Refuting Arguments Against Capital Punishment

This post seeks to answer fifteen arguments that are commonly levelled against the practice of capital punishment.  It is my contention that every single argument, in one way or another, fails to adequately convince against the practice of capital punishment.  For the purposes of this post, the only capital crime considered will be murder.

1. “Every human has the right to life.  Capital punishment is inhumane because it violates this human right.”

For this argument to have any force, it must be tacitly assumed that every human’s right to life is irrevocable.  But the Bible does not allow for such an assumption, for long before the Mosaic Law, God commanded that, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6).1  The underlying rationale for such a punishment is for God made man in his own image.  A murderer not only takes the life of his victim, but also assaults God’s majesty.  The obvious import of this passage is that a murderer no longer has the right to life.  In other words, if by malice aforethought you willfully destroy another human being, you have committed such a serious and heinous crime that you have, in effect, forfeited your own right to life.

As the charge that capital punishment is “inhumane” rests on the faulty assumption that a human’s right to life is irrevocable, it is likewise without any force insofar as it rests upon the aforementioned faulty assumption.   But does that necessarily mean that capital punishment isn’t inhumane at all?  For clarity’s sake, the charge of being “inhumane” can be refuted on two accounts.

Firstly, as shown above, a murderer has forfeited their right to life, so logically, it is not inhumane for the governing authority to sanction the execution of someone who no longer has a bona fide right to life.2

Secondly, a two-fold question may be posed: By what standard is capital punishment inhumane (remember, a murderer has made forfeit their right to life), and By what standard is being inhumane morally wrong?  The Christian worldview is the worldview which can ultimately account for objective moral standards (see, for example here, here and here), and the Christian worldview fully endorses the practice of capital punishment.  So the opponent of capital punishment is on the horns of a dilemma.  If he accepts the Christian worldview, he has no rational basis for opposing capital punishment; and if he rejects the Christian worldview, he has no rational basis for believing that an inhumane act is morally wrong.  The charge that capital punishment is inhumane is therefore stripped of all force.

2. “Capital punishment should not be used, because the majority of research shows that it is ineffective as a deterrent to homicide.  Life imprisonment serves just as well for that.”

This is nothing more than a simple category mistake.  When it comes to sentencing a convicted offender, the sentence is (among other things) based (whether explicitly or implicitly) on at least one sentencing theory.  There are basically four sentencing theories:

  1. Retribution.  This is where the offence is of such a serious and/or heinous nature that it merits a response that clearly demonstrates the community’s outrage and that is commensurate to the offence (e.g. ‘life for life’).  It includes, but is not limited to, the purposes of 1) ensuring that the offender is adequately punished, 2) denouncing the conduct of the offender, and 3) recognizing the harm done to the victim/s and to the community.
  2. Protection of the Community.   This is where the sentence is designed to protect the community from the offender (pretty self-explanatory, really).
  3. Deterrence.  The primary function is to influence an offender to distance themselves from future criminal activity (re-offending), but also has a secondary application to other persons in general, that is, to influence other persons to distance themselves from committing the same or similar offence/s.
  4. Rehabilitation.  This is where the aim is to develop lawful alternative behaviour/s that will remain with the offender after their release (i.e., to be able to reintegrate into society as a functioning, law-abiding member).

The primary sentencing theory behind capital punishment is retribution, with the secondary theory being the protection of the community.3  Deterrence is only barely relevant, for by design, deterrence is with regards to the guilty party (i.e., it is designed to influence them to distance themselves from future criminal activity) primarily, and to other persons only secondarily. Obviously, if execution is sanctioned, then deterrence (with regards to any influential effect on the guilty party, which is the primary focus) is irrelevant.  However, insofar as capital punishment actually ensures that the offender won’t re-offend, actual deterrence (with regards to the guilty party) is ultimately achieved.

The argument is thus stripped of all force, for 1) it confounds one sentencing theory (retribution) with another (deterrence), and 2) it displays ignorance of sentencing theories in general, and the role of deterrence in particular.

