25 Sep 2016

Should Christians Support the Death Penalty?

Religious 8 Comments

I was flipping through the radio and heard a broadcast from Vernon McGee on this–I think it was a live sermon, and is recorded here–and McGee, as is his wont, was very hardnosed about it. Indeed he went so far as to say that the death penalty was the underpinning of civilization (or something like that).

He made some decent points about incentives, saying that if the worst thing you can get is life in prison, then it gives a bank robber an incentive to shoot the witnesses, etc. That’s neat, but it applies to *any* capped punishment. E.g. suppose we say, “We will give you the chair, but we don’t torture criminals, because that would be sadistic.” Then someone could take McGee’s logic and show that this is crazy, because now someone with one homicide under his belt has an incentive to kill multiple people. We (allegedly) need to first torture people for one hour per murder victim, and *then* give them the chair, lest we set up faulty incentives…

(So if you see how his point could be ramped up indefinitely, notice that it could be ramped down. Indeed, the argument about incentives is what I’ve used–cribbing from a talk I saw Gary Wolfram give–against the “three strikes” rules. I.e. it was an argument for leniency, not an argument for mercilessness.)

And here we come to the crux of the problem. It is ironic for a born-again Christian to be upholding “law and order,” when the point is that Jesus rescued us from our fate before the Law.

Also, as Joseph Sobran put it (it’s October 21, 2010 in case this link is too generic): “In the end, the government murdered him. This fact ought to count for something in any discussion of temporal power. Maybe capital punishment is still justified, even if mistakes are made now and then and the Son of God is accidentally victimized. But I’d start with that accident.”

Now, what’s even more interesting is that in his sermon, McGee wraps up with the crucifixion. Yet the angle he takes is to condemn the Jewish mob for demanding the freedom of Barabbas, and likens that to today’s whiny liberals demanding that the coddled criminals be freed (rather than executed). That’s very clever, but I don’t think the true Christian lesson from that episode is, “Wow, what idiots, they didn’t nail Barabbas to a cross.” Rather, I think the lesson we’re supposed to draw is, “Wow, what idiots, they chose a murderer over the Son of God who had been healing and teaching them for 3 years.”

McGee is right that the penalty for sin is death. But that hardly means, “Therefore in a just society, murderers should be killed by the civil authorities.” After all, we are all sinners. Yes, a death was demanded, but Jesus already paid that debt on our behalf.

Obviously, Vernon McGee knows these truths–and he taught them more eloquently, and to thousands of people. But clearly the Old Testament verses on the wages of sin do not directly translate into what the civil authorities should do. Jesus explicitly taught mercy, even for an adulteress caught in the act.

(See here for some of my thoughts on Romans 13, which McGee had brought up earlier in his sermon.)

Last thing: I saw someone on Facebook (a strong Christian who is also hardcore libertarian in the Rothbardian tradition) just today mention that we shouldn’t conflate “the death penalty” with the State. And I’m fine with that, just as we shouldn’t conflate “education” with “government schools.” However, as a Christian I would not patronize private judges/defense agencies that sought to punish criminals with death.

8 Responses to “Should Christians Support the Death Penalty?”

  1. Khodge says:

    The gospel and NT in general say very little about governing, meaning that Christians ought not to seek solutions to governance in Christ. In a real sense, asking government to solve homelessness is as unchristian as eliminating the death penalty in Christ’s name.

    The call to serve Christ should be done through the Body of Christ, not through the king or Congress.

  2. John Arthur says:

    Hi Bob,

    As you know, most Christians in the Evangelical tradition support the death penalty for murder (using Romans 1:1-7 as one basis for their argument), whilst a minority are opposed to the death penalty altogether. e,g ,Anabaptists and Neo-Anabaptists tend to emphasise a pacifist (non violent) approach to the NT, and especially the Gospels. Many of these consider Romans 13:1-7 in the broader context of Romans chapters 12 and 13 which form one literary unit in which Romans 13:1-7 must be understood and in which they see love as its central theme .(See J.H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus).

    John Arthur

  3. Harold says:

    It seems some evangelicals are changing, not so much because they disagree with execution but because they see the current USA system as making a complete hash of it.

    One quote intrigued me:
    “we find various laws that God established to ensure that the poor would not be unjustly treated in courts, that those innocent would never be executed, and that there would be fair application of the law and fair application of the death penalty…”

    I was left wondering what this wonderful system was that would ensure the innocent would never be convicted, so I checked.
    “In Mosaic Law, standards of evidence were stringent, requiring a minimum of two eyewitnesses who were willing to stake their own lives on the truthfulness of their testimony and who would initiate the execution by “casting the first stone.” Circumstantial evidence was not permitted.”

    It seems very likely that this would protect many innocents, but it would also prevent the conviction of many guilty.

    Another passage had me wondering:
    “Self-described evangelicals—a large, varied group—have opposed executions before, often flocking to the side of prisoners who present themselves as having been born again.”

    It seems to me in my naivety that those born again are already saved, and so do not require intervention. They should be stopping the executions of the not yet born again to give them a chance to be saved.

  4. Jeffrey Singer says:


    I thought I would chime in with a Catholic perspective. As you may know, lately the Church has “frowned” on the death penalty, suggesting that its practical application in the modern world in probably not necessary. This has caused some confusion among the faithful as this position gets interpreted as “the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty.”

    The problem is that the consistent teaching of the Church has been that the death penalty is indeed just in certain situations and can always be considered just — the Church has never changed its basic position. Recently, a couple of articles detailing this basic moral position were published in anticipation of a book coming out making a longer and more detailed case for the pro-death penalty position:




    These articles caused an anti-death penalty Catholic blogger to go crazy and attack Ed Feser (and others) who would defend the use of the death penalty. Ed does a masterful job of responding to this blogger here:


    and here:


    Lots of good stuff in all these articles/posts — I’m looking forward to the book that lays out his argument in detail.

  5. Andrew Keen says:

    We (allegedly) need to first torture people for one hour per murder victim, and *then* give them the chair, lest we set up faulty incentives…

    Yeah, but after 50 hours of torture, what’s one more hour? We would (allegedly) need some kind of exponentially increasing scale of torture per victim.

  6. Brian Shelley says:

    I support the death penalty as the kindest act we give to a murderer. The specter of death is often the only sobriety the morally depraved can ever hope to achieve. A very high number of people on death row repent and find God in their final days.

    Furthermore, if the Law was a guardian for the nation of Israel, and God wrote the Law, and therefore as part of the Trinity Christ wrote the Law, it is hard to say that Christ is against the death penalty if he personally told Abraham to include it in the Law. The death penalty is also prescribed in Genesis 9:6 which is well before the Law.

    I think we have to live in that paradox of mercy AND justice, not eschewing either, but also never comfortable that we’ve figured it out.

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