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Dead seriousness

Rethinking the death penalty: The Bible sets a very high bar for capital punishment, and the American legal system today rarely reaches it

Dead seriousness

ROOM FOR JUSTICE: The execution chamber at the prison in Huntsville, Texas, seen from the room where the victim’s family can witness. (Kadir Van Lohuizen/Noor/Redux)

Associated Press/Photo by David J. Phillip

BARBARIC?: A protest against the execution of Kimberly McCarthy outside the Huntsville Unit, where the death chamber is located, in Huntsville, Texas.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/AP

CELL CYCLE: A prisoner in his death row cell at Huntsville.

Associated Press/Photo by Brett Coomer

DEATH WALK: Officers bring a prisoner to his cell at Ellis Unit in Huntsville.

Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

DEATH WALK: Texas has about 450 prisoners on death row. A death row cell in the Terrell Unit near Livingston, Texas.

Editor’s note: This article contains graphic descriptions of prison life. 

BEAUMONT and HUNTSVILLE, Texas—Jack Vian Jr., sentenced in 1991 to life in prison, was eligible for parole last year. Robert Dawson posted a plea for Texans to voice their opposition to the request, since Vian had stabbed Dawson’s 26-year-old sister, Barbara, 13 times. He had cut her throat and the throat of a young man who was dating her.

The parole board said no. This summer I interviewed Vian and eight other men convicted of murder and living out their lives in four Texas prisons. Some had spent years on death row but escaped it because they were under 18 when they killed, or had other mitigating factors. Kristin Houle, who heads the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says everyone should escape.

Is she right? Is it good that the number of executions is declining in the United States generally and Texas specifically? (Texas has been the capital punishment capital of the United States, executing 503 of the 1,343 persons executed nationwide since 1976.) What does the Bible say about the death penalty and alternatives? Follow-up questions: What is a life spent in prison like, and is that adequate punishment in the light of biblical teaching?

This article focuses on the Bible and the convicts. I refer here only briefly to public policy debates involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness, and am posting on pieces concerning such issues. (Also, hundreds of books deal with such topics, and I recommend some in "Death reads.") My task here is to bring out how the prisoners see their lives and how the Bible sees them.

CHAPTER 9 OF GENESIS includes two verses that many proponents of capital punishment cite: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God further explains in chapter 21 of Exodus, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” and repeats that several times in later passages.

The Christian left has condemned such a standard: The United Church of Christ, for example, called eye-for-eye an “outdated and barbaric practice.” The Jewish left has offered similar scorn, with David Sperling saying, “As a Reform Jew, I think … when biblical texts do not say what we would like them to say, that is when we part company with these texts.” 

Ironically, those who part company with the Bible with the goal of making capital punishment rare are hurting their own cause, for the biblical standard regarding the death penalty is set much higher than most American ones. To start with, five times—Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16, 2 Corinthians 13:1—both the Old Testament and the New stipulate that a capital punishment verdict could not be based on circumstantial evidence: Testimony from two or three eyewitnesses is essential. Few of the death penalty cases I’ve reviewed have that many witnesses.

Furthermore, chapter 19 of Deuteronomy stipulates that witnesses had to be so sure of an accused murderer’s guilt that they would risk dying themselves. If a witness “has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. … And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.” In addition, avengers might have to chase through the wilderness a person heading to a city of refuge, one of six places in ancient Israel set aside as havens for those who unintentionally killed a person.

MANUEL MENDEZ IS 35. Eighteen years ago, when he shoplifted a pair of running shoes, the store manager followed him out of the store. Mendez shot and killed him: He says it was unintentional, but “it was around Wheel of Fortune time. I was using weed and cocaine, drinking a lot, and things happened.” 

Now he lives in a cellblock with three tiers and 26 cells in each tier, 156 people in a world of metal and concrete. Each cellblock has a day room, where inmates spend much of their time sitting and watching one of two televisions (one usually showing sports, the other movies). It’s one of the many cellblocks that make up Ferguson Unit, which houses some 2,263 inmates, about 10 percent in for murder but three-fourths for burglary or robbery.

Separated by a glass screen, we faced each other in a hot visiting room with still air and flies circling around us. Mendez described his life: “Every day’s the same. Wake up, wake up again. Same metal bench, same cell. … Everyone’s out for himself. … Guys fight over ramen noodles or a piece of cheese. … You got to show that no one’s gonna take something from you. … If you don’t say anything, it’s not a piece of cheese next time. It’s guys playing gay games.”

A good day for Mendez is “when I can work in the fields. That’s the only time I get to taste, smell, see the outside—and when it’s 90 degrees you get three water breaks.” A good day is also “when I can watch Law and Order. They all want to watch Jerry Springer.” Mendez got in trouble in July for cussing at a guard and had, he says, a good week in solitary: “No mattress, two sheets, lying on the floor, they bring meals to you. They gave me two pens, 20 sheets of paper, and 20 envelopes.”

Other than those breaks from routine, Mendez feels he’s “living inside a nightmare and can’t wake up. I’m gonna die here and that will be a good day.”

OPPONENTS OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT note that God told Adam he would surely die if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Since that did not happen physically, some interpret the death as spiritual, but others point to the exile from Eden as an alternative death when compared to the life Adam could have had. Repeatedly in the Bible, the formal punishment of death gives way to the actual punishment of excommunication—and God declares in Ezekiel 33:11, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

God often in Scripture not only tells but shows—yet He provides zero examples of killers receiving death penalties. Cain expected to die after murdering Abel, but God instead gave him a life sentence of exile. Simeon and Levi killed all the males of a city and lived on, but under their father’s curse. Moses murdered an Egyptian and spent 40 years in the wilderness. David conspired to kill Uriah the Hittite and lived with the shame of that and many family repercussions, including at least three dead sons.

