May 1st, 2014
09:15 AM ET
Opinion by R. Albert Mohler Jr., Special to CNN
(CNN) - The death penalty has been part of human society for millennia, understood to be the ultimate punishment for the most serious crimes.
But, should Christians support the death penalty now, especially in light of the controversial execution Tuesday in Oklahoma?
This is not an easy yes or no question.
On the one hand, the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder.
In Genesis 9:6, God told Noah that the penalty for intentional murder should be death: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
The death penalty was explicitly grounded in the fact that God made every individual human being in his own image, and thus an act of intentional murder is an assault upon human dignity and the very image of God.
In the simplest form, the Bible condemns murder and calls for the death of the murderer. The one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul instructs Christians that the government “does not bear the sword in vain.” Indeed, in this case the magistrate “is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the evildoer.” [Romans 13:4]
On the other hand, the Bible raises a very high requirement for evidence in a case of capital murder.
The act of murder must be confirmed and corroborated by the eyewitness testimony of accusers, and the society is to take every reasonable precaution to ensure that no one is punished unjustly.
While the death penalty is allowed and even mandated in some cases, the Bible also reveals that not all who are guilty of murder and complicity in murder are executed.
Just remember the biblical accounts concerning Moses, David and Saul, later known as Paul.
Christian thinking about the death penalty must begin with the fact that the Bible envisions a society in which capital punishment for murder is sometimes necessary, but should be exceedingly rare.
The Bible also affirms that the death penalty, rightly and justly applied, will have a powerful deterrent effect.
In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.
Seen in this light, the problem we face today is not with the death penalty, but with society at large.
American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview, and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality.
We have lost the cultural ability to declare murder – even mass murder – to be deserving of the death penalty.
We have also robbed the death penalty of its deterrent power by allowing death penalty cases to languish for years in the legal system, often based on irrational and irrelevant appeals.
While most Americans claim to believe that the death penalty should be supported, there is a wide disparity in how Americans of different states and regions think about the issue.
Furthermore, Christians should be outraged at the economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied. While the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is.
There is very little chance that a wealthy white murderer will ever be executed. There is a far greater likelihood that a poor African-American murderer will face execution.
Why? Because the rich can afford massively expensive legal defense teams that can exhaust the ability of the prosecution to get a death penalty sentence.
This is an outrage, and no Christian can support such a disparity. As the Bible warns, the rich must not be able to buy justice on their own terms.
There is also the larger cultural context. We must recognize that our cultural loss of confidence in human dignity and the secularizing of human identity has made murder a less heinous crime in the minds of many Americans.
Most would not admit this lower moral evaluation of murder, but our legal system is evidence that this is certainly true.
We also face a frontal assault upon the death penalty that is driven by legal activists and others determined to bring legal execution to an end in America.
Controversy over an execution this week in Oklahoma will bring even more attention to this cause, but most Americans will be completely unaware that this tragedy was caused by the inability of prison authorities to gain access to drugs for lethal injection that would have prevented those complications.
Opponents of the death penalty have, by their legal and political action, accomplished what might seem at first to be impossible – they now demand action to correct a situation that they largely created.
Their intention is to make the death penalty so horrifying in the public mind that support for executions would disappear. They have attacked every form of execution as “cruel and unusual punishment,” even though the Constitution itself authorizes the death penalty.
It is a testament to moral insanity that they have successfully diverted attention from a murderer’s heinous crimes and instead put the death penalty on trial.
Should Christians support the death penalty today?
I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense.
This would be a society in which there is every protection for the rights of the accused, and every assurance that the social status of the murderer will not determine the sentence for the crime.
Christians should work to ensure that there can be no reasonable doubt that the accused is indeed guilty of the crime. We must pray for a society in which the motive behind capital punishment is justice, and not merely revenge.
We must work for a society that will honor every single human being at every point of development and of every race and ethnicity as made in God’s image.
We must hope for a society that will support and demand the execution of justice in order to protect the very existence of that society. We must pray for a society that rightly tempers justice with mercy.
Should Christians support the death penalty today? I believe that we must, but with the considerations detailed above.
At the same time, given the secularization of our culture and the moral confusion that this has brought, this issue is not so clear-cut as some might think.
I do believe that the death penalty, though supported by the majority of Americans, may not long survive in this cultural context.
It is one thing to support the death penalty. It is another thing altogether to explain it, fix it, administer it and sustain it with justice.
We are about to find out if Americans have the determination to meet that challenge. Christians should take leadership to help our fellow citizens understand what is at stake.
God affirmed the death penalty for murder as he made his affirmation of human dignity clear to Noah. Our job is to make it clear to our neighbors.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this column belong to Mohler.
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