Answers to questions about capital punishment
NOTE from TB: This is the response of Brian Bailey to a request from a young girl formerly a part of our church who sought his response to questions related to capital punishment. She was seeking help with a paper she was writing for school.
Bailey is an elder of Trinity Reformed Church and an attorney at law here in Bloomington. I saw his response and requested his permission to publish it on Warhorn’s Out of Our Minds, which he kindly provided.
Dear (Jane Doe),
Good questions. My answers to each are below. I’m sorry some of them are so long. Actually, there is more I could have written, but this is already long and I didn’t want to overwhelm you. I’m copying your Dad. He can help explain some things or disagree with some things. This is not an easy subject and I am glad you’re thinking about it. If you have any questions about what I’ve written, of course you’re welcome to ask me and I’ll answer them as quickly and as best I can.
Question 1: What do you think about capital punishment, and why?
Answer: My first thought is to begin with Scripture. What does Scripture say about capital punishment? We find that after the Flood, God commands that capital punishment be used against a murderer. He issues the following command to Noah and, though He didn’t need to, God gave us a very important reason for it:
“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man.”
(Genesis 9:6 NASB 1995)
This was not a special command given only to Noah or only to God’s people. And it was not repealed by the New Testament. It is a universal command to all men, in all places, for all time. No society, this side of Heaven, will ever grow or “evolve” beyond the need for this command.
For centuries of Christian history, Christians had believed this Truth and had written God’s Law into their countries’ civil laws. Pagans, having God’s Law written on their hearts, had also made the death penalty part of their countries’ civil laws. Beginning especially in the 1800s and 1900s, some Christians and pagans began grumbling about and trying to repeal this Law.
Question 2: What are the repercussions of capital punishment?
Answer: You ask a good question. I’m going rejigger it a bit and then answer the rejiggered one: What are the repercussions of refusing to administer capital punishment?
One repercussion of refusing to administer capital punishment is that evil is emboldened, then abounds, and then overwhelms the community. Innocent ones die and evil ones live on to commit more murder. They also live on to encourage more murder by their own examples that are not punished as they should be. Scripture teaches us: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.” (Ecclesiastes 8:11 NASB 1995) We see this in our day as murderer after murderer goes unpunished as he or she should be.
Question 3: How do you think capital punishment helps/ hurts our country?
Answer: Following God’s Law always brings a blessing and never a curse. Our culture and our own evil hearts, though, try to teach us that following God’s Law always brings a curse and never a blessing. This is a lie we must resist with all of God’s help. God promises us, if we follow His commands, we will live: “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, which, if a person follows them, then he will live by them; I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 18:5 NASB 1995.) This has two meanings for your purposes. One meaning is we will live if we don’t murder others, and two is we as individuals and as a society will live if we punish murderers as God tells us to.
More could be said about the impossibility of fallen man to obey all of God’s commands perfectly. (Really, it’s impossible to obey one of them perfectly, but try to obey we must.) Only Jesus obeyed all of God’s commands perfectly. Only Jesus was without sin inherited from our first father Adam. Only Jesus never committed any sin. And it’s only Jesus’ Blood that can save us on Judgment Day who repent and believe. Jesus’ Blood can and does save eternally any sinner who repents and believes, even a murderer who shed the blood of a victim.
Question 4: Do you think, capital punishment brings justice and honor to the victim?
Answer: Capital punishment does justice and honors God, first and foremost. It does justice by taking the life of the murderer who took another man’s life. Justice is giving to a man what he deserves. If a man takes another man’s life without justification, the murderer deserves to have his life taken. Every man, woman, and child is created in God’s image from the moment of conception. When a murderer takes a victim’s life, he destroys the image of God in the victim. I think this is the way to understand God’s command to Noah after the Flood (to shed the blood of the murderer) and the reason He reveals for that command (the victim was created in the image of God). I think this also honors the life of each unique victim who uniquely and individually bears the image of God.