Oddly, the one time we see the biblical demand for two or more witnesses followed, the right process leads to an unjust result. As chapter 21 of 1 Kings relates, King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard so Queen Jezebel commanded elders to “proclaim a fast, and set Naboth at the head of the people. And set two worthless men opposite him, and let them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death. And the men of his city, the elders and the leaders who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them.”

CHRISTOPHER QUIROZ, 36, also entered prison at age 17. He and his uncle, Jesus Aguilar (executed in 2006), had murdered two people in a drug smuggling feud, but Quiroz because of his age at the time of the crime is in for life. He lives with his Wynne Unit cellmate in a 5-by-9 cell with a metal sink, a toilet, and a thin mattress with a built-in pillow on a metal bunk. For our interview, he got a chance to sit in a prison guard’s office and reflect, “I’ve been here since I was a kid. There’s no point living in prison, it’s dead time. I don’t want to get old in here. They can kill me and I’ll donate an organ.”

Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote that “hell is others,” and Quiroz would second that: “Can’t trust nobody here. … You either stay down or you’re gonna ride underneath somebody. … A lot of sick people here. Dudes like to jack off in front of a female officer. … Last night two cellies got in a fight. Pepper spray everywhere. … I live off the land. … Wash clothes for people. Two soups for a shirt, two for pants. … I get privacy on the toilet by using popsicle sticks to rig a little curtain. The guards let us get away with it as long as you move a hand to show you’re still there and still alive. … Most of the time I’d just as soon be dead.”

JESUS WAS CLEARLY citing Scripture when Matthew 5:38-39 quotes Him saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.” It may seem that Jesus was opposing the Old Testament and asserting a new pacifist doctrine, but the tip-off is Jesus’ speech itself: He said, “You have heard” rather than “it is written.” Jesus customarily used the former when He referred to rabbinical interpretations not necessarily justified by Scripture, but the latter when He cited the Bible (as in the previous chapter of Matthew, while turning aside Satan’s temptations).

The “eye for an eye” phrase is a quotation from Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21, and Jesus did not refute anything from the Old Testament—but He did refute those who distorted Old Testament teaching and took it out of context. Pharisees believed God had given Israel two torahs, the written one but also an oral one—and they believed the latter outlined death penalty procedures. 

The Talmud later recorded the rabbinical understandings against which Jesus spoke. Opponents of capital punishment quote famed death penalty critic Rabbi Akiva of the main Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, but Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud suggests that the anti-capital-punishment position was a minority view. Dozens of pages of that tractate lay out procedures for execution by burning, decapitation, stoning, or strangling, and give specific detail such as Rabbi Yehudah’s explanation of “the procedure for those who are burned: They would submerge him in manure up to his knees. … One pries open his mouth with tongs against his will, and the other lights a wick, throws it into his mouth, and it descends into his stomach and burns his intestines.” 

Jesus apparently did not favor such practice, and He also taught His followers not to resist with arms when they were persecuted for their faith. One of the first deacons, Stephen, soon put Christ’s teaching into practice when Sanhedrin members stoned him, a practice that was less throwing rocks than dropping boulders on top of a person 12-18 feet below them. Stephen set high the bar for not resisting: He and the many martyrs who followed Christ’s advice had such an impact that Tertullian in the second century famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  

JACK VIAN, JR., 42, is still trying to come to grips with the blood he shed when he stabbed the young woman he desired and the young man who seemed in the way. He’s one of 2,874 inmates in the Mark Stiles Unit east of Houston. More than 1,000 of those inmates have been found guilty of sexual assault or abuse, sometimes with a child—and 255 are in for homicide. 

Most of his fellow inmates have troubled family pasts, but Vian is particularly troubled about his lack of trouble before the double murder in 1991: “This was my first and only offense. Never been arrested. I was more or less a suburban kid. My mom and dad made sacrifices early on.” He grew up going to a Baptist and then an Assemblies of God church, and now “I’m here for killing two people. … They didn’t deserve what happened to them. … It’s kind of haunted me since then.”

Vian then was a University of Houston student. He says he was going to punch his romantic competitor and “had the knife, like holding a roll of quarters to give me some force. … When I started swinging, something else kicked in.” Vian’s life in prison also started with showing the willingness to fight: “They beat you up two or three times and you’re still willing to fight, then they leave you alone. … You become a wood.” “Wood” is short for “peckerwood,” in this context a prisoner who doesn’t pay protection and doesn’t “ride” (submit to homosexual acts).

Vian says he’s proved he’s a “wood” rather than a “ho,” and he wryly acknowledges getting good at prison time-passers like dominos. He says if he hadn’t gone to prison he would have transferred to Rice University, earned a degree in English and studied French with the idea of traveling to parts of west Africa, and eventually gone into politics: “Even though I didn’t get the death penalty, the whole life I had died that night. Just like their lives ended. Whatever life I had up to that point, it ended.”

