The Debate in Christianity on Capital Punishment

Today in the news we hear of how the Arizona convicted murderer Joseph Wood seemed to have suffered over 100 minutes during his execution by lethal injection before he finally died. It is quite a story that it seems to be getting harder and harder for the state to execute its criminals because the drugs that used to be so effective in killing are unavailable now.  Drug makers have either ceased production of them or simply refuse to sell them because they object to their use in these executions.

Capital punishment has been a hot topic for many decades of course, but I am not really sure that people are all that aware of the philosophical debate generally, or the debate among Christians. Most people I think determine their view on the death sentence by how they “feel” about it… But it is really quite a fascinating topic if we stop to learn more – with good points on both sides!

The debate over capital punishment actually has broader implications – implications for the whole of our criminal justice system. The question at issue is “What is the aim of our criminal justice system?” The historic view of almost every culture and society has emphasized the “justice” issue. If a crime has been committed then the purpose of any sentence is to administer punishment. This view has been called “Retributionism”. Sounds nice and simple.

But then in the last couple centuries another idea has begun to gain a lot of traction. This idea is that the main aim of the justice system is not so much punishment, but “rehabilitation”. A couple years ago I visited the Eastern Pennsylvania State Penitentiary in Philadelphia – and the history lesson there was summed up in its name “Penitentiary”. It was where criminals were to come and learn to be “penitent”, to repent of their sin and learn to reform their lives. Its original “Rehabilitationism” vision was not so much punish criminals, but to reform them and make them into responsible citizens. This view came out of the “Enlightenment” and a high view of human nature and the capacity for the will of man to change.

So which view is more Christian? Some Christians would argue that the main point of the Bible is that God hates death and that he loves mercy. It is plain that God certainly desires the reformation of the heart life through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. They would point to places in the scripture where God spared the murderer – such as with Cain and King David. But the Retributionist Christian certainly has lots of scripture to back their view up as well. Certainly capital punishment was included in the laws given by God that governed the early Israelite nation. And certainly St. Paul admonished all Christians to respect the sword of the government that was instituted by God to keep the peace in the land.

I personally take the view that although God certainly does desire every chance for repentance and loves mercy, and that every opportunity should be taken to minister to the criminal so that he might repent and reform his life, all this does not take away from the principal of justice in the Kingdom of the Left (Civil realm) and that the government and society have every “right” to implement capital punishment. HOWEVER: I also take the view that capital punishment is not a requirement of government and that in mercy we might desire to cease its practice. I suppose the one thing that makes me hesitate the most in being a vocal advocate for it is that our Justice System is so fallible. The sinful and often corrupt law enforcement and Judicial system has proved so incredibly wrong so many times that you have to suspect that almost any conviction is suspect. It is so very difficult for me to think about how many people have been wrongly executed.

Ultimately with this and so many of our vexing problems in life, the reality is that there is most definitely no “good” answer. We desperately need good sound thinking on the subject, but we also need a fleeing to the Savior who loves us even though we can’t get a handle on life. Even the fact that we even NEED a criminal justice system is sobering! It drives me to repentance and love for my savior Jesus the Christ!


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