Not Good: Republican & Christian Support for Death Penalty is Falling

A recent op-ed in the Christian Post hailed the increasing number of Republican lawmakers who are sponsoring measures around the country to repeal the death penalty for convicted murderers and serial killers.

This has been accompanied, perhaps unsurprisingly, with an increase in the number of evangelical Christians who support ending capital punishment for capital crimes.

I am not among their number and am distressed at a move that so clearly demonstrates the collapsing reverence we hold for the sanctity of human life.

There’s a reason that in God’s ever-lasting covenant with Noah, the Creator ordained that “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” And the reason wasn’t vengeance, anger, or retaliatory rage. The reason followed in the very next line: “For in the image of God He made man.”

Human life is inviolable not because of anything it does, but because of what it is: a creature that bears the image of the Almighty. When someone callously destroys such an esteemed and valued being, the penalty inflicted will demonstrate the value we assign to what has been lost. In other words, when the state spares the life of a confessed or convicted murderer, it is implicitly assigning more value to the killer’s life than his victim’s. That devalues the image of God carried by that victim as well.

If we truly value human life, we must regard it as so precious that nothing short of a life can equal its worth.

The Post op-ed, written by Heather Beaudoin (national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty), while heartfelt and well-intentioned, unfortunately remains Biblically misguided. She writes,

God made us in His image, and despite our actions, we are the recipients of his love and mercy. Only God should be permitted to take a life.

Consider both of those statements. Yes, we are made in His image, and He is indeed good and generous towards us despite what we do. But remember the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Jesus offered the man paradise but did not remove from him the just penalty for his crimes on earth. God’s love and mercy are not to be confused with excuse for wrongdoing or lessening of punishment.

Further, the notion that, “Only God should be permitted to take a life” is a dangerous sentiment to express unless one is prepared to embrace an unrealistic pacifism that doesn’t comport with Biblical example or instruction. For instance, does Beaudoin think members of the U.S. military were sinning when they killed Nazis?

Even being generous and assuming this argument references personal vengeance, that is not what is occurring with state sanctioned death penalties. It is true that in Romans 12, Christians are told:

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (v 19)

But how will the Lord “repay” the wrongdoer? Keep reading a few more verses into Romans 13 and Paul gives the answer:

Whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

The Bible teaches clearly that we are not to take justice into our own hands and exact some sort of unauthorized vigilante justice on those who have taken the life of someone we care about. We are to make room for God’s wrath. And how does God executive that wrath? Through His “agent of wrath” who “does not bear the sword for no reason,” but instead wields that sword to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

A society that values the image of God is one that places the highest possible price tag on it with the severest consequence for those who dare to trample it. It is therefore altogether unsurprising that as our culture continues to move in a direction of devaluing life, we are seeing support for the death penalty drop. That isn’t a good thing.

I'm one of the evangelicals that no longer supports the death penalty, but I stopped supporting it for a completely different reason than the ones you mentioned here. I agree with you that it is within the legitimate power of government to execute certain criminals. My disagreements are grounded in two sets of numbers about the death penalty.

First of all from a purely fiscal perspective, because of the appeals process we have in place it is more expensive to seek and carry out an execution than to send the same criminal to prison for life without parole. While we could try to reduce the cost by limiting the appeals process, that runs right into the other problem with the death penalty.

The second problem is that I don't have confidence in the government to not wrongly convict an innocent person of a crime they didn't commit. In most states (my home state of Virginia being the lone exception) someone sentenced to death is more likely to not be executed that to actually be executed. The statistics that I've seen put the number of innocent people sentenced to death around 1 in 25. Another one states that a prisoner on death row is 3 times more likely to be exonerated or have their sentence reduced than to actually be executed. Blackstone's formulation states that, "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." The principle that it is more important to leave the innocent unpunished than to see the guilty punished is foundational to our justice system. While 1:25 doesn't quite reach the ratio proposed by Blackstone (though it does easily surpass the 1:100 ratio in Ben Franklin put forward) it's still enough, in my mind, to show that our justice system isn't reliable enough to trust the government with that power.

One final (long and somewhat off topic) aside on Romans 13:
I tend to view the NT verses about obedience to government the way I view verses on slaves being obedient to masters. They are there to promote, as Paul says a few verses earlier, as far as it is up to us, living at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). While Paul does say that government is ordained by God and that God uses governments for good, I think we should view these statements in the context that 1) Satan though evil exists because God created him while foreknowing his fall and (2) Earlier in the same letter, Paul states that God works everything together for good (Romans 8:28) a principle that is clearly demonstrated in God using the evil actions of Joseph's brothers to bring about good (Genesis 50:20). Further the account of the Temptation of Jesus states that civil governments are under Satan's control.

"So he took Him up and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. The Devil said to Him, “I will give You their splendor and all this authority, because it has been given over to me, and I can give it to anyone I want. If You, then, will worship me,all will be Yours."
-Luke 4:5-7

This might seem a bit knit-picky since it doesn't have a practical change in my personal behavior towards government; regardless of whether government is inherently good or is good because God turns what is meant for evil to His good purposes, my responsibility is to submit myself to governing authorities so long as doing so doesn't cause me to disobey God. The difference though is that viewing governments as inherently good leads to voting for them to have more power and control, while viewing them as being used by God to accomplish his purposes allows the view of Thomas Paine that, "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one." and leads a Christian to reject increasing its size and power.

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