Purging the Evil from Our Midst—A Case for Capital Punishment from a Christian Perspective
No one is advocating that the hanging will make things “better” or “worse” for our troops, who, at last reckoning, were still engaged in a war. Mr. Kolias seems to have forgotten—if he ever knew in the first place—that wars are nasty and messy.
For example, at the Battle of Gettysburg, more than 20,000 Americans died in two days. In World War I the Germans lost 1,000,000—that’s right, one million—men in less than a year. Over 6,000 Americans and allied troops died on D-Day at the invasion of Normandy. In case Mr. Kolias missed it, soldiers, sailors, and Marines train for this very purpose. I’m not certain where Mr. Kolias is getting his information that our intervention over there will “probably lead to more violence over here.” That’s an interesting—and altogether fallacious—assumption. In point of actual fact, ever since 9.11.01 there has not been another attack on American soil in spite of Mr. Kolias’ ramblings and rantings.
His rantings do, however, raise some interesting points for us to ponder. For example, how does Mr. Kolias surmise that this was a “Western” hanging? John Wayne is dead. I’m not certain if Mr. Kolias intended a double entendre by the use of the word “Western,” but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. If he meant “Western” in the sense of George Bush is a Western cowboy that’s one thing. If he meant “Western” in the sense of Western countries that’s quite another. Both, however, are way off base. Many—most—Western countries no longer have the death penalty, so in that sense how could this be a Western hanging? Let me take a few moments and give a brief history of how the “Western” Church has viewed the concept of the death penalty.
Last night, my wife and I watched the DVD Flight 93—I know, Lincoln’s been shot, too. It just takes me a while to get ready psychologically to watch something like that. To make matters worse, I just finished Mark Steyn’s book America Alone. The End of the World as We Know It. Both the movie and Steyn’s book chronicle how thugs like the 9/11 hijackers, bin Laden, and Hussein operate. If America is in any quagmire, it’s not the war in Iraq, but in the morass of the lie of moral equivalence. Counter to Kolias, Brokaw, and others like them, I am thoroughly convinced that hanging Hussein for the extermination of more than 140 people was justified—irrespective of how many other accusations were leveled against him. What was Iraq supposed to do have a trial for every murder he committed before they put him to death? Some in America would answer Yes; those people are sorely misguided in my estimation. So how have Christians viewed capital punishment in the past?
The Death Penalty in the History of the Church
The early church fathers differed on capital punishment. Lactantius opposed it while St. Augustine spoke in favor of the State’s right to impose it. The time known as the Middle Ages witnessed debates raging back and forth about the death penalty. On balance, it’s safe to say that the incidences of capital punishment increased during this time and the executions would certainly qualify as cruel and unusual punishment by today’s standards.
The “angelic doctor,” St. Thomas Aquinas (1224/1225-1274), who is considered by some to be the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages, argued for the right of the State to inflict capital punishment for certain crimes. In the time known as the Reformation, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others wrote and spoke in favor of the death penalty. A few well-chosen comments by Calvin will put the view of the Reformation into perspective for us.
Inst.4.20.10 bears the title: The magistrates’ exercise of force is compatible with piety. Being sensitive to the relationship and difference between killing and murder, Calvin begins his explanation of why he is in favor of the death penalty in certain instances in the following fashion: “But here a seemingly hard and difficult question arises: if the law of God forbids all Christians to kill [Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17; Matt. 5:21], and the prophet prophesies concerning God’s holy mountain (the church) that in it men shall not afflict or hurt [Isa. 11:9; 65:25]—how can magistrates be pious men and shedders of blood at the same time?” It’s amazing that you still hear that question today, even, or especially, from Christians. You’d think that enough time would have elapsed from 1559, the date of the last edition of the Institutes, until now, and that people would have grasped the import of Calvin’s argument, but I suppose someone is not listening or reading. Some read and disagree. How did Calvin resolve the dilemma in the question he raised? Let’s listen.
He goes on to say, “. . .if we understand that the magistrate in administering punishments does nothing by himself, but carries out the very judgments of God, we shall not be hampered by this scruple.” This is a key thought and deserves careful consideration. Of course, the modern mindset has long since abandoned the notion of God or the serious mention of God in society. In fact, if you mention his Name in most political and academic circles you can expect widespread and rampant apoplexy. Our society has come to understand freedom of religion to mean freedom from religion; the separation of Church and State to mean the separation of God and State. But this statement from Calvin is essential for Christians as well; one might say for Christians particularly. Much of the debate that rages about capital punishment in Christian circles today fails to take this key principle into account. The continuation of Calvin’s argument makes the case for the punishment of murderers.