The fundamental category mistake aside (as well as the general ignorance regarding sentencing theories), the claim that there is no conclusive evidence in favour of capital punishment as a deterrent is irrelevant in its own right, as pointed out by Hyman Barshay: “The death penalty is a warning, just like a lighthouse throwing its beams out to sea.  We hear about shipwrecks, but we do not hear about the ships the lighthouse guides safely on their way.  We do not have proof of the number of ships it saves, but we do not tear the lighthouse down.”4

Also, I find the assumption that life imprisonment is of a higher moral value because it “serves just as well” as a deterrent to be unconvincing, for what deterrent is there for a prisoner, currently serving a life sentence, who, for example, murders a fellow inmate or a prison guard?  In fact, in states or countries where capital punishment has been abolished, an offender may even find incentive to murder fellow inmates and/or prison guards in the fact that they are already serving a life sentence (or at least a lengthy sentence) and there is no possibility of facing the death penalty (i.e., it cannot get much worse, if at all, for the prisoner, so he quite literally has nothing to lose).

Capital punishment was not instituted for its deterrent effect with regards to crimes yet uncommitted, but for retributive justice and the protection of the community with regards to crimes already committed.

3. “Capital punishment is irrational because it is the killing of someone to show that murder is wrong.”

For this argument to have any force, it must be tacitly assumed that all instances of killing amount to murder, and by extension, that all instances of killing are therefore morally indefensible.  But this is a rather naive assumption.  We know for a fact that in the Bible, God forbids murder (e.g., Ex. 20:13), but we also know for a fact that God commands killing as a means of justice in certain circumstances (e.g., Gen. 9:6), and allows killing in other circumstances, such as self-defence (e.g., Ex. 22:2; Cf. Luke 22:36-38).  Since we know that God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18) and is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), there cannot be a contradiction between commands prohibiting murder on the one hand, and commands sanctioning and/or allowing killing on the other hand.  The solution to any alleged contradiction is to be found in the distinction between killing and murder.  God has provided qualifications as to when killing is, and is not, morally justifiable.

This distinction is, at least implicitly, assumed in modern law, with the definition of murder being more nuanced than simply “the slaying of one human being by another”.  Legal definitions of murder typically have reference to “reckless indifference to human life” with “intent to kill”, for example.  The implicit assumption that murder is distinct from killing (in principle, at least) can be further seen by the fact that provision is made for killing (if necessary) in self-defence and/or defence of another person as a legal defence to a murder charge.  Colloquially, murder is often defined as the “unlawful killing of another human being”.  The term “unlawful killing”, of course, implies that there is such a thing as “lawful” killing.

Capital punishment, as first instituted by God Himself, is the lawful killing of a guilty criminal.  Thus, capital punishment, properly sanctioned by the governing authorities5, cannot be equated with murder. Seeing that Biblically and legally, there is distinction (in principle) between killing and murder, it does not follow to say that because every instance of murder is, by definition, killing, every instance of killing is therefore murder.

To categorically say that every instance of killing amounts to murder is just as silly as saying that every instance of sexual intercourse amounts to adultery.

When you think about it, the original claim is circular reasoning (begging the question).  That is, in failing to make the distinction between killing and murder (i.e., failing to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable killing), the claimant has assumed that all instances of killing are morally unjustifiable in order to argue that capital punishment is likewise morally unjustifiable.  But the question of whether capital punishment is morally justifiable or not is the very point in question!

Further, the alleged ‘irrationality’ of the ‘killing to show that killing is wrong’ argument collapses under its own weight, regardless of the demonstrable category mistake (above).  If the claimant wishes to uphold the ‘rational’ position that murderers should not be executed because it is killing to show that killing is wrong and therefore irrational, then for the sake of being consistent, he would be forced to believe that child abductors should neither be imprisoned, nor even arrested, for that matter.  After all, that would be depriving someone of their liberty to show that depriving someone of their liberty is wrong, and is equally ‘irrational’.  The claimant’s position is absurd, and leads to absurd conclusions.

4. “Capital punishment is not worth the risk, because after someone is executed, evidence is often discarded or destroyed, making the task of exonerating them [if applicable] nearly impossible.”

But this is a red herring. The issue has now shifted from the question of whether capital punishment is ever morally justifiable (in principle) to the issue of how evidence should (or should not) be handled. Sure, mishandling evidence (whether the result of deliberate mishandling, or perhaps just incompetence) is a serious issue in its own right, but it has no bearing on the question of whether capital punishment itself is ever morally justifiable or not.

Miscarriages of justice do not (and should not) warrant abandoning the pursuit of true justice.

