Is the death penalty moral?
Hello Ernest! I trust you’re doing well. I had an intense argument with some acquaintances today concerning the capital punishment sentence for Ruth Kamande’s murder charge. All of them were in support of the sentence. It would be a major understatement to say that I was both rudely shocked and deeply pained. I really don’t understand why anyone would support the murder of anyone regardless of how “major” the crime they’ve committed is. I have been brought up on a strong grace foundation so my automatic response and the genuine conviction of my heart is that:
i. Only God has the legal right to give and take away life. Man has no right to take away life. Just because capital punishment is in the law doesn’t make it right by God’s standards.
ii. Jesus paid the ultimate price for any and every sin that man will ever commit. including murder. He died that we may live. And as recipients of God’s grace we should be extenders of that same grace.
iii. The less inhumane option, life imprisonment, is an opportunity for her to experience the grace and love of God. Who knows? Maybe she’ll encounter the person of God in her lifetime, her heart will be softened and she will serve as a testimony of God’s goodness.
iv. God loves her. deeply, relentlessly, UNCONDITIONALLY. His heart beats for her. and i believe it is His desire that she may live and not die. that she will come to the knowledge of the truth. and that can’t happen when the state decides to kill her.
There’s a lot on my heart about that whole issue but let me get to the point. I know you to be one of the people who stand for truth and are not afraid to defend the cause of Christ (I really deeply admire and bless the Lord for that about your person). I’d like to hear your thoughts on capital punishment.
Is there something I’m missing? What does God say about it? Why is the church silent about it?
Thank you for the question. And thank you for the kind words about the ministry. We thank God for the opportunity to use the scriptures to tear down thoughts and arguments that raise themselves above the knowledge of God. The issue of capital punishment always raises moral concerns. It sets a good foundation to talk about the issue critically. I read the news about Ruth Kamande. When my wife and I saw her picture, the first thing we thought was, “How could such a pretty innocent looking girl murder someone?” The verdict for murdering her boyfriend by stabbing him 22 times was the death penalty. As I read your letter, the overt question rang loud: Is the death penalty moral?
Doesn’t God alone have the right to take life?
The first opposition to the morality of capital punishment by many opponents is what you raised as well. Since God grants life, isn’t he alone the one with moral authority to take it? Often when the arguments about capital punishment rage, opponents and proponents hardly think of the genesis of it all. When we understand the history of an act, we gain deeper insight. Opponents of capital punishment often believe that the death penalty is a human invention. As believers, we see the earliest declaration of capital punishment as justice for murder in Genesis 9.
“Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man.” Genesis 9:5-6 (NASB)
Genesis 9 is God giving Noah and his family the new rules of life after the flood. We know from Genesis 6:5-11 that the morality of mankind pre-flood was so putrid that God himself killed them by the thousands. In the post-flood world, the God of the Bible promises to never use a flood to mete out justice for the evil in the earth. But what he does is that he provides humanity with a standard for justice. And he gets specific when it comes to murder. He says that the just act for one who takes the life of another is their life being taken by a fellow human. God’s plan is to take the life of a murderer for the sake of justice. And he is not using a flood this time. He doesn’t come down and take it himself. He uses his creation to execute his will. More specifically, he says that he uses a human being to take that life. God metes out justice for murder using capital punishment as his rod of morality.
But didn’t that law only apply for life in Noah’s time?
It certainly did not. Much later the LORD decides to document his moral standards in the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments). And in explanation for the just recompense for murdering someone, he states that the murderer surrenders his life. He places structure for the capital punishment. However, if the death was accidental, God’s moral law stated that the punishment would be less severe.
“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint you a place to which he may flee. If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die.” Exodus 21:12-14 (NASB)
Those who killed maliciously were to be killed just like in Noah’s time. Those who killed accidentally were allowed to run to cities of refuge where they would be spared from death as the matter was investigated. If they left the city of refuge,they would be killed. You can read more on this from Numbers 35:6-34. So the law of capital punishment from God did not only apply to Noah’s time. In fact in Moses’ time, the appropriate structures are out so that the punishment was not abused. It is also important to note that God did not consider the capital punishment in the Old Testament as a violation of the Ten Commandments but rather as a promotion of it.
But isn’t the death penalty a violation of the sanctity of life?
