I Support the Death Penalty Because All Lives Matter
In my last article, I walked the reader through what the Bible says about the death penalty for murderers, rapists, and child molesters. I also responded to several questions and criticisms. You can read that article here.
In response, Tyler Lee Conway, graduate of Truett Seminary, sent me an article written by Dr. Matthew Arbo entitled Why I Oppose Capital Punishment, published through The Gospel Coalition (TGC also featured an article entitled Why I Support Capital Punishment by the late Chuck Colson). Dr. Arbo is a professor of theological studies at Oklahoma Baptist University and an elder in his church. He's also a Research Fellow in Christian Ethics for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC).
In his article, Dr. Arbo gave both philosophical and theological reasons why he is opposed to the death penalty. For the sake of brevity, I'm not going to engage Dr. Arbo's philosophical reasons. Besides, I don't believe it serves our primary purpose for coming to a biblical understanding of what the Bible has to say about capital punishment. We must have a biblical basis first, since God's Word is our ultimate authority; then we can talk about the practical implications.
As for his theological objections, Dr. Arbo offered three. I will break them up under the headings of FIRST, SECOND, and THIRD for ease of reading. Dr. Arbo's comments will be in bold, and my responses will follow.
"First, if one wishes to justify capital punishment on the Old Testament's lex talionis (eye for an eye) principle, then one must demonstrate how death as a punitive measure is morally right, since the civil and ceremonial elements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ."
I believe I did that in my previous article. I did not begin with "eye for an eye" as it first appears in Exodus 21:24—I began with Genesis 9:6 and showed how "eye for an eye," or the law of retaliation, is an extension of a binding moral principle that God has established and imposed upon every living creature, even animals (Gen. 9:5, Ex. 21:28), before the Law was given. The Lord has said, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image."
I'm confused as to what Dr. Arbo means when he says "since the civil and ceremonial elements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ." Too many rip Matthew 5:17 out of context and use it as an excuse to pull an Andy Stanley and unhitch from the Old Testament. As I commented on my podcast on Friday, there are many that recoil at Stanley's "unhitch" comment, yet they follow it practically when they remain ignorant of the Law, its purpose, and its application.
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." But don't miss verses 18-19, when He says, "For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be great great in the kingdom of heaven."
Note, "whoever does them and teaches them." It is imperative that we read, understand, and teach all of the law. (The word "relaxes" in the Greek is luo, which means [gasp] to unhitch!) Respectfully, Dr. Arbo does a poor job of teaching the law in his article and gives far more weight to philosophical reasoning than biblical reasoning. He makes several biblical references, but he doesn't walk his readers through them. Still on his first point, he says:
"In doing so, Christian advocates of capital punishment will also have to reckon with Jesus's instruction in Matthew 5:38-41, where He makes clear this retaliatory interpretation of the law was incorrect. If one is subject to wrongdoing or injustice, Jesus implores forebearance and charity, dismissing any reading that justifies vengeance. It is especially difficult in practice to disentangle vengeance from retribution in capital punishment."
So what? Please hear my tone—I'm not trying to be a dismissive brat. Why is "It is especially difficult in practice to disentangle vengeance from retribution in capital punishment" a reason not to enact the death penalty? The Apostle Paul calls the governing authority that exercises capital punishment on the wrongdoer an "avenger," meaning by definition that he enacts vengeance (Romans 13:4).
If a couple weeks ago you read about John Todt in Orlando who killed his wife and three kids, and your reaction was, "What a monster! That guy should die!" what's wrong with that reaction? That is a right and moral response. If you felt brokenhearted and sorrowful, that would also be a right response. If we were emotionless and indifferent to such atrocities, that would be a big problem.
This is not to dismiss Dr. Arbo's point. We are all responsible for the thoughts we think and the motivation in our hearts; that in all things we are for the glory of God and not man; that we be in service to His divine justice, not according to our own biases, prejudices, or corrupt and vindictive wills. Psalm 4:4 says, "Be angry and do not sin." However, as with his passing reference to Matthew 5:17, I do not believe Dr. Arbo is considering verses 38-42 in their proper context.
Jesus said, "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. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you."
In this passage, Jesus was not saying that we unhitch from the principle, "eye for an eye." He's the one who made that Law, and it was given to prevent unjust punishment. Here in Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus is rebuking those who abuse the law, applying a personal vendetta to otherwise trivial matters when they should also have a heart for love and mercy. If someone reads in this text opposition to the death penalty, they are imposing onto Jesus's words something that is not there (eisegesis). Jesus was confronting the heart of man, not the civil laws of God. Mr. Arbo continues:
"Governing authorities are sometimes required to use force to uphold the law and secure peace, of course, but nothing constrains them to kill offenders in order to do so. The same idea is presumed in the logic of Romans 13: the political authority may, but is not required, to impose a penalty of death. Neither is the Christian insubordinate or disrespectful in pleading for measured clemency."
I support the death penalty, I support a police officer having to use deadly force to stop an assailant, I support a soldier following the orders of his superior officer, and I desire clemency (leniency or mercy). This moral position can exist in the same person. In fact, it must. Micah 6:8 says, "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" So we must love justice and mercy.
