Another one of those topics that’s always good for a lively debate is the death penalty. It seems most people have a strong opinion about it one way or the other; rarely do you find someone who shrugs their shoulders and says, “I don’t really have an opinion,” when this topic comes up in conversation. But since I enjoy a good debate, have never shied away from contentious issues, and have the luxury of my very own blog space to express my very own opinion, I might as well jump in, right?
Why now, do you ask? AOL is currently running this question in it’s Questions and Answers feature: “Is the death penalty a moral solution?” The question contains this subheading: “More and more countries abolish the Death Penalty. Do you think all states should follow suit? Do you support the Death Penalty?” Anyone can weigh in on this AOL discussion, though at the time of this writing only 14 people have commented. Not surprisingly there are opinions on both sides, and some of those commenting have suggested things I have never before heard of (such as allowing those on death row to choose between being executed or used as subjects for lab experiments). An AOL comment board is certainly not a scientific sample, by the way, and is not always likely to produce intelligent or informed discussion, but this is a question that is worthy of discussion.
First of all, the death penalty is actually the first civil ordinance instituted by God. Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” In fact, just Google “foundational civil ordinance” and you will find that even sites like WikiAnswers and answers.com list the death penalty as the foundational civil ordinance. There are numerous other passages of Scripture that support the death penalty for certain crimes. At the same time, there is no verse of Scripture that contradicts or overrides the instruction that murder should be punishable by death.
Second, Jesus Christ was in an excellent position to speak out against the death penalty, but He chose not to do so. As He stood before Pilate, He was asked, “Do you not know that I have the power to take your life?” Pilate was reminding Jesus that the death penalty was perfectly legal under Roman law, and it was Pilate–and Pilate only–that would make the determination of whether Jesus would live or die. Jesus could have spoken out at that time, saying that the death penalty was immoral, if that was His position. He did not do so, however; instead, Jesus only reminded Pilate that he had no power at all except that which God allowed him to exercise.
So why is the death penalty not only an acceptable penalty, but a moral one? Very simply because, as Genesis 9:6 says, man was made in the image of God, and every human life is sacred. If someone willfully takes the life of another he has forfeited his own life; the only acceptable consequence of such a crime is his own life. It is the harshest possible consequence, reserved for the harshest crime.
Is the death penalty a deterrent? I think it can be. Actually, I think it would be more of a deterrent if such sentences were carried out more quickly, rather than decades after the sentence. I do recognize that humans are fallible, and therefore our justice system is fallible, and accordingly it is possible for someone who is not guilty to be convicted of a crime. So every precaution should be taken against executing an individual who is not guilty, and every opportunity for appeal should be exhausted, but if an individual is still found guilty at that point, the death penalty is appropriate.
Interestingly, I have heard people express complete inability to understand how someone could be pro-life when it comes to the unborn, yet also be a supporter of the death penalty. On its face, I can see the merit there. But they are not really the same issue at all, because they are both related to the sanctity of life. If life is sacred, the unborn baby’s life must not be taken through an abortion, but the life of one guilty of premeditated murder must be taken because life is sacred. What does not make any sense at all, however, is someone taking the position that abortion is fine–it’s a right, a matter of personal choice–but the death penalty is not. How can it be okay for an individual to decide that she does not want to allow her unborn child to live–a truly innocent life–yet at same time argue that it is not okay for society to sanction the taking of the life of an individual who has been found guilty to taking the life of another? That simply does not compute. While I do not hold to either of these positions, I could understand from a logical standpoint why someone might oppose both abortion and the death penalty, or support both abortion and the death penalty, but it seems that the majority of those who support the first oppose the second…and that just not make any sense.
Let me also address the “eye for an eye” argument. The Bible does say “eye for an eye.” Specifically, Leviticus 24:19-20 says, “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” Someone once quipped that an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. The problem is, we need to accurately understand the point of this instruction in Leviticus. The point was this: the punishment must fit the crime.
There are examples in the Bible, and examples throughout history, of people or groups of people–clans, tribes, gangs, families–exacting revenge on an individual–or the clan, tribe, gang or family surrounding the individual–who had committed a crime. This can be summed up in the maxim we have probably all heard at one time or another: if you’re enemy brings a knife to the fight, you bring a gun. The trouble is, that is not the end of the matter. If one brings a knife and the other brings a gun, then the one who had the knife (or his buddies) will then respond with a grenade, to which the other side will respond with a bazooka. Then retaliation comes with a tank, which is then upped with a bomb. Do you get the point? Unless “an eye for an eye” is the guideline, the ante keeps getting upped, and eventually we’ll all be dead. “An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth,” is not there to justify or mandate equivalent violence in retribution for a wrong; rather, it is there as a limit on what consequence is justified.
So the death penalty should never be used cavalierly or carelessly or for minor crimes, but it is both a legitimate consequence for murder, and a moral one.