DOES GOD FORBID government’s use of capital punishment? Nothing in the Bible orders a ban. Romans 13 notes that government “does not bear the sword in vain” and “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The harder question is whether God demands the death penalty for murderers. God in chapter 9 of Genesis does “require a reckoning for the life of man,” but the reckoning throughout the Bible is a severe punishment short of execution. “Put to death” is a common refrain from Exodus through Deuteronomy when God is laying out civil law for ancient Israel, but in universally applicable Genesis only “a reckoning” is required—and life in prison is clearly a huge reckoning.

Scholars debate whether the subsequent verse in Genesis, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” is prescriptive or descriptive. The “shall” suggests a command, but translators (English Standard Version, New International Version, New King James Version) set off that phrase as a descriptive poetic quotation, similar to the way they set off a quoted saying in chapter 17 of Acts. The biblical context is important: Earlier in Genesis, Cain’s descendant Lamech boasts to his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.” Such boasting, and carrying through on it, became epidemic: When one person sheds blood, others shed his.

Scholars debate another hard question: Are the later “eye for an eye” prescriptions literal requirements or limiting devices? (No more than an eye for an eye.) They note that Lamech was looking for vengeance out of proportion to the offense—“If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold”—and was laying out the future of fighting from the Hatfields and McCoys to the start of World War I following the assassination of an archduke. Since man’s vengeance and counter-vengeance almost always lead to damage far greater than what started the battle, God allows comparable but not greater retaliation.

ROY KENDRICK, 47, shot to death a fellow drug user in 1995, and took from him $40 and a food stamp card. While in prison Kendrick was also found guilty of murdering a cab driver and his wife in 1985: It was a cold case, but Kendrick’s father testified against him. With a glint in his eye and a grin, Kendrick matter-of-factly tells of how he’s been in many fights during his 16 years in prison, stabbing and being stabbed. Many of them were racial, white against black. He has broken jaws and recently had a punctured lung. He never has visitors. His brother is also serving a life sentence.

He grew up near the Big Thicket area of east Texas less than an hour’s drive north of where he now sits in the Stiles Unit thicket of metal and cement. He’d love to “go back in the woods and live there. Get me a squirrel dog, farm, hunt deer.” That is highly unlikely to happen. He has escaped death row and is suffering a living death.

It’s like that as well for other prisoners I interviewed. Anderson Hughes, who killed a policeman, has been in prison for 39 years, the first seven of them on death row: “Maybe it would have been better to die. … Now, I wake up, do the same thing as the day before. … I can’t remember when I had a good day, maybe years ago.” Arnold Johnson, now 37, remembers his time on death row: “At 19 you don’t think they’re really going to kill you. … Now I know I’ll die here. Every day I think about what I did. I replay everything in my head.”

The oldest prisoner I interviewed, Jesus Suttles, 66, lived all his life in San Antonio until in a drunken rage he murdered his ninth wife (four by law, five by common law) in 2002. He’s been a forced teetotaler since then and says prison saved his life: If he were out he’d still be drinking and dying from cirrhosis of the liver or something else. He hasn’t received a visit from any of his ex-wives or his three living children. He’s miserable, but alive.

UNDERSTANDING THE DEATH PENALTY as a maximum rather than an obligation helps to explain what otherwise are biblical puzzles. Why does the Bible prescribe capital punishment in many situations but stipulate evidentiary standards that make it almost impossible to put into practice, unless corrupt people distort the law as Jezebel and her conspirators did? Why does God give us no examples of the process working? Why does God spare those who deserved death, starting with Cain? At a time when most human beings lived on plains, God sent people off to the wilderness: Now, when people live everywhere, even in wildernesses, is excommunication sending a person to prison for life?

Two chapters after the “eye for eye” directive comes a solemn warning that is often repeated in later chapters: “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit” (Exodus 23:6). Lawyers I’ve spoken with cannot remember rich persons receiving the death penalty: Like O.J. Simpson and many others, wealth buys expensive lawyers who find ways for their clients to avoid maximum penalties and sometimes any penalties at all. The absence of good or even competent counsel in many cases perverts the justice received by a poor person accused of murder. Racial and ethnic discrepancies in sentencing used to be rampant but no longer are: Money rather than skin color now talks.

I’ll discuss other issues online, and explain my positive view of life-without-parole sentencing: WORLD's website will have new posts on capital punishment every weekday from Oct. 7 to Oct. 18. Please join me and add comments of your own. To close, here’s the story of one prisoner sentenced to life without parole who showed a different attitude than the others. James Zarychta, 41, imprisoned since 1993, gets up at 2 a.m. and goes to work at 3 in the Ellis Unit’s law library. Beginning at 4:15 he helps 15-20 inmates through a 2½ hour law library session, then clerks for a second session that begins at 8:45, and a third starting at 1:45. He’s obtained an electric typewriter on which he’s writing a prison self-help guide, a second book on filing petitions, and a third book of fiction.

On the death penalty vs. life imprisonment debate, he says, “I understand people thinking we should suffer as the people we killed suffered,” but “execution is the easy way out. … With the daily grind of being incarcerated, it consistently runs through my head: ‘What was I thinking? Why did I do it?’ What keeps me from going crazy is the thing I’ve learned: Jesus is the one way to heaven.”

