the world after the flood there is the linkage of the death penalty to the image/eikon of God. There it seems much more a matter of justice than the possible revenge factor in the lex talionis. The Sermon on the Mount seems more focused on enemies (and victory/revenge) than on justice.
    How justice and mercy meet is the amazing story of Jesus. It seems that for me to follow Him I have to learn to do both.
    With my children I had some success and made some mistakes on both ends of the spectrum. The death penalty terrifies me. I think it is appropriate for a goverment to have and utilize, but I don’t think I could ever vote that way if I were on a jury.

  • From a practical standpoint, the United States is not ancient Israel, is not a theocracy, or even a theologically sensitive nation. Our death penalty law might find some similarity to Mosaic law, but it is far from it. Further, our death penalty law is unfairly applied. We don’t give eye for eye in America, we take eye for eye if you are poor or non-White, but privledge buys life.
    Until we have a nation that fears God (which I don’t think will happen before Christ’s return) and wishes to behave as such, the death penalty is simply state-sanctioned revenge and murder.

  • We Christians cannot expect the state to operate by the same rules as the Church. The Church is ordained by God to show mercy – the State, justice. Living in a fallen world where the majority will never be Christians, things cannot operate any other way.

  • Bryan Hodge

    Why is there such a break from the OT as though that was then and this is now? The OT should be differentiated as to whether a passage is dealing with the government of Israel, so God gives them what needs to be punished in government, OR His “religious” people Israel, so the distinction is between what is of government in the law and what is of His “religious” people, not God thinks differently now about what governments should do because He gives new commands to His “religious” people. That is a mixing of two completely different things. People are Eikons in the OT too. God commands to execute them as a message to the larger culture, not as reform for the individual. The punishment for breaking laws of a society is a teaching tool for society. There is a difference between that which separates a man from God on the vertical level and that which separates him from God and man on the horizontal (and what must be done about it)in the OT law that is passed over by evangelicals today in a rather superficial reading of the law; and we ought to make that distinction.
    All of the passages you quoted, Scot, were dealing with individuals. Christ isn’t addressing government. He is addressing His religious people group. Should I as an individual seek the lex talionis in my life. Christ answers, “No.” But that has nothing to do with whether government, as God’s representative of His authority should do it in order to keep evil in check (as Rom 13 relates, it does not bear the sword for no reason). If any people would have condemned the death penalty, you would think the apostles would having become victims of it. However, there is no such thing, but instead the upholding of its goodness in general.
    The commentator before was right. If you are going to apply the passages dealing with forgiveness or witholding personal justice (and those two are different), then you would also have to apply that to not sending anyone to prison as long as they were sorry for it and promised not to do it again (something most criminals say and yet end up doing it again).
    So this is really a question on whether Christians should think of legal penalties as teaching tools for the rest of society in an effort to thwart further violence within culture, or whether penalties should be teaching tools for the individual criminal in order to try and reform him/her, but then ends up cheapening the act of crime in larger society. I think the Bible teaches the latter and would make more sense even if I were not a Christian. If I give one of my kids a soft punishment for a horrible act, then the others learn that this act does not bring about that bad of a consequence. They are all doing it by the end of the week. What do you think?

  • Bryan Hodge

    BTW, murder is not killing as one alluded to before. Murder is unauthorized killing and an individual. There is a difference in the concept (and the Hebrew word). Killing by government is commanded by God both in war and legal punishment. The statement that government can’t do this is a denial of the Biblical teaching that says it can because of what it is.

  • Bryan Hodge

    that’s supposed to be “of an individual”

  • Bryan Hodge

    Finally, I would like to ask, Scot, if you think that the execution of Nazi war criminals should have been opposed by Christians? I’m just wondering if there is consistency or if this is simply because we have been desensitized to murder being that bad. If we would say, “Well, those crimes are really bad, so that was OK to execute them,” then we are just saying that the death penalty should be given to people that “we” think have done really bad crimes. But it used to be that murdering a single person was a REALLY bad crime.

  • Hey Scot,
    Bold post. I hold (largely) the same view. As a “good Canadian”, I used to denounce the death penalty as the ultimate evil. However, two things made me embrace a deeper understanding.
    First, a close friend of mine from Uganda talked about what was happening in his country before the death penalty was allowed. Not an entirely convincing argument, but it humanized the issue beyond our limited North American context. Second, as you mentioned, Scripture clearly allows for it, or at least did at one time.
    When you say that embracing grace sabotages systems of justice, I assume are not referring to true Justice, but political & judicial systems. True Justice, in my understanding, is one that restores. It still can embrace punishment, but not as a central emphasis, but only in so far as it reinforces the restoration of God’s intentions.
    As the Church, we need to be leading the society in our commitment to the “worst” of offenders. And while we truly desire to see their redemption, we do not measure our success on that basis, but on the basis of our consistant obedience.
    P.S. I would highly recommend the movie “Redemption” about Tookie. It is worth seeing.

  • Dan

    Randy, Romans 13 was written in the context of a state that was as much non-theocracy and as theologically insensitive as the US at the very least but there it is and must be part of the equation.
    One other ‘benefit’ of capital punishment (as in curbing revenge and limited punishment) is that it forces the crime into the public square where such debates as this can take place and keep us all accountable to the body politic (not to say that the body politic cannot indeed be very UNGODLY).
    Scot, Paul’s murdering was “state sanctioned” which seems to me to add wieght to your point.
    What about Jesus’ statement to Pilot about the source of Pilot’s authority?
    Then again we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven as “eikons” and thus the force of what you say here, Scot. Still, if we are going to tenaciously pursue theology/praxis then to hold this view the church needs to be deeply and personally involved in the prison system since I doubt that the state can effectively apply God’s love and grace (WAY UNDERSTATEMENT).
    I have so far supported the states right to reserve for itself the death penalty yet I agree with the other Dan’s concluding remark.
    Dan (not the Dan of the 9:43am post)

  • Thanks for posting this…

  • Christ offered eternal life. His act on the cross really had nothing to do with United States law.
    Forgiveness is spiritual… eternal. God can forgive a man for murder. But that man is still subject to the laws of the land. That is scriptural.
    So, whether a man is in prison or killed by lethal injection, isn’t the point. Using the logic I see here, if it’s all about forgiveness, then why have prisons?
    In many cases, death is a much kinder alternative to rotting in a cell for 60 years…

  • I foresee no shortage of comments on this post…
    I think, for many, it comes down to the view of justice. If we are stuck in the American mindset of what justice is, then I guess a death penalty makes sense. But if our justice stems forth from what God intended (creating shalom, or a situation of things “being right”), then the death penalty doesn’t seem right at all. See this link-
    I would agree with locking up people for life, and by doing this we can again make them contributors to society (cleaning highways, making license plates, etc) while still offering them the chance to regain their communion with God.

