Should Christians Support the Death Penalty?

Clayton Lockett suffered for 43 minutes, writhing in pain and convulsing on a gurney. During this prolonged execution, Lockett surprised onlookers by uttering short, disparate phrases, even though he was believed to be unconscious. State officials, who tried to halt the process before Lockett died of a heart attack, are blaming an untested three-drug cocktail for an execution that many media voices are calling botched, barbaric, and cruel and unusual — in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Richard W. Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame, predicted that this story out of Oklahoma would “prompt many Americans across the country to rethink the wisdom, and the morality, of capital punishment.” And judging by the amount of editorials published in the last week, including an opinion piece written by Al Mohler for CNN (“Why Christians should support the death penalty”), Americans — and especially Christians — are doing just that.

In Lockett’s case, it is obvious why he was sentenced to death. His crimes are abhorrent. He and two accomplices were robbing a house, beating up the owner while his nine-month-old son was sobbing just a few feet away. When two 18-year-old girls arrived at the house, the burglars seized them and raped them. After driving to a rural area, Lockett shot one of the girls, Stephanie Neiman, twice and ordered her to be buried alive.

According to a summary published by AP, Lockett was charged with “conspiracy, first-degree burglary, three counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, three counts of forcible oral sodomy, four counts of first-degree rape, four counts of kidnapping, and two counts of robbery by force and fear.”

Responses to Lockett’s death have been varied. Adam Leathers, co-chariman of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, referred to the incident as an “unconstitutional experimental act of evil.”

A majority of letters written to the LA Times, however, expressed very little sympathy for a violent criminal who was inflicted with 40 minutes of excruciating pain before receiving his just deserts. In fact, many readers commented that those 40 minutes of unbearable struggle were a just penalty for the despicable crimes he committed. “I only wish more executions were botched in this way,” one reader wrote.

Paul Thornton, a reporter for the LA Times, reacted to these letters by voicing his opposition to the death penalty: “A government execution of anyone — even a brutal murderer — is an immoral, barbaric act, no matter how you do it.”

Of course, the feelings of distant observers — journalists, news anchors, concerned citizens — are far less intense than those of the people who were close to the victim. One friend of Stephanie Nieman told Oklahoma TV station KFOR: “I have no sympathy at all. None whatsoever. Stephanie was beat up, she was shot, she was thrown in a grave when she was still alive. His little 30 minutes of lying there in anguish — if he was even feeling any anguish for 30 minutes — does not compare at all to anything Stephanie went through, or her family.”

In remarks he made early this week, President Obama noted that some crimes — like Lockett’s, for instance — are deserving of the most severe punishment possible, namely, death: “The individual … had committed heinous crimes, terrible crimes, and I’ve said in the past that there are certain circumstances where a crime is … so terrible that the application of the death penalty may be appropriate.”

According to the Supreme Court, which reinstated the death penalty in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia): “The existence of capital punishment was accepted by the Framers of the Constitution, and, for nearly two centuries, this Court has recognized that capital punishment for the crime of murder is not invalid per se.”

Legal penalties are cruel and unusual when they are excessive, unnecessary, or arbitrary. In the majority opinion for Gregg v. Georgia, Justice Stewart writes that a punishment is excessive “either because it involves the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain or because it is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the crime.” Furthermore, Justice Stewart states, “Capital punishment for the crime of murder cannot be viewed as invariably disproportionate to the severity of that crime.”

In the United States, 32 states, the federal government, and the military allow capital punishment, and 55 percent of adults are in favor of the death penalty for people convicted of murder. In principle, the death penalty is applied fairly and consistently — without bias or capriciousness — for the most appalling crimes. In capital cases, every effort should be made to procure solid, clear evidence that implicates the person in question. Furthermore, close and honest scrutiny must be employed to ensure that the person sentenced to death is, in fact, guilty of the crime for which he is being executed.

Opponents of the death penalty argue that these principles are not actually guiding capital cases. For instance, they cite the vast disparity between the rich and poor on death row. Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, stated in a speech at the United Nations:

“The death penalty is imposed in the United States upon the poorest, most powerless, most marginalized people in the society. Virtually all of the people selected for execution are poor, about half are members of racial minorities, and the overwhelming majority were sentenced to death for crimes against white victims. Many have significant intellectual disabilities or suffer from severe mental illnesses. Many others were the victims of the most brutal physical, sexual, and psychological abuse during their childhoods and lived on the margins of society before their arrests. Some are innocent.”

In addition, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was put to death even though he was later discovered to be (in all likelihood) innocent, has led to the amplification of abolitionists’ demands that the death penalty should be discarded. The Constitution Project reports that at least 244 people have been exonerated of capital charges after being convicted. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, while 106 convicts on death row have been exonerated due to DNA evidence, far more have been exonerated due to the discovery of false eyewitness testimony.

Interestingly, these claims — that the death penalty is racially biased, inconsistently exercised, and poorly executed — are not really arguments against the existence of the death penalty, but arguments against the ways in which it is carried out. Defenders of the death penalty also denounce sentencing based on a criminal’s social status and bemoan the execution of innocent people.

Regarding the botched execution in Oklahoma, several commentators have noted that the only reason an untested drug combination was used for Lockett’s lethal injection is that European manufacturers prohibited the use of one of their drugs for executions. Consequently, the supposed “cruel and unusual” portion of this execution, which is being denounced by abolitionists, was actually caused indirectly by the lobbying of abolitionists.

The legality and morality of capital punishment are hotly contested, and Christians are attempting to take a position that respects human dignity and promotes justice, while also taking into account the Old Testament law that was fulfilled, not abolished, by Jesus Christ.

