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Rainbows and Electric Chairs:
A Christian View on Capital Punishment

Posted By Joe Carter On April 17, 2008 @ 12:31 am In Moral Philosophy | 71 Comments

Earlier this week the Supreme Court debated whether the rape of children should be punishable by execution. In deciding the case of Patrick Kennedy, a Louisiana man who raped his 8-year-old stepdaughter, the Court could determine whether the death penalty is extended to crimes other than murder. The case is also likely to reopen debates on the question of the moral legitimacy of state-imposed death. Are there any legitimate reasons for supporting the death penalty? Should child rape be a cause for execution?
Personally, I believe that the Bible not only should be our primary guide on such questions but that it also provides sufficient answers. I also believe that we should not rely on the three primary justifications given for the death penalty — deterrence, protection of society, and retribution — but should instead advocate for the Biblical model of justice.
As a Christian I believe that many human institutions, including civil government, are divinely ordained and delegated a certain degree of authority and responsibility. While ultimately under God’s control, civil government is given a degree of sovereignty over certain spheres of human existence. One of the most important areas which government is ordained is in dispensing justice.
While no government is able to carry out this task perfectly, the more it conforms its view of justice with God’s moral law the more legitimate its authority and the more just the state will be. We are able to know the moral law because it is revealed to us either through special revelation (e.g., the Bible) or through natural revelation (e.g., the natural law). For the purpose of justifying capital punishment we will turn to special revelation.
Christians often look back to the Mosaic Law when searching for justifications for capital punishment. This is hardly surprising considering that in the law God gave the Israelites, twenty-one different offenses were considered worthy of the death penalty.
The problem with this approach is that the Law of Moses only applied to Israel. Since this particular covenant was made between God and the Hebrew people, it was never universally applicable. While we might be able to discern moral truths by looking to the Law our decisions on how to apply it would be arbitrary. How would we rationalize, for example, applying the death penalty to cases of murder but not for homosexuality?
Although the Mosaic Law doesn’t provide a sound basis for a defense of capital punishment, there is a covenant that does – the Noahic covenant. After God destroyed mankind with a flood, he established a covenant with Noah, his family, and (most importantly for us) his descendants. Along with the promise that He would never destroy the earth by water again, God included this moral command:

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image. (Gen. 6:9, ESV)

This verse not only provides a moral norm for capital punishment but delegates the responsibility to mankind (i.e., government) and limits it to a particular crime (murder). This sets a very narrow range of applicability. The rape of a child is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable. But in the absence of a clear Biblical mandate to expand the penalty beyond murder, I do not believe we can justify including child-rape under the crimes that deserve death.
We should also note that since this covenant is ‘everlasting’ (v. 16) and ‘for all future generations’ (v. 12), it’s as applicable today as it was in the age of Noah. Unlike the Mosaic Law, this covenant was never superseded by any later actions of God. We should also note that if we choose to ignore this command, we are choosing to reject God’s wisdom. Governments and societies, of course, may choose to rebel against God’s commands but for professing Christians this shouldn’t be an option.
Of course there may be times when the ability of the state to implement the death penalty is egregiously compromised. The problems that can occur with its application are numerous and complex so we must remain ever vigilant against its abuse. Indeed, respect for human dignity demands that we err on the side of caution to prevent the unjust killing of those falsely accused of committing murder. The legitimate objections, however, appear to associated with its application, rather than in the moral legitimacy of the death penalty itself.
Long ago, God made a promise to never again destroy the human race with a flood. When we see the rainbow in the sky we are to remember the everlasting covenant between God and “every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” As Christians, though, we should do more than that. When we see a rainbow we should remember that we are made in the image of God–and remember too the price that must be paid when we destroy an image-bearer.
[Note: The use of the article “A” rather than “The” in the title is deliberate. While I think the position outlined in this post is a Christian view on the death penalty, I do not want to be so bold as to say that it must be the position on this issue. ]


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