  • Jeff,
    I have worked in state prisons and I don’t know that I would characterize the life of a prisoner as “rotting in prison.” Conditions differ from prison to prison but it does seem that given the choice most prisioner would rather live in prison than be put to death.
    Randy, your point about the difference between ancient Israel and the US should be kept in mind. The difference does not mean that there is nothing we can learn about application. I think Scot is right that the OT teaches us that capital punishment is not necessarily immoral. Now we have to ask how capital punishment fits into our place in redemptive history. That is where I see Romans 13 entering the dialogue.
    Concerning you objections based on the unfair application of the law based on race I think we have to be careful not to confuse the unjust application of law with the questions related to the morality of a law itself. Your objections could fit a number of laws and then question would be so what do we do about it. I say struggle to make sure the law is applied fairly.

  • Thanks for this post. I have been wrestling with the death penalty myself and I feel like your post expressed what I was unable to say.

  • I do not agree based on yur argument. If you carry your logic all the way out why even demand prison if forgivness removes the restitution required.
    Sin, even my forgiven sins have consequences in this temporary dimension. forgivness is not the removal of restitution and if the law reguires death as a just restitution then death is not only just but a picture of what it takes to atone for all sin and restore us back to the ekions God created. The death penalty is a hard yet honest reminder of the wages of sin.
    To be consitent in your argument you should argue for complete freedom for the offender. Your basically arguing it “ok” or just to hold captive, remove certain freedoms from offenders…a sort of torture. I think the cities of refuge where until the person could resolve the issue and i dont the shift is no more human for human. THat didn’t really change since Jesus had to exchange himself in our stead. Atonment seems a consistent presence in both the old and new covenants.

  • Lukas,
    Your are right about it coming down to your view of justice. We are discussing what the Bible says not what the American justice system says. We are asking questions about how the OT, Jesus, and the epistles define justice. My point is that since God will eventually carry out judgement and even vengence then biblically speaking justice is not mearly a restorative concept. God will eventually carry out justice in a way that we be final and restorative only in the sense that it restores the larger cosmos to a place of shalom. Justice does not necessarily restore every cracked icon to God intended place of shalom.
    Romans 13 says the person brings judgement on themselves administered by the government which is established by God. I still think the question is, Does God give the state the right to take a persons life. Maybe yes and maybe no.

  • Bryan Hodge

    But if our justice stems forth from what God intended (creating shalom, or a situation of things “being right”), then the death penalty doesn’t seem right at all.
    I think I would agree with this definition of justice, but not for the individual. It is about creating shalom and things being right for the community, not the individual. Otherwise, we say God is unjust when he kills an individual for disobedience to His law and thereby the disruption of a society’s shalom.
    What is hell, but the removal of the unrighteous from the world of His people so that there will be shalom upon the new earth?

  • Ted Gossard

    I’ve recently read John Howard Yoder from his “Politics of Jesus” concerning Romans 13. He states an interesting case for understanding Romans 13:1-5 as in the flow of Romans 12 and 13. He thinks it is pulled out of context the way it is read and applied. He covers the Lutheran and Reformed view of it- and thinks that anabaptists have accepted either view (espec the Reformed) mistakenly- as they figure that into their own view. He argues very well against any “just war” application of that passage. And he sees Christians when considering Romans 12 and 13 along with Jesus’ teaching (Sermon on the Mount) as not fitting into the police role of the state that he finds in Romans 13. Interesting. Not easy to read him. (This is from my memory).

  • Bryan Hodge

    Actually, concerning the race issue, I’m guessing people are not aware that there are more white people on death row right now then any other race? Just a side note, but the race card needs to go in light of it.

  • Bryan Hodge

    Scot, the cities of refuge were meant to protect the individual from the avenging family when the person ACCIDENTALLY killed someone. It was not a prison, but a place to protect the person who was not really a murderer.

  • Dan

    Hmmm, try this one on for size… I’m using psalm 51 as my morning prayer at this time. This prayer comes out of Davids adultery, deception and eventual act of murder (albeit “indirect” the murder part that is). He knew he was blood-guilty!
    Still, David and Bathsheba’s child was the one who died here not David and further, the judgment included death for some of his other sons! Yet David was allowed to live out his natural life and not even any imprisonment!
    Your thoughts?

  • Bryan Hodge

    I think David is different in that he IS the government. The one to decide his punishment is God directly since no one else resides upon the earth over him. Nathan actually says that God removes the sin from David, so David himself will not undergo further punishment, but do find it interesting that punishment still takes place even though the sin between he and God is removed. David is cursed with the death of his son and the disruption of his house (notice that this justice brings about chaos for the individual, not shalom). Whereas the blessing upon David’s throne remains. I think this makes most sense in the law distinctions between that which is forgiven by God, but still requiring consequences in temporal world.
    Finally, I ought to point out that David didn’t murder anyone directly or indirectly because murder has to do with taking life when you are unauthorized to do so. David’s sin is adultery and a severe abuse of his power. He ought to die for the adultery, but in the ancient Near East, it was the husband who brought about that charge and he usually had to have his wife executed as well. In this case, Uriah is dead and therefore there is no one to bring the charge of adultery against David. If you look at Nathan’s rebuke of David in the parable, it is one of coveting (the wife of Uriah) and abuse of power, not murder. I know this isn’t going to be accepted so matter of factly, but if you look into the distinctions of the words and rights of authorities in the OT, you’ll find this to be the case.

  • Bryan Hodge

    I just think this quote is interesting in light of all of the compassion America has on the criminals often instead of the victims.
    Deut 19:11 “But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, 12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. 13 “YOU ARE NOT TO PITY HIM, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.”

  • Off topic: I thought you might be interested in this link:
    it provides an interesting commentary and critique of the third chapter of “Emracign grace.” i thought it was very good.

  • Dan

    Yes, yes, Bryan, there is all that that you raise in regards to David… nevertheless, he does confess to blood-guilt which indicates his sense of what he did. Your arguments demonstrate how we can logic our way through situations and either defend or condemn ourselves or others… which is very much part of our human condition and still leaves us where Paul brings us in his letter to the Romans. In the end no one is justified before God! Thus the power and offense of the gospel of Jesus Christ or as we have it here… the Jesus Creed!

  • Hi, Scot. Thanks for the post.
    I really like the direction you’ve taken this, but I would refine it just a bit. You see, the redemptive work of the trinitarian God takes place in a setting where the death sentence has already been passed, not where there is no such thing as a death sentence. Forgiveness and mercy are rooted in justice, and are not antithetical to it. Forgiveness/mercy says, “I know that a wrong has been committed, and it is worthy of _______, but I desire that the perpetrator not have to undergo this penalty.” Forgiveness/mercy begins with a recognition of wrong, and of the severity of that wrong by assigning an appropriate penalty, and only then does it diverge from the path of justice. This is the story of the gospel… the death sentence is first passed before redemption and mercy happen.
    So I would say that a Christian should be pro-death penalty and pro-clemency. Pro-death penalty in that a statement of guilt and of the severity of the wrong committed must be made (through the death sentence)… for the victims and for society as a whole. However, a Christian should also be pro-clemency and pro-redemption. We must believe in the possibility that a person can really and drastically change (or be changed), and indeed we need to desire this to happen. We must believe in mercy and new beginnings.
    I too have not been commenting on the Tookie Williams case because I know very little about it. I would have been quite pleased, however, if those who were well aware of the situation and in a position to do something about it had decided that Tookie Williams’ story was indeed one of redemption, and ought to also be one of mercy.

