The January 8 shooting in Arizona, while claiming the lives of six people, and seriously wounding Congresswoman Giffords, brings to the forefront the debate on the death penalty. No doubt, Christians divide over the Issue. Some of us are pacifists. Some who take the sixth commandment—thou shalt not kill—as a prohibition on all killing. While most, it would appear, see the death penalty as an indespensable part of public justice.
In my opinion, under very narrow circumstances, the death penalty provides a necessary deterrent to horrendous crimes, upholds the dignity and value of life, and promotes the good of society. However, some object to capital punishment, saying that only God has the right to take a life—not the State, nor any individual.
Nevertheless, Scripture is replete with commands by God to kill enemy armies (1Sam 15:3), to put criminals to death (Num 35:16), and to kill by judicial process (Deut 17:6). Soldiers, by necessity, may kill as combatants in war (Deut 2:24), and people have the right to self-defense (Ex 22:2). Of course, murder is never acceptable (Ex 20:13). These Scriptural principles had some influence on the US Constitution and the criminal justice system.
The Bible teaches that all human life is of incomparable worth (Psalm 139:13). This value is rooted in humankind’s creation in the likeness and image of God. This fact sets human life apart from all other life and gives it unrivaled value (Gen 1:26, Psa 8:4-6).
Because human life is so valuable, if a life is taken, then only a life given might pay for the crime. The death penalty, because it deters crime, promotes a safer society, and upholds the rights of all, is—in the strictest sense—a loving act. It is loving because it chooses society’s highest good. Besides, the bad man—confronted by his imminent death—has time to right his heart with God and escape the biggest punishment of all—Hell. (Even in the case of severe justice, we see the mercy of God at work, ready to forgive and save sinners. Praise God for His infinite grace!)
Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship writes: “For years, modern psychology has argued that the criminal is not guilty of crime; he’s just sick, and in need of therapy. C. S. Lewis argued, however, that this view strips man of his dignity: It says we’re not free moral agents, responsible for our actions, but rather patients to be manipulated for the good of society. ‘To be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better,’ is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.’ The Scriptures teach that people are responsible for their own behavior. The object of justice is not to rehabilitate or create some new person, like scientists in a Viennese laboratory, but rather to balance the scales of justice. And sometimes the only way to do that is to give the offender his just deserts: capital punishment. [So as those who die for violent crimes this] isn’t about therapy, or retribution, or getting even. It’s about justice and preserving the dignity of man.”
Yes, even in capital punishment, the good of the offender is in view, his or her human dignity upheld, and the intrinsic value of human life confirmed.
–Pastor Scott (www.askpastorscott.com)