Results tagged “Death Penalty” from Reformation21 Blog

Retribution and Redemption

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Last month, Pope Francis expressed his opinion that the death penalty is unacceptable in all cases. At the same time as he took his public stand, a series of popular opinions circulated online about whether or not the death penalty was to be viewed as valid as a Christian position. The better part of those who were vocal on the Twittersphere, also rushed to state unequivocally that they believe that the death penalty is always an illegitimate form of justice. The prevalent opinion was that the death penalty is, in fact, an inhumane form of civil punishment that the church ought not support. In response to these assertions, some raised appropriate questions concerning how accepted definitions of justice are formed. However, as I watched this unfold, one thought constantly reentered my thinking--namely, why did God sanction the death penalty as a principle of retribution against murder in the anti-diluvian revelation? The burden of proof, it seems to me, is on those who reject the death penalty to explain the purpose of the death penalty as a Divinely sanctioned form of retribution in Genesis 9:5-6. 

When we approach this subject, we have to first recognize that the death penalty has its origin in God's dealings with Noah and those who stepped off of the Ark with him. Immediately after the flood, God said:

"For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image."

Since there is nothing arbitrary about God's revelation, and since we must seek to understand each and every thing that He breathed out in Scripture in context, we must seek to understand the reason why God made this declaration as soon as Noah and those with him stepped onto the newly created world. 

The first important exegetical consideration concerns that which transpired leading up to the flood. In Genesis 6:11-13, we read, "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, 'I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them.'" In one very real sense, we can say that the flood was itself a Divinely appointed typological cosmic death penalty. The Apostle Peter draws out the typology when he explained that the flood was a type of the final judgment (2 Peter 3:5-7). Without wishing to get into debates over global or local flood theories, the point is that God destroyed all flesh from the face of the earth on account of the violence that filled the earth. The depravity of man was so extensive after the table of nations (Gen. 10) that the Lord brought the pre-diluvian world to an end in this watery judgment. 

The second important exegetical consideration is that which regards the heart of man before and after the flood. In Genesis 6:5-7 we read, "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually...So the Lord said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens." The depravity of the hearts of men is what precipitated the retributive floodwaters. However, in Genesis 8:21, immediately after Noah sacrificed an acceptable sin offering to the Lord, we read, "Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done." Here, God makes a starkly different response to the problem of depravity in the human heart. After all, the flood waters could cleanse the earth externally but could never cleanse what was inside the human heart. 

The third important exegetical consideration comes in connection with these first two considerations. In the place of a worldwide judgment, God instituted the death penalty. Knowing that men would continue to act out the depravity of their hearts in murderous ways, God purposed to give a restraining grace to humanity on the whole. God had just entered into covenant with Noah and with all of creation--securing the stage of redemption--and promising His mercy to every subsequent generation of mankind. If one of Noah's descendants had decided to go on a murder spree, the human race and the promise of the coming Redeemer (Gen. 3:15) would have been eradicated. Jesus was in the loins of Noah, so to speak. The nations were also in the loins of Noah. Noah stood as a second Adam, the head of a newly created humanity standing in a typical new creation--though far from being the consummated new heavens and new earth. In order to secure the populating of the earth and to accommodate the goal of bringing about the nations out of which He would redeem His elect, the Lord established the death penalty. 

This is, of course, not the only redemptive-historical rationale for the death penalty. The Apostle Paul tied together the importance of the death penalty in Israel's civil law when he appealed to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 in his theological significance of Christ's death. In Galatians 3:13, Paul cited Deut. 21:23, stating, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree." The hanging of an individual who had committed a crime worthy of death was followed by the public display of the retribution of God. Jesus was treated as the disobedient and rebellious son--as a glutton and drunkard (Matt. 11:19)--and hung on a tree so that we might escape the final retribution of God on judgment day. In short, if there were no death penalty, there would be no redemption. If Christ had not died a criminal's death on the cross, we would suffer the just punishment of our sins for all of eternity. As the answer to Heidelberg 38 explains, "Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so he freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us." The restraining factor of the death penalty ultimately moved to the redeeming factor. As the death penalty served the populating of the nations, so it further served the accomplishment of the atonement. 

While arguments can and will be made either for or against the continuation of the death penalty, these explanations as to its origin and purposes should never be lost on us. To reject or forget them will inevitably lead us to the place where we will ultimately be unable to explain the divine insistence on retributive justice and the history of the work of redemption Scripture. 

Human Dignity, Justice and the Death Penalty

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Pope Francis' recent and much-publicized change of the Catholic church's position on the death penalty presents a challenge in the realm of theological and ethical reasoning. His rationale for denouncing the death penalty, according to the Vatican statement, is that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."1 On the contrary, we should maintain that God's truth in inviolable, and let it form our understanding of justice. Pope Francis' argument is problematic because it runs contrary to the Scripture's witness on the connection of justice and anthropology.

With regard to justice, there is a whole conceptual change indicated in Pope Francis' position. A traditional conception of justice regarding murder or similarly heinous crimes is that death is a just penalty, and to give a lesser penalty is mercy. This is no slight to mercy, for God is both just and merciful, and mercy is to be commended. But mercy and justice must not be confused.

