A Christian View of the Death Penalty
There is a debate today over capital punishment. And that debate is taking place right now in Florida, particularly after the Parkland school shooter received a sentence of life, not death.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who in my book has done a fantastic job keeping the Sunshine Street free, called for the death penalty in this case.
DeSantis has been seeking a change in Florida’s death penalty law, which would apply to Nikolas Cruz who took the lives of 17 students and others at his former high school in 2018 in what could be called the second “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
Javier Manjarres of “The Floridian” notes: “Governor Ron DeSantis has signaled that the Republican-led state legislature could address the 2017 death penalty law that requires a unanimous jury to find that a criminal defendant should be put to death…DeSantis called the recent jury decision to recommend Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz a life sentence instead of death, a ‘miscarriage of justice….[t]hat did not honor the victims and the families and all that they went through. I think we’ll be able to do something legislatively.’” [emphasis added]
Is the death penalty just a vestige from previous barbaric ages, as some maintain? The Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Eighth Amendment (which in its original meaning never included capital punishment, which was widely considered necessary and appropriate at the time), while allowing for the death penalty (in the discussion on capital crimes) in the Fifth Amendment. Does the Bible condemn or forbid capital punishment?
Dr. D. James Kennedy, my longtime pastor, with whom I had the privilege to co-write 19 books, once said: “I believe a careful study of Scripture would clearly teach us that a faithful Christian must be involved in the political and social issues of his time….God commands men to form civil governments to stem the growth of violence through administering the death penalty (Genesis 9:6). From this flows all other powers and functions of government.”
Genesis 9:6 states: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” In the New Testament, in Romans 13, the Apostle Paul lays down the principle that the state has the legitimate authority to “bear the sword” if done in a just way: “For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Dr. Kennedy has been criticized for being pro-life in opposition to abortion, while at the same time favoring the death penalty. He said his critics are the inconsistent ones: “They are willing to kill the innocent but they are not willing to kill the guilty. That is inconsistency.”
One of the books Dr. Kennedy and I wrote was called, How Would Jesus Vote? (2008). It provided a thoughtful Christian view of the issues commonly on the ballot, including the death penalty.
As we noted, when the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill,” the more accurate translation from the Hebrew is “Thou shalt do no murder.” Meanwhile, God commands punishment of those who deliberately and wantonly take human life, if properly convicted, on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
Today, there is a philosophy of crime-and-no-punishment which treats criminals as if they are patients who need treatment rather than wrongdoers who need punishment. In this view, criminals are ill and do what they do because they can’t help themselves.
But as we note in our book, C. S. Lewis, the great British writer, criticized this approach to criminality: “We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just, but whether it succeeds…when we only consider what will cure him…we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person…we now have…a ‘case’ to be treated in a clinic.”
To paraphrase Lewis, “When we make the issue medical rather than criminal, justice gets lost, and we treat criminals, like cases to be cured.”
But this medical approach actually depersonalizes the criminal. In this view, he has no free will of his own and is only being compelled by the mechanics of his brain. (Remember the Twinkie Defense? My client wasn’t guilty—eating too many Twinkies made him do it.)
In his 12/6/06 WND article, “Another Argument for Capital Punishment,” columnist Dennis Prager noted: “It is a cosmic injustice to allow a murderer to keep his life.”
He adds, “Killing murderers is society’s only way to teach how terrible murder is. …..A society that kills murderers is saying that murder is more heinous a crime than a society that keeps all its murderers alive.”
In short, if implemented justly and with impartiality, capital punishment sends a statement to society—a statement that human life does have value—so much so that we are willing to exact the ultimate penalty for heinously or callously destroying it