  • Greg McRitchie

    Hey Scot I see you using the term “Purple” and I am not sure what it means. I tend to equate Purple and Papal but that does not appear to be how you use the term. Can you help me out on this I seem to be in a Purple haze?
    Scuse me while I kiss the sky.

  • I don’t think a Christian “Should” do anything but that which they have conviction of in their own heart.
    To imply that a Christian “should” be passive (or the opposite, that they “should” be militant) and to proof text scripture to back such claims is simply irresponsible (note the reference to Matt. 5:38 along with the claim that Christ ‘undermined’ the OT….what?). Some criticize right-wing fundamentalism for such the same actions, on different topics.
    It stands to reason that one Christian could be of the conviction that the death penalty is quite alright, while another vehemently opposes it.
    I would challenge anyone, however, if you find yourself in harms way (read Boenhoffer and his change of heart), that theology or personal convictions will change rapidly, as your life experiences become more rooted in hardships than glued to the news.
    Who among us has truly suffered the hand of injustice?

  • To what extent does Jesus’ teaching supercede the OT? To what extent does it replace it?
    I am a bit worried here in that those who argue against the death penalty do so on the basis of the teaching of Jesus, yet Jesus did not come to replace the law but to fulfill it. In what sense, then, is this fulfilling the law rather than replacing it?
    I agree with those who stated earlier that Jesus taught (what I would call) Kingdom Ethics meant for the individual, not for the state. The state certainly has the right to execute, and I would support that right.

  • See this post…
    Purple and Papal. That made me grin.

  • T

    I like that you made the twin observances that 1) the death penalty is just, and 2) Christians still ought to oppose it. Though I still have reservations about making the death penalty illegal for someone other than myself to pursue, I have always found it difficult to plead for “justice” (or, what I deserve) for me or even for others in most cases, knowing too well that mercy and grace are what sustain us all in every facet of life–both here and beyond. As a lawyer, my position is probably strange. I think, though, that many evangelicals have separated justice a little too neatly into human and divine categories. Jesus seems to consistently call actual humans to show tangible mercy (in criminal, moral and economic arenas) on the basis of the divine mercy that has come from the One who has really been wronged, but done no wrong. Also, the book Colossians Remixed has an interesting and compelling argument concerning the “sword” passage of Romans. I’d love to hear some educated responses to their arguments. Thanks for the post.

  • We are instructed to “Follow me” ~ Jesus.
    Once that decision is made, all others are easy.
    We are also told “You shall not taste of death” ~ Jesus.
    And he led the way.

  • As I remember (and this could be completely wrong) lex talionis in the OT could be interrupted if the victim stepped up and granted clemancy. For example, if you steal my sheep, then you would owe me a sheep or some equivalent payment. At my descretion, however, I could waive my right to be recompensed; you, then, would not owe me anything. Perhaps forgive is the right word here.
    Moving on. In the case of murder, who would have the right to forgive on behalf of the deceased victim? The state? Another representative of the victim, such as a family member?

  • Indeed the ultimate grace has been given too us, so as to save us from our eternal consequence of sin.
    I do argue however that Christ Himself, even though He payed the ultimate price for our sin, did not do so to absolve us our earthly consequences but rather the destination of our soul.
    Showing forgiveness, gracy and mercy is different than alleviating consequences.
    I do not believe Christ died, and rose again so that Tookie would be spared the death penalty, but rather that his sin be forgiven and death penalty or not, his soul would be with his creator.
    The emphasis of showing mercy by emphasizing the reduction of a sentance as being what a christian ought to do is, in my opinion, misguided as to what the true meaning of Christ’s sacrifice is about.

  • JohnH

    The above post was correct. You are simply wrong on the purpose of the cities of refuge. As a result, much of the rest of your postion falls.

  • JohnH,
    Don’t be so quick to condemn me. I think my expressions there are a little inexact. Cities of Refuge, which I don’t deny, are for unintentional slayings, but (and this is what I was trying to say) they are designed to protect from improper revenge.
    The Cities of Refuge argument has nothing to do with the lex talionis, and the conclusion I draw from the Cities of Refuge has to do with the legitimacy of the death penalty (which is indirectly supported by Cities of Refuge).
    I say they are near-equivalents of prison. That is inexact: they are near-equivalents of being held in jail while awaiting trial.
    My argument against death penalty is rooted in Jesus’ statement about the lex talionis and the operative power of grace and forgiveness and love.
    Some here are suggesting that I am suggesting that I would turn everyone loose — nonsense. I see life imprisonment as just. If a person is restored (as the law defines such things), then that person could be restored to society. I’m not commenting on such things, and didn’t in my piece. I think I make it clear enough that life imprisonment is within what I see as the alternative of Jesus to the lex talionis.

  • Dan

    one last post for me:
    Three comments:
    1. “humans are Eikons of God” I know I’m lifting this from Scot’s thoughts/argument but this theology must be a two way street. There is certainly Scot’s point that seems valid. But it goes the other way, as Eikons of God doesn’t that very fact legitimize capital punishment in a society that seeks justice and order (not that we attain it or can attain it)? As the Eikon of God is it not then an outrage to murder another Eikon of God out of rage, jealousy, envy… whatever the motive is?
    I won’t belabor this but it must be asked and answered if we are to use Eikon of God in any real sense.
    I’m not arguing for or against capital punishment but capital punishment is also a response to what it means to be Eikons of God.
    2. Evette (, your point is well taken: Flawed people (cracked eikons in the current discussion), in a flawed system, passing flawed judgment on other flawed people.
    3. Sunday just past I took as my text Matthew 2. Your compassion, Evette, reminded me of what I spoke about and what I have found missing in our current discussion of capital punishment: The text I’m particularly thinking of is Matthew’s citation of Jeremiah:
    “A voice is heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; She refuses to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more.” (Jer. 31:15)
    The execution we are discussing (or at least the execution that has sparked this convesation) is just one of tens of thousands of incidences that will transpire this week alone that should be stirring us to hear this cry and to JOIN IT. For me it seems that this is one of the responses of an Eikon of God for our lost, broken, enslaved world, whether we are evangelical, emergent, mainline protestant, Catholic, Orthodox or any and all derivatives thereof.

  • Dan,
    Yes, I know Gen 9 teaches death because of Eikon. But, that is the point of Matt 5 — it transcends by swallowing up justice into a system of grace that transforms (by Jesus’ absorption of justice).

  • Bryan Hodge

    I think if I hear you right, Dan, is that we should continue the death penalty when such an outrage as the murder of an Eikon of God is performed, but weep as we bring down the axe for such tragedy. Is that right?

  • Bryan Hodge

    Scot, I’m not sure you’ve answered those of us who have brought up the fact that you seem to be taking Jesus’ words to individuals and applying them to government. If Jesus does not instruct the government to have pity and reform instead of punish, then why should we as His representatives say that to government? Can you let us know how you are connecting the two? I mentioned before that I as a Christian should not seek the lex talionis in my life, but should uphold the authority of government as a restrainer of men via its fearful wielding of the sword. If it does not wield that sword (and do so quickly–not over 25 years), fear of it is lost AND the statement against the level of evil murder consists of is never made.

