Monday, April 11, 2022

Anonymous Asks (192)

“Does God approve of the death penalty?”

The Law of Moses governed Israelite society in one form or another from around 1450 BC through AD70, when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people forcibly dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. In that law we find a plethora of offenses that call for the death penalty, among them murder, kidnapping, child sacrifice, rape, witchcraft, blasphemy, false prophecy, profaning the Sabbath, violence against father or mother, adultery, bestiality, homosexuality and perjury.

Did God approve of putting people to death for these things? Of course he did. The Law of Moses was the expression of God’s will for Israelite society. It came directly from him.

The Death Penalty Yesterday and Today

However, it is unlikely our questioner is primarily concerned with how God felt about the punishment of capital offenses under the Law of Moses, which, while it has had great influence on other legal systems, is not the rule of law anywhere in the world today. The fact that God approves of the death penalty in principle does not necessarily mean he approves of every way in which capital punishment has been administered in secular, religious or even “Christianized” societies throughout human history.

After all, the death penalty provisions in the Law of Moses came as part of a package of rules concerned with the righteous administration of justice. These include multiple witnesses, unperjured testimony, a speedy trial, consistent application of the rules, and participation by the witnesses in the execution of the penalty on the accused once guilt was established. Attempting to enforce certain of the law’s most severe penalties independently of the principles designed to govern their use invariably creates injustice of another sort.

Selective Prosecution and Unjust Condemnation

Perhaps this was the concern of the Lord Jesus when he was invited by the scribes and Pharisees to weigh in on the case of a woman caught in the act of adultery. While the incident is not found in the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel and some Bible students dispute its canonicity, the Lord’s actions throughout are consistent with his steadfast refusal during his first advent to play the role of judge.

Though he does not remark on it, the Lord can hardly have failed to notice that the woman’s would-be prosecutors were intent on seeing “justice” carried out against only one member of what must surely have been an adulterous pair. So then, instead of either condemning or justifying the defendant as her accusers had hoped, Jesus rather enigmatically writes with his finger on the ground, then replies, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Thus denuded of their moral authority, his critics gradually make their exit.

Bye-Bye Bill

Assuming the incident is indeed canonical, it reminds us that the Law of Moses was never intended to be applied arbitrarily, inconsistently or selectively. It was meant to govern the conduct of rich as well as poor, leaders as well as led, religiously devout as well as publicans and sinners. It was meant to be applied equally to all adulterers regardless of their station in life.

It is hard to see how a death penalty applied arbitrarily, inconsistently or selectively in Gentile societies is likely to please God any more than this particular case. For example, any society that tried to apply the principles embodied in the Law of Moses to adulterers would be obliged to prosecute (and execute) its Bill Clintons, Donald Trumps, John F. Kennedys and Kobe Bryants right along with all the usual errant members of its uncelebrated and unheralded citizenry.

If that seems an unlikely outcome to you, well, I concur.

The Purpose of Capital Punishment

From God’s perspective, the purpose of the death penalty was not simply to provide a disincentive to others to do the same wicked things — though that was definitely an excellent side-benefit — nor was it simply a matter of well-deserved vengeance. God was deeply concerned for the purity of his people. Capital punishment is mentioned repeatedly in Deuteronomy, where eleven times the phrase “so you shall purge the evil from your midst” occurs in association with it. If the death penalty does nothing else, it certainly does this one thing which incarceration — even lifetime incarceration — does not: it discharges or atones for the corporate guilt that accrues when a society allows wicked men to go about their business unpunished.

However, this “social purifier” is only effective if the most severe of penalties is righteously and consistently applied. In decadent cultures such as the ones in which we now live, where baby murder has not only been deemed socially acceptable but is also celebrated and cherished as a right, it is hard to see how capital punishment serves the same purpose effectively. Putting a few particularly-evil adults to death for specific crimes does not even begin to address the guilt of innocent blood we have shed or allowed to be shed with nowhere near sufficient protest.

When such corporate judgment finally comes our way, it will be richly deserved.

An Equivocal Answer

So, does God approve of the death penalty? Obviously I cannot speak to specific cases, but I suspect there have been many instances in many societies throughout history in which the principles of justice embodied in the Law of Moses were carried out fairly and impartially on men and women who richly deserved their fates by judges and juries who feared God and sought to produce results pleasing to him. In such instances, and because other outcomes would surely have been even worse, it is likely God approved. Equally, godless men have perpetrated myriad injustices on their comparatively-innocent fellow men and women in the courts of law for which they will one day be called to account by an absolutely righteous Judge. The fact that they may claim to have acted in God’s name and on his authority will not help them escape the consequences of their evil behavior.

In other words, God’s approval of the death penalty very much depends on the circumstances in which it is administered.

No comments :

Post a Comment