5. “Capital punishment should be abolished because it is used disproportionately to execute people of a lower socio-economic status.”

First of all, this argument assumes that there is an equal (or at least close-to-equal) ratio of low, mid, and high socio-economic offenders awaiting sentence (all of whom have committed capital crimes deserving of death), and that out of corruption and/or racism, judges are sentencing those of lower socio-economic status to a harsher punishment, while sentencing mid and high socio-economic offenders to not necessarily a light punishment, but at least a less harsh punishment.  But this remains to be seen.

Secondly, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the claim is true.  What would it prove?  What would it not prove?  If the claim is in fact true, it would only prove that racism and/or corruption is rampant among judges who unjustifiably hand down inconsistent sentences.  It would not prove that capital punishment in principle should be abolished, for those people who are sentenced to death have committed crimes deserving of death (i.e., they got what they deserve), while those who escaped the death penalty only did so by virtue of racism and/or corruption on the part of the judge (i.e., they deserved the death penalty, but only escaped through a miscarriage of justice).  This leads me to my third point:

Thirdly, even if we grant the fundamental assumption in the original claim, it will only serve to expose the claim for what it is – a red herring.  Assuming for argument’s sake that the original claim is true, the issue at stake has shifted from whether or not capital punishment in principle is morally justifiable, to racism and/or corruption on the part of judges, which is evidenced by the judges’ unjustifiably inconsistent use (and therefore misuse) of capital punishment.  Racism and/or corruption, while certainly important issues in their own right, have no bearing on the question of whether or not the practice of capital punishment is, at least in principle, morally justifiable, for misuse of a method does not militate against that method itself; it is not the method that is at fault, but rather, the misuse of it.

Miscarriages of justice do not (and should not) warrant abandoning the pursuit of true justice.

6. “Capital punishment should be abolished because the chances that [any given offender] will re-offend is slim to none.”

Irrespective of whether the claim is true or not, the argument is irrelevant.  The likelihood of a criminal re-offending (or lack thereof) does not acquit them of the crime/s of which they are guilty.  Capital punishment was not instituted for its deterrent effect with regards to crimes yet uncommitted, but for retributive justice and the protection of the community with regards to crimes already committed.

7. “Capital punishment ends a person’s opportunity for exoneration.”

But this assumes that the executed person is innocent, and thus, if given the opportunity, will be exonerated.  This claim therefore boils down to the argument that because innocent people may be wrongly executed, capital punishment is wrong.  This claim is dealt with in Claim #13 (below).

8. “Capital punishment ends a person’s opportunity to accept Christ and live a God-honouring life in prison, ministering to other inmates or guards.”

Tell that to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43).

We know from the Bible that God has determined allotted periods and the boundaries of men’s dwelling places so that they should seek God (Acts 17:26-27).  In other words, God has graciously situated each person in such a way so as to provide the best possible circumstances of them responding positively to the Gospel.6  In that case then, if a person reaches death (infants and the mentally handicapped excepted) and hasn’t responded to the light that they’ve been given, they really have no one to blame but themselves.

We know from the Bible (for example, Cornelius in Acts 10) that to those who respond positively to the light they have, more light will be given.  If a person willingly turns their back on the light they have received (in some cases, this will be nature and conscience; in other cases, the Gospel itself), then that person has effectively sealed their own eternal destiny.  They won’t be able to plead ignorance, and they most certainly won’t be able to make an appeal to God on the Day of Judgment that they weren’t given an opportunity to accept Christ due to the fact that they received the death penalty.  Chances are: they had plenty of opportunities to accept Christ before they were executed, and even before they committed a crime deserving of death.  Therefore, if a person dies without accepting Christ, he has no one to blame but himself.  There is a purpose behind the continual encouragement to heed God’s voice today (Ps. 95:7-8; Heb. 3:7-8; 13-15; 4:7).

It would be more accurate to say that the criminal has forfeited his own opportunities through his deliberate commission of crime.  The original claim fails to acknowledge that God Himself demands that murderers are to be put to death as punishment to demonstrate His righteous anger and disgust at such a crime.  Murder is of such a nature that a rehabilitative sentencing theory is wholly inadequate.

9. “Only God has the right over matters of life and death.  Capital punishment usurps God’s place and assumes a God-like right to take the life of a person created in God’s image and likeness.”

