Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 8

Published 05.01.08 at

In the previous article, I showed that the Old Testament endorses capital punishment. Now, let’s see whether the New Testament maintains or contradicts this teaching.

Did Jesus support capital punishment?

Many Christians believe that faithfulness to the ministry of Jesus requires them to oppose capital punishment. Though they acknowledge that the Old Testament mandated this penalty for murder, they think Jesus changed everything. Typically, their view is that the harsh and mean God the Father of the Old Testament established execution, but the loving and kind God the Son of the New Testament abolished it. I’m pretty sure such people don’t realize they’re denying the Trinity when they say this.

The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the eternal unity of all three persons of the Godhead, but such a fundamental disagreement between the Son and the Father would rupture this unity. In fact, if Jesus had contradicted any of the Father’s principles, let alone such a well-established one, that very disagreement would have immediately disproved His claims to be the divine Son. This was exactly the heresy the Pharisees were hoping to trap Him into when they brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. Even His enemies knew that He absolutely had to affirm capital punishment in order to prove Himself not a false prophet. How truly strange, then, that those who claim to love Him assert that He did exactly what His enemies failed to trick Him into doing! Far from opposing capital punishment, Jesus actually advocated it, as His unity with the Father required.

In Matthew 5:17-18, He taught, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.” Just a few verses later, He extends the prohibition against murder to hatred and condemns haters to “the hell of fire” in verse 22, which is very strange talk for someone who opposes capital punishment. It’s very hard to dismiss these verses because they occur smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which is so often mistakenly offered as the repudiation of Old Testament justice. If Jesus elsewhere opposes capital punishment, then He is not only contradicting the Father but even His own words.

Later, Jesus scolds the Pharisees and scribes for teaching leniency toward rebellious children by quoting the Old Testament, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’” (Matthew 15:4) Subsequently, when the Romans come to arrest Jesus, Peter rather ineptly tries to defend Him by killing Malchus, but only succeeds in slicing off his ear. Jesus rebukes him with the warning, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Far from advocating pacifism, as this passage is often misused to do, Jesus here teaches Peter that using the sword (for murder) will only get the sword used against him (for execution).

Shortly thereafter, Jesus tells Pilate in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above…” This authority to put Jesus to death would be odd if it didn’t entail the general power to execute criminals. Finally, when He is dying of crucifixion, Jesus accepts the repentance of the thief on the cross, who says to his reviling companion, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds….” (Luke 23:40-41) Had Jesus disagreed with this statement, responding to it with the promise of eternal salvation was a rather obtuse way to express the correction.

Beyond all this evidence that Jesus affirms the consistent Biblical principle of capital punishment, there is yet one more vital concept to grasp. Christians believe that Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of us all. Although His sinlessness merited eternal life, He endured the death we deserved to extend that gift to us. As Prof. Michael Pakaluk so perfectly expressed the point, “If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins….” If we didn’t deserve the death penalty ourselves, then why would Christ need to suffer it on our behalf in order to satisfy the justice of God? Denying the death penalty directly assaults the justice of the Father, Who required His own Son to pay precisely that price in our stead.

What about the rest of the New Testament?

Since both Jesus’s teaching and His death affirm the capital punishment, it should come as no surprise that the rest of the New Testament reinforces this view.

When confronting Governor Festus, Paul says in Acts 25:11, “If I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of these things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them.” He both affirms capital statutes and accepts them as binding on him if he has broken one. Later, in the New Testament’s most famous passage on the nature of government, Paul explains, “But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” (Romans 13:4) Finally, the same Bible which begins in Genesis 9:6 with the establishment of capital punishment, then carries the theme consistently throughout the text, and ends by reiterating it in Revelation 13:10, “If any one is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if any one kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.”

Literally from beginning to end, the Bible teaches that capital punishment is authorized and required by God. If so, then why do so many people claim to oppose this practice on religious grounds? We’ll consider some of their objections in the next column.

The Danger Of Hating What You Used To Believe

Publication forthcoming.

I was raised by a mom who was very liberal, both politically and theologically. In fact, she was more distressed when I became a conservative Evangelical than she ever was when I was an atheist. As you would expect, once I outgrew liberalism, I became quite passionate about showing other people how stupid liberals were. One might well say I was on a crusade.