  • Justin,
    On Rom 13: in short, what Caesar does is not necessarily what Paul does. And the text does not overtly speak of the death penalty but probably of “justice as punishment.”
    I simply don’t accept the distinction you are making between words for individuals and government; Jesus is describing kingdom living, and that will be for “his” society that follows him. I’m not suggesting a new form of government, but how Christians should live and what they need to fight for and against.

  • Justin,
    I do think the government/rulers use justifiable violence against evil doers to establish justice. I think Christians should work within that system to keep humans alive so they can be restored to God and others.

  • Bryan Hodge

    So just to clarify, if there is no distinction between Christ’s address to individuals or governments, then logically (even though I’m sure you don’t believe this) you MUST conclude that government should not pay back someone for a wrong done. If someone steals, government should give that person more, if someone does violence, the government should let them do more, the government should give to everyone who asks of them, etc. This is of course sounds absurd doesn’t it? Am I misunderstanding what you are saying? I know you said you are not against people being put in prison, but isn’t this seeking justice for a crime comitted. Wouldn’t grace and forgiveness dictate that no punishment take place by government (If Christ is speaking also to government by saying to do good to everyone who does evil)? I don’t see how this is consistent with what your saying? Please help me understand if you will?

  • Bryan Hodge

    BTW I think my comment would apply even to a government filled with Christians.

  • C. S. Lewis wrote somewhere in *Mere Christianity* that if he were convicted of a captial offense, he would not fight to have it overturned on the grounds of Christian charity. He saw the justice of government and the forgiveness of the Gospel as not conflicting.

  • Dan

    I think i sense some chiding and maybe sarcasm in your comment… but perhaps paradoxically yes… we should be on our faces crying out to God that we have brought our world to such a place that both are realities we live with! Any less response falls short of all that I believe the Gospel opens to us and calls us to. We can argue until we are blue in the face and as the 49 and counting posts here show we will never all come to agreement. This too proves the point I hear Scot making…
    I indeed agree with what you are saying and I’m most certain you are fully aware of the implications you drive us to in calling us to remember the image of God language of Scripture. I’m doing some theology as I read and comment here.
    I whole heartily agree with you about Matthew 5 “it transcends by swallowing up justice into a system of grace that transforms (by Jesus’ absorption of justice).” thus the offense of the cross and of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • Wow, I can’t read all these comments so maybe someone has already said this, but here goes…
    I oppose the death penalty, but I don’t know that I have conclusive Biblical grounds to do so. So, I was thinking about your two reasons to oppose the death penalty and I have to ask: didn’t those two reasons exist in the Old Testament? Did they not believe that humans are Eikons who can be redemptively restored to union with God and communion with others? Could OT believers not “have hope and believe that God’s grace can undo what has been done and remake the criminal into a person he or she was not previously”?
    If they had the same hope…how could they justify the death penalty while we can’t? Just wondering about that…
    Thanks for bringing this up.

  • Jared at #31,
    The question for me about your comment: What do you think Jesus is doing then with the text in Matthew 5? Is he advocating the death penalty?
    I do think Jesus paid a death sentence (after all, Paul’s theology throbs with death being transformed by life), but the death penalty pertains to human crimes now put in tension by Jesus’ words.
    No tension at all for you in those words?

  • Scott, this is what I posted on my under the radar blog.
    In denying clemency for Stanley Tookie Williams, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger discussed issues of atonement and redemption, which have been at the heart of most pleas for the execution to be halted.
    “Stanley Williams insists he is innocent, and that he will not and should not apologize or otherwise atone for the murders of the four victims in this case,” the governor wrote.
    “Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption.”
    In addition to insisting his innocence, Williams also refused to help law enforcement officials with information that could help lead to the arrest of gang members. Williams has written books encouraging kids to stay out of gangs and donated profits to charities working on those issues.
    Is Arnold right that there is no redemption without apology – and atonement.” Is writing the books and donating the profits atonement?
    If the governor is right, how does this fit in our daily lives and the sins we commit against one another? Do we practice it.
    Steps 8 and 9 of the Twelve Steps include making a list of all the people a person has harmed and then making amends whenever possible. This is considered an essential step in recovery and redemption.
    An addition: witnesses said it took 20 minutes to prep Williams for death, including several minutes to find a vein. Is this cruel and unusual punishment (notwithstanding the argument that the death penalty is cruel)

  • JohnH

    Scott, I’m not really trying to condemn, I just disagree with your conclusions.
    Let me change the context. Jesus will return and many will be condemned, at least that is what scripture says.
    What then? How does Mt. 5 fit into that?

  • JohnH,
    Thanks for coming back and sitting down. This post has more intensity than I expected, so I’m spinning on a day that has been very, very busy.
    So, let me come back with this: besides being beside the point, those who will be condemned will be those who did not live according to Jesus’/God’s will, including what Jesus says in Matt 5-7 (which is the point of 7:21-28.

  • If I commit murder, can God forgive me? You bet! But in no way does that nullify my expectation of suffering the consequences of my actions…..I’m still guilty of murder!
    It’s interesting how this guy, and his lawyers and ‘supporters’ can cry and moan and yell and argue about how heinous it would be for him to be put to death and yet I’m wondering if they would have shown the same determination and passion to cry, moan, yell and argue for the life of the very people he murdered in cold blood!?!? What a stinkin’ double standard; you can’t have it both ways.
    Do I need God’s mercy, oh yes!
    His forgiveness; most definitely!
    But I should never expect that He is just going to simply allow me to do whatever I want without having to be responsible for my own actions and/or suffer the just punishment for them!

  • Bryan Hodge

    Dan, no chiding or sarcasm intended. I was agreeing with you actually. Sorry it came off as otherwise. I do think there is a sense that we should weep over the tragedy of humanity and the falleness of men who are made as Eikons of God and yet become representatives of the devil instead. Paradoxically, however, I think we should also have a sense of satisfaction (not pleasure) that evil is answered appropriately and through the right channels to some extant in our world as well.

  • Rob Auld

    I am not American, but from an outside perspective your Death Penalty is racist. Here are some stats,
    African Americans are 12% of the U.S. population, but are 43% of prisoners on death row. Although Blacks constitute 50% of all murder victims, 83% of the victims in death penalty cases are white
    Since 1976 only ten executions involved a white defendant who had killed a Black victim.
    In all, only 37 of the over 18,000 executions in this country’s history involved a white person being punished for killing a Black person.
    Pretty scary stuff. Not to mention the DNA evidence that has shown so many on death row to be innocent.
    The Death Penalty in ancient Israel makes sense. There is no mechanism for jailing someone. Especially as nomadic wanderers. In today’s society it is possible to lock someone up and never let them out. Death is too final, and too much like revenge. Protect society, rehabilitate the offender. That should be the goal when dealing with lawbreakers in any civilized society.
    I’m choosing not to cite the scriptures because I believe that instruction into government was given to a specific people at a specific time. Otherwise we’ll end up with a theocracy.
    Rob Auld

  • Ted Gossard,

    Good discussion witb a good spirit from what I can pick up.
    It seems that what Scot is saying, as I am trying to understand it is that we as Christians are to be in this world what someday will become the new status quo, when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Messiah. The application of what we are to do as such is what brings a new light on it for me.
    I’ve never quite HEARD this before, and find it helpful to think about and wrestle through as I read Scripture. Thanks much Scot.

