Is Capital Punishment Just?

Christian views on the death penalty are changing, and I can no longer remain neutral.
Is Capital Punishment Just?
Image: VIEW APART / SHUTTERSTOCK

On March 2, 2015, Georgia death-row inmate Kelly Gissendaner had what she thought was her last supper. That same day, death-penalty opponents gathered on the stairs of the Georgia state capitol and at the Georgia Diagnostic Prison in Jackson to protest Gissendaner’s execution. But it was a false end: Later that day, Gissendaner returned to death row due to a cloudiness in the pentobarbitol, the drug that causes respiratory arrest in a lethal injection.

Then, in the early morning of September 30, 2015, Gissendaner became the first woman in over 70 years to be executed in the state of Georgia. She had admitted her guilt: She plotted to kill her husband, though her boyfriend, Gregory Owen, was the one who executed the murder, stabbing Douglas Gissendaner multiple times in 1997. (Owen is serving a life sentence, though he could seek parole in seven years.)

For her second last supper, Gissendaner ate cheese dip with chips and Texas nachos. In her final statement, she said: “I just want my kids to know that love still beats out hate. And I want the Gissendaner family to know that I'm sorry and because of me a good man lost his life. And I want to tell my kids I love them so much and I am so proud of them.”

As Gissendaner’s execution began, she sang “Amazing Grace.”

The Death Penalty in America

In 2015 the National Association of Evangelicals changed its 1973 resolution on the death penalty with this statement:

Evangelical Christians differ in their beliefs about capital punishment, often citing strong biblical and theological reasons either for the just character of the death penalty in extreme cases or for the sacredness of all life, including the lives of those who perpetrate serious crimes and yet have the potential for repentance and reformation. We affirm the conscientious commitment of both streams of Christian ethical thought.

This change accompanies a shift in public opinion about capital punishment, as reported by the Pew Research Center. In November 2011, 77 percent of white Evangelical Protestants were in favor of the death penalty and 16 percent opposed it; four years later, 71 percent of the same demographic favored the death penalty while 25 percent opposed it.

The opinion of African American Protestants changed as well, from 40 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed to 37 percent in favor and 58 percent opposed. The pro-death penalty perspective still has a foothold among whites while African American and Hispanic Americans now predominantly oppose the death penalty.

The Death Penalty in the Old Testament

There are many historic theological and biblical reasons why some Evangelical Protestants have favored capital punishment. A commonly held view is based on the idea that this is a just punishment because we see it imposed in the Old Testament. A critical rationale underlying this Old Testament practice is the idea that capital punishment emphasizes the intrinsic value of human life by administering ultimate justice upon those who take the lives of others.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, argues along these lines, asserting that Christians should support the death penalty because “God made every individual human being in his own image, and thus an act of intentional murder is an assault upon human dignity and the very image of God.” Like Mohler, some Christians who advocate for capital punishment do so because they recognize the great worth of human beings as God’s image bearers. Capital punishment is a paradoxical consequence of that belief, but Christianity is full of paradoxes. The principle here is essentially that those who take the life of an image-bearer of God should lose their lives.

The Old Testament does command use of the death penalty within ancient Israel. Deuteronomy 17:6–7 is one passage that addresses the death penalty, specifically prescribing a procedure for executing those who have violated God’s covenant. These instructions were given for punishing idolatry, but they may have been applied to other capital sins as well.

Deuteronomy 17 outlines that, first, each accusation had to be thoroughly investigated. In order for the person to receive the death penalty, a minimum of two or three witnesses were required. False witnesses were to receive the sentence they intended for the other person (Deuteronomy 19:19). In other words, a false witness that accused an innocent person of an act requiring the death penalty would be executed. A witness’s word was worth his life.

Furthermore, witnesses had to be willing to throw the first stones, meaning they were tasked with initiating the carrying out of the death sentence. Then the entire community was to join in. Death by stoning was particular to the culture of the ancient Israelites. Other means of capital punishment employed in the Ancient Near East included drowning, burning, impalement, and beheading—all requiring an executioner; they were not communal events.

We see from these passages that the practice of capital punishment described in Scripture is significantly different from capital punishment as it practiced today.

Is Our Justice Just?

Some Christians, though they recognize the Old Testament call to the sanctity of life, hold a pro-capital punishment perspective in tension with the reality of a judicial system that is not always just. In the same piece where he defends the death penalty, Mohler admits the socioeconomic and racial biases implicit in the American judicial system: “There is very little chance that a wealthy white murderer will ever be executed. There is a far greater likelihood that a poor African-American murderer will face execution.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Over 75 percent of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50 percent of murder victims are white.” In other words, it is more likely for a defendant to receive the death penalty if the victim is white.

Racial bias within the judicial system, especially within juries, has been corroborated by many studies, including the research of Katherine Beckett at the University of Washington, who found that “black defendants are more than three times more likely than similarly situated white defendants to be sentenced to death, after controlling for all other variables.”

In addition, our judicial system is not foolproof, and innocent people are convicted. Since 1973, 150 people have been released from death row because of evidence of their innocence. Popular media such as the podcast Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer demonstrate that, sometimes, assurance of a defendant’s guilt is impossible to come by. And juries are human. We must ask ourselves, do we, as a society, want to be found guilty of executing innocent people? Is our justice truly just?

At What Cost?

Christians who oppose the death penalty affirm the injustices listed above. They also question whether the death penalty is actually an effective deterrent to murder. Consider this reality highlighted by the Death Penalty Information Center citing an FBI study from 2014: “The South had the highest murder rate. The South also accounts for over 80% of executions. The Northeast, which has less than 1% of all executions, also had the lowest murder rate.”

Surprisingly, due to court and investigative costs, it is actually more expensive to execute a convicted criminal than to give him or her a life sentence. And it isn’t few dollars more expensive; it’s millions. Sojourners noted, “Fox News famously reported in 2010 that “every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes.” Studies in North Carolina showing the state could save $11 million a year by substituting life in prison for death sentences.”

Evaluating Our Complicity

Ron Sider’s book The Early Church on Killing demonstrates that the church fathers separated capital punishment as a social institution from a Christian’s involvement in the event of the death penalty. In an interview, Sider noted, “[Church father] Origen talks about how in an earlier dispensation it was legitimate for Jews to have an army and to engage in capital punishment, but now under the new dispensation Christians don’t do that.”

But how, exactly, are we to separate capital punishment as a social institution from our own involvement in it? Sister Helen Prejean, whom you may remember from the 1995 film adapted from her book Dead Man Walking, sees our complicity every time a death-row inmate is executed. “I realize that I cannot stand by silently as my government executes its citizens. If I do not speak out and resist, I am an accomplice.”

The Christian call to preserve life, even the lives of murderers, has been reiterated by Pope Francis and is echoed by many Protestants, including writer Caryn Rivadeneira, who participated as a guest in an retreat for inmate pastors and non-inmate pastors at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Rivadeneira became opposed to the death penalty as a teenager when she saw the footage of people cheering at the execution of serial killer Ted Bundy.

In personal correspondence with me, Caryn wrote:

Of course, on some level, I get why people would cheer. And of course, had he killed my daughter, maybe I’d cheer too. Though, I like to think not. Watching the cheers made me look at what capital punishment is really about. I’m not sure it’s justice.

We’ve got the New Testament (and grace, thanks to Jesus’ own capital punishment) and that sets a different tone for us. When we look at murderers and rapists and thieves as our neighbors or even our enemies (it doesn’t matter with Jesus), we have to figure out what love looks like.

How do the unconditional love of Jesus and his grace interact with justice? Caryn continued:

So, what is loving justice? Is it the most severe? I wouldn’t think so. Yes, to love and protect all of our neighbors, murderers and dangerous people should be “sent away,” perhaps even for life. But to love our prison neighbors means remembering, as hard as it may be, that they, too, are made in God’s image and worthy of life.

The Line Between Good and Evil

It wasn’t my intention to write an essay that argued against the death penalty. I had planned an article outlining and exploring various Christian views on the death penalty. When I began this project, I felt that I could be objective on the matter. That’s changed.

I’ve spent much time over the last few months reading about serial murderers, people who have killed their family members, and terrorists. The Sufjan Stevens song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” has been stuck in my head far too often, especially the line: “And in my best behavior / I am really just like him.” That caused me to ponder the nature of evil, of sin, of my own sin and complicity in a system of justice that is grossly unjust.

Binaries are simple to understand. It’s easy to believe that everything must fall into one of two categories. Children think this way. “The Jetta Is Good and the Volvo Is Bad” is my son’s favorite song. During primary season, my daughter asks me which presidential candidate is “good” and which one is “bad.” I equivocate. I remind her that all people are created in God’s image, yet all people are marred by sin.

Binaries are especially easy to resort to when dealing with murderers. We can agree that a criminal justice system is necessary, that people should be justly punished for their crimes, and that we should seek policies that promote overall human flourishing. But does the bifurcation of humanity into just two categories—those who are guilty beyond redemption and deserving of death and those who are wholly innocent and deserving of life—truly capture the mind of Christ?

In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflects, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

In this conversation, we cannot forget our own capability of sinning, our own willful desires that lead us away from God. What do we expect of fallen humanity? Rather than being surprised at sin, shaking our heads in disbelief, should we not recognize the grace of God as it is demonstrated every moment of every day? It’s only by God’s grace that humanity hasn’t yet annihilated itself. It is by God’s grace that each of us chooses to do right rather than wrong on any given day.

We are all capable of great evil, yet each human being images God. This is a great and holy invitation as we consider what to do with those who break the sixth commandment.

Jesus in Prison

Jesus is not absent from the lives of those who break the law, and Jesus found Kelly Gissendaner in prison. Through a program offered by a consortium of Atlanta-area theological schools, Gissendaner read work by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rowan Williams, and Jürgen Moltmann. Compelled by Moltmann’s writings on grace, Gissendaner began a correspondence with the German theologian, who later visited the prison and gave the commencement address to Gissendaner’s class.

Jesus not only found Gissendaner; he changed her. She, in turn, changed others. She wrote a book of meditations, Journey of Hope by Faith, that she shared with other inmates as well as Moltmann, and she provided pastoral care to other inmates, counseling that prevented several suicides. In a 53-page stay of execution appeal appeal, prison employees, instructors, family, and fellow prisoners testified of Kelly’s transformation, lack of bitterness, and the life of hope she exemplified. Gissendaner wrote, “I try to use the life and light God has given me to help those around me in whatever ways I can.”

Many people believe that Gissendaner was executed unjustly. Though she did not commit the murder herself, her actions were evil, as she admitted. But even in a situation in which we could be thoroughly conviced of a just sentence—if we could be 100 percent certain a convicted murderer actually murdered—we must yet ask: Does capital punishment fit within the values of the Kingdom of God that is among us, as Jesus declared? Instead, could we imagine, somehow, a restorative approach to justice that doesn’t seek an eye-for-an-eye, but is imbued with Jesus’ radical call to unconditional love: embracing our enemies and praying for those who have and who will persecute us?

As Christians, we are called to carry on God’s transformative work. God transforms murderers like Moses and David, people who lived “by faith,” as the author of Hebrews tells us. God transformed Saul from complicity in the stoning of Stephen into a missionary who carried the gospel to Gentiles. God transformed Kelly Gissendaner too.

It’s easy, in our conversations about issues, to forget that these issues are really people—people affected by laws and policy that favor some and punish others, just like the woman caught in adultery in John 8. But in this story, Jesus paused, wrote in the dirt, and spoke to the woman. Perhaps we may do the same.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence (MCS, Regent College) is a TCW regular contributor and blogger for Reformed Worship. She tells biblical stories, speaks about worship, and cares for her young children in Willowbrook, Illinois. Find her at PathlightStories.com.

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