But was I genuinely motivated by wanting to help other people, or was I mostly intent on denying my own past errors? I realized that I was so heavily invested in hating liberalism and the people who advocated it because I hated having ever been one of them. Much like a disillusioned kid who has learned the truth about Santa Claus, I was embarrassed by having been capable of such foolishness. I finally realized that I needed to forgive myself for having been wrong in the past and embrace the fact that I had believed all those mistaken things.

Then, instead of screaming to everyone that I was right and had never been wrong, it became possible for me to calmly explain to anyone that I knew I was right precisely because I had been so wrong for so long. Once I accepted who I used to be, I also stopped hating other people for reminding me that I ever was that guy. I started being able to have conversations with them without absolutely having to win the discussion. I could even listen sincerely to their ideas because I didn’t feel threatened anymore. And a funny thing happened.

I became much more successful at persuading them to join me in my views. But I also discovered that they had many interesting and useful things to say which I would otherwise have missed out on before.

I’ve seen this pattern in many people. After leaving something they were for a long time, like Catholicism or Mormonism or atheism or even fundamentalism, they become very invested in hating the thing they used to be. Although this can be a healthy temporary phase for accomplishing separation, real health eventually comes from not feeling so threatened by the old thing that you must hate it in order to feel secure.

And there is one final, tremendous benefit from getting to that place. It allows you to minister to others who are currently in the error. It’s been very useful to me to consider that God opened my eyes so that I could help others see the light, not so that I could hate and attack them for still being blind.

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 7

Published 04.22.08 at

Following last week’s
Supreme Court ruling that lethal injections for executions are Constitutional, it’s appropriate we continue our discussion of capital punishment. The first six columns in this series approached capital punishment from a purely secular perspective. Yet, since religious values and arguments so strongly shape this debate, it would be negligent to not consider this side of the issue at some length as well. Since the primary religious framework for most Americans is the Bible and Christianity, I will discuss it within that context. Although important ideas have been voiced by the non-Christian religious, both my own knowledge and also the actual nature of this debate in America, recommend this limitation.

Does anything in the Old Testament affirm capital punishment?

This question will strike those who have actually read the Bible as a bit ludicrous, but there are many who in fact do not know what it says on this subject. The foundational passage is Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” This simple verse both explains what the punishment for murder should be and why murder merits it.

Because people are made in the image of God, their lives are precious in a way that animals and property are not. Wantonly destroying them is an insult to the God who made them, which is further emphasized by the contrasting emphasis in the next verse, indicating just how opposed the will of God is to the destruction of innocent life. Genesis 9:7 reads, “And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.” In the very center of a passage which is foundational to the relationship of man to God after Noah’s flood (Genesis 8:20—9:17), God thus establishes death for those who murder and proclaims life as His ideal.

Although this clear reference is sufficient, I wouldn’t want a reader mistakenly thinking that it stands alone. In fact, one of the interesting notes about the first five books of the Old Testament (called the Pentateuch) is that every one of them specifies death as the penalty for murder. Exodus 21:12 says, “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” This follows closely after Exodus 20:13, which proclaims, “You shall not murder,” in the middle of the Ten Commandments. Those who tritely claim this verse means to not kill (an inferior translation) would do well to explain how the author (traditionally Moses) so flagrantly contradicted himself in the space of just 25 verses. Better exegesis wouldn’t mangle such an important Scripture.

Leviticus 24:17 reads, “And if a man takes the life of any human being, he shall surely be put to death.” Numbers 35:31 says, “Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death.” In fact, murder is unique in that it is the only crime with no possibility for restitution. We know this from Numbers 35:33, “So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.” Thus, failing to execute a murderer brings a stain upon the land.

Completing the books of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 19:11-13 explains, “But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.” This last reference is fascinating because it comes amidst the discussion of God providing “cities of refuge” for the protection of those who merely commit manslaughter. In other words, God refuses to require life for unpremeditated homicide but goes out of His way to clarify that actual murderers who appeal to such protection must be killed without pity. It’s almost as if He wants to be sure there’s no misunderstanding and that someone doesn’t come along to claim that He favors leniency for murderers.

To further punctuate the point, Deuteronomy 19:10 prefaces this very passage by explaining that the reason God wants to provide cities of refuge is to protect Israel from the bloodguilt that would come to them if they executed a mere manslaughterer. And, as if all this weren’t sufficient, the chapter finishes with the requirement that those guilty of perjury in a capital case be executed for their attempt to use the state as their murder weapon (Deuteronomy 19:21). Such distinctions and contrivances are at least moderately surprising if God’s real intent was for murderers to be left alive.

