By: Hannah Sikes, M.Div student at Princeton Theological Seminary
The debate on capital punishment reaches across religious, political, and social barriers. In the secular sphere, both advocates for capital punishment and abolitionists fiercely argue over the legitimacy and the practicality of state employment of the death penalty.
Goals including the deterrence of crime, fairness of implementation, recognition of the value of life, and preservation of the order of society are all central elements of the debate and artfully crafted by proponents on both sides . However, when examining the preponderant moral implications of capital punishment, the religious community has much to offer. While the issue of the death penalty is incredibly multi-faceted and multi-layered, there are three primary Christian views on the matter that Mathewes identifies – the retribution seeking supporters, the hardline abolitionists, and the circumstantially dissatisfied Catholic Bishops. Paralleling the secular debate, each of these arguments is rooted a similar set of Biblical values altered only by hermeneutics, the study of Biblical interpretations . Each group employs Biblical teachings on the role of political authority, the nature of crime and justice, and the life and purpose of Jesus to uphold their position.
The first group of Christians we turn to are the supporters and proponents of the death penalty. This group declares it a matter of philosophical, theological, and social importance that capital punishment remain a “live option” as a method of state-sanctioned discipline . Their primary focus is on the perfectly natural retribution required to fulfill the perfectly unnatural crime of killing another human being – as stated in Genesis 9:6 “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” This group emphasizes the vast authority bestowed upon governing forces by the divine. According to Romans 13:4, “…rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrong-doer.” The task of bringing justice is directly under the authority of the state and sanctioned by God. This does not mean, however, that the kind of justice they distribute is an absolute justice. Instead, it is a worldly justice that merely foreshadows the ultimate judgment of God . This recognition of the inferiority of worldly justice does not deem it illegitimate, it simply allows limited human participation in the final justice and judgment of God . The last Biblical value that this group employs is the evangelical fulfillment of the life of Jesus through the Gospel. Maintaining the possibility of the death penalty as a punishment touches a commonly held, deep respect for life and reminds society of the seriousness of moral laws. According to this group, if these moral laws and values are not upheld and acted upon by the very group that witnesses to their truth, how will anyone else ever come to share the same beliefs? How will the seriousness and reality of the Gospel reach those who do not currently believe?
The second group of Christians, the more pacifist anti-death penalty faction, also employs these same three Biblical values of political authority, justice, and evangelism to support their antagonistic view on capital punishment. This group’s argument is centered on the principles of mercy and forgiveness. They recognize the moral wrong of murder in the same way the first group does, however, they leave no room for interpretation with the 6th Commandment found in Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder.” For them, any sort of human-caused death, even as punishment for death, is never an appropriate solution. Their position on political authority is much more apocalyptic, focusing not on the world but on the eternal. While they maintain the need for respect of political authority, they also point to the fallen state of the world to indicate the fallibility of said government, which is often “seduced by the demonic temptation to be in control” [1, p. 179]. The fact that Christians, or humans in general, think that they can be in control of the world is a major concern for this group, much more significant than the claim of statism made by some. This leads them to turn away from active participation in programs of civic policy and action and instead focus on witnessing to Jesus’s commitment to the restoration of perfect peace .
This Christology also serves as the basis for their interpretation of the values of justice and evangelism. While the importance of justice is still crucial for this group, there is no human agency required. The state-sanctioned execution of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection serve to fulfill all of God’s need for retribution. According to Mathewes, “God’s justice is exhaustively manifest in the merciful forgiving of evil” [1, p. 179]. There is no need for the death penalty as a form of intermediate justice because it is only God’s mercy that will have an eternal impact. Additionally important in this group’s argument is the principle of evangelism. By witnessing to the injustice of death and living in the example of Christ’s commitment to non-violence, these abolitionists promote the Gospel to the entirety of society . They adhere to the words of Jesus in John 8:7 when he declared that retributive justice through death could be implemented justly, only if the executer himself was without sin, “…let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone…” [1, p. 178].
The third Christian perspective on the death penalty is less fixed in their convictions. The Catholic perspective on the role of the governing forces is an interesting combination of the opinions of the two previously discussed groups. The Catholic Bishops do not have a problem with the employment of capital punishment in appropriate contexts, however, they do not believe that we live in such an age. They maintain that the principles of deterrence of crime and preservation of societal order that are relevant in the secular debate but feel that unless there is a drastic shift in the current political/social climate – such as a period of martial law or political oppression – that capital punishment is not a suitable form of retributive justice . Catholics often recognize the authority of the government and claim that its legitimacy as a power comes from its ability to protect its citizens from both external and internal threats. This includes those that threaten society by breaking laws. Secondly, they deal with the question of rising statism. They fear this view of the government as supreme and draw a clear line between the subjects of state-sanctioned punishment and divine-sanctioned punishment. In this scenario, the state does maintain the authority to punish based on the danger presented to society by the criminal, but God alone is allowed the authority to punish the individual based on the crime against the victim. Here again the question of justice is raised – what is a just way to punish such criminals in a situation where harm is done to both the individual and society?
While punishment is a complex idea it can be broken down into three basic elements – retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation . For the Catholic Bishops, capital punishment in our modern age is far too focused on the element of retribution and dismisses the importance of the other two-thirds of “punishment.” There is far too much room for error and publicity involved in modern capital punishment trials to be a form of appropriate justice. Throughout history there has been a strong correlation of death row debates with other high stress political atmospheres. There is also significant data to suggest underlying themes of racism pervading in capital punishment trials [1, see p. 176]. Just as with the other two groups discussed, the Catholic Bishops use the lens of evangelism to support their perspective on the death penalty. In accordance with their general social teaching, they emphasize the value of each individual life as created in God’s image. They also argue that by committing to the abolition of capital punishment in modern society, it could be a step of solidarity to break the cycle of violence and oppression, which is often the justification for the need for capital punishment . Similarly to the abolitionists, they promote the potential that by taking more seriously the example of Jesus it will open the dialogue of the Gospel to many unhearing ears.
Even among the Christian community, there is no conclusive opinion on the moral legitimacy of capital punishment. Three groups with differing views all use the same three Biblical values – political authority, the nature of justice, and the principle of evangelism – to promote their own positions. Despite the complexities of this intra-religious debate, it is important to remember the broader context of the inter-religious as well as the secular factions that contribute to the ongoing discussion of the acceptability and applicability of capital punishment within our modern political, social, and theological context.
Hannah Sikes is pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is currently working as a Chaplain at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC.
 Mathewes, Charles T. Understanding Religious Ethics. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.