The Revelational Christian Ethic and Capital Punishment
Michael S. Jones
January 1, 2017
Table of Contents
I. Introduction —————————————————————————————– 3
II. The Revelational Christian Ethic —————————————————————– 3
III. Capital Punishment ——————————————————————————– 5
IV. Conclusion —————————————————————————————— 6
V. Bibliography ————————————————————————————— 10
In this paper I will attempt to answer the question, “Should a Christian support the death penalty?” Implicit in this question is the anterior question, “Does a Christian ethic support the death penalty?” A Christian approach to this issue will necessarily involve an attempt to find a way of reconciling or at least balancing sentiments that are major themes in Christian thought but that seem to point in opposing directions on this issue. Such potentially contrasting themes include mercy versus justice, forgiveness versus judgment, and love versus responsibility. These themes and tensions run throughout the Bible and cannot be blithely disregarded as if the biblical position is obvious.
I will approach this issue in two steps. First I will describe the methodology that I believe a Christian should utilize when attempting to solve moral dilemmas. Then I will apply this methodology to the death penalty. The position that I hope to substantiate is that, regardless of what stance on the death penalty is rational for non-Christians, Christians should view the death penalty as immoral and therefore should take a public stand against it.
The Revelational Christian Ethic
I believe that the best approach to solving moral dilemmas is a modified Divine Command Theory sometimes called Divine Nature Theory. According to this, what is good in this world is a reflection of the nature of the creator of this world, God. Hence ethics is, in a way, a subset of theology.[footnoteRef:1] The transcendence of God makes it necessary for him to reveal himself to us in order for it to be possible us to do theology and thus revelation is a prerequisite of ethics, too. [1: Michael S. Jones, Moral Reasoning: An Intentional Approach to Distinguishing Right from Wrong. (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2017), 103-5.]
I believe that God has indeed revealed himself. I base this belief primarily on the testimony of Jesus Christ, who, through his miraculous resurrection, has shown that he is God incarnate. The resurrection is God’s stamp of approval on Jesus’ ministries and teaching, and Jesus taught that God has revealed himself in various ways including the inspiration of the scriptures that we call the Bible.[footnoteRef:2] [2: This argument is taken from the work of scholars like N.T. Wright, Michael Licona, and especially Gary Habermas. See Gary Habermas, The Risen Jesus & Future Hope (Lanham, MD: 2003). ]
Broadly speaking, this revelation takes two forms: general and special. General revelation is that knowledge of God that he has communicated to us through creation (as the apostle Paul indicates in Romans 1) and the human conscience (Romans 2). Special revelation is God’s communication of specific truths to specific people through mediums like dreams, visions, angels, prophets, miraculous vocalizations, inspired writings like the Bible, and especially the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ.
Both of these forms of revelation are useful to the ethicist. Ethical thinking that is based on general revelation is called “Natural Law Ethics.” There is no specific term for ethical thinking that is based on special revelation, but the term “Christian Ethics” can be used to refer to the Christian practice of utilizing general and special revelation to construct an ethical system and resolve moral dilemmas. [footnoteRef:3] [3: Jones, Moral Reasoning, 109-12.]
I believe that God’s revelation is sufficient to guide the believer in resolving any moral dilemma.[footnoteRef:4] Furthermore, it is my opinion that any solution to an ethical dilemma that is not harmonious with the approach advocated by God through his revelation is mistaken. However, there is a significant complicating factor: interpretation. The scriptures are subject to multiple interpretations. This is an important reason why Christians often disagree on moral issues. But I do not believe that a correct interpretation of the Bible is impossible. What is required is an effective interpretative strategy. [4: I believe this to be an implication of II Timothy 3:16, 17. ]
The study of how to properly interpret the scriptures is called “hermeneutics.” A grammatical-historical-contextual hermeneutic will lead the reader back to the original author’s intent and, via that intent, to the message that God inspired that author to communicate.[footnoteRef:5] Once God’s message has been thus discovered, careful, logical thinking will enable the ethicist to apply this message to the moral dilemma with which he or she is wrestling.[footnoteRef:6] [5: Jones, Moral Reasoning, 113-15.] [6: For a more detailed explanation of this, see Jones, Moral Reasoning, 116-20.]
The issue in applied ethics that I have chosen to address is capital punishment. One of the most foundational of all biblical teachings is that God is love. This aspect of the nature of God seems to be as intrinsic to God as his omniscience, omnipotence, or any of his other immutable attributes. This is reflected both in the Apostle John’s repeated affirmation that “God is love” and Jesus’ summary of all of the Jewish law in just two commands: love God and love your neighbor.[footnoteRef:7] The Christian obligation to love all, even one’s enemy, is undeniable.[footnoteRef:8] Hence the Christian is obligated to love even the murderer. This, of course, poses a prima facie challenge to capital punishment. [7: I John 4:8, 16; Matt 22:37-40 and other passages. ] [8: Matt. 5: 43-45, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (King James Version).]
There is, however, an obvious counter-argument stemming from the obligation to love beyond the murderer, to consider the potential threat that a murderer poses to those around him. This is acerbated in situations where the murderer is a hardened criminal with thoroughly ingrained patterns of violent behavior. Who aught we to love first? Who should we love most?
It might be argued that, in contrast to others in our community, the murderer has voluntarily relinquished his claim to our love, and that therefore we ought to love him less and love others more, not abandoning our love for the murderer but rather prioritizing our love for the innocent and protecting them from him through the death penalty. But we must keep in mind that we could protect them through a life sentence without parole instead. We do not need to choose between loving one and loving the others when the lives of both can be spared.