  • Ted Gossard,

    I may vote against the death penalty. This would be a landmark for me.
    I’m trying to understand the idea that while the death penalty is just, we as Christians are involved in a new order in Jesus that transcends the old.
    In Scot’s words: “Yes, I know Gen 9 teaches death because of Eikon. But, that is the point of Matt 5 — it transcends by swallowing up justice into a system of grace that transforms (by Jesus’ absorption of justice).”
    So this would be a first for me (the vote) and maybe moving toward a return to some kind of Christian pacificism which I did make some kind of profession of 30+ years ago.

  • Ted Gossard,

    I do say I struggle with the notion that Christians should write their senators to abolish the death penalty. (There are Mennonites who refuse to vote because they believe they are of a different “order” than the political system of this world.) This seems to be saying something like: “Yes, our gospel does pertain to this world and all that is in it, not only getting souls saved. Therefore it is to have an impact politically as well as in every other way.”
    Certainly true to a Reformed point of view in their way. But this is the first time for me I can see that the Anabaptist could share this point of view with Scriptural legitimacy in their own way (certainly different from that of the Calvinist or Lutheran perspective here).

  • Steve

    Jesus didn’t seem to oppose the death penalty when he was crucified between two criminals. If he had wanted to, surely he could have voiced some concern. (Or perhaps he did and the gospel writers simply didn’t record it…)

  • Ted Gossard,

    my last paragraph on my last posting was in reference to Christians taking political action.

  • Bryan Hodge

    No one seems to be answering Romans 13, which is not the OT. It is post-resurrection and said about 30 years after Christ spoke Matt 5. Why did Matt 5 not swallow up the death penalty for Paul in Rom 13? I think I would need someone to deal with these two in light of each other.
    Rob, Paul’s argument does not stem from society being nomadic. Rome certainly isn’t and even Israel isn’t when the Deuteronomistic laws are applied. I think what I hear from you is that you are against it because it can be abused. To me that is not a valid reason to be against anything, since anything and everything can be abused. That would ultimately lead to the rejection of all things. If you feel the death penalty is abused, then shouldn’t you be arguing against the abuse and look to reforming it. Either that or another argument needs to be made as to why the death penalty itself should be abolished according to Scripture.

  • ted gossard

    Bryan, I did mention John Howard Yoder on Romans 13 back at comment #22 (I think #22; I can’t read the numbers as the first numeral is cut off). I think what Scot says takes that into account. But I too would like to see what he says with reference to the authority there and them being servants of God.

  • Bryan,
    Sorry, but I sense you’re not listening. I discussed briefly Rom 13 above and don’t think it is talking about the death penalty.

  • Ted Gossard

    Scot, Thanks for pointing that out. I remember that now. I didn’t have time to track this at that time and see if you had mentioned Romans 13. Was going on my memory.

  • Scot at #53,
    Thanks for the question. I actually agree with what you said on Matthew 5 in the original post:
    “The Torah of Moses specified justifiable revenge; Jesus contends that his followers are to extend grace. He knows what justice permits; he just doesn’t think that is the way to proceed for his community of faith. Yes, he seems to be saying, the lex talionis is just, but among my followers there will not be the pursuit of revenge.”
    I agree with what you say about the community of faith, but I would make two additional points. First, I don’t see the community being pictured here as restructuring society from the top down, but subverting parts of it from the bottom up. This is not to say that we should not be involved in politics in our modern republics, it’s just not what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5 so we can’t use it as an argument that Christians should be politically opposed the death penalty. Second (but related to the first point), it’s one thing to say that Christians should choose forgiveness over vengeance, but it’s quite another to say that we should attempt to force (even in a democratic way) society to act based upon our principles. I don’t think that solution will work. Those who do not believe in the ideals of the community of faith will see only injustice. Would this not in itself be an act of violence?
    In other words, I don’t think that Christians should attempt, either by opposing the death penalty or by some other means, to structure a society where there is no justice available to victims of what would otherwise be capital crimes (or any other crimes, of course). Instead, we should work to irradicate injustice from society and in that sense promote justice, while at the same time clearly teaching and demonstrating that there is an even higher path than mere justice… there is mercy, and there can be redemption. We should influence people to CHOOSE mercy, not make it the default choice, at least in effect, by robbing them of justice.
    (I recognize that in many societies the victims or the victims’ families do not actually have control over the execution of the criminals’ sentences, but they certainly do have influence over it. I might even argue that they should have more control over it, but that’s for a different day.)
    Anyway, I have no problem reading Matthew 5 within this framework because I believe that Jesus is teaching the community of faith how THEY should act, and while they will have an impact on society it will not be by forcing others to live in a word shaped by their ideals (violence?), but by showing them the superiority of those ideals and letting others choose them for themselves.

  • Jared,
    I see your points, and I’m nonplussed: I thought that is what I was saying. I think we should oppose the death penalty, but I see the Church in sectarian terms (as you seem to see it) — a bottom up work rather than a top down work.
    I agree: the sayings of Jesus are for how his followers are to live and permeate their society with his kingdom vision.

  • Delwyn Campbell

    First of all, I disagree with your take on Romans 13 when you say that it does not apply to the Death Penalty or other use of Deadly Force by the government. The words practically speak for themselves, and no soft hearted hand wringing will remove them. The government DOES bear the sword, and that, NOT IN VAIN.
    We have better tools than we once did, and hopefully we can reduce the number of false guilty verdicts. As it relates to Mr. Williams, if in 20 years they were unable to come up with the “evidence” that would overtern his conviction, and yes, the burden of proof is upon the convicted criminal at that point, then the sentence must be carried out, for it is a proper sentence.
    You argue that Capital Punishment somehow stands in opposition to Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount, as well as the message of grace. First of all, grace is what God extends to guilty, repentent people. Tookie, even aside from the four deaths he was convicted of, has much blood-guilt on his hands. He wasn’t convicted of all the people he may have killed, and he did nothing to undo the damage he did.
    Undoing the damage would have meant bringing down the Crips, ending its existence as a gang. He took no action to bring that to pass.
    For those who reject mercy, as he did, there is only the fearful expectation of judgment. He died, based upon his lack of any confession of Christ, the samem way he lived, in rebellion against God, refusing to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

  • Luke C.

    Wow. What a great conversation! This addresses a subject that I’ve wrestled with for a long, long time…
    This is both a theological question and one that deals with the interface between our faith and our society. We have to have systems that “work” – offer justice – to Christians and non-Christians, for as long as we value freedom of (some would say FROM, not of) religion.
    I am interested that the discussion – all 70+ responses – don’t include more discussion of clemency and the commuting of sentences. It seems to me that for the system of justice to meet both the tests of secular needs and Christian faith, the whole process needs to be in place and well understood. For any capital crime, there needs to be communal response, judgment, punishment, and the possiblity of redemption and clemency. OK – that was sloppy shorthand.
    My point is that the clemency part seems little understood, and lost to most who are in the position to grant it. Clemency is the opportunity for redemption and grace to enter in. Clemency is the judgment we all deserve, held in abeyance out of humanity – both the Christian and secular concepts of humanity. Most governors seem to think that clemency is a chance to review the legal process, new evidence or arguments – and that barring some significant miscarriage of justice, it is showing weakness to grant clemency. That is unfortunate at best. It is in showing mercy that we show, not our own strength, but God’s grace.
    Would it have been significantly wrong to commute a death sentence, in hopes that during the remainder of his life, God would continue to work in him, that he might repent, accept both responsibility and Christ, and receive mercy and grace? Does God maintain that sort of human deadline (wordplay intended)?
    On the other hand, what is the value of a death penalty that is never carried out?
    Incidentally – weren’t there… ah… around 14 popes who took the name Clement? Not to open debate on whether their lives embodied that virtue – but at some time, clemency must have had some Christian currency.
    Again, great discussion.