In a way, though it is not easy to see at first, capital punishment brings a form of honor to the murderer. How could that be? We don’t honor bad people. Or at least we shouldn’t. But capital punishment recognizes the responsibility and accountability of the murderer. A murderer is not just an animal or a higher form of animal, as some believe all men are. The murderer too is created in the image of God. But doesn’t that mean we shouldn’t shed the murderer’s blood? No, it doesn’t mean that because God justifies the taking of a man’s life in certain circumstances. These justifiable circumstances include self-defense, military defense against an aggressor, and capital punishment.
Capital punishment also reminds all of us, the murderer and society, that each of us will one day stand before God and give an account for the deeds we have committed. The murderer should feel this very strongly as he approaches the day of execution. And, really, so should everyone involved in the execution. Many murderers have repented and believed because they understood that very quickly, on the appointed day, they would soon stand before God. There are murderers, like King David, in Heaven.
Question 5: Do you have any more thoughts about how to improve capital punishment?
Answer: Some evil judges and rulers have abolished capital punishment. “Abolished” means they have completely repealed capital punishment from the laws of a state or country. They have entirely deleted capital punishment from the law books. Though this is evil, it is more honest in a sense than what other evil judges and rulers do. Other evil judges and rulers leave capital punishment in law books. But they make executing the death penalty difficult to impossible to apply. How do they do this? They make a multiplication of unnecessary rules. This multiplication of rules causes capital punishment to become rare or non-existent. This is worse because it’s hypocritical and because it gives the people—who think they live under laws that protect them, their families, and communities—a false sense of security. I think they should get rid of these unnecessary rules.
What kind of unnecessary rules do they make? One rule they make is to say that capital punishment should only be used for heinous murders. That means really, really bad murders. But all murders are heinous. Why are all murders heinous? Because each and every murder takes the life of a man, woman, or child created in the image of God.
Another rule they make is to allow bad excuses for certain murders. One bad excuse is the insanity defense. A murderer (and his doctor and lawyer) will say he was insane at the time he committed the murder. Because he was insane, they argue, he shouldn’t be executed. I don’t see the insanity defense anywhere in Scripture. The Holy Spirit is infinitely smarter than any man, including today’s clever lawyers and educated psychiatrists. The Holy Spirit was and is aware of a condition we used to call “madness,” but we now call “insanity.” (King David, as the Holy Spirit records in Scripture, tried to get out of trouble once by pretending to be insane. King David began to feel in danger from an enemy king he was seeking protection from, so he pretended to drool and scribble.) Still, knowing of the madness of some murderers, the Holy Spirit did not make an exception for a murder committed in madness.
Capital punishment can be also be improved by protecting the innocent from false accusations of murder. One way to do that is to inflict capital punishment on a false accuser of murder. Scripture says: “The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him just as he had intended to do to his brother. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 19:18-19 NASB 1995.) In other words, a man who tries to use the courts falsely to get someone executed should himself be executed.
We can see from Scripture, including the passage I just quoted, that the work of justice is often very difficult. It is sometimes difficult to determine what happened. For example, was it murder or was it an accidental killing? Accidental killings are not punishable by death. Especially when it comes to the death penalty, the common standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is a good one. But note: the standard isn’t beyond ALL doubt. It’s beyond a reasonable doubt. Still, even when the proof is solid and incontestable that a murder has been committed, it is still difficult to execute the murderer. Why? Because each judge knows instinctively in his heart, if not in his head, that the murderer is also created in the image of God. It is a hard thing to take a man’s life even when a murder is proven and capital punishment is justified.
This brings me to the final and perhaps most important way to improve capital punishment. We must, as Scripture commands us, pray for the judges and rulers whom God has given us as His ministers. I’m ashamed at how infrequently I myself do this—and I work for a living with judges and rulers. Oh, may God have mercy. God has gifted and appointed men to bear the office of judges and rulers. Their work is hard. Their decisions are hard to make. Hard. Hard. Hard. But we Americans, and, to our shame especially we American Christians, like to complain about them and pull them down and dishonor them. We don’t like to have anyone in authority above us. But we very much need them and the One True God Who put them in office.
Warmly in Christ,