Of course only God has the right over life and death.  No one is denying that.  Just the opposite, in fact: proponents of capital punishment actually affirm God’s right in these matters.  God has the right to determine what punishment fits what crime, and He has the right to delegate the responsibility of enforcing said punishment to whomever He sees fit.  And when we look at the Biblical testimony, what do we see but God doing just that?  God determined not only that the just punishment for murder was death, but He has also seen fit to impart the responsibility of exercising capital punishment to fallible and fallen humans (Gen. 9:5-6; Cf. Luke 23:41; Acts 25:11; Rom. 13:1-6).  Thus, to say that exercising capital punishment “usurps God’s place” and “assumes a God-like right” is simply preposterous.

Indeed, the institution made by God in Genesis 9 to execute murderers was not simply a provision or an allowance for man to carry out executions, but was a command.  It is noteworthy that this institution (which, by the way, presupposes the principle of ‘life for life’) was made well before the Mosaic Law, and has never been rescinded.

The onus is on the opponent of capital punishment to show how obeying God’s command to execute a murderer is “usurping God’s place” and “assuming a God-like right”.

Interestingly, the very rationale that God gives for instituting the death penalty is “for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6).  In other words, human life is inherently valuable and so precious, that if by malice aforethought you willfully destroy another human being (who is made in God’s image), then you have forfeited your own right to life.

10. “Capital punishment has no social benefit.  It only serves a blood thirst for vengeance.”

And what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.  In any case, this claim doesn’t appear to have been really thought-out.

As explained earlier, the two main sentencing theories behind capital punishment are retribution and the protection of the community.  Capital punishment, provided that is properly carried out, achieves these goals.  Does the opponent of capital punishment really believe that retributive justice (as a demonstration of the community’s outrage in ensuring that the offender is adequately punished, denouncing the conduct of the offender, and recognizing the harm done to the victim/s and to the community) has no social benefit?  Does the opponent of capital punishment really believe that the protection of the community has no social benefit?

In a sense, capital punishment is the ultimate deterrent (for capital crimes) insofar as it guarantees that the offender will not re-offend.  Does the opponent of capital punishment really believe that this has no social benefit (keep in mind that we’re specifically dealing with capital offences)?

Capital punishment for murder serves as justice, as determined by God Himself (Gen. 9:6).  Does the opponent of capital punishment really believe that justice has no social benefit?

11. “Capital punishment is wrong because no modern, Western country still uses it.”

But this assumes that the practices of “modern, Western countries” are, by definition, morally right.  We are to derive our morality and sense of justice from God’s revealed Word, not the practices of “modern, Western countries”.

Take this argument to its natural conclusion, and we are left with the absurd conclusion that same-sex “marriage” is legitimate because modern, Western countries recognize it as such.

This claim, by itself, contributes absolutely nothing of substance to the issue at hand: the question of whether capital punishment is ever morally justifiable.

12. “Capital punishment is barbaric and cruel – if not to the person being executed, to his or her family.”

One may ask, “barbaric and cruel” by whose standard?  God Himself has declared that murderers are to be put to death.  This claim is quite similar to the claim presented in Claim #1, so it is refuted by much the same reasoning.

As shown, a murderer has forfeited their right to life, so logically, it is not “barbaric and cruel” for the governing authority to sanction the execution of someone who no longer has a bona fide right to life.  It may be “barbaric and cruel” to torture the person and thereby prolong the execution, but that’s another matter altogether.

Secondly, a two-fold question may be posed: By what standard is capital punishment “barbaric and cruel” (remember, a murderer has made forfeit their right to life), and By what standard is being “barbaric and cruel” morally wrong?  The Christian worldview is the worldview which can ultimately account for objective moral standards (see, for example here, here and here), and the Christian worldview fully endorses the practice of capital punishment.  So the opponent of capital punishment is on the horns of a dilemma.  If he accepts the Christian worldview, he has no rational basis for opposing capital punishment; and if he rejects the Christian worldview, he has no rational basis for believing that a “barbaric and cruel” act is morally wrong.

As a side-note, surely the victim’s rights (and by extension, the rights of the victim’s family) outweigh those of the offender.

13. “Capital punishment is wrong because innocent people are executed.”