  • A couple more questions generated by Luke’s comment.
    Unless the governor grants a universal clemency as the former governor did here in Illinois, how are they to determine who should get it?
    Many prominent Christians – in society’s view – fought on behalf of Karla Faye Tucker because she became a born-again Christian, even though they generally supported the death penalty. The murder she committed was particularly gruesome.
    These same people have not spoken up for others and did not speak up for Williams. Is it because the redemption he spoke of was not from a belief in Jesus?
    A governor can’t use a convict’s Christian religious conversion as a reason to grant clemency. How would the same Christian leaders feel if a governor granted clemency to someone who came to be a Muslim who believed in non-violence. The way our governement is set up, the governor can’t use any religious conversion as a reason.
    Still, as I wrote above, Schwarzenegger’s used religious concepts: “Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption.” Apology and atonement apparently were what is necessary for him.
    How is the governor to judge who is sincere in their apology and atonement? What would constitute atonement?
    I’m not saying a governor should never grant clemency, but he or she must be able to say why one is more deserving than another.

  • Scot,
    Then I must have read some things into your use of the phrase “oppose the death penalty” that weren’t there. I apologize for misunderstanding you. 🙂

  • safried,
    The irony is that the death penalty is a theological issue although couched in ‘secular’ terms. One of the things that I have learned from reading Radical Orthodoxy is that there is no neutral secular space. All space is guided and governed by faith committments. The secular space that the governor of California occupies when deciding the life and death of an individual is undergirded by profound faith committments about human life and justice. The death penalty is predicated upon revenge. It is the belief that the State can bring atonement through the blood of the convicted. It is the State’s own perverted version of the substitutionary atonement. But as Christians we know that there remains no more sacrifice for sins since the place of the Skull.

  • Anthony,
    Good point, and I need to think about the death penalty being a secular alternative for subst atonement.

  • Bryan Hodge

    Rom 13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
    I think the only way to say this doesn’t speak to the death penalty is to read sword out of its historical context. In the 1st Century this is the equivalent of saying, “But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not have the electric chair for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” The sword is not used for imprisonment or as a symbol of authority. It is used as the object of execution.

  • Of course in context Romans was written during a time when Christians were not in ‘power’. Some have argued that Romans 13 does not apply to the Christian community but to the governing pagan authorities in Rome. Paul isn’t explicit in regards to Christian punishment of evildoers except for expulsion from Christ’s community.
    To use Romans 13 as a universal application of the death penalty is quite anachronistic in my reading of the text…for I do not think it speaks directly to Christians who may be running the State as such. I don’t think it that’s simple. For in Romans 12 Paul exhorts the Christians at Rome not to execute vengeance on evildoers…but leave that to the governing pagan powers. That is at least how I read the text in toto. If we just read Romans 13 without the preceeding chapter then what I have just said makes no sense at all.
    I believe it is a form of prooftexting to suggest that Romans 13 is some kind of ‘rule’ or ‘principle’ that permits Christians to go about vengeance…especially when Romans 12 forbids Christians from executing vengeance on evildoers!
    Of course Paul probably didn’t anticipate Christendom either…which has prooftexted Romans 13 as a justification for Christians seeking revenge.
    I think the gospels and the early writings are clear. Christians are to eschew revenge. But that is easier said than done. For our context in many ways justifies violence and revenge in so many ways. Ways that have captured our imaginations as Christians that we can barely, if ever, recognize it.

  • Bill

    I still am not clear about how you can talk about grace and forgiveness swallowing up justice and then talk about how people should be sentenced to life in prison. If grace can swallow up justice, as though the two are opposed, then let it be gone and declare everyone free. In my opinion the cross is an example of God exercises grace without ignoring justice. If grace can be exercised apart from justice then why didn’t God just just act gracefully and allow us to either endure a lesser punishment or just go free. Romans 3 says he was just and the justifier of the ungoldly.

  • Delwyn Campbell

    I agree, Bill. God’s grace is not in opposition to His justice, and I wish people would stop lying on God. They make it sound like you have one God in the OT and another one in the NT.
    The cross was God’s means of being just and the justifyer of the one who has faith in Christ, as Paul wrote in Romans. Yes, Romans 13 is a part of the same letter as Romans 12, and no, Romans 13 does not justify revenge on the part of Christians any more than lex talionis justifies vengeance on the part of non-Christians. the OT regulations regarding punishment were never intended to be used personally, but legally. When Jesus talked about it in the Sermon on the Mount, it was being abused as a prooftext for personal revenge. Nowadays, grace is being abused for licenciousness.
    Delwyn Campbell

  • Bill,
    This is probably not the context for this. If a person has committed a crime punishable by death in legal system, then it would be merciful to keep him alive, rehabilitate him (I’m not assuming all are males but most are), and lead him to contribue to society from confinement.
    A good book you’d like I think: Virginia Stem Owns, Living Next Door to the Death House (Eerdmans). The book overwhelmed me.

  • Anthony,
    You are right to say that Romans 13 was written during a different time period. You are also correct that the passage does not say “Christians are free to participate in capital punishement.” What it does say is that governing authorities are established by God for the pupose of bearing the sword (vs.40). Therefore Paul says that we should be afraid of the authorities if we do evil. He even says they are a minister of God.
    Many fellow Christians who are sensitive to the context of Romans 12 have sought to take the passage you mention into consideration; along with Romans 1-11 and the rest of the Bible. It seems to me that in light of Rom. 12 there must be one sense in which Christians are not to take up vemgence since that is not their God given responsibility. There is another institution that has been given the right/authority to take up the sword and administer legal justice and that is the governing authorities. Now some Christians have argued that this means that Christians should not get their hands dirty by participating in such things as administering the sword. If that were the case I think the consistent position would be that Christians should not be policman, security guards, etc. I am not convinced although I do agree that the death penalty should be very carefully administered.

  • Scot,
    Why is not the context? You brought up the topic and then suggested that we contact our senators and oppose the death penalty. I can see your reasoning behind suggesting that we could try and rehabilitate him. I am not convinced yet that the interpretation that you are giving to Jesus words best fit what the wisdom of what scripture teaches as a whole. I will have to continue to think through this one but I will hold off on the letter to my senator.