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

Marvin Olasky

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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  • DRG
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    It was great being reminded that the "eye for eye" thing was mentioned in Scripture not only for when a man inadvertently caused the death of a pre-born baby (Ex 21), but also for injuring a neighbor (Lev 24) or for a false witness (Deut 19).  Although I think of the writer as a solid Biblical thinker, I have a big problem with him suggesting that clear commands for taking a life could simply be "descriptive" rather than "prescriptive," and with him citing examples of God's mercy where such punishments weren't carried out as supporting evidence.  Jesus said, "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect."  That's actually His command, and not fulfilling that command has the consequence of eternity in hell.  I'm perfect in the sight of our Heavenly Father only because of my "robe of righteousness" provided by Jesus taking my punishment for past, present, and future sins.  I deserve dismemberment, death, eternal torture, and eternal separation from God (and all that is good) for my rebellion and sin, but because of Jesus' work and His great love for me, I instead receive eternal life with "no more death or mourning or crying or pain!"  What better reason to walk in obedience to His commands but love for Him and what He has done for me?It's unfortunate that murderers must live their entire lives in an evil place that leads to additional sin rather than simply be provided a sure, certain, and timely death as a consequence, having been provided the opportunity to repent and receive God's mercy so they don't have to suffer eternally.  To me, it seems that such a policy would be better for all involved...the murderer, the victim's family, the taxpayers, and those contemplating crime.

  • Melody Novo
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    This article has made me pause to consider my views. But I think it also takes a rather narrow view of capital punishment by considering only the fact that it was never used by God as a consequence for taking another's life. God Himself implemented or instructed the use of the ultimate sentence routinely, often for what we would consider much smaller offenses than murder. Even in the New Testament of grace and peace, He strikes a couple dead for lying. He demanded the annihilation of whole people groups for their sins, which included the sacrifice and murder of children, among others.It is hard to read with appreciation an article that refuses to acknowledge the frequency of capital punishment in the Bible simply because it was never the result of a particular offense; especially when one considers how so many people find it difficult to reconcile a God who is love with the One of wrath and justice portrayed in the Old Testament.

  • C M Hunter
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    After reading the article by Olasky, please allow me to comment. I have more of a 'vested interest' than most of you because I have a prison ministry, and in my class,there are many men guilty of murder or sexual offenses which are worthy of death under the Old Law.When Olasky states Cain wasn't killed, and David went on with his life, and on and on, he is simply begging the point.Scripture clearly states this requirement for those guilty of murder, and no competent theologian from Augustine, through Calvin and Luther, and on to Spurgeon and Edwards have ever challenged the edict of the death penalty, at least not to my knowledge.Secondly, Olasky states that "two or more witnesses were necessary", and 'circumstantial' evidence' was never to be included. This premise is absurd I believe, because technology we have today can prove beyond a reasonable doubtand ensure an accurate conviction, whereas this ability was non-existent until recent times. Comments concerning two or more witnesses is to follow. I am for the death penalty as it is implemented at this time, in the MAJORITY of cases, albeit it pains me. What I want to elucidate is the opinion of those who have an unhealthy low view of murderers/convicted criminals.Dudley Sharp submits quote after quote of the guilty's crimes- what is your point Dudley? Of course these people did not commit a petty crime.IT DOES NOT MATTER A WHIT IF SOMEONE IS MURDERED BY SLIPPING A DRUG IN THEIR DRINK OR IF THEIR ARE BRUTALLY RAVAGED/MOLESTED. The death penalty is no more valid for a heinous murder vs a 'simple murder', and Dudley Sharp does not seem to understand this per his quotes. He is working on emotions.Accept what I state following concerning  murderers/criminals with an open mind.Does anybody actually believe that 'two or more witnesses' provides an airtight case? How many people were put to death because of a group of people that hated them , we will never know, at least not in this realm, but it has happenedmultiple times, of that you can be sure. I am always amazed how so  many around us have no problem with someone else going to prison, having a permanent criminal record; these people are so cavalier in their accusations, but I won't belabor this point any more than I already have. My pastor- a good man, a great pastor, and a friend, never asks me about my ministry. I truly think he is not a fan of serving those guilty of crimes. During a sermon last year, he got sidetracked and bemoaned "all those who commit crimes and do not receive the punishment they deserve; i.e. more time in prison!"To be frank, he does not know what he is speaking about. The average person watches the news and talks with relatives/friends and come to the conclusion that those going to prison are not truly paying for their crimes because prison is so 'easy'. The psychological impact of those  'doing time' is beyond belief.When I see those who have lost loved ones to murder rail on and on and on for justice to be served, I find it truly pathetic.The state will take care of this, but it's as if these victim's family take this on as a 'righteous mission' and get absolutely consumed with hatred for the guilty- they are simply hurting themselves.Again, I am not against the death penalty- I have looked at case after case, and, at least here in Ohio, the person convicted was truly guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, I mean way beyond a reasonable doubt. That is the crux of the death penalty under the law as holy writ in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc. Olasky and others here are straining a gnat, looking at the particulars of 'two or more witnesses' instead of the spirit of the statute- that spirit being 'beyond a reasonable doubt, in my opinion.If one of the guys in my class were put to death for his crimes, I would be emotionally and physically sick, but I would be satisfied that God's will has been accomplished, and we must never deviate from that no matter how we FEEL as believers. 

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Have we forgotten the history recorded in the NT of Ananias and Sapphira? 