This is admittedly an unfortunate consequence of living in a fallen world.  There is no perfect justice in this broken, fallen world.  Fallen, fallible humans make mistakes, and thus enters the possibility (and sometimes, actuality) of injustice being carried out.  But this possibility alone should not be sufficient grounds to oppose capital punishment, for as we established earlier, God has not only determined that the just punishment for murder was death, but He has also seen fit to impart the responsibility of exercising capital punishment to fallible and fallen humans (Gen. 9:5-6; Cf. Luke 23:41; Acts 25:11; Rom. 13:1-6).

This simply means that more care needs to be taken to ensure that the only people who are executed are proven to be truly guilty beyond any reasonable doubt. God Himself (who commands capital punishment) does not support the capricious execution of anyone.  He commands that if a person is to be executed, or even just put on trial, then their guilt must be proven beyond any reasonable doubt:

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed.  Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” (Deuteronomy 19:15)

“If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses.  But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” (Numbers 35:30)

The standard of proof (i.e., beyond reasonable doubt) can be implicitly seen in the fact that God states that a “single witness shall not suffice”, but only “on the evidence of [multiple] witnesses” shall a charge be established.  In other words, the evidence of one person, while certainly accepted as evidence, is not enough evidence, as a certain level of doubt exists.  But if this evidence is corroborated, and the existing doubt is thereby removed, a charge may be established.

The original claim misses its mark, for the fact that innocent people are sometimes wrongly executed does not mean that the practice of capital punishment is wrong, any more than it would mean the practice of imprisonment is wrong due to the fact that innocent people are sometimes wrongly imprisoned.  It simply means that more needs to be done to ensure that true guilt is established.

The Scriptural principles that if someone is accused of murder, but their guilt cannot be proven (Cf. Deut. 19:15; Num. 35:30), then they should not be put to death, is reflected in what is now referred to as the presumption of innocence (i.e., “innocent until proven guilty”).

An obvious objection at this point would be to say that the verses simply say that the testimony of “two or three witnesses” is sufficient establish a charge.  But the testimony of “two or three witnesses” may not necessarily be foolproof, and the possibility remains that innocent people may be wrongly put to death.  What if the witnesses are corrupt?  What is stopping the witnesses from colluding and bringing a false charge against someone?  The Bible is not silent about such matters:

If such were to happen, it is the corrupt witnesses, not the Government, who are answerable for the shedding of an innocent man’s blood (cf. Deut. 19:16-21).  The false witnesses are therefore guilty of murder, and are themselves to be put to death (“you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother” – Deut. 19:19).7

It is therefore not the practice of capital punishment that needs to be abolished, but it is the trial process which needs to be refined. Once again, misuse of a method does not militate against that method itself. It is not the method that is at fault, but rather, the misuse of it.  Miscarriages of justice do not (and should not) warrant abandoning the pursuit of true justice.

In any case, the assertion that capital punishment is wrong because innocent people have wrongly been put to death can be just as easily reversed on the claimant: imprisonment is wrong because innocent people have been wrongly imprisoned.  So by the claimant’s own logic, imprisonment should be abolished, should it not?  In fact, if you’re going to go down the road of saying that one type of punishment is wrong because innocent people have been wrongly subjected to it, then it is not a huge leap of logic to say that any type of punishment is wrong because innocent people have been wrongly punished.

As a side note, there seems to be a general cognitive dissonance implicit in the claimant’s position, an ironic ‘selective moral outrage’, if you will.  The irony is, if the claimant is so concerned about saving innocent lives, they should in fact support capital punishment.  As I said before, capital punishment ensures that there is no such thing as a repeat offender.  I put it to the opponent of capital punishment that the number of innocent people killed by recidivist murderers (repeat offenders) is exponentially higher than the number of allegedly innocent people wrongly executed by government authority.  Far more innocent lives would be saved if capital punishment was used to execute murderers in the first instance (i.e., after their first round of killing/s).  In other words, if capital punishment is utilized, less innocent people would be killed.

14. “Jesus Himself recognized the unethical nature of capital punishment, as evidenced by His dealings with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).”

To use John 8:1-11 in order to argue that Jesus called for the abolition of capital punishment seems to me to be a very narrow and forced interpretation, so much so that it makes me wonder if it is only used by those with a theological and/or ethical axe to grind.

As far as I can see, the only thing that this claim has going for it is the fact that Jesus did not go along with the scribes and Pharisees in wanting to stone the adulterous woman.  But the reason for this is not that Jesus was calling for an abolition of capital punishment, but was rather confronting the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, who were trying to trap Him so that they might have some charge to bring against Him (vv. 2-6).

