It’s perfectly natural, not perfectly biblical, to desire the death penalty

You’re probably gonna tell me to stop reading Charisma News when you hear I was stunned to come across their recent lead article, Executing 8 Murderers Isn’t ‘Unchristian’ by Bryan Fischer.

Fischer is a broadcaster with American Family Radio. His article was originally published on their website. In it, he offers the usual reasons why capital punishment is necessary, sprinkling his commentary with various Old Testament references and then detailing the crimes of the eight men about to be executed by the state of Arkansas (one of them, Ledell Lee, has already been put to death by lethal injection).

But his outrage isn’t entirely directed toward the men on death row. It’s also directed at Christians who have the temerity to oppose the death penalty.

Grousing about a Christian Today article entitled Christian campaigners horrified by Arkansas execution, Fischer takes the site and the article’s author to task for daring to imply that the Christian position on capital punishment is to oppose it.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, he says.

“This headline is written as if that is the only acceptable ‘Christian’ position to take,” Fischer bemoans.

In fact, he goes on to say, “It would be unbiblical and unChristian not to carry out the death penalty for cold-blooded murder.”

Bryan Fischer then quotes Martin Luther King, as if to imply that Dr King would agree with his own stance on the death penalty.

In actual fact, Dr King was vehemently opposed to capital punishment. In 1957, he said,

“I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included… Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”

Look, if all we had was the Old Testament and personal moral outrage, you can quite easily make a case for capital punishment. It’s called, in Latin, lex talionis, which means a legal retaliation in which the punishment corresponds in kind and degree to the offence.

In other words, an eye for an eye.

But we don’t just have Hebrew Law. We’ve got Jesus’ words too:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Mt.5:38-39)

This isn’t Jesus rejecting Hebrew Law. He is fulfilling it. In effect, he’s saying, “Without me, all you’ve got is lex talionis. On your own, justice will only ever be retaliation and repayment – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. But with me, you can be free. I can satisfy the covenant. I can fulfill the Law of Moses and free you from this endless cycle of vengeance and retaliation.”

And not only from the death penalty. Jesus came to fulfill the Mosaic laws regarding Sabbaths, circumcision, sacrifices, new moons, feasts of unleavened bread, distinctions of foods, drink, and clothes, and a bunch of other things too.

While tangling with Jewish religious leaders over his fraternization with “sinners” and his apparent lack of observance of the Sabbath, Jesus snarls, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’.” (Mt.9:13 and 12:7)

Without Jesus all we’ve got is sacrifice. Endless sacrifice. A life for a life. Forever and ever. But Jesus’ death and resurrection satisfies Yahweh’s covenant with Moses and makes us finally and forever free.

 

You see, Christians who advocate for the death penalty based on passages from Deuteronomy and Exodus are quite happy to be free from circumcision or eating kosher. So, why not capital punishment?

Because moral outrage is delicious.

At one level, sacrifice is way more pleasurable than mercy.

I told you Fischer’s article details the horrific crimes of the eight men on death row in Arkansas. He takes more time to do so than he does to build his Old Testament case for capital punishment. He’s building our sense of outrage. He’s enticing us with the deliciously repugnant feelings of vengeance and retaliation.

We know these feelings well. They breach the surface of our consciousness every time we see an action film in which Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington or Liam Neeson hunt down and kill the bad guys, saving the baddest guy until the end in order to mete out peculiar pain and suffering on him.

If one of the Arkansas 8 had murdered someone I love the way they did their victims I would want vengeance too. Who can blame someone for feeling that way? It’s natural. Perfectly natural. But aren’t we called to resist our natural desires?

 

Hasn’t Jesus shown us the more perfect way? And didn’t he promise to send us his Spirit to transform us, to enable us to live supernaturally? To prefer mercy over sacrifice.

And this brings me back to Charisma News and it’s print version Charisma magazine. It claims to be news source for charismatic and Pentecostal Christians.

What’s more charismatic than being filled with the Spirit? And what’s more Spirit-filled than to desire that which Christ desires? The Holy Spirit should free us from a hunger for lex talionis and remake us as merciful, long-suffering, good and true followers of Jesus Christ, the one who taught us to turn the other cheek.