  • Shorty Mew
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    As is always the case, shining the light of Scripture, being rightly divided, the incredibly deep darkness of this subject lights up like lighting a torch in a cave. I have been uncomfortable for years with the death penalty because of the relativity of the truth in American jurisprudence. When it becomes a contest where two lawyers are seeing who can manipulate the truth the best in order to win, and someones life hangs in the balance, something is horribly wrong. True application of correctly interpreted Scripture, would really change the landscape of the death penalty debate, and it would change it for the better for all concerned. Make no mistake, my concern is for the victims and the innocent and for the truth.Mr. Olasky, you have written a very important piece, and I for one agree that the truth, viewed through the grid of Scripture, is how this debate should be seen. Thank you for rightly dividing the truth and speaking up. I thank God for folks like you who are in the trenches for the truth day in, and day out.

  • fred1000
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    I have understood the murder is such a serious crime because being unable to actually strike God the murderer strikes at the "image of God". An "eye for an eye" means "let the punishment fit the crime". One doesn't have to read much on the brutal and bizarre punishments inflicted in the ancient and not so ancient world to see why this is needed.I know of no one who is in favor of executing the innocent or for that matter putting them in prison.  There is unfortunately no shortage of murderers who are clearly guilty. It is also unfortunate that it is not clear that our legal system is capable of telling the difference between the innocent & guilty. I am not convinced that the words , right, wrong, innocent, guilty, justice are not in the vocabulary of most lawyers. Win, lose, money, political advancement etc seem to be more common. This would be the best argument against the death penalty, but would, if accepted, indict the entire system for any offense. Consider the Fort Hood killer. If one can believe anything written about him(  with "the press" in worse shape than the legal system a viable question) he is clearly guilty.  How many decades will elapse before, if ever, he is executed? From Mr. Olansky's descriptions I'm not sure that life in prison is not "cruel and unusual punishment." It seems that the type of people in prison make life worse than it needs to be. God will forgive all who seek His forgiveness. We are told that in the "old days" (before my time) the condemned  was given the chance to "get right with God". Unlike most of us they knew the day of their death and that there was no more delaying of the decision.Crime and its' punishment is serious business. We all want to do it as right as possible and for there to be as little of it as possible. No one wants to execute an innocent person however I suspect a hard look at the numbers would support the idea that far more innocent people die as a result of killers that are released from prison only to kill again than innocent people have been executed by the State in America in the past 100 or so years.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Wealth and the death penalty.Olasky writes: "Lawyers I've spoken with cannot remember rich persons receiving the death penalty"Based upon Olasky's series of articles, that is, very likely, because Olasky didn't consult with anyone who wasn't anti death penalty.Very few capital murders are commited by wealthy folks. It is very likely that the wealthy, per capita, are much less likely to commit capital murder than are the poor, per capita, as monetary based capital murders dominate all others, by occurence and prosecution.The wealthy are given the death penalty.Is There Class Disparity with Executions?,

  •  Ed Walkwitz's picture
    Ed Walkwitz
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Dudley Sharp: I basically agree with you.  I think what Olasky is saying, as far as biblical support for LWOP, is this: the examples, such as David, where the death penalty was not given, but the person had to live with the consequences of his murder for the rest of his life, are kind of the equivalent to LWOP.  The guys in prison have to live with what they did.  I do not agree that this is good support, and I describe that in my first post.  Basically those are exceptional cases where God gave a special dispensation, if I can call it that.  And there are only two clear examples of it: Cain and David.  There are other cases in the Bible where the death penalty was administered, as described in my first post.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Ed:The obvious problem with this series is an effort at undermining  the validity of execution, with no balance. I am still hoping for a SURPRISE moment, when  Olasky regains his credibility by producing some balance.He seems unaware that there is zero biblical support for life without parole. None.Whereas, there is over 2000 years of solid death penalty support, by biblical scholars, theologians, religious leaders, etc. etc. which overwhelms any teachings to the contrary.At least he has rejected that it is a heresy for a Christian to support the death penalty in the US. A bold step.  

  •  Ed Walkwitz's picture
    Ed Walkwitz
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Bix: I also have long noted that the Law of Moses has no prisons; just punishment for crimes.  The closest thing would be a city of refuge, which, though not a prison, did confine a person for accidently killing someone.

  •  Ed Walkwitz's picture
    Ed Walkwitz
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Gleason Archer, according to Dudley Sharp, argued that the word for "witness" doesn't necessarily have to mean an eyewitness, but can include other kinds of evidence.  The evidence of Lv. 5:1, was convincing.  Thanks Dudley for your blog post on this.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 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 prisoners.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    This seems to have been, somehow,  overlooked.With Numbers 35:31 there is: "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 04:30 pm

    "All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are
    false.  Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible's own agenda, rather than to
    squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught,
    "Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator."  (Ecclesiastes Rabbah
    7.33.). Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey's book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    It is crucial to mention the names of the innocent vicitms in all of these cases and tell us a little bit about them.As Olasky didn't deem that necessary, please review:Victim's Voices

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    You write:"Some had spent years on death row but escaped it because they were under 18 when they killed, or had other mitigating factors."Under 18 is not a mitigating factor, it is an exclusion factor.  By law, no one who was under 18 at the time of the murder can be subject to the death penalty, even if they were 17 years, 364 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes old. One of the poorest of decsions by SCOTUS (1)Mitigating factors may or may not keep you off death row.Why Some "Juvenile" Murderers Should Qualify For The Death Penalty: Brain
    Science and Other Issues