The conceptual change necessarily implied by Francis' stance is that capital punishment is unjust; justice must then be found at some lesser punishment, and mercy (presumably) at a punishment less severe than that. For it is assuredly unjust to "attack...the inviolability and dignity of the person." If that is, indeed, the nature of the death penalty, then it is a sin to execute a criminal for any crime, an act of profound injustice. However--as I have already noted--this understanding runs into insurmountable problems in light of the biblical witness.

Regarding theological anthropology, we need to first recognize that the pope's opposition to the death penalty is grounded in a concept of human dignity built on a premise of inviolability--meaning that the human life must not be taken as penalty for a crime. The human person is the central concern, and justice is determined based on anthropology. But is this the correct approach, and is the implicit anthropology sound?

Certainly, human dignity is a factor of tremendous significance in ethics. Humans are made in the imago Dei and have a blessed standing at the height of God's creation. The Fall had a cataclysmic effect on human life, but did not obliterate the dignity with which we were invested by God's creative work. So the problem is not with applying human dignity to the question of criminal justice, but with how that application is made. In the case of Francis' ethics, we see a secularization of the imago Dei, where theological anthropology becomes anthropocentric instead of theocentric.

In Scripture--indeed, the same book in Scripture--God first reveals to us that He made mankind in His own image (Genesis 1:27) and that He decreed the death penalty in the case of murder (9:6). This observation puts advocates of the pope's stance in the perilous position of maintaining that God, having established the basis of human dignity (which they regard as inviolable) proceeded to legislate what in their view can only be regarded as gross injustice.

We also find that the Mosaic law, given by God to the people of Israel, legislates the death penalty for numerous crimes. It is important to note that the first statement of a death penalty, in Genesis, is in agreement with the legal code laid out further in the Pentateuch.

It is not irrelevant to point out that this is precisely where Pope Francis has displayed careless exegesis in the past. In another statement that garnered considerable media attention, in 2016, he declared that "The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty."2 But even a cursory examination of the context of the sixth commandment shows that it refers not to all killing but to murder, and that it stands in a legislative code that prescribes the death penalty for numerous crimes.

My point is not that the presence of the death penalty in the Mosaic legislation automatically requires the death penalty in modern American legislation. We are not ancient Israel, we are not governed by the Mosaic law, and a variety of hermeneutical issues need to be considered when applying the Mosaic legislation to contemporary situations. My point, however, is that one certainly cannot make the sixth commandment an argument against the death penalty. It is exegetically indefensible for one to attempt to do so. Instead, we must acknowledge the place of the death penalty in a law code established by God.

The Scriptures must be heard both contextually and in their whole witness; only then will they properly form our theological ethics. What we must observe from the Scriptures is that human dignity is not given as an argument against the death penalty--it is given as the basis for the death penalty (Gen. 9:6; Lev. 17:21). Because humans have been made in the image of God, the heinous crime of murder deserves the severest of penalties--namely, the death of the murderer.

Human dignity, in other words, is connected with justice. God, who created us in His image, established the implication of the imago Dei--that murder should not be treated lightly, but regarded as an offense deserving death. Human life is not, then, inviolable where justice is concerned. A properly theocentric theological anthropology must take this into account.

By contrast, the pope's stance strikes one as a secularized, anthropocentric theological anthropology. Human dignity has become an end in itself, and stands in an ethical position not obviously different from the prevailing secular conception of justice. Western culture has taken a turn to where we are more and more seeing a confusion of concepts: that mercy is justice, and justice is injustice. Pope Francis, with his anthropocentric anthropology, is playing into this mischaracterization of justice.

The point of this essay is not to argue for the death penalty. A Christian may reasonably argue that the death penalty should be opposed because of the New Covenant priority of mercy, or because our justice system is too corrupt and biased to be trusted with such a severe responsibility. Whether either of those lines arguments would prove ultimately reliable remains to be shown, but they are both plausible theological rationales.

What is not theologically reasonable is arguing against the death penalty on the basis of inviolable human dignity. It is unfortunate that arguments against the death penalty are so often not focused on prioritizing mercy but on a shifting understanding of justice. When inviolable human dignity is the driving factor, the death penalty is regarded not as a true and severe justice (which we should perhaps not enforce), but as a barbaric and unjust measure. Theologically, such a position, while not explicitly Marcionite, has definite Pseudo-Marcionite implications.

We must keep our theological anthropology, and its implications for ethics, centered on God. When God is not in the center, humanity becomes all-encompassing. But our dignity is theologically grounded, and our telos is theocentric. Creature-centered ethics do not give adequate attention to the identity and purposes of the Creator. That is where Pope Francis' theological anthropology shows its glaring weakness.


1. "Pope declares death penalty inadmissible, changing Church's stance," CNN, 08/02/18.

2. "There's no excuse for it: Pope Francis on the death penalty," Catholic News Agency, 06/22/16.



Josh Steely is the pastor of Pontoon Baptist Church in Pontoon Beach, IL. Josh received his BA from Wheaton College and his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.