Note the context of the passage.  First, the scribes and Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery (v. 3).  They then cited the Mosaic Law, insofar as it commanded adulterers to be stoned, and then asked Jesus what should be done to her (vv. 4-5).  Their motives are clear: they were not at all concerned with maintaining the purity of God’s law; they were attempting to trap Jesus so that they might have some charge to bring against Him (v. 6).  Note also that the male adulterer is nowhere to be seen (and we all know that it takes two to tango).  A common explanation for this is that the male party was himself one of the scribes or Pharisees.  In other words, the act of adultery itself was an elaborately planned set-up from the beginning.  They didn’t just happen to stumble across the woman in the act of adultery; they created the circumstances in which she would commit adultery with one of their own, all for the purpose of living out their hatred for Jesus, in order that they might find some way to condemn the Christ.

And what does Jesus do?  He ignores them.  He bends down and just starts writing in the dirt (v. 6), as if He didn’t even hear the question.  By this, I believe He intended to show how unworthy the scribes and Pharisees were of being heard.  He was making a blatantly obvious sign that He was completely disinterested in playing along with the games that the scribes and Pharisees were wont of playing, by doing nothing more than simply ignoring them and writing on the ground.

The passage goes on to record that Jesus did eventually answer the question, though.  But this answer only came after continual questioning.  In other words, it may be reasonably assumed that some time had passed during which Jesus was ignoring the scribes and Pharisees, which just illustrates how unwilling He was to even give a reply.

And what was Jesus’ answer to the question?  “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7).  The phrase “let him who is without sin” is commonly understood as meaning the same kind of sin (i.e., adultery, fornication, etc.).  Jesus knew, as would the scribes and Pharisees, that the witnesses who bring a charge against a person were to be involved in the execution (Deut. 17:6-7); perhaps there is even a reference to Hosea, where God withholds punishment from daughters and brides who commit adultery, because the men themselves commit the same or worse sins (4:14).

Note also that Jesus’ words are not in the context of abolishing the death penalty, but are in the context of exposing the gross hypocrisy and motivations of the scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus’ words came in the form of short, sharp rebuke; He offered no commentary or explanation of His words; He didn’t give anyone time to respond to Him; He simply said His piece, and went back to writing in the dirt, giving no more attention to the hypocrites.

Jesus did not command that the adulterous woman not be executed.  In fact, He actually qualified the conditions under which she was to be executed (in this very specific scenario, at least).  And as shown above, His qualifications served to expose the hypocrisy and motivations of the scribes and Pharisees. Their hypocrisy now being revealed, it is the scribes and Pharisees themselves who refuse to condemn the woman, and walk away one by one (vv. 9-10).  Evidently, the scribes and Pharisees not only recognized the futility of attempting to entrap Jesus, but also their gross hypocrisy in so doing.

The context of the passage has nothing to do with the question of whether capital punishment is ever morally justifiable, but rather, has everything to do with Jesus confronting and exposing the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees.  As such, there is really no reason that this passage should even come up in connection with the issue at hand.

15. “Shouldn’t the principle of ‘life for life’ (i.e., capital punishment) be discarded, in accordance with Jesus’ words to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-39)?  And what’s more, isn’t there a contradiction between the idea of ‘life for life’, etc. and Jesus’ statement?”

But this presents a false dilemma, insofar as the claimant falsely assumes that it must be either ‘life for life’, or ‘turn the other cheek’.  But it’s not an ‘either/or’ situation we’re dealing with, but a ‘both/and’ scenario.

Jesus’ statement about “turning the other cheek” comes during probably the most famous sermon ever preached, the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ where He is describing how individuals should endeavour to live their day-to-day lives.  And so His statement about not retaliating (eye for eye, tooth for tooth) but turning the other cheek is with respect to individual persons, not to the practices of the governing authorities in fulfilling their God-appointed role/s.  Consider Romans 13:1-4:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Emphasis added)

This passage clearly establishes that the governing authority, as a corporate entity is:

