Against death penalty extremism

Death Penalty
by Marvin Olasky

Posted on Friday, October 11, 2013, at 3:56 pm

Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky’s cover story in the current issue of WORLD magazine focuses on what the Bible says about the death penalty and what life is like on death row. In a series of 10 columns here on (posted Oct. 7–18), Marvin addresses public policy issues involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness in capital punishment.

Baylor University professor Roger E. Olson, in an article titled “The Heresy of Capital Punishment,” argues that “capital punishment, at least as it is known and practiced in the U.S. today, is a heresy when espoused by Christians. It manifests an embrace of the myth of redemptive violence by humans and flies in the face of the ethic of Jesus which forbids violent retribution.”

Olson opines that “churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. They ought, at the very least, to declare it incompatible with Christian faith and put members who openly believe in it under some kind of discipline (not necessarily excommunication but at least forbidding them to teach it in the ecclesial context). And those who practice it, actively seeking it and participating in it, should be excommunicated from Christian churches.”

Olson continues, “It takes away a person’s time to repent and believe or to witness to other inmates, leading them to repentance and faith, and from just a humane point of view, it is extremely damaging to the families of those executed and is barbaric for a supposedly civilized society such as we claim to be.” Yet, he complains that for many Texas Christians “capital punishment is almost a sacrament. I have heard Texas ‘born again Christians’ cheerfully declare that they would gladly push the plunger down to start the poisonous chemicals flowing into a condemned person’s veins.”

I didn’t hear such a comment in two decades of living in Texas; still, I believe Olson’s contention that he has heard some Texas Christians waxing enthusiastic about the death penalty. I’ve now come to the position that life without parole in most situations involving murder is a better outcome than the death penalty, but I still wouldn’t say that those who favor capital punishment are heretics.

After all, Jesus affirmed the Old Testament, with its strict laws concerning capital punishment—strict in making sure that alleged perpetrators would be confronted by at least two reputable eyewitnesses, with the accusers liable to execution should their witness be false. (Biblical understanding of the importance of eyewitnesses is evident in Article 3, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution: “No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act. …”)

Old Testament judicial law is no longer required, for two reasons. First, the letter of the judicial law is no longer binding, due to Christ’s sacrifice. As the 370-year-old Westminster Confession of Faith states, God “gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the [Israelite] State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” Second, the Mosaic law functioned within the boundaries of Israel but not outside it: Ancient Israel was a holiness theme park and other countries were not, so Israelites did not try to enforce those laws in Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome. (I’ve written about this extensively.)

But the general equity—the principle of the law, that murder requires a severe reckoning—still stands. It seems to me that we should avoid declaring capital punishment either a cornerstone or a heresy. And maybe the difficulty of prosecuting murder cases along biblical lines (two or more eyewitnesses, severe penalties for false witness, witnesses casting the first stone) is telling in itself: Could God be saying that we cannot have the sureness of His standards of justice? Is He teaching us to admit that all of us sin, and all of us desperately need Christ?

Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss his cover story on the death penalty on The World and Everything in It:

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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