  • Bill,
    What do you think are the implications of John 7:53-8:11? While I’m not sure about its textual authenticity, I’m persuaded it is historical. Did she deserve death by the Law? Yep. What was Jesus’ suggestion? Go and sin now more? Yep.
    I think this is pretty potent stuff, Bill.
    Do you think Jesus absorbed the punishment of God for all sins, time without end, world without end? If so, does that provide a ground for my suggestion?
    I guess what I mean is that this post is so long and chatty that it is hard to keep up with it. (And as the blogger here, I don’t sense that I have to respond to everything and everyone. Not possible.)

  • Delwyn Campbell

    Actually Scot, she did not merit death under the Law, for there were not two witnesses present, and the man was not there. If you see Jesus’ death as absorbing the punishment for all sins, then why does the lake of fire exist? why does hell exist? why bother to live holy? Why not sin more that grace may abound?
    Jesus’ death does not provide absolution for murder, or any other sins. His death provides access for sinners to receive grace and be restored to fellowship with God.

  • Delwyn Campbell

    One other thing, why should society be forced to pay for this person? If he/she is kept in prison for the rest of his/her life, we hqave to pay for the housing, feeding, and maintenance of that person. All for crimes that God said should be punished by death. I’ll tell you what, Scot-YOU take care of them, YOU feed, clothe, and occupy them. God knew what He was doing when HE said to PUT THEM TO DEATH. We have decided that WE ARE SMARTER THAN GOD! That is why our society is as BAD as it is today. Criminals commit crimes and rely on soft hearted, short sighted, smarter than God people to justify their UNGODLY behavior.

  • I don’t know … but it seems to me that we’re not a theocracy. So we should we really be talking about punishing ungodly behavior here?
    Our prison system exists for two purposes. One is to punish offenders and the other is to rehabilitate them. Once we have meted out capital punishment, the opportunity for rehabilitation no longer exists. Thus the opportunity for repentance no longer exists either.
    It would seem to me that as Christians, we’d want to hold out for as long as possible and give people as much time as God wants to give them to repent. By choosing the death penalty we are forshortening the time that God has allotted them on this earth. I’m not certain I’d want that responsibility. It seems to me that grace, mercy and forgiveness don’t come cheap.
    fwiw, sonja

  • Sonja,
    It is a big responsibility. The question for me still revolves around whether God gave human beings governmental responsibility of carrying out justice. As far as I can tell, Scot and pretty much every person blogging on this site is agreeing that he does. The governmental responsibility to carry out justice does not assume a theocracy. Romans 13 is speaking of the Roman government which Paul says has been given authority to bear the sword by God in order to punish evil doers. The difference, as far as I can tell is whether this responsibility/authority includes putting people to death.

  • Bryan Hodge

    1. Sonja,
    it is interesting that your statement that we are not a theocracy only goes one way. We shouldn’t let the Bible dictate what government should do with criminals when it comes to punishment, but we should dictate what it should do when it comes to forgiveness and mercy. If it’s not a theocracy, and that cancels out any informing it Biblically on what it should do, then it has no need to be forgiving and merciful for the sake of Christ either.
    2. I’m wondering if this idea, that if we keep people alive longer they might repent, is a Biblical one? Perhaps this is more of an Arminian concern than one which sees none of the elect dying before they can repent. I think this goes along with what I suspect of a lot of Arminian circles: that the goal of trying to save everyone cancels out any ability to do what is right when it conflicts. Scot, if you were a Calvinist, would keeping people alive longer so they might repent really be a concern?
    3. I don’t think the John passage should be used against government using the death penalty when it wasn’t the government putting her to death, but a self-righteous mob. If the passage were authentically Scripture, I think it would still be dealing with whether individuals should seek out the condemnation of others, and once again not be speaking to government.
    4. If Matt 5 speaks to government, then if a government is attacked by another nation (let’s say via a bomb on Chicago), then they ought to offer up New York to be bombed as well. The logic just doesn’t work. How would a nation run by Christians look if all they did was to forgive everyone who committed crime or give itself over to destruction when another nation made war against it?

  • Bill, you’re right. It’s about whether or not Rom 13 means “death penalty,” and I don’t think it does.
    #1 is unfair to Sonja; she’s taking forgiveness to be an eschatological gift of the kingdom.
    #2 has nothing whatsoever to do with Arminianism, and it ought to be kept off the shelf. I’ve written my views on Calvinism, and your representation of both views is inaccurate.
    #3 betrays inaccurate understandings of what John says and 1st Century jurisprudence. Jesus is asked if he agrees with Moses — plain and simple. “She is,” they are saying, “caught ‘in the act’. Moses says to put her to death [which must assume Jewish law procedures].” Jesus’ response is devastating — he who is without sin can throw the first stone. Not who can produce legal evidence? Not are there two or three witnesses [which by the way, Delwyn is not in all the legal data about capital sentences; check out Deut 22:22], but “he who is without sin.” The Pharisees left, and there’s not a sign that these folks were self-righteous [and in my field what you say is an anti-Semitic slur], and they left because they were convicted of their sin by Jesus.
    Jesus, in essence, forgave her of her offense — the woman, friends, was caught “in the act.” This is not an issue of guilt; it is an issue of guilt and mercy being applied by the Lord even of the Torah.
    #4 is back to your old question: Jesus is summoning his followers to a New Torah, that overwhelms and transfigures the lex talionis. A nation run by Christians would work toward mitigating revenge, but Jesus’ words are about how his followers are to conduct themselves. The word “forgive” here is unfair to me — mercy and grace and forgiveness do not mean the obviation or elimination of legitimate retribution. I’ve said this more than enough times.
    Well, Bryan, this is pretty direct. I’m a pacifist, too, and I think we ought to be about the kingdom business not worrying about what would happen if we followed Jesus, and then shifting what we do because it doesn’t seem realistic enough.

  • While a police reporter at several newspapers I covered crimes and trials of people who had done some pretty awful things to people. Had I been a family member of the victim, I’m sure I would have wanted “to pull the switch” myself. I know the hate I would feel in my heart if someone hurt my children. What soldier upon finding Zarqawi wouldn’t at least be tempted to take revenge.
    Then I’m stuck – that’s the way it sometimes feels anyway – with not seeking revenge. And revenge is what is in my heart, not punishment.
    A couple things about earlier comments:
    RE: Allowing the person to live so that he can have time to repent. I once held this position. Now I see it as the condemned person being able to know the hour of his or her death. That’s an advantage most of us don’t have.
    RE: By Jesus accepting the death penalty with regards to his own life, perhaps he was condoning it. This may be the case, but he also might have been showing its horrors and what happens when we use it. Would you make the argument that by allowing himself to be tortured, he was condoning that as well?
    I’m don’t thinkg I’m a pacificist but don’t really know what the term means anymore because there seems so many shades of pacifism? (Was Bonhoeffer a pacifist? Yes, but…)
    A very non-theological guide for me on this has become “play it safe.” If I’m unsure whether scripture would allow the killing of those deserving death, then I’ll play it safe and say the government should not do it.
    I also find it interesting that this subject has led to so many posts. Is it because this is a time when the decision about someone else’s life is totally in our hands? The offender can not fight back.