Calvin argues for “derived” authority for the civil magistrate when he says, “The law of the Lord forbids killing; but, that murders may not go unpunished, the Lawgiver himself puts into the hand of his ministers a sword to be drawn against all murderers.” Let me make a couple of qualifying comments. In the first place, Calvin makes the necessary distinction between “killing” and “murder.” All murder is killing, but not every instance of killing is murder. In the second place, he is not affirming that ministers of the Word of God should be involved in executions. He simply uses the word “minister” here to describe the task of the civil magistrate.
Calvin warns us of this. “Would that this were ever before our minds—that nothing is done here from men’s rashness, but all things are done on the authority of God who commands it; and while his authority goes before us, we never wander from the straight path!” He cites several biblical texts to shore up his stance, but the two from Proverbs (17:15 and 20:26) makes his point well.
We must not conclude, however, that Calvin desires to be vengeful or vindictive in what he is writing. The exact opposite is the case. Listen to what he says. “Begone, now, with that abrupt and savage harshness, and that tribunal which is rightly called the reef of accused men! For I am not one either to favor undue cruelty or think that a fair judgment can be pronounced unless clemency, that best counselor of kings and surest keeper of the kingly throne (as Solomon declares) [Prov. 20:28] is always present—clemency, which by a certain writer of antiquity was truly called the chief gift of princes.”
He concludes this section with these words. “Yet it is necessary for the magistrate to pay attention to both, lest by excessive severity he either harm more than heal; or, by superstitious affection of clemency, fall into the cruelest gentleness, if he should (with a soft and dissolute kindness) abandon many to their destruction. For during the reign of Nerva it was not without reason said: it is indeed bad to live under a prince with whom nothing is permitted; but much worse under one by whom everything is allowed.”
So what does the history of the death penalty in the United States look like? Let’s take a couple of moments and take a look.
Capital Punishment in the United States
In the United States, the first documented account of capital punishment occurred in the colony of Virginia in 1622 when Daniell Frank was hanged for stealing a calf and other items from Sir George Yerdly. In 1630, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, John Billington was the first person hanged for murder. John Jefferson Davis writes, “During the revolutionary period, most of the colonies considered murder, treason, piracy, arson, rape, robbery, burglary, and sodomy to be capital crimes. Hanging was the usual form of execution.”
Calvin’s penchant for no clemency in the case of capital crimes fell into disrepute, however, in the 18th century. In Italy in 1764, Cesare Beccaria wrote his seminal work entitled On Crimes and Punishments. This work was one of the earliest pleas for the abolition of capital punishment. In fact, it is still cited frequently by opponents of capital punishment and has become a kind of “classic” in its field. “Beccaria’s treatise was influential in the abolition of capital punishment in Tuscany (1786) and Austria (1787), and it had some influence in England, which eliminated some 190 crimes from the capital category in 1860.”
But Beccaria’s work served a positive purpose, for England was in dire need of some reform in this area. In 1814, three English boys, ranging in age from eight to eleven, were executed for stealing a pair of shoes! In 1833, a nine-year-old boy was hanged for stealing a set of children’s paints—paints, not pants—from a London store. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why there was growing sympathy for the abolition of capital punishment given these and like excesses.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also witnessed many influential people protesting against the death penalty. Among them are people of the stature of Voltaire, Rousseau, Marx (Karl, not Groucho), Hume, Bentham, Franklin, and Paine. The nineteenth century in particular saw the rise of a large movement opposing capital punishment. In one sense, this can be traced back to the attitude of society during that century. It was the nineteenth century that gave us the Age of Romanticism in which important segments of society leaned strongly to the Left. Given society’s bent in the nineteenth century, it should not surprise us that in 1845, the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment was founded. A year later, the state of Michigan abolished the death penalty for all crimes except treason. In 1852 and 1853, Rhode Island and Wisconsin followed suit, respectively. “At one time or another, at least 23 states have abolished the capital penalty, and at least 12 have restored the penalty after having rescinded it.”
In the twentieth century the greatest number of executions occurred in our country between the years 1930 and 1949. In those two decades, approximately 148 convicted criminals were executed yearly. “By 1967, however, without any significant legislative action, the use of the death penalty came to a halt. Gary Gilmore’s death in 1977 before a Utah firing squad ended a ten-year unofficial moratorium on capital punishment in the United States.” Such was the “liberated” attitude of our society in those volatile years.
It should not surprise us, therefore, that the 1960s saw the unofficial abolition of capital punishment in the United States. Those were the years of unprecedented unrest and outrage against the “Establishment.” America’s foundations were shaken to the very core at various levels during the era of the 1960s. Many who sought to tear down the establishment, however, didn’t have viable alternatives for replacement. Those who did offer alternatives as often as not wanted us to become socialists or communists.