  • Bix
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    The most unpleasant content in Mr. Olasky's article actually has to do with prisons. Prisons are mentioned in the OT (eg: Joseph after Potiphar's wife) and in the NT (Jesus telling us to settle with our adversaries befroe we are thrown into prison - Matt 5:25), but they are not any part of God's commands in the Pentateuch. Rather punishment was to fit the crime. For theft, it was to pay it back plus 20%. For a tooth, a tooth. For rape, murder, kidnapping, sorcery - death. I am not going to look up where this is (usual 13 hour work day today, and I'm tired), but there was also the option of paying a fine to your plaintiff if you didn't want to lose your tooth or otherwise receive your punishment. Another death penalty was "disobedience to parents." I doubt that this was to apply to a six year old boy, but I do think that it could apply to what we would call today the "habitual criminal" who has gone to prison a three times for drug use, four times for aggravated assault, five times for burglary, and six for drunk and disorderly, and is now convicted for life without parole. Capital punishment for that. Sounds barbaric? How about sodomy, gangs, beatings, and corruption in prisons? That's barbaric.
    If we must keep prisons, they would be mainly for short and stern punishment such as 13 hour days working in a south Texas vegetable farm or building a road or digging ditch -- and for only a week or two. Crime again? Same punishment again. Crime again? Same punishment again. Four or five times more? That's disobedience to "parents" and the death penalty.
    No single change to our laws will make our society righteous. No single issue will correct the degradation that our society has witnessed for the past few decades, especially the past few years. But, since Mr. Olasky (who I greatly respect and usually agree with wholeheartedly) has brought it up, that is my comment. Prisons are what tore you up, aren't they?

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Ed:I think it clear Olasky has taken an anti death penalty position and has located the evidence to fit that position.For over 2000 years, the biblical and theological support for the death penalty, as detailed by countless Christian scholars, has dwarfed any renunciation of it.I am hoping that all the criticism and rebuttals will have him seek additonal sources and he will be re writing his later pieces in this series, to show more balance and research.Here is my analysis. If you don't find it solid, please let me know.LIFE: MUCH PREFERRED OVER EXECUTION: 99.7% of murderers tells us "Give me life, not execution"

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    1) Today's standard of identification are much higher than the biblical standards and God knew they would be.2) Forensic science, DNA, finger prints, video monitoring, etc. are all more accurate than eyewitness identification. In many cases, the circumstantial evidence is also more accurate than eyewitness identification.3) I think we should ask, "Would God want 99% of guilty criminals not to be prosectuted soley because there were not 2-3 eyewitnesses of that crime who could positively id the criminal? Think about that. It would only produce lawlessness, anarchy and no justice.4) That brings a lot more support for Prof. Archer's translation that it is not eyewitness but "to witness" and "to bear witness", as in all types of confirming evidence as to who the perpetrator is, unless one finds that God preferred 99% of criminals to be exempt from prosecution.

  •  Ed Walkwitz's picture
    Ed Walkwitz
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    dudleysharp: You have some good thoughts.  I'm not in a position to question your statistics, which may well be right.  My point to Mr. Olasky was simply this: Based on your own argument that LWOP is worse than death (if it's true), one would have to argue that the punishment would then be out of proportion to the crime.  However it does seem more logical to me that death would be more of a deterent than LWOP.  I appreciate a lot of what Marvin Olasky writes, but I think he's missed on this one, and my main concern is that I think he's being sloppy with the Bible to back his position.  God's book deserves the greatest respect, and we should not twist it to support our position.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    "Some incedible quotes that Olansky got:The Christian left has condemned such a standard: The United Church of Christ, for example, called eye-for-eye an "outdated and barbaric practice."The question is do they even know what the eye for an eye passage is? It is a changing of the basis for punishment, going from the excessive punishments of the past, to sancitons that are proportional to the crime. It is a calling for more justice and more mercy. Truly bizarr that they find that outdated and barbaric. The:"The Jewish left has offered similar scorn, with David Sperling saying, "As a Reform Jew, I think ... when biblical texts do not say what we would like them to say, that is when we part company with these texts."  That's reform? "Hey, we don'tr like that biblical text, toss it out".  Incredible.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Ed:Olasky's point, about LWOP being wrose than execution, is strongly contradicted by what murderers think and do.About 70% of those on death row had been in prison before. Some 99.7% of those murderers eligible for the death penalty do all they can to avoid the death penalty/execution and get life instead, knowing what prison is all about.  

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Samlam:  ". . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear.
    For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which
    the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet
    his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to
    repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law
    grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the
    opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to
    be tempered with mercy." Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that
    executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: (p. 116). Quaker biblical scholar
    Dr. Gervas A. Carey. A Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox
    College, Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press,
    Houston, 1963, 1992
     St. Thomas Aquinas: "The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can
    be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be
    justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is
    greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their
    improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to
    be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at
    the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to
    make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to
    the right use of their powers." Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Loren:Jesus and the Death Penalty

  •  Ed Walkwitz's picture
    Ed Walkwitz
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Joab received the death penalty for his two murders, though late in life. The two men who claimed (probably falsely) that they killed Saul received the death penalty. Many others such as Caananites and Amalekites received a mass-death penalty for crimes that included bloodshed. All this contradicts Mr. Olasky's claim that there are no examples of the death penalty, mandated by God's law given to Moses, being meted out. In addition, there are examples of the death penalty being given for crimes seemingly less serious than murder (i.e. gathering sticks on the Sabbath, immorality, or in the NT, even lying about how much one gave to the church!), so how much more would it be given for murder. Mr. Olasky's total argument for life without parol is based on just four examples where God gave a special dispensation to murderers, which is a much better interpretation than assuming God contradicted himself by giving a law he never intended to be carried out. Didn't he intend all the other laws he gave to be carried out? Of his examples, two are very questionable: Acts 7:25 seems to say Moses was justified in defending his fellow countryman. Simeon and Levi were wrong, but the label "murder" could be debated. In 2 Sam 12:13, it seems clear that David was given a special reprieve from the normally expected death penalty: "David responded to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." Then Nathan replied to David, "The LORD has taken away your sin; you will not die."
    Mr. Olasky is also arguing mostly from silence, because there are not many examples either way of a penalty for murder being given in the Bible. Also, in arguing that life without parole is worse than the death penalty, a claim supported by his interviews, he is arguing for a punishment that does not fit the crime, the same thing Lamech was guilty of. All this amounts to interpretational gymnastics to explain away God's clear command to Moses to carry out the death penalty.
    Does Roman 13 teach that gvt is allowed to use the death penalty, or commanded to use it? Verse 4 says: "For government is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God's servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong." It's hard not to read that without seeing the death penalty as God's gift to gvt, which he expects them to use, and when they use it they are "God's servant."
    He says, "God in chapter 9 of Genesis does 'require a reckoning for the life of man,' but the reckoning throughout the Bible is a severe punishment short of execution." "Throughout the Bible?" But he gives no evidence for that aside from a couple of exceptional cases, as noted above. Gen 9 reads: "I [God] will require the life of each man's brother for a man's life," (v.5), and the reason given in v.6 is not that people will just do it for revenge, but rather because man is made in God's image. Sounds like God demands the death penalty.
    A couple side points: the verses he cites requiring witnesses, taken together, probably mean that there needs to be enough evidence, such as two witnesses instead of just one, rather than meaning literally that strong circumstantial evidence isn't enough. The wording of Dt. 17:6 supports this. And Dt. 19:15 uses the same wording about witnesses being required for any crime, not just murder. (Similarly Mt. 18:16 and 2 Cor. 13:1.) Yet surely clear circumstantial evidence would be enough for some crimes.
    His idea from Dt. 19 that a witness better be sure enough of his testimony that he'd be willing to suffer the death penalty himself if he is lying is an excellent thought.
    Finally, Olasky says, "Lawyers I've spoken with cannot remember rich persons receiving the death penalty." Good point; there's a lot wrong with the way we convict people of murder. Let's fix it, rather than throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Some expert commentary:1) The Death Penalty:
    Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation
    2) "Moral/ethical Death
    Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars"

    3) Christianity and the
    death penalty. Catholic and other
    Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty,
    5) "All interpretations,
    contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters
    ought to listen to the Bible's own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it
    implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, "Do not seek to
    be more righteous than your Creator." (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of
    Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey's book Capital Punishment: What the Bible
    Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

  • dudleysharp
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Is There a Biblical Requirement for Two Eyewitnesses for Criminal

    Ezekiel  33:11: "As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the
    death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back,
    turn back your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?"
    Dr. Bailey's analysis: "To some readers, that may be seem clear enough! God
    not only takes no "pleasure" in the death (execution?) of the wicked
    (criminal?), but prefers that they "turn back" (be rehabilitated?). Such
    understanding might indeed be justified if one could read the Bible
    atomistically, that is, one verse at a time, with the understanding that the
    verse has a self contained eternal truth. However, if the prophet is speaking to
    a specific audience about a particular problem, and if his response covers
    several verses (or even a chapter), then the modern interpreter must hear him
    out and look for the central idea. That is, what a verse says may not be what
    the context (and thus the prophet) means.   . . .the words are addressed to the
    'house of Israel' (specifically the Judean exiles of Babylonia), in response to
    their lament. (And) Who are the wicked? The exiles whose betrayal of the
    covenant has led to exile. What is meant by their "death"? Both their political
    situation ("we waste away") and their dwindling faith in the ancient concept of
    election. God takes no "pleasure" in the death of the wicked (i.e., does not see
    it as necessary that the exiles have this attitude and forever remain in
    Babylonia). The Deity desires repentance, change of priorities, renewal of
    ancient values, life as it was intended by this community {"turn back"} . . .
    and return to the promised land. Thus, the text is not concerned with the fate
    of anyone who has been sentenced to death by the judiciary (or even per se with
    individuals who face death), and it does not therefore suggest what the
    religious persons response should be in that case." "Capital Punishment: What
    the Bible Says", Dr. Lloyd R. Bailey, Abingdon Press, 1987. pg. 42-43.

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    My mind went to many places as I read this article.  In the end the thought that remained with me , and which was not discussed in this article, was the final judgement.  Eternal punishment -exhile/torture -for those who ignored the one, true living God and his invitation to redemption.  We have been given tools in this imperfect world to contain evil.  The tools fall short but they are given to us for the purpose of societal peace for acts that disrupt that peace.   There was only one person in those interviewed and recorded who actually was redeeming his time in the Biblical sense.  How many who have been put to death have found their need for a Savior because they knew their hour death? 

    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    It is just that if a man takes a man's life, his life is forfeit.  It should not be revenge, punishment or even trying to develop fear in other people.  Its justice.  I suppose in a sense, every life that has died since the fall is just.  BTW, what about the spear in to the two lovers?  Or the ones swallowed up.  Every Israelite died in the dessert.  