  • Bryan Hodge

    1. If Sonja was talking about how Christians will live in an eschatological kingdom, I missed it.
    2. I’m not really sure why you think I have misrepresented the positions other than you don’t like what I said about it. If one makes the argument that the reason why the death penalty should be discontinued is because when we prolong someone’s life, we give them more time to repent. That is an Arminian argument. The elect in Calvinism will all repent regardless of their lifespan. If a Calvinist is against the death penalty then, it is not for that reason. If time is the factor in one repenting and God wants us all to repent (Arminian theology again), then why would He not just extend our lives as long as it took? The Spirit of God regenerates a man before he dies, if he is elect, every time. He doesn’t miss one. AND ultimately it is God who takes the life of every man through multiple means on the earthly level (but that’s another discussion).
    3. Scot, I’m in your field and half of the NT is an anti-Semitic slur. I’m not sure why calling a mob self-righteous is anti-Semitic. I find it a bit slanderous to even say this on your part.
    Secondly, it is clear that their motive for killing her is self-righteous since they are going to kill her UNTIL Jesus points out their sin. If their motive had been something else, then Jesus words would have no effect. For instance, if I was going to drive to the store for bread and you said to me that you already had orange juice, that would not make me stop my trip to the store. In the same way, if they had other reasons for executing her, then their personal sin or lack thereof would have nothing to do with whether they punished her or not.
    Thirdly, their use of the law has nothing to do with whether they are government or an angry mob. The Book of Acts (as well as the Gospels for that matter) has many reports of mobs using an offense to the Mosaic law as reason to take matters into their own hands.
    4. “The word ‘forgive’ here is unfair to me — mercy and grace and forgiveness do not mean the obviation or elimination of legitimate retribution. I’ve said this more than enough times.”
    Then why did you pit against the death penalty which is legitimate retribution (not personal vengance) in the Bible as even you yourself have stated?
    I’m simply arguing logically here. I’m trying to just argue, but your last reply to me sounded kind of heated. Please take my comments in the best of way. I am not meaning to sound disrespectful.

  • Bryan Hodge

    whoops, that should be “I’m not trying to just argue.”

  • Scot, thanks for the props. 🙂 I was just going to say that the forgiveness and mercy I was talking about came from God, not the government. But it’s all the same and I thank you!
    Thanks, safried2002, for risking that level of honesty. I think it’s really important to get there when we’re talking about someone’s life; not just their temporal life, but their eternal life as well.
    To answer your query about knowing the hour of one’s death. I’ve tossed it back and forth in my mind quite a bit. To be honest, I don’t really know how I’d respond because I’ve not been there myself (obviously). But I can’t help but wonder if being on “Death Row” might not foster a certain sense of resentment and resistance in people that would not be there if they were not facing death. On the other hand, you do hear stories of last minute “confessions” and repentance as people face their Maker. So I guess it cuts both ways. I guess my reluctance is similar to your “non-theological guide to playing it safe.”
    Well, thanks for letting me flesh that out a bit.

  • Bryan,
    Last point was not heated.
    #2: on Calvinism. For the life of me, I don’t get this one. What you say could be going on in the head of an Arminian is not going on in my head, I guess that is what I’m saying. Frankly, I don’t think we know enough to say it this way: if Calvinism is true (which it isn’t), then of course God would keep the person alive until faith… but I find this sort of language and scenario outside the things we know. But, the point I’d like to make, Bryan, is this: that consideration plays no part for me. It has to do with grace and mercy, not an Arminian sense of free will or the like.
    #3: one more on “self-righteous”: to show that this is self-righteousness one needs to show they were doing this to prove their merit or their righteousness; they are asking Jesus a question to see if he will defend the Law. It has to do with their desire to trap Jesus into taking an anti-nomian position, which assumes they are doing just what the Law says. I see the focus on Jesus, not on themselves and establishing themselves.
    On the slur, as far as I’m concerned the only thing that can be taken in this text that way is that they are Pharisees — and that is how I read your words. I apologize to you if that is not how you intended it. For me, to call Pharisees qua Pharisees “self-righteous” is dangerous rhetoric. But you know this as well as I do.
    Your next point is a good one. But, I think he stunned them with saying what he said about the one without sin — how do you respond to that?
    On the “mob”. There is no evidence of a “mob”. Text: “teachers of the Law” and “Pharisees.” The “mob” is the group Jesus is teaching.
    It is not a matter of pitting against: it is a matter of transfiguring retribution into something that heals.

  • Ted Gossard,

    Quite an interesting take on how Jesus’ kingdom message trumps justice as found in the old covenant world, and for that matter in the world today.
    Scot, based on your belief that as we embrace the Jesus way in reference to the death penalty- that we should write to our senators to abolish the death penalty, wouldn’t the same logic (or even theologic) demand that we do the same for war?
    Is the logic (theologic) here that we as the Jesus community are to be something different, something necessarily at odds with “the world”? A city on a hill that lets light shine implies that this particular light is needed, and also implies that it is shining in darkness.

  • Yep, the same for me Ted.

  • And, yes, Ted, “something different.” Pointing to the kingdom of God.

  • Scot,
    My friend, when you throw out complex questions and attach exhortations you should expect long blogs. As you know, you are free to respond or not respond as you please.
    To the point, the John 7-8 passage does raise some good questions. You mentioned the textual ones. Not likely that you and I will solve that one. I do need to let this text marinate a little. I would say that this is an example of Jesus refusing to apply the OT law the way they had been doing. Jesus does not set himself up as the judge and executioner because that it is not time for that yet (wait for the eschaton). This text does not answer the question of whether there is a proper place for the law to be administered (either life in prison or death penalty) by a God sanctioned authority (see Rom. 13) I think of Jesus answer in Luke(ch???) when asked about judging between two brothers on a matter. Who made him the judge of such matters. I do know this much this text does not trump everything else that is said about justice and forgiveness in the Bible. If it did I don’t think we would have any justification for putting people in prison for life or for 3 days. We would just tell people, “Go and sin no more.”
    Do you think Jesus absorbed the punishment of God for all sins, time without end, world without end? If so, does that provide a ground for my suggestion?
    If so, how are certain people who are opposing the gospel heaping up sins to the limit (1 Thess. 2:16,see also 1 Cor. 6:9-10; etc.). The fact that Jesus will come back and bring eschatological judgement shows that he did not swallow up all sin, doesn’t it? He will come again as a judge.

  • Bill, this post won’t go away.
    It seems from what you say about John 7-8 that you just might agree with me on that one. If Jesus is not applying the law as they were doing, and that law happens to be a death penalty, then… are you saying that? (It is most likely they were coming to Jesus with a clear case to see if he would uphold the Law because they thought he was a law-breaker. He won’t play their game by their rules. He has different ones.)
    I agree with you on the need for justice, retributive justice, in our world, and I agree (and I think I’ve said this in this very post a couple of times) that this text does not obviate the need for a penal system. The question, as you asked so well, is how far do we go? I think not to the point of death.
    Good point at the end: Jesus’ absorption of sin (unless you are here maintaining limited atonement) does not rule out the need for humans to suffer death for sin.

  • thanks for the great post.

  • Scot,
    Thanks so much for this post. It was very interesting and thought provoking for me. It was a lovely discussion on justice and mercy. I’m a bit behind the times, but recently linked to you in a post on the same topic.
    Thanks so much for your kindness and humility in writing and disagreeing.