Two simple theological reasons why no evangelical should ever support the death penalty

Two simple theological reasons why no evangelical should ever support the death penalty September 29, 2015
Photo: Ann Borden, Emory University
Photo: Ann Borden, Emory University

As I write these words, Kelly Gissendaner is being put to death by the state of Georgia. Kelly was convicted of having her husband murdered by her boyfriend 18 years ago. Since that time, she converted to Christianity and became a chaplain for other prisoners. She is a completely new creation, just like the apostle Paul, a fellow murderer, came to be. Her children have begged the state to spare her life. It’s too late for me to write a personal appeal for Kelly as others have done. I also suspect the people who need to be persuaded to change are distrustful of any argument that appeals to the heart. So I want to point to two very simple theological reasons rooted in solidly conservative evangelical theology that no evangelical should support Kelly Gissendaner’s execution or anybody else’s.

1) Jesus paid the price for Kelly’s murder

There’s been a fierce debate in recent times over the idea that Jesus was punished on the cross for all of our sins, what is known as penal substitutionary atonement. Many Christians are uncomfortable with this claim. I myself have a very specifically nuanced view of it. It is supposedly the bedrock of conservative evangelical theology. Except that it might not be. Because if we actually believe Jesus is punished in our place for all of our sins, then strictly retributive forms of punishment have no legitimate purpose for us as Christians.

This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be locked up when they commit crimes, but if we really believe that “Jesus paid it all,” then the only two reasons people should be locked up are for the safety of our communities and the rehabilitation of criminal offenders. Punishment in terms of paying a “price” for a crime negates the meaning of Jesus’ cross (unless you don’t believe in penal substitutionary atonement). Jesus’ cross doesn’t just save me from paying the price for my own sins; it saves me from demanding the price for other peoples’ sins as well. Every single human being needs to be saved by Jesus’ cross as both a sinner and a victim of sin.

Imagine what would happen if our society was saved by Jesus’ punishment from our need for others to be punished. It is this need for punishment that stands in the way of “correctional” facilities actually being designed to rehabilitate people rather than warehouse and isolate them. The way that prisoners are treated in our country is shaped decisively by the collective thirst for punishment among the most powerful voting bloc in our country, evangelical Christians who say their sin has been paid for by Jesus’ cross. You cannot say you believe in penal substitution if you need to see other people retributively punished for their sins. You deny the cross.

2) Kelly is completely not the same person who murdered her husband

The basic miracle that all evangelical Christians believe they have experienced upon their conversion to Christianity is summarized in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” We believe that becoming a Christian is not merely a matter of moral self-improvement, but categorical self-transformation. Addicts are liberated from impossible addictions. People who were filled with hate and selfishness become loving and humble. Evangelical Christians believe in redemption above all else. We believe that nobody is beyond the power of God to save. Our greatest missionary, the apostle Paul, was a murderer who was struck blind by Jesus in order to have his eyes opened to God’s love. His tremendous sin was part of the catalyst for the incredible ministry that he performed in gratitude for his redemption.

The only thing that would be more tragic than Kelly’s state-sanctioned murder today would be if Kelly had been executed before she met Jesus. That is why every evangelical Christian who believes in salvation and redemption must fiercely resist the state-sanctioned murder of even the coldest-blooded of murderers. Because we believe that Jesus can save them and they should have every opportunity to hear the gospel until they take their last breath and die of natural causes. Supporting the early termination of any person’s life means that we don’t really believe in evangelism. By murdering Kelly, the state of Georgia is saying that the apostle Paul is lying.

People like Kelly are the most powerful evangelists that the church has. They turn the cold, cruel metal of prisons into the holy ground of monasteries. I don’t doubt that Kelly is with Jesus now. What’s in question is whether the people who supported her execution have really accepted the gift that Jesus has offered to them if they know Jesus at all. At best, they are very confused about the salvation they have received.

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