 

In his remarkable demolition of the Christian case for capital punishment, Executing Grace, Shane Claiborne (originally from Arkansas himself) writes, “When we receive the gift of grace, it should transform us into grace-filled people who want to see other people given a chance, and other people loved back to life again.” And later:

“We now are invited to extend that same grace to others. We are to be like God and forgive. We are to see people who do evil with the possibility that they can be healed. And we are to extend to them the same grace God extends to us. We are all victims of the crushing power of sin, and all in need of liberation.”

It is indeed biblical and Christian not to carry out the death penalty for murder. To suggest otherwise is to give in to our most base desires and to act on our most natural and understandable impulses. Jesus came to free us from this and to show us the better way.

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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6 thoughts on “It’s perfectly natural, not perfectly biblical, to desire the death penalty

  1. Hey Mike, I agree w/ you on a personal level on what we should desire and follow you to the degree that as a people, we the church, should desire mercy and life. But I don’t feel you lay out here a case for the place of government within Biblical teaching. Jesus certainly wasn’t coming to remove Caesar nor was He intent on or content w Constantine’s murderous visions of gov (for example).
    I see some more work needed to develop your conversation here. I agree the political platform we should be advocating surely isn’t capital punishment and I’m sure you’re partially trying to point the readers to the book.

    NB: Claiborne’s title is pretty inducing of an appetite for salaciousness. I mean the death penalty has declined so much in the US that it took 20 lives. All 20 important, image bearing lives, but it’s hardly the issue that demands our attention and a book when in Chicago alone there were nearly 1000 gun deaths in 2016. The death penalty has also been in sharp decline (executions) since ’99. Respectfully Josh (an engaged reader)

    1. I’m not sure I follow you. The place of government in biblical teaching? Of course Jesus and Paul weren’t campaigning against Roman laws. That would have been unimaginable. Rome was a brutal dictatorship. We live in a modern democracy, where all citizens, including Christians, have both the access and the means to shape the law of the land. Christians routinely advocate against laws on abortion or same-sex marriage. They should also have the right to campaign against war, pollution, capital punishment and a host of other things.

    2. Furthermore, to your criticism of Shane Claiborne’s book, it’s true that execution numbers have been falling, but that hardly makes Executing Grace a “salacious” title. Arkansas is currently ramping up their state-based execution program, meaning Shane’s book is all the more pertinent and needed.

  2. Hi Mike. A couple of thoughts here. I am currently reading Danny Silk’s “Culture of Honor”. His views on our attitude to sin and failing and our desire to see justice meted out are very similar to what you are expressing here. You are absolutely right in your view. Love, as Jesus said, is the greatest commandment of all. So all commandments are therefore subservient to this overarching requirement to love. Secondly, I think the book you referenced is still pertinent (I haven’t read it). Especially if it speaks to this desire of ours to see retributive justice brought down upon the guilty. There is growing number of people calling for the re-introduction of death penalties in Australia. Especially in the case of the Melbourne car killer. The fact of a death penalty does not need to exist in law in order to be addressed. The desire for it is in the hearts of people, that is what needs to be addressed. So it matters not that executions may be falling, if the call for them still exists in society, then that is a society with a problem.

  3. Hi, Mike, great article. The kind of things Charisma Magazine – and others – publish, are one of the reasons why I’m “post-charismatic”, if there is such a thing. I can no longer agree with a lot of the required thinking on topics like the death penalty, or guns, for that matter. In Germany, where I grew up, both are outlawed, and although the country doesn’t consider itself as “Christian” as the US, it is a lot more peaceful and advanced as a result.
    I am in the process of setting up my own blog on some of those topics, under the pen name “Eva Winter.” You can find my page on Facebook.

  4. I writing an essay at the moment on Romans 13:1-7, one of the ‘go-to’ texts for modern day Christian supporters of the death penalty, in particular verse 4 regarding the state being a sword carrier against those who do wrong. In my research I’ve been reading through The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty by Dale S. Recinella who writes:

    For Bible-believing Christians who accept other models of the atonement, the fact that biblically based capital punishment ceased to function at the same time that Jesus Christ died on the cross on Calvary speaks a loud confi rmation to their conclusions that the state-sponsored killing of a human being adds nothing to God ’ s honor, yields no increase to God ’ s victory over evil, and fails to magnify in any way the compelling moral force of God ’ s love for us. Our conclusion is not ambiguous. Biblical truth reveals that the American death penalty cannot be conducted under the judicial authority behind the biblical death penalty.

    I tend to agree with him.

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