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Better off dead?

Capital punishment versus (a horrifying) life without parole

Better off dead?

(Krieg Barrie)

Not much in politics upset Chuck Colson as he approached his 80th birthday late in 2011, but on his Breakpoint broadcast of Sept. 23 that year he said, “a recent political event left me deeply shaken.”

The event was a Republican presidential debate in California when Texas Governor Rick Perry defended the reputation of his state, which leads the nation in death penalty use. Moderator Brian Williams asked Perry whether he worried that some who were executed might have been innocent. The governor instantly replied, “I’ve never struggled with that at all.” Colson, who died seven months later, wrote that Perry’s response “deeply troubled” him: “The thought of taking another person’s life, however heinous their crimes, should give us pause. It’s never to be made lightly or casually.”

My light and casual reaction, at first, was, Big deal. We’ve had 50 million abortions nationwide since the 1970s, so why should we focus on Texas’s 500 executions? Later, I realized that it’s wrong to be cavalier about 500 people made in God’s image or 50 million, and dug up a Colson essay from 2004 in which he wrote that the death penalty “should be implemented only in those cases where evidence is certain, in accordance with the biblical standard, and where no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice.”

That was my research agenda. What is the biblical standard of certainty, and do we follow it? When can some other punishment satisfy the demands of justice? Our cover story on page 34, based on studying the Bible and talking with convicted murderers in four Texas prisons, gives specific detail of some of my findings. I also looked at the evidence in many murder cases in Texas and outside, and saw that the biblical standard of at least two eyewitnesses to a murder is rarely met.

The cover story also reports on the lives of convicted murderers imprisoned without the possibility of parole. The most common prison environment—metallic, gray, and simmering with aggression—is one only Orcs would love. Prisoners have to take care not to be stabbed, shanked, or piped in day rooms, showers, chow halls, and yards. They have to find ways to avoid rape: The most authoritative studies of the problem, conducted by the University of South Dakota professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson, found that over 20 percent of prisoners overall are the victims of some form of coerced sexual contact.

Generations of songwriters have tried to convey the horror of life in prison. Blues singer Bessie Smith poured out a lament in 1927: “I done cut my good man’s throat … ninety-nine years in jail … So judge, judge, good kind judge, send me to the ’lectric chair.” Two generations later, Bruce Springsteen sang in “Johnny 99” about a convict also facing a lifetime sentence and telling the judge, “I’d be better off dead … let ’em shave off my hair and put me on that killin’ line.”

Texas convict Benjamin David, on a prison website called “Welcome to Hell,” came to a similar conclusion: “Your mind brings sweet thoughts of past moments of tenderness and then your mind jerks you down into a living hell knowing that you will never experience these things again. … Society may say that killing by lethal injection is punishment, but society is WRONG. For most, dying is an escape, a relief from the harsh life of day to day survival. … If society truly wants to exact punishment they would abolish the death penalty tomorrow and sentence men to life in prison without parole.” 

The late pastor and theologian John Stott, commenting on the doctrine of individuals experiencing hell for eternity, argued for “annihilation” instead. Most evangelicals have seen conscious punishment as the Bible’s teaching, but when it comes to life on earth, many have said justice requires a sudden ending rather than decades of imprisonment.

Last word belongs to Camille Bell, the mother of a child murdered in Atlanta. She wrote in 1991, “When a person is dead, you’re no longer punishing him. … If a person ends up in prison and has to live each day just trying to survive, he will think of why he is there. That, in my opinion, is punishment. … I don’t want the person who murdered my child to be killed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want him punished.”

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



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  • Anonymous (not verified)
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:34 pm

    Seems to me that the Christian who
    desires a human being (made in God's image) to face rape and torment for
    the rest of their natural life needs to consider their thirst for
    revenge MORE than one who simply agrees the death penalty may still be
    used today.  I'd say prison with no possibility of parole is far crueler (and
    less civilized) than the death penalty.  Where in the Bible is life
    without parole taught?  Is the death
    penalty a deterrent?  Well, it certainly prevents one person from committing
    murder again.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:34 pm

    This seems to have been overlooked.Numbers 35:31:"You shall not accept indemnity in place of the life of a murderer who deserves the death penalty; he must be put to death." 

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:34 pm

    Charles Colson on Genesis 9:6 and the requirement for executions."It is because humans are created in the image of God that capital punishment
    for premeditated murder was a perpetual obligation. The full range of biblical
    data weighs in its favor. This is the one crime in the Bible for which no
    restitution was possible (Numbers 35:31,33). The Noahic covenant recorded in
    Genesis 9 ("Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. "Gen
    9:6) antedates Israel and the Mosaic code; it transcends Old Testament Law, per
    se, and mirrors ethical legislation that is binding for all cultures and eras.
    The sanctity of human life is rooted in the universal creation ethic and thus
    retains its force in society. The Christian community is called upon to
    articulate standards of biblical justice, even when this may be unpopular.
    Capital justice is part of that non-negotiable standard. Society should execute
    capital offenders to balance the scales of moral judgement."  From "Capital
    Punishment: A Personal Statement", by Charles W. Colson., a former opponent. He
    is spiritual advisor and friend to numerous death row inmates and the Founder of
    Prison Fellowship, the largest Christian ministry serving incarcerated

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:34 pm

    There is no evidence that Gov. Perry does not take the death penalty serioulsy or that he tales it lightly or casually.He was responsing, specifically, to a question regarding innocents being executed. Perry said that he didn't need to struggle with that. Why? Because he was certain of their guilt.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:34 pm

    Prison life way too comfortable

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:34 pm

    Marvin:Reconsider.Is There a Biblical Requirement for Two Eyewitnesses for Criminal Prosecution? OF COURSE THE DEATH PENALTY DETERS: A review of the debate and MURDERERS MUCH PREFER LIFE OVER EXECUTION99.7% of murderers tell us "Give me life, not execution"

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:34 pm

    Few things are as simple as we would like them to be.  From an eternal perspective even the smallest crime, such as eating forbidden fruit, truly deserves banishment, hardship and death.  But God set the example of tempering the severity of those consequences.  There are certainly several valid reasons for putting an individual in prison.  I think "justice" would be at the top of the list.  But of course we all should realize that true justice would require all of us to spend time in jail.Among other reasons to put people in prison, and it should be high on the list, is to get their attention regarding the direction of their life.  And while hearing of other people being executed may or may not be a deterrent for any specific individual, spending some time in jail has gotten the attention of many who determined to change their attitudes and behavior so as to avoid ever returning to jail.  Many of us have prayed regarding a loved one: "Dear God, whatever it takes, please turn their life around."  The God Who "is not willing that any should perish" is even more willing to use extreme measures to get the attention of those for whom He died, and lives.  There is something worse than time in prison or physical death and whatever it takes to get people to ponder this eternal issue is appropriate.