Now I know this is going to feel like overkill, but, given the number of people who claim to base their opposition to capital punishment on the Bible, I hope you can forgive me for feeling the need to be thorough. Not only did God put capital legislation in the hands of the Israelites, but He even specifically sanctioned execution in particular cases. He told Joshua to kill Achan’s family for breaking the ban on items taken from Jericho (Joshua 7). He told king Saul to kill all the Amalekites and then punished Saul by taking the kingdom away from him when he failed to do so (1 Samuel 15). And one of the most celebrated prophets in the Old Testament, Elijah, rather famously executed the 450 prophets of Baal when God proved His reality and the falseness of their religion. Whether through governmental legislation or direct command, the God of the Old Testament clearly believes in capital punishment.

In the next column, we will examine the record of the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus regarding the propriety of execution.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Three Kinds of Rules

Published April, 2008 in the Greater Phoenix Christian Chronicle

Ethical rules fall into three fairly distinct categories. First, there are universal rules, which apply to all people in all places, such as, “Do not murder,” or, “Devote time to God in prayer.” Second, there are particular rules, which apply to all people in a group or common circumstance, such as, “Drive 65 or less on most American interstates,” or, “Obey your superiors in the military.” Finally, there are personal rules, which apply only to you, usually based on your individual purpose, character, or commitments, such as, “No alcohol because drunkenness tempts you,” or, “No motorcycle riding because your wife hates it.”

Many well-intentioned people wrongly deny one or more of these categories, and this leads them to be mistaken about how a rule applies. Out of the fear that relativism will take over, some people deny personal rules and turn everything into a universal, such as, “No one should celebrate Halloween.” Likewise, out of the fear that absolutism will turn us all into robots, others wrongly reduce universals to the merely personal, such as, “I would never have an abortion, myself.”

Yet the Bible teaches principles that fall into all three categories. Thus, knowing how to answer an ethical question often starts with properly understanding into what category the question belongs. For illustration, let’s consider three fairly simple ethical issues: murder, sex, and alcohol consumption.

First, imagine the somewhat bizarre situation that a stranger asks you whether it’s okay for him to murder another person. Without hesitation, you say it is not, and you may well seek additional information for the sake of public safety. When people are mistaken about murder, we correct them. If they say it is merely a personal choice, we explain that it is always wrong. But even if they say that it is wrong because it is illegal in America (making it a particular rule), we still correct them by emphasizing that it would be wrong anywhere, even if it weren’t illegal.

Second, imagine if some stranger came and asked you whether it’s okay for him to have sex. You would immediately seek to know what category he is in: married or unmarried. If he is married, sex is mandatory, but if he is unmarried, it is prohibited. Certainly, there can be refinements in personal situations, but that is the ordinary particular rule regarding sex. Obviously, you would also want to be sure that the woman in question is his wife. As this example shows, one interesting thing about particular rules is that they often constitute the exact boundary that distinguishes one category of people from another. Once again, we see that getting the category wrong demands correcting. If someone thinks sex is for everyone or no one, or thinks that some unmarrieds may indulge but other marrieds may abstain (for long periods), they are simply wrong, and part of educating them would involve correcting these category mistakes.

Finally, consider that a stranger wants you to tell him whether drinking alcohol is okay. You might begin by telling him that drunkenness is wrong, particularly so when it is a regular habit. Next, you might inquire as to whether he thinks he has a problem consuming it in moderation. If so, you would surely counsel him against it. Perhaps you would ask him where he intends to drink. At a wedding or at his home, fine. In a park or in front of a former alcoholic, not so much. In Saudi Arabia or in Wisconsin? The difference matters. You might inquire about his finances, his age, what his religion teaches, whether he intends to be driving afterward, and even what his family thinks about alcohol. In other words, you can’t just answer the question quickly because the proper reply depends on a hundred variables. What muddies the waters even more is that this personal rule can take on the appearance of a particular rule, for instance if the man is Muslim or Mormon. But since it is not always a category issue, we don’t start by presuming it to be.

So how does all of this help us? Simple. There is a universal rule to love others. This requires us to assist them in living well, which means we must be careful to correctly know whether, when, and how the rules apply to them. Just knowing the difference between these categories is an excellent start in practically doing this.