Killing in the name of – Christianity and the death penalty

The jury’s still out on whether the recent killing of Osama bin Laden should be classed as assassination, execution, extermination, murder or manslaughter; an act of war, of revenge or of self-defence. However, had he been brought to trial it’s possible he would have ended up facing the death penalty as Saddam Hussein did in 2006. Either way, it seems a fair opportunity to discuss issues around capital punishment and legal killing.

Here in the UK, the death penalty was abolished in 1969. However, significant sections of the population think we should bring it back, at least for cases like the Soham murderer Ian Huntley, who in 2002 molested and killed two innocent young girls in a high-profile case that shocked the nation. Surely it’s obvious that someone like Huntley deserves to die; the only reason in most people’s minds for keeping him alive is that death is too easy a way out – perhaps better that he should stay alive and be made to suffer. The same kind of thinking could equally have been applied to Osama.

I can see the logic – and feel the emotional power – of such thinking. The only problem is that it overlooks some vital realities, particularly for Christians.

Christian arguments against the death penalty

1. People like Huntley and bin Laden are still people; they are still human beings. We desperately don’t want them to see them as human, as being in any way like us – so we label them as Evil, as Monsters; we try and convince ourselves that we have nothing in common with them. Indeed, we eagerly place on them all the evil that we can’t bear to face in ourselves, and hurl at them all the loathing and disgust we feel for those unacceptable, shameful parts of our own natures. But in so doing we do not stop them from being human; we merely become less human ourselves.

2. All people are at least potentially redeemable. It’s not for us to decide who can and who can’t qualify for ultimate mercy; for our own sakes I would argue that we should not deny even the worst criminal the chance to genuinely repent and reform. (However, I do acknowledge the strength of counter-arguments against this. Secular states have more pressing duties and concerns than the condition of a terrorists’s or a murderer’s soul.)

3. We who set ourselves up to judge may not be terrorists, murderers or sex offenders, but we still might not look too good under close scrutiny. I know I don’t have the right to throw stones at anyone, even at a Huntley or bin Laden; I suspect you don’t either.

4. I don’t believe any of us ultimately have the right to wield the power of life or death over another human. As soon as we claim that right, we are in grave danger both of abusing it and of becoming dehumanised by it.

5. Killing someone like Huntley or Osama arguably achieves little of lasting benefit. It will not hurt the criminal himself for more than the briefest period. It will not bring back his victims, nor heal the wounds of what he did. It will not bring true redemption or hope to anyone. In Osama’s case it may possibly prevent further bloodshed, or it may in fact promote it – depending on whether it stops any terrorist activity he was planning or merely inspires reprisals and further attacks. Only time will tell on that one.

In the long run though, I’d argue that all such an execution achieves is to dehumanise the executioners, and perhaps conversely to re-humanise the criminal – as with Saddam Hussein, who became for many a figure of sympathy in light of his humiliating execution.

6. Finally, though guilt may be clear in cases like those of Ian Huntley and Osama bin Laden, in many other cases it’s much harder to be certain. Miscarriages of justice and subsequent reprieves are commonplace. But once someone is dead, you can’t offer them a reprieve.

A necessary evil?

Of course, it’s possible to argue that, like war and abortion, the death penalty may never be desirable but there are certain circumstances under which it’s necessary, or at least the lesser of two evils. Without getting into lengthy side-arguments, I concede that this may occasionally be the case for war and even perhaps abortion, but I can’t see any circumstances in which the death penalty is actually necessary. As I say, we’ve managed without it in Britain for over 40 years and it’s hard to see that we’re any the worse off as a result.

The Bible and capital punishment

But doesn’t the Bible teach capital punishment for certain crimes? Yes and no. Those who seek support for the death penalty in Scripture are on pretty shaky ground. The Old Testament law of Moses did of course prescribe the death penalty for certain offences, though we wouldn’t recognise many of these as crimes today – Sabbath-breaking for example. But in fact the death penalty was not often enforced, and the Bible only records a handful of cases when it was – mainly for religious offences.

When we come to the New Testament, all the examples of capital punishment are either miscarriages of justice or abuses of power – John the Baptist beheaded by Herod for example. Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever prescribe the death penalty (leaving aside the highly unusual case of Ananias and Sapphira, who seem to have been struck down directly by God for ‘lying to the Holy Spirit’).

Jesus, the death penalty – and us

When Jesus himself was presented with a woman caught in adultery, for which the law of Moses required that she be stoned to death, his judgement was ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. When all the woman’s accusers had duly slunk away, Jesus, who alone was without sin and so did have the right to condemn her, turned to the woman and said, ‘neither do I condemn you’. I would say that makes the Christian attitude to the death penalty fairly clear. (Some would argue that this passage does not occur in the earliest versions of John’s gospel, but it has nonetheless been accepted as authentic by the majority of Christians).

But the most compelling argument for me is Jesus’ own bearing of the death penalty, in what’s surely the ultimate miscarriage of justice in all human history. Christians believe he bore it for all of us, on behalf of all of us, and in place of all of us. In so doing, I would argue that he completely fulfilled – and so abolished – the death penalty for all time.

Of course, in one sense we are all of us under eventual sentence of death, and none of us knows when our time will come. How will any of us face that moment, and when it comes will it feel like a penalty or a reward?

Related posts

The BBC Ethics site has some interesting materials on the subject of the death penalty:

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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4 Responses to Killing in the name of – Christianity and the death penalty

  1. David Holland says:

    I believe there is a difference between what individuals do and what civil authorities do. There is of course a responsibility of a civil authority and its agents to act in a manner appropriate to their station, as Christ told the soldiers in Luke 3:14.

    Romans 13:4 works for me.


    • Romans 13:4 works for me too, but as always it has to be understood in context, as well as re-interpreted for our very different societal situations 2000 years on. I certainly don’t read it as a blanket sanction for modern civil authorities to carry out executions. And of course, it doesn’t take account of miscarriages of justice or of further evidence turning up later which can overturn a case.

      I agree that there’s a difference between what individuals do and what civil authorities do, as with both war and law enforcement where killing is sometimes regrettably inevitable. But the judgements of the authorities still have to be carried out by individuals, and I don’t believe anyone’s humanity is ever enhanced by involvement in another person’s death. I believe there are always alternatives to capital punishment, and that the alternatives are almost always better.


  2. johnm55 says:

    There are many arguments against the death penalty, but there is, in my opinion, one main argument against the death penalty, and it is the clincher, we far too frequently get the verdict wrong.
    (The ballad of) Tim Evans


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