Counters to this small argument against the death penalty abound. It can be argued that the death penalty, when imposed on those who have committed murder, restores justice, that it saves taxpayer expenses, that it serves as a deterrent to others, and that it has biblical precedent. In this paper I am not at all concerned with the first three of these arguments, for here I am not trying to argue from the perspective of common good, but rather from the perspective of Christian ethics. Hence I will not entangle myself in the important but difficult debates over the comparative cost-effectiveness of the death penalty or its purported (and disputed) effectiveness as a deterrent. I direct our attention instead to the question of whether or not the death penalty is biblical.
Most people are familiar with the principle of lex talionis (law of retaliation) enshrined in Genesis 9:6, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”[footnoteRef:9] Many conservative Christians take this as a carte blanche endorsement of capital punishment. But unless we are willing to mandate that every single time one human kills another the life of the killer must also be sacrificed, a much more nuanced understanding of this text is required, for a woodenly literal reading of the text would result in absurdities. If a murderer is put to death, must the executioner also be put to death? And how about the executioner of the executioner? Or how about the person who kills another in self-defense or to defend his family? There are a variety of situations in which an act that results in the death of one human at the hands of another should not result in the death of the latter. [9: Genesis 9:6 (King James Version).]
Hence we must approach biblical texts that relate to this issue in a way that is characterized by an informed hermeneutic and careful exegesis. And we must make a number of distinctions relating to the texts on which we wish to base our position. Some biblical texts speak descriptively rather than prescriptively, and the mere fact that capital punishment was practiced at some time during biblical history does not entail that it is moral for Christians to support it today. Some passages that address moral issues are permissive rather than prescriptive; that is, they permit some action but do not prescribe it as a requirement. Concluding that the actions being permitted in such passages must be moral is overly hasty, for God may be permitting the action for reasons of his own even though the action in question is not generally moral. This seems to be Jesus’ interpretation of Moses’ permission of divorce: God (through Moses) permitted divorce in Deuteronomy 24 not because divorce is a moral practice but in spite of the fact that it is not moral and goes against God’s ideal design for marriage.[footnoteRef:10] In Jesus’ interpretation Moses delimited divorce but did not endorse it as moral. Hence some biblical passages that seem to permit capital punishment may actually be delimiting it instead. [10: See Matthew 19 for Jesus’ discussion of this. ]
In every attempt to apply a principle derived from a biblical passage to a situation outside of the one directly addressed the reader must make a determination of whether the principle is conditional or unconditional. Some biblical principles may be timeless, unconditional, and therefore normative for all people. Others are clearly intended for a specific context. Many commands and prohibitions found in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) – perhaps even a fairly large majority of them – were intended for a specific time and people and do not apply to Christians in the post-New Testament era. This is true of circumcision, various dietary commands, the rituals involving the Temple, the prohibition from marrying gentiles, and many others. Some of these are not explicitly moral while others are. A pertinent question is whether the institution of capital punishment found in the Old Testament is conditional or normative. One cannot simply assume that because it is permitted or even commanded in the Hebrew Bible it is therefore normative for all people.
In the article “Contemporary Capital Punishment: Biblical Difficulties with the Biblically Permissible,” Eric and Walter Hobbs argue that the moral issue of capital punishment parallels the moral issue of divorce and should be handled the way that Jesus handled divorce.[footnoteRef:11] That is, killing other humans is not God’s ideal, regardless of the circumstances. God (through Moses) permitted the death penalty for His own reasons, which may have included impressing the sanctity of life on humanity through demanding the most severe penalty from those who take a life. However, once that goal was accomplished the death penalty had fulfilled its purpose and was no longer needed. This may be why the death penalty is not repeated in the New Testament. So far from being repeated, it may have been repealed by Jesus when he protected the woman caught in adultery from being stoned, which was the penalty proscribed in the Hebrew Bible.[footnoteRef:12] [11: Eric E. Hobbs and Walter C. Hobbs, “Contemporary Capital Punishment: Biblical Difficulties with the Biblically Permissible,” Christian Scholar’s Review 11 (1982): 250-62. ] [12: John 8:1-11. The Hebrew Bible speaks of the death of both the man and the woman involved (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22-24).]
One timeless, normative principle that is found in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is the principle of the sanctity of human life. Human life is so extremely dear because it reflects the life of God himself, the source of our existence. To denigrate human life in any way is to dishonor the God who it reflects. In light of the uncertainty of the normativity of any Old Testament affirmation of the death penalty and in light of the certainty of the normativity of the imperative not to dishonor the imago dei, it seems appropriate for Christians to steadfastly eschew the death penalty. Furthermore, in light of the finality of the death penalty, it seems prudent, to say the least, to err on the side of caution. Hence it seems to me that the most biblical, the most hermeneutically informed, and therefore the most Christian position vis-à-vis capital punishment is one of strong opposition to it. [footnoteRef:13] [13: Laura A.Stivers, Christine E. Gudorf, and James B. Martin-Schramm. Christian Ethics: A Case Method Approach (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012), 296.]
Capital punishment is an important issue: losing one life is a tragedy, but following that loss with the punitive loss of a second makes it even worse. In this paper I have attempted to apply the Revelational Christian Ethic to this issue to discover what the most consistently Christian position is on capital punishment. My conclusion is that Christians should view the death penalty as immoral and therefore should take a public stand against it.
Hobbs, Eric E. and Walter C. Hobbs, “Contemporary Capital Punishment: Biblical Difficulties with the Biblically Permissible,” Christian Scholar’s Review 11 (1982): 250-62.
Jones, Michael S. Moral Reasoning: An Intentional Approach to Distinguishing Right from Wrong. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2017.
Stivers, Laura A., Christine E. Gudorf, and James B. Martin-Schramm. Christian Ethics: A Case Method Approach, 4th ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2012.