Quite the contrary, capital punishment promotes the sanctity of human life. We often look at the person facing the punishment in such situations, but we forget the one who was murdered. When Cain killed Abel, he was only concerned about his punishment. Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is too great to bear!”Genesis 4:13 (NASB). But God was more concerned about the blood of Abel that was crying for justice from the ground. We must ask ourselves, what about Ruth Kamande’s brutally murdered boyfriend? Is justice for him null and void because he is dead? What about his family? Let me cite a different example. On the afternoon of July 23, 2007, in Chesire Connecticut, two robbers broke into the house of Dr. William Petit. They clobbered him with a baseball bat as he lay bleeding on the floor of his house. One man raped his wife violently and then strangled her to death. The second robber found his 11-year old daughter, Mikaela, and sexually molested her. They then poured petrol on Mikaela and her sister after tying them on their beds and burned them alive. Dr. William Petit survived the ordeal. The police captured the murderers. When capital punishment was invoked, opponents of capital punishment went into a frenzy. They argued that human life was precious. But it’s easy to think like that by conveniently ignoring the plight of Dr. William Petit. But we must realize that because the life of those murdered is valuable, capital punishment is upheld. To ignore the victims is to spit upon the sanctity of life. It must also be noted that capital punishment is done in the most humane way. The slow torturous method that many murderers use to kill their victims isn’t applied to them. There are of course a few historical injustices, I’m sure. But the legal death penalty isn’t subjectively cruel when exercised. It is objectively humane in method. Its very existence within justice proves that it values human life. But we must remember the victims who were murdered and not lose sight of the matter. Because of that, you can stand against abortion and support capital punishment without fear of contradiction. Both stands value human life. Both stands care about the victims; unborn babies and murdered individuals. Because the lives of these victims life are valuable, the death penalty exists. We fail to grasp the gravity of murder when we refuse to consider the victims. If the God of creation cares about the victims, we should too.
But isn’t the Gospel of Jesus innately opposed to the death penalty?
Jesus did not abolish the law of God. In fact in Luke 13:1-5, a group of Jews report to Jesus that some people were killed unfairly by the Government of the time. Jesus does not lead a protest against the Government. He instead tells the people to be concerned about their eternal life. He asserts that whatever their thoughts, they ought to be preoccupied about their eternity because that very death could catch up with them. God is more concerned about Ruth Kamande’s eternity. By receiving the punishment of capital punishment, her salvation is not curtailed. In fact it is catalysed. Ruth has few days left of earth. Her death is not immediate. It gives her the impetus to think deeply about the important questions of life. Is she an evolution accident or is she made in God’s image? Is there an eternity or do we just become humus? Does our soul account for life on earth or do we go scot free? In the few days left, God can save her soul as she meditates on these questions. That way, the capital punishment acts as a blessing, contrary to the thoughts of many who are worried that she will miss life. If anything, she will gain life. We ought not to think that we are saved by time on earth. We are saved by the grace of God. More time on earth is not a guarantee of our repentance. But little time on earth is a sure impetus towards it. It is the way believers are urged to keep their righteous garments pure; by knowing that we have little time before the King returns. And if Ruth Kamande gets born again before her sentence, her death will be precious to God according to Psalm 116:15:
“Precious in the sight of the LORD Is the death of His godly ones.” Psalms 116:15 (NASB)
What about John 8? Didn’t Jesus stand up against the death of the woman caught in adultery?
John 8 is one of those chapters whose verses are often quoted without understanding context. It is almost like Matthew 7:1 that is often used without understanding. In John 8, Jesus stand for the woman is really a stand against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The Law of Moses had certain prerequisites before stoning one caught in adultery. These were the conditions as per the book of Deuteronomy:
- The people had to be caught in the very act of adultery.
- Both man and women had to be caught.
- There was need for two of three witnesses who saw the two in the act of adultery.
- The two witnesses who saw the act of adultery take place were to be the first to stone the couple.
- Israel would follow the two witnesses in stoning.
- If any of these conditions were not met, the two witnesses were to be stoned instead.
When the Pharisees bring the woman caught in the act, Jesus writes on the ground with his finger. He is possibly writing on the ground the very law of Moses that they purport to uphold. Jesus proves to them that they are guilty of condition number 6 by violating the other conditions. And if Jesus is right, then the ones who brought the case ought to be stoned and the woman set free. It is why the Pharisees leave the scene, from the oldest to the youngest. The older ones understood that they had hypocritically broken the law they were shouting and deserved death; that’s why they were the first to leave. Jesus asking the one without sin to be the first to cast the first stone is basically challenging them to adhere to conditions 1,2,3 and 4. But they can’t. Because they are hypocrites. John 8 is not a valid argument against capital punishment. In fact it can support capital punishment. How? Jesus warns the woman after the hypocrites leave. He tells her, “Go and sin no more.” In short, there may not be another opportunity with hypocritical Pharisees; the next time may be a sure just means for her life. And since Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, he gives her a life-saving warning to protect her from the Government of her time.
But who gives present Governments authority to exercise the death penalty?
God gives that authority. It is Paul’s letter to the Romans that tells us overtly that God himself has set up Governments to punish evil.
“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Romans 13:1-4 (NASB)
Romans tells us that God uses Governments to punish evil. We must see the act of Ruth stabbing her boyfriend 22 times as evil. The passage further tells us that we ought to submit to the authorities set to deal with evil. Towards the end of the passage we are told that the Governments bear the sword for evil. What are swords for? Swords are purposed for the taking of lives. The judicial systems of our time act not only within the law of the land but also within the law of God.
But what if the Government is evil?