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Prison is an awful penalty; and life in prison is beyond miserable.  I believe that God planned the death penalty not only to graphically demonstrate the wonderful value of human life but also to capture the attention of people who ignore or procrastinate their need of reconciliation to God.  While a sentence of life in prison can (and often does) lead to pathetic soaking and souring in the temporary consequences of their guilt, a death sentence forces a person to more seriously face the true nature of their relationship with God.I believe the death penalty can be a gracious encouragement for an individual to appeal to God for forgiveness in Christ rather than enabling them to continue to procrastinate accepting God's provision for the forgiveness of their guilt.Of course sinful societies use punishment with great imperfection.  But I would far rather we err on the side of encouraging real repentance than of fostering life long rebellion.  

  • Loren
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    My apologies for the typos.

  • Loren
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    When God called me back to Himself and my faith a little over 10 years ago, one of the first things the spirit impressed upon me was that pro-death penalty position I had held rigidly to since my childhood was wrongheaded and was based on nothing better than revenge and pragmatism. It also posited a real dichotomy within me and with who I said I was: how could I possibly proclaim myself to be pro-life, and rail on long and loud about an unborn child's right to live, and so easily be willing to discount another persons right to live who had been convicted of a crime? Did Holy God not create both of these lives? Who was I to be so arrogant as to say that I had a right to end (or even have a say in the ending) the life of any human being that God chose to create? The longer I meditated on it, and the longer I pored over scripture regarding it, the more convicted I became that Christians have no right to endorse the death penalty in our society. None! Not only are the standards for using it in scripture exceptionally high, as Marvin Olasky well shows in this article, but I would go father than he does and state that I see no place where they are EVER met in society. Even if we can somehow manage to show where those evidential burdens have been met as regards witnesses and all the rest, nowhere in our society can we show that ANY judge or any jury has sentenced someone to death because it is the Biblical, Godly, thing to do - it is never done in any way shape or form where it's intent is to honor God and what He says in scripture. Never! We can claim that a law is based on a Biblical precept, that does not mean that we act in a biblical manner or have any desire to do so for Godly purpose(s) of any kind. Let's be boldly honest here: If I were called to jury duty, and while being questioned by the attorneys to determine if I were fit ti serve on a jury where the accused could be sentenced to death, when asked if I believed I could vote yes for the death penalty if the accused was found guilty, I were to answer I could do so because my faith in Jesus Christ and His Word as revealed in the Holy Bible gave me clear instruction that killing someone for their crimes was the right and correct thing to do to be loyal to and show honor to Him...I'd be dismissed in an instant for being a religious zealot, for being offensive to non-Christians, pagans, Muslims, etc, for being in violation of church and state, ad infinitum.No secular society can use God and/or His book as a justification to kill its citizens, any more than an atheist can use Proverbs 13:24 as justification to spank his children. Every single person who has ever existed on the face of the earth is a miracle of God, and until we as a society live our lives as a society by God's rules for God's glory in word and in deed, we have no right to cause any of His miracles to cease.I do not go around yammering about this subject, and only really talk about it at all when it is brought up by others, or by a story in the media that relates to it, but when I do, the immediate and belligerently self-righteous attacks that are launched at me by professing Christians is one of the most disheartening things I know of - Whether we agree or not on the use of the death penalty as put to us in the Bible, that so many brothers and sisters in Christ can so easily (many even joyfully) cheerlead for the death of anyone ever is just horribly sad.

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    I have always thought the death penalty was the State's way of making sure a monster never killed again.  I have never thought of it as really punishment or revenge.  When a judicial system is too corrupt to sentence people to death justly then the death penalty must be stopped.  If we could truly lock them up for life with no chance of parole or escape I could be in favor of that.  It might be difficult to apply Biblical standards to the punishment when the system is entirely secular.  

  • slowtospeak
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    In Numbers 15 a man is put to death (with God's approval) for breaking the Sabbath; so there's another example of capital punishment carried out by the nation of Israel. The law demanded this punishment (see Exodus 31:14). Exodus 31:14 also shows that "cut off from his people" meant death. Many, many offenses in the OT law required death as the punishment, so I think it's safe to assume that when the people were following God (off and on!) they must have been doing capital punishments -- hopefully not too many, as we hope it would be a significant deterrent.

  • titus
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    Was not the death of Achan in Joshua 7 capital punishment?

  • DakotaLutheran
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 04:30 pm

    What struck me most from this article is the high bar set by Scripture for conviction. The requirement for two or more witnesses is clearly difficult to meet. But what struck me most was the consequence for false accusation: that the same should happen to them. This got me wondering who the accusers are in such cases. In a circumstantial case, where there are no eye witnesses, who are the accusers? Is it the prosecuting attorney? What about the jury? Were it the jury, would that require a higher standard of guilt than is presently employed in our courts? Our courts presume someone innocent until proven guilty. A person is "proven guilty," when the evidence is such that it would be unreasonable to conclude the person innocent. Does the unreasonableness of guilt satisfy the Scriptural standard? It seems the answer is no and this for one essential reason, viz., the juror''s judgment, and thus accusation, is never held in the juror's mind to be subject to guilt and the same punishment they prescribe. The juror, as the prosecuting attorney, are considered immune from guilt. There is no threat of false accusation. It is, in some sense, as if the juror must be prepared to stone the accused, so certain are they of their judgment. One last question. What does this say of DNA evidence? DNA evidence is witness to what, if anything? In general, it is likely that it is still the prosecuting attorney and the jurors who use the testimony of the DNA evidence to accuse the accused.