A wave of liberalism swept across the country and although fortunately not everyone abandoned conservatism, the left-wing press made it seem like they did. Some things don’t change I suppose. In those turbulent years, America became a more “tolerant” and “soft” nation in many ways. Sexual promiscuity, pornography, and illegal substance abuse were rampant—and still are today. Many wore their bell-bottom jeans, granny glasses, tie-dye shirts, and protested that we should draft beer and not men. Hugh Hefner’s Playboy philosophy soared to new heights—or lows; protesters took to the streets and burned American flags announcing that the U.S. was an imperialist nation. Many of our cultured elite are perpetuating that same ideology on our high school, college, and university campuses today.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled twice on the issue of capital punishment in the 1970s (1972 and 1976). On June 29, 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, it was ruled—by a split decision—that the imposition of the death penalty in the states of Texas and Georgia constituted violations of both the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution.
A Brief History of the Death Penalty in the US Since 1977
Before I delve into some of the primary arguments against the death penalty, I’d like to give you some statistics. Usually, these are about as exciting as a mouth full of sawdust, but these will give you a field of reference with regard to capital punishment in the US.
As of June 1, 2000, the death penalty was authorized by 38 US states, the federal government, and the US military. Those jurisdictions without the death penalty include, in alphabetical order, Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin as well as the District of Columbia.
What about the methods of execution used in the United States? What are they? Here are some statistics.
Methods of Execution
In Indiana prior to 1913, all executions were by hanging. From 1913 through 1994, convicted murderers were executed by the electric chair. Since 1995, all executions have been by lethal injection. Current death penalty procedure requires that the execution take place inside the walls of the state prison before sunrise.
Thirty-eight states and the federal government have statutes authorizing the death penalty by one of five methods: lethal injection, electrocution, lethal gas, hanging, and firing squad. Many states still have laws allowing for multiple or alternative methods of execution, depending upon the choice of the inmate, the date of execution or sentence, or the possibility of the method being held unconstitutional. Eighteen states authorize lethal injection as the sole method of execution. Eighteen others provide for lethal injection as the primary or alternative method of execution. Only two states—Alabama and Nebraska—currently use electrocution as the sole method of execution. No states provide for lethal gas, hanging, or firing squad as the sole method of execution.
We’re going to turn our attention now to the most prominent arguments against the death penalty. I believe that it is fair to allow the opposition to speak first not because they are correct, but so that you will be armed with what kinds of arguments they put forward in defense of allowing convicted murderers either to spend the rest of their life in prison or eventually to face the possibility of parole.
From my perspective and for our purposes, we want to ask what the Bible has to say about capital punishment. In point of fact, Scripture has a great deal to say about the death penalty and with regard to particular, egregious sins we also find a phrase about purging the evil from the midst of the people—something that is virtually totally lost on our soft society. Since this is already getting too long for one installment, I’ll simply provide an introduction for now and move on the specific texts in subsequent issues.
What Does the Bible Say About Capital Punishment?
Old notions are hard, if not next to impossible, to eradicate. Some people today still believe that the God of the Old Testament is mean, mean-spirited, vindictive, and wrathful. I’m not only talking about the talking heads on the radio and TV, but this is also true of some misguided Christians. I have actually heard believers—and pastors—state that the God of the Old Testament is very different from Jesus in the New Testament. Nothing could be farther from the truth; that is certainly not the case. In John 14:7, 9, Jesus is emphatic about the identity of himself as the Son of God and the Father. Our Lord identifies himself with the “I am” of the Old Testament (John 8:58; [Ex. 3:13-15]). In that same gospel, Jesus unequivocally states that he and the Father are one (John 17:11).
In spite of all of this, there are still those who think that the Old Testament notion of “an eye for an eye” is harsh, cruel, and primitive. These types of people are the utopic, non-realistic optimists who believe we would do far better to attempt to reform murderers rather than execute them. They are impervious to recidivism rates. Unfortunately, they have not taken the time to explain to us a method of reform that is one hundred percent effective. Equally unfortunately, we know that far too many convicted murderers are allowed, “to walk” by a jury or judge only to murder again. I don’t know about you, but if I allowed a convicted murderer to get out of prison and they murdered again, my conscience would bother me terribly.
In this part of this work, we’re going to examine some biblical texts that draw our attention to what God says about capital punishment and the reasons given why it is good for a nation and the land to execute convicted murderers. This section will present information that many in our secular society have never thought about. By the same token, I suspect it will also present information with which the secularist will disagree. I hope, however, that not every secularist will disagree and I hope to open up a dialogue with those who are at least willing to listen to “the other side.”