Several passages are worth considering as we attempt to analyze the death penalty through the lens of a biblical worldview, which acknowledges human evil and the need for justice as well as the possibility of redemption and restoration for even the most violent criminals.

Biblical Insights

God tells Noah that murder is a crime punishable by death (Genesis 9:6).

“Yes, you must execute anyone who murders another person, for to kill a person is to kill a living being made in God’s image.” (Genesis 9:6)

In Genesis 1, we read that God made man in his own image, endowing man with reason and freedom, the capacity to love and to create. For this reason, God says it is especially dreadful to unjustly rob another human being of life. Since God made this declaration to Noah, God may have intended this to be a universal standard rooted in creation rather than a moral imperative reserved for the people of Israel.

In his endorsement of the death penalty, Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, laments that “we have lost the cultural ability to declare murder — even mass murder — to be deserving of the death penalty.” Continuing, Mohler encourages his readers to “work for a society that will honor every single human being at every point of development and of every race and ethnicity as made in God’s image.” In order to fashion such a society, Mohler indicates that the death penalty is necessary as a sign of the high value we place on human life and human dignity.

There are a number of questions Christians should contemplate as we wrestle with this passage and its implications for our society.

What does it mean to promote a culture of life and oppose a culture of death? Which culture are we standing for when we support the death penalty?

By defending the death penalty, are we as Christians sanctifying the value of human life by applying the harshest possible punishment to murderers? Are we protecting human life by allowing the government to take life? Or is it always wrong to take a human life? Is the death penalty an example of doing evil that good may come (Romans 3:8)?

Perhaps by minimizing the punishment for murder, we, as a society, are minimizing the horrifying nature of the crime.

In the Old Testament, matters should be investigated thoroughly and “murderers must always be put to death” (Numbers 35:31).

The Mosaic Law lists over 30 offenses that are deserving of the death penalty. These crimes include kidnapping (Deut. 24:7), adultery (Deut. 22:22-24), sexual deviancy (Lev. 20:13, 15-16), and breach of the Sabbath (Exod. 31:14).

The most serious charge, however, was murder. And in Numbers 35:31, it is declared that “murderers must always be put to death.” In ancient Israel, then, it seems as if exceptions to this penalty were rarely made, meaning that wealthy Israelites could not purchase exemptions for themselves or their relatives.

Still, many steps were taken to ensure that no innocent person was put to death. A thorough investigation and the testimony of multiple witnesses were required before an execution took place. The Law of Moses reads, “When you hear about it, investigate the matter thoroughly. … But never put a person to death on the testimony of only one witness. There must always be at least two or three witnesses” (Deut. 17:4,6).

Since the Old Testament clearly endorses capital punishment, should Christians in the United States today demand that the federal government maintain such a practice? In a response to Mohler’s op-ed on CNN’s website, Roger Olson, a professor at Baylor University, lambasts Mohler for acting as if the United States is a theocracy. Should we defend a policy simply because it is plain in the text of the Old Testament? If we answer yes to this question, we must also determine why we would not also sentence kidnappers and adulterers to death.

Part of the reason we see such strict punishment for egregious crimes in the Old Testament is that the harshness of the penalty indicated the seriousness of the crime. Israelites — God’s people — were held to a high standard. Acting contrary to God’s covenant was a threat to the entire community, so the death penalty served as both a deterrent and a means by which to cleanse the community of the plague of sin.

What does Paul mean when he writes that the state does not bear the sword in vain (Romans 13:4)?

“[The governing authority] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).

The Roman Empire was notorious for putting people to death, so when Paul comments on the governing authorities, he likely assumes that the state has the power to execute criminals. But is Paul’s implicit recognition of the use of capital punishment equivalent to his endorsement of it? While Paul clearly sanctions the state’s coercive powers, which are used to enact justice by punishing evildoers, he refrains from defending any particular form of punishment. As a result, the use of this passage in defense of the death penalty is tenuous. Paul does not address it directly.

In fact, New Testament writers never explore the morality of the death penalty.

Contemporary Christians opposed to capital punishment often base their position on Jesus’ ethic of love and nonviolence. But Jesus dismisses the principle of lex taliones (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and, presumably, a life for a life) as an adequate guide in interpersonal relationships. For governing authorities, then, we would assume that such a system of reciprocity — important as it is for the maintenance of justice — is still legitimate.

In John 8:7, when Jesus is confronted with an adulterous woman who has been condemned to death, Jesus famously says to her armed executors, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Is Jesus making a universal claim that the only person who can rightfully condemn a person to death is the sinless, all-knowing Son of God, who will sit on the throne of judgment at the end of this age? If so, should we apply this principle to the federal government?

Regardless of where Christians decide to stand on this highly controversial issue, Christians can easily agree that it is tragic for innocent people to be condemned to death. Additionally, arbitrary and inconsistent application of the death penalty based on wealth and race is equally unconscionable. Some crimes truly may be so appalling that the death penalty — performed for the sake of justice and without malice, bloodlust, or vengeance — may be necessary. And it may be the case that a person who takes the life of another forfeits the right to his own life.

But is it worth the risk to put a man or woman to death when he or she could be exonerated afterward — as was the case with Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas? By executing a person, are we robbing God of the opportunity to use that person in prison? Are we, by supporting the death penalty, supporting an action that may eliminate a criminal’s opportunity to repent and pursue reconciliation with God and with those whom he wronged? Moses and the Apostle Paul are notable — albeit extremely rare — examples of murderers who were used greatly by God after they repented.

For wisdom regarding the issue of capital punishment, we should ask the Holy Spirit for guidance as we scour the scriptures for insight, while always bearing in mind the dual reality of human fallenness and the universal offer of redemption through Jesus Christ.