"A second theological point, offered long ago by Augustine, is this: Once the condemned is put to death, that person is no longer eligible for evangelization and conversion. Clemency better allows for the possibility of rebirth in Christ. It doesn't guarantee conversion, obviously, but execution certainly shortens the chance. I sense the early church took this particular opportunity to heart."
Dr. Arbo's point is certainly agreeable to an extent, but it's not a reason to oppose the death penalty. I disagree with his point here in a few ways, but I'm going to stick with making one point since it's the basis for the argument: Augustine of Hippo wasn't opposed to the death penalty. In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, notes on Matthew 5, Augustine said:
"But great and holy men... punished some sins with death, both because the living were struck with a salutary fear, and because it was not death itself that would injure those who were being punished with death, but sin, which might be increased if they continued to live. They did not judge rashly on whom God had bestowed such a power of judging. Hence it is that Elijah inflicted death on many, both with his own hand and by calling down fire from heaven; as was done also without rashness by many other great and godlike men, in the same spirit of concern for the good of humanity."
Augustine was also in favor of overthrowing tyrants, and he spoke of exercising corporal punishment upon heretics by having them flogged in public. So hearkening to Augustine really doesn't work in Dr. Arbo's favor. He risks demonstrating a careless piece-mealing of biblical and extra-biblical sources in order to argue for a predetermined position.
"Third, the Christian faith is fully and entirely pro-life—beginning to end. This commitment has broad enough scope even for the condemned. Every human being has dignity, and no one, not even the monstrous, can lose his or her dignity altogether... If Christians take human dignity seriously, we should criticize any penalty that fosters attitudes of contempt toward the condemned."
In my previous article, I said that it's because I am pro-life that I am in favor of the death penalty. These perpetrators have taken lives. In capital punishment, we consider more than the life of the offender. We consider also the lives he has destroyed.
Now, Dr. Arbo began his article talking about Dylann Roof, the young man who in 2015 killed nine people in a South Carolina church shooting. Dr. Arbo obviously sympathized with the families of the shooting victims, so I don't want to come across suggesting that he lacks sympathy. But I just don't understand why someone opposed to the death penalty places so much emphasis on the life of the perpetrator and less consideration for the lives that have been destroyed.
Consider a story I mentioned in my previous article. Christopher Watts killed his pregnant wife, Shanann, and his two daughters, Bella (4) and Celeste (3), by strangling them to death. One of his daughters begged him, "Please, daddy!" and he killed her anyway. When he was arrested, he lied and said his wife was the one who killed his daughters, and he killed his wife in retaliation. But later, after he cut his deal to avoid the death penalty, he confessed he did the whole thing. He had been thinking about killing his wife for weeks, and even tried to poison her to end her pregnancy. His wife found out he was having an affair, and he killed her and his girls.
What should happen to this man? He should be put to death. You know he deserves to die. As I argued from Genesis 9:5-6, this is a moral principle that is naturally binding because God has established it as such. Not only do you know in your heart this man deserves death, the Bible says he deserves to die. The conscience and the Word of God bear witness that justice in this case is death.
So tell me—How is it undignified to put this man to death? If society were to say he owes his life for theirs, wouldn't society consider with more human dignity Shanann and her unborn child, Bella, and Celeste than Watts did? Is God's word undignified when it says in Deuteronomy 19:21, "Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot"?
Instead, how has society responded to this monstrous killer? He is being given food, clothing, shelter, medical care, security, pest control, and more, paid for by the taxpayer for the rest of his life, for putting his wife and three children in an early grave. I would argue that's undignified for a civilization to let such violent criminals live and live off the system. This is not justice. It's a perversion of justice.
"Those are my objections and explanations. I put them frankly knowing many will vehemently reject my arguments. I understand the feeling; I ask only that you consider whether capital punishment actually gives the condemned what they deserve, or whether it simply assuages the anger, however justifiable, of those with relation to the slain—who then equate 'justice is served' with 'the one who killed my loved one has been killed.' Many so-called Christian defenses of capital punishment are, I fear, more utilitarian than theological."
That last sentence seems oddly inconsistent, considering that Dr. Arbo found it necessary to make his practical arguments first and his theological arguments second. His closing argument exposes the flawed approach to his reasoning: The death penalty is not beneficial, therefore we should oppose it.
I say we must love justice because God does, and we must consider what He calls justice according to His word, not what we want it to be or how it makes us feel. If people love the justice of our holy God, then they will be satisfied when it is accomplished, no matter how heart-breaking the circumstance may be. Even if it doesn't by human reasoning "satisfy," we must do justice anyway.
Ultimately, our sufficiency is to be found in Christ. All have sinned, and the wages of sin is death. But the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 3:23, 6:23). We all deserve the death penalty, but Jesus took that penalty for us with His death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. Let us look to God and be fully satisfied in Him. His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Proverbs 28:5 says, "Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely." Proverbs 29:26 says, "Many seek the face of a ruler, but it is from the Lord that a man gets justice."