  1. Divinely appointed;
  2. A servant (or minister) of God; and
  3. An avenger, whose role it is to carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoers.
There is therefore no contradiction between the Biblical principle to do justice according to the principle of life for life, and Jesus’ statement to turn the other cheek.  The Law of Non-Contradiction is that one cannot have A and not A at the same time and in the same relationship, where A is any proposition.  As the the two principles (‘life for life’ and ‘turn the other cheek’) operate in different contexts, there is no contradiction. Jesus’ statement means that individual persons, in and of themselves, do not possess the divinely appointed authority to hand out sentences to wrongdoers, to take the law into their own hands, so to speak.  That authority belongs to the corporate entity of the governing authority, and passes on to individual persons only as long as they associate and identify with (i.e., represent), the corporate body, whose divinely appointed role it is (as God’s avenger) to carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoers (i.e., in the execution of their official duty).  This truth should be self-evident, but for clarity’s sake, an example shall suffice.  Think of a police officer.  He possesses an original authority8 to make arrests, lay charges, discharge his firearm, and so on, only in the execution of his duty, representing the governing authority.  As soon as the officer is not acting in the execution of duty, he generally does not have the individual authority to exercise those same rights he has while carrying out his role as an officer of the state. Jesus’ statement was not in the context of rescinding the principle of life for life when it comes to the governing authority’s dealings with wrongdoers; hence, the principle is still valid.  Neither was Jesus stripping governing authorities of their role as God’s avenger, or their authority to carry out God’s wrath on wrongdoers. The essence of true justice is life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, and the governing authorities have every authority to do justice in accordance with that principle. Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:38-39 does not argue against the practice of capital punishment.

Notes

1 Which  shows that in the Bible, capital punishment for murder is of a different order than that prescribed under the civil law that governed Israel in the Old Testament.

2 By the same token, however, the governing authority has the right to not enforce capital punishment, or abolish it altogether. Under such circumstances, though true justice may not have been served, a person may disagree with the Government’s decision, but has no right to resist the Government and take the law into his own hands. Everyone must submit to the authority which God has appointed:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.” (Romans 13:1-2)

3 If mens rea cannot be established, as would be the case when dealing with mentally ill offenders, then the protection of the community becomes the primary sentencing theory (at least for capital crimes, such as murder).  The retributive aspect is somewhat irrelevant, as retribution presupposes not only a guilty mind, but a ‘temporal coincidence’ between the guilty mind and the actual criminal act (i.e., actus reus + mens rea).

4 Barshay, H., in Bedau, H. and Cassell, P., Debating the Death Penalty: Should America Have Capital Punishment? (2004: Oxford University Press, New York, NY), pp. 61-2

5 The God-appointed status of the governing authorities is that of a servant (or minister) of God.  As God’s servant, the divinely appointed role of the governing authorities is to be “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:4; cf. 1 Pet. 2:13-14)

6 This naturally raises the question, ‘What about those who have never heard the Gospel?  How can it be said that they have been given the best chance for salvation?’  The problem with this question, though, is the underlying presupposition that those persons who have never heard the Gospel would most likely respond positively if they did hear the Gospel.  But given that the Bible declares that God has so situated every person so that they should seek God, it seems to me that it is at least possible that many, if not all, who never heard the Gospel would never have believed it even if they had heard it.  In other words, there may be people for whom there are no possible circumstances (short of God forcing them to believe the Gospel) under which they would respond positively to the Gospel.  Christian theologian and philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig writes,

“Suppose, then, that God in His mercy has so providentially ordered the world that all persons who never hear the gospel are precisely such people.  God is too good to allow someone to be lost due to historical or geographical accident.

In that case, anybody who never hears the gospel and is lost would have rejected the gospel and been lost even if he had heard it.  No one could stand before God on the judgment day and complain, ‘All right, God, so I didn’t respond to Your general revelation in nature and conscience!  But if only I had heard the gospel, then I would have believed!’

For God will say, ‘No, I knew that even if you heard the gospel, you wouldn’t have believed it. Therefore, My judgment on you on the basis of nature and conscience – which you willingly turned your back on – is neither unfair nor unloving.”  (Craig, W.L., On Guard, p. 279; emphasis in original)

7 This also applies to a charge for “any crime,” or “any wrong in connection with any offense” (Deut. 19:15), not just capital crimes.

8 Original Authority: an authority that is exercised (or more precisely, is able to be exercised) by a constable by virtue of his office, i.e., an authority that cannot be exercised on the authority or responsibility of any other person (not a delegated authority).

Advertisements