This section will also sound strange to some Christians. As I mentioned earlier, there are Christians who are not in favor of the death penalty. There are even some conservative Christians that are not in favor of capital punishment. I hope to be able to demonstrate from the Bible that the execution of convicted murderers is a command with a specific divine reason attached to it. I also will demonstrate that there is a biblical distinction between premeditated murder and killing. One of my guiding theses will be: All murder is killing, but not all killing is murder.
In order to make our case, we’re going to take the necessary time to examine a wide variety of texts from both the Old and New Testaments. It might surprise us that there are numerous texts that address themselves to this subject. I will not be able to cite all of them, but where I do not cite a given text, I’ll put it in the footnotes. I’ve also aimed at keeping the “meat” of the discussion in the body of the article. For those who are interested in delving into the Greek and Hebrew, I’ll simply point you to the footnotes as well.
At the same time as we examine the pertinent texts, we’re going to put God’s reasons for capital punishment under the microscope and observe the unity that the Bible presents us regarding the nature and necessity of this type of punishment. Finally, we’ll also examine some contemporary issues relevant to our century such as the execution of murderers like Timothy McVeigh, the 2003 case of John Mohammed and Lee Malvo, and we’ll also speak about the 2005 Stanley “Tookie” Williams case here in California. We’ll ask question contemporary questions like: Is the death penalty something that should be carried out in order to make a nationwide public spectacle of the convicted murderer or should his execution be limited to those who actually lost loved ones in his crime?
Before we do this, however, I want to set the stage and dispel the false notions that the Old Testament punishments were primitive, cruel, and unusual. I’m going to begin with a text that will function as a kind of “thesis” for our discussion. It’s found in Hebrews 2:1-3 and reads as follows: “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard…” (Emphasis mine).
I use this text for the reason that often the punishments seem cruel to our postmodern ears. We’ve been bred on toleration, political correctness, egalitarianism, relativism, and LRL junk food. From the outset we need to be reminded that all God’s laws are just and good (Ps. 119:39; 68). Eventually, we’re going to look at the “eye-for-an-eye” texts that seem to be vengeful and vindictive in the course of this section, but for the present I want to point out some of the texts that clearly manifest the deep care and concern the Lord has for his creation.
At creation, was not only endowed with God’s image, but was also given certain “creation mandates” that were to guide him in being God’s vice-regent on earth. The theological way of describing this truth is that man was called upon to think God’s thoughts after him. The only way man could do that was to do things God’s way. God’s revelation to us is, in part, designed to show us the way in exercising godly dominion over the created order.
I say this by way of introduction, because even though it’s true that the Lord is concerned to redeem lost sinners, his plan also includes provision for the inanimate creations as well as for the animals. In Matthew 6:26 Jesus makes the general statement that God cares for the birds of the air. Could he have been thinking about the specific command found in Deuteronomy 22:6-7? What do those verses require? Listen. “If you come across a bird's nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.” That was not the musings of a radical environmentalist, but the very words of God.Next time we’ll look briefly at the concept of the “deterrent” of purging evil from the midst of society as well as a foundational text for capital punishment found in Genesis 9:6. If time permits, we’ll also look at the New Testament text of Romans 13.
 For information on this important Latin church father, see Hans von Campenhausen, Lateinische Kirchenväter, (Köln: Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 19784), pp. 57-76; J. Martin, “Lactantius,” in Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, Bd. 6, (Freiburg: Herder, 19862), pp. 726-728; John McClintock & James Strong, “Lactantius,” in Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. V, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), pp. 185-189; Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 19772), pp. 955-958.
 See his Summa Theologica, Part II-II, question 64, articles 2-3.
 See Martin Luther, “Wider die räuberischen und mörderischen Rotten der Bauern,” in Luthers Werke in Auswahl, Bd. I, (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1966), pp. 69-74 and John Calvin, Inst.4.20.10.
 Calvin, Inst.4.20.10, 1497.
 Ibid. Emphases mine.
 ESV Proverbs 17:15, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”
 ESV Proverbs 20:26, “A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the wheel over them.”
 Calvin, Inst.4.20.10, 1498-1499. Emphasis mine.
 Ibid., 1499. All italics mine.
 John J. Davis, Evangelical Ethics, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1985), p. 195.
 Ibid., 196.
 The Eighth Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishments. The Fourteenth Amendment requires equal protection under the law.
 As I wrote this section initially (March 12, 2004), Mohammed has been sentenced to death and Malvo to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
 Liberal Religious Left.