If you do your history research, you will discover that the Government in Romans 13 that God is using to punish evil was one of the most evil Governments that ever existed. It’s Emperor, Nero, burned Christians alive and tortured them to death. Yet God sovereignly uses such a Government to exercise justice against evil. The failures of a Government do not cancel the standard for God’s justice.
But isn’t the death penalty a violation of grace?
You mentioned that you were brought up in a grace-based foundation. We must realize that the message of grace does not trump the message of justice. God himself says that his throne in heaven sits on two foundations: righteousness and justice.
“Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.” Psalms 97:2 (NASB)
The grace of Jesus is for our justification, sanctification and glorification. If for any other reason, it isn’t grace; it is antinomianism. God’s grace does not just forgive us for our sin and declare us righteous. It also absorbs that sin so that the wrath of God can be satisfied (justice). Now we must also be clear that Jesus dying for our sins does not mean we escape the consequences of our actions. He forgives laziness, but we still lose our job. Losing our job is not against Jesus’ grace and death on the cross. It is an inevitable repercussion of breaking the laws of life. Jesus forgives adultery, but we lose intimacy with our spouse and break our families. When we lose intimacy with our spouse and break our families it is because we have abused the grace of the saviour, not because we have lacked it. It is an inevitable repercussion of breaking the laws of life. We must not frown on the consequences of our sin as a failure by God to love us. If anything, it is a reminder of our own failure to love him. Neither should we deem facing the consequences of sin as a denial of experiencing the grace of God. If anything, the consequences of sin can be an act of mercy and grace. They serve as a constant reminder to us and others that sin is never worth it. Ruth Kamande’s capital punishment is a repercussion of sin. It is not a denial of eternal life for her and neither is it a denial of God’s grace.
But can’t mistakes be made with capital punishment?
Yes. Human error is possible. But this is often the exception and not the rule. The chances of a mistrial with this punishment has historically proven to be almost impossible, hence the continued present use of capital punishment. But should such an event occur, see the promise from the word of God
“Be sure of this: The wicked will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will go free.” Proverbs 11:21 (NIV)
Man looks at the outside but God looks at the heart
I must admit that Ruth Kamande’s sentence was not easy to accept. But when I think about it, it is simply because I look at the outside. She is pretty. She looks remorseful. And she is a beauty queen. But I ask myself, would I have been more aggressive against her sentence if the murderer was a regular man? Many people I have talked to speak sentimentally of the trial. But we must realize that our frail human judgement looks at the outside. We see a pretty face and batting eyes and our hearts melt. If justice was dished out based on sentiment, the earth would have burned a long time ago. The laws of the land, just like the law of God, are based on truth not sentiment. It’s easy to say a rugged looking man who “looks” like a murderer deserves the death penalty. But an attractive beauty queen can easily sway our fickle hearts. When we say nobody is above the law, we admit that our judgement is flawed and we therefore need an objective standard that trumps our sentimental approach to justice. The Bible asks me not to be partial based on outward appearance.
“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” James 2:1-4 (NASB)
On the flipside, God looks at the heart of man. Jesus affirmed that the human heart is utterly depraved (Mark 7:20-23). It is for that very heart that he died. All kind of sin put him on the cross. Sin in all its forms, from overtly harmful rape to seemingly harmless lying is putrid to God. My fickle judgment thinks that lying does not deserve hell but rape surely does. Allow me to paint an analogy that I got from a preacher I heard. Imagine if I slapped my brother. What consequences do I face? Perhaps a little sibling rivalry. At worst, a fist fight. But it ends after that. Now suppose that I walk up to the president of the republic and slap him on the podium as he is making his speech. What consequences do I face? I will be arrested at the very least. I would probably be shot by his body guard before I even escape. Slapping the president is grave and unlike slapping my brother. Similarly, we must realize that lying against fellow humans may seem inconsequential. But lying against God could be akin to slapping the president. In fact it falls short to demonstrate the gravity of our sin. Our God’s holiness makes the offence more worthy of punishment than slapping the president. God sees the heart of the murderer. We see the outside. God’s endorsement for the life of the murderer to be taken isn’t seen through human eyes. It is through his holy eyes, not through my fickle sentiment.
Mercy triumphs over judgement
James ends the paragraph on personal favoritism by saying this: “For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13 (NASB). The treatment that Ruth needs at this moment is not calling her names and laughing at her sentence, as some are doing. I hope your friends support of the penalty was not in judgement but in mercy and justice. The mercy of James 2 is not stating that she should burn in hell. That’s the judgement we are warned against. Our personal biases are to adopt the forgiveness we have received from Jesus’ sacrifice and extend it to Ruth. The church (which is you, and not your pastor) should organize a visit and minister to Ruth. You should let her know the love of the saviour in her few days on earth. You should affirm her that she is forgiven if she repents and that her eternity will make any extended life here on earth seem hellish. This is the grace that she can experience before she dies: that Christ absorbed her sin for her and that because mercy triumphs over judgement, she can be more free in death than in life.