The Cross and Capital Punishment

The Cross and Capital Punishment

At a convention of ethicists a week ago, I attended an intriguing presentation about capital punishment. The interesting–and disturbing–part of it for me was the overview presented, by a legal expert, on the actual practice of putting prisoners to death. He offered documentation of the fact that things often go wrong in actual executions. The process does not go off as intended, and the results are gruesome. Furthermore, it sometimes happens that innocent persons are executed–the reality of this kind of situation is becoming increasingly apparent now that DNA tests are establishing the innocence of prisoners who have been incarcerated often for long periods of time. In addition, there are the undeniable facts of racism. The lecturer at the convention offered extremely disturbing accounts, for example, of African-Americans who were “represented” by court-appointed lawyers who slept during the trials in drunken stupors.

All of this convinces me that capital punishment as we practice it in the United States is a very bad thing. But I do not oppose capital punishment as such. My difficulty in aligning myself philosophically and theologically with the case often made against the very idea of capital punishment was once again evident for me when a theological ethicist stood to make a comment in the discussion period last week. The underlying problem on this subject in the Christian community, he said, is that we still often teach that the death of Christ on the Cross was, in theological terms, “a legal execution.” This is bad stuff, he said, and if we want to undercut the practice of capital punishment, we have to stop endorsing the idea that Christ died as as substitute for our sins.

That way of arguing scares me. We find that a classic doctrine is being applied in confused and abusive ways, so instead of trying to correct the confusions and the abuses we throw out the classic doctrine.

My own conviction is that the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement actually provides the solution. People do need to pay for their sins–and the wages of sin is death. The problem is that we can’t afford the payment. No murderer can atone for the sin he or she has committed. There is only one “legal execution” that fulfills the conditions for atonement. The rest of us have only one plea: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the Cross I cling.” Putting a sinner to death for committing a murder is not overdoing it–it falls far short of satisfying the demands of justice.

If capital punishment as a legal practice is to make sense, then, it has to be on grounds of its effectiveness as a deterrent. Back in the days when there were many airline hijackings, my ethicist colleague and friend, the late Lew Smedes, argued that it would make good sense to announce that anyone who hijacks a plane, with the threat to kill crew and passengers if the stated demands are not met, faces capital punishment if apprehended. And then, Smedes argued, if a person is caught and clearly convicted of the crime, the government has to follow through on the threat.

That kind of approach still makes sense to me–particularly in cases of acts of terrorism. So I cannot simply rule out all cases of capital punishment as excessively cruel. But–if practiced at all–legal executions must be very rare occurrences. Our present practices are clearly out of hand. Obviously, the complexites are such that theology alone will not provide the solutions. But the issues at stake are such that they provide yet another reason why it is important for us to proclaim boldly that “Jesus paid it all!”


  1. An interesting essay, and I find I have nothing to disagree with, per se, about it. However, I am often told that capital punishment fails on the very grounds that Smedes argues for: as a deterrent. I hear anti-death-penalty advocates say this again and again: “Capital Punishment does nothing to deter would-be murderers from killing.”

    I don’t know if this claim is true or not. I just hear it a lot. I’m surprised, though, to see that this question (whether or not capital punishment is a deterrent) is not even mentioned. Is this because you find that the accusations that it is not a deterrent are unfounded?

    Comment by B-W — January 11, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

  2. Dear Rich,

    I agree: the issues at stake provide yet another reason why it is important to proclaim boldly that “Jesus paid it all!” Since Jesus did pay it all, no murderer can atone for the sin he or she has committed. Our sin is too great for us to try to pay for it ourselves, or to try to make someone else pay for their sin by our killing them. Only the cross does that. Thinking from a different Christian tradition, John Howard Yoder made exactly the same theological point.

    And we agree that the death penalty is systemically unjust. The legal expert whom we both heard pointed out that in Georgia, murderers are 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person than for killing a black. Likewise in Oklahoma, Illinois, and several other states. Since 1976, 15 whites were executed for killing a black person; 283 blacks were executed for killing a white victim. Alabama has no dedicated public defender system. Court-appointed attorneys are grossly undercompensated. In one state, the pay is only $2,000 for trying a capital case, including out-of-court time. And there is no money for doing investigations. In one case, the lawyer was locked up because he was drunk in the trial. The next morning, he was let out of jail so the trial could proceed, and the accused got the death penalty. DNA evidence is now showing that many who get the death penalty were the wrong person. The death penalty cancels the ability to change the verdict and resuscitate the dead man.

    So, as you say, capital punishment as we practice it in the United States is very unjust.

    So you say that if capital punishment is to make sense, “it has to be on grounds of its effectiveness as a deterrent.” I am sure you do not mean that Christians should advocate that the end of deterrence justifies the unjust means of racist and erroneous killing. Maybe a hijacker…. But terrorist hijackers have already decided they are ready to die. They’re not deterred by the threat of death.

    The evidence is pretty clear that the death penalty may deter some, but it causes more homicides. It sets the example that the thing to do about an evil is to kill the person. So the citizens of states that have the death penalty follow the example and kill their fellow citizens more frequently; states that have the death penalty have higher murder rates. The studies are more complex than a brief blog reply can indicate, of course. Could I recommend my chapters on the death penalty in _Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context_ (InterVarsity), or in my _Capital Punishent: A Reader_ (Pilgrim)? The chapter in the reader was endorsed by all twelve recent presidents of the Society of Christian Ethics.
    Your friend, