Joe Bayly to Marvin Olasky: Capital punishment is Biblical...

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Here's a column Dad published on the subject of capital punishment in a thoughtful and mature Reformed magazine called "Eternity" back in May of 1977. Titled, "Bloodthirsty or Biblical: Hang the man or hang the logic," Dad turned away from the (even then) trendy hand-wringing over the death penalty. After all, he had studied Scripture and listened carefully to the fathers of the Reformed faith.

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One element has been missing from discussions of Gary Gilmore’s recent execution and of the larger question of capital punishment.

We’ve heard a lot, mostly con but some pro, about the deterrent effect of capital punishment, and about the thwarted possibility of reformation. And more has been said about “murder” by the state, about the effect on the condemned man of waiting for time and appeals to run out, about society’s voyeurism, even about the suffering of the condemned man compared to that of his victim and the victim’s family.

But I have not seen a serious presentation of the one element in capital punishment that has found general historical agreement, among Jews and Christians: retribution, the punitive effect.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this is absent from our consideration of the ultimate punishment, since it is also the missing element from our consideration of punishments for lesser crimes.

I am not especially concerned about the rejection of retribution by the secular mind, which in our day to a large degree is humanistic. Reformation of the criminal is the only reason for incarceration or other punishment, according to this way of thinking. But I am deeply concerned about its rejection by the Christian mind. As in so many other recent instances, it seems to me that we have in this turned from the Word of God and accommodated our theology, attitudes and values to this present evil world and its ruler...

Behind all the Bible’s teaching about sin and crime is one central proposition: The reformation of the offender is not the primary object of punishment; nor is the deterrent effect upon others. Rather, punishment is inflicted to satisfy justice. That justice may be God’s or (by derivation from God) the state’s. Why did God inflict destruction on men at the time of the Flood, in Sodom and Gomorrah and Jerusalem? Not for the good of the offenders or for their reformation, but to satisfy his justice. And God’s future punishment of fallen angels and of men who ultimately refuse his offer of salvation likewise will not be for the purpose of reformation; this the Bible rules out by declaring that the punishment is eternal.

The prevention of crime is desired by all who desire justice and righteousness. And this is sometimes a side effect of punishment. But whether capital punishment or lesser punishments are deterrent or not is, for the Bible-believing Christian, irrelevant to the central reason for punishment of the criminal.

Theologian Charles Hodge  distinguishes between punishment and chastisement.

A father chastises a child in love, and for the child’s good. And God, our heavenly Father, brings suffering upon his children for their edification. But evil inflicted for the benefit of the sufferer is chastisement, and not punishment. Punishment, properly speaking, is evil inflicted in satisfaction of justice. [1]

Punishment of the wicked is always related to the anger of God in the Scriptures. Chastisement of his children is related to love.

Even for God’s children, there is punishment as well as discipline. St. Paul relates the sickness and death of many in the Corinthian church to their sin and lack of self-judgment. And we are told that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1John 1:9).

Isn’t the penalty removed by confession, by saying we’re sorry, please forgive us?

No, and here, it seems to me, is the heart of the matter.

The penalty is removed by our Lord Christ’s action in taking it upon himself on the cross. His death was as our substitute. A penalty always results from the violation of law, and that penalty is always borne. It may be borne by the sinner or it may be borne by Christ. It may be borne by the criminal or it may be borne by the victim and by society. But in a moral universe, the penalty is borne; it must be borne.

Retribution is at the heart of our Lord Christ’s redemptive work. The sentence imposed by God upon me was death; Christ fulfilled the sentence, bore the punishment, and therefore I am pardoned.

Not all theologians agree with this view. I remember hearing Dr. Clarence T. Craig tell a class in Pauline theology at Union Seminary in New York (commenting on Romans 3, and the concept of propitiation) that any attempt to show that there is something in the essential nature of God that requires the satisfaction of his justice against sinners “ends only in blackening the character of God.”

According to an alternative view, it was not necessary for sin to be punished, with judgment falling either on the sinner or on the Son of God. Rather, the death of Christ, along with his life, teaching and other acts, produces a moral effect on the hearts of men. The results of this moral influence (which is what the theory is called) is that the sinner turns from his sin. He is reformed.

I am aware that some Christian theologians hold and have held the moral influence theory of the work of Christ, rather than the substitutionary atonement theory, the punitive theory that I have just mentioned. And it is true that Christ’s life and teachings and death exert a powerful influence on the Christian. By his example our Lord does affect our conduct. But this follows the satisfaction of God’s just judgment; it does not replace it.

Most theologians have found this theory inadequate. So have most of our Christian organizations and institutions, which incorporate a statement about the substitutionary atonement in their bases of faith.

Now we are back at our initial question: What is the state’s purpose in punishing the criminal? Is it simply reformation, or is it the exacting of a penalty, retribution?

According to the Old Testament, homicide is to be punished by the death of the murderer (Exodus 21:12, 14; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 24:21; Deuteronomy 19:11,13). These passages distinguish between murder and manslaughter, providing for escape from the penalty for those guilty only of the latter.

The rationale for capital punishment is found in Genesis 9:6:

Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man.

This command was given to Noah, the second head of the human race. Therefore it does not seem to be limited to one particular age or race. Rather, the reason is ageless: Man bears God’s image; therefore the destruction of man is an outrage against God, to be punished by execution.

The New Testament confirms the state’s authority to carry out executions in Romans 13:4. And neither Jesus Christ nor St. Paul challenged this authority in their own confrontation with the state. In fact, St. Paul affirmed it: “If I be an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death, I refuse not to die” (Acts 25:11).

As Christian people, we believe that there are unavoidable results of disobeying God, whether the disobedience is personal or national. If this is so, whether capital punishment is a deterrent to murder or not, we are suffering those results as a nation and will suffer them in the future.

Again quoting Hodge:

Experience teaches that where human life is undervalued, it is insecure; that where the murderer escapes with impunity or is inadequately punished, homicides are fearfully multiplied. The practical question, therefore, is “Who is to die? The innocent man or the murderer?” [2]

The Old Testament prophets (“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable”[3]) pronounced God’s judgment on nations, including Israel, and cities that were characterized by violence and the shedding of innocent blood. The judgments they mentioned are frightening, as were their later fulfillment.

And is God not already visiting judgment on our callous disregard of human life, as children murder parents; parents murder children, including infants; teens and young adults kill old people; arsonists kill ghetto-dwellers, lust-ridden men rape and kill innocent women; bombers and sharpshooters kill numbers of innocent people.

I am aware that some who read what I have written will ascribe bloodthirstiness to me, desire for vengeance, lack of Christian concern for a brother human being who happened to commit murder.

I am also aware that when it was still practiced by the state, capital punishment fell most heavily on the poor and members of minority races. The rich, who could afford prestigious lawyers, often went free. God punishes nations for unequal treatment of the guilty. God’s people must crusade for justice in all areas, including capital crimes.

I am thankful for decisions of the Supreme Court in recent years that have reinforced equal treatment under the law, for instance requiring legal counsel for the poor and indigent.

And if the viewpoint I espoused is considered bloodthirsty, what shall we say of a nation that gets its “kicks” out of watching murders and other acts of violence as a chief form of entertainment—in television, movies, theater? A nation that is made up of increasing numbers of onlookers who watch other human beings beaten, raped and murdered in real life, without intervening? A nation that seriously discusses televising (with sponsor) the execution of murderers?

We’re sick.

God, heal us. Soon.

[1]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co., 1874), i. p.417

[2] id. at iii. p.364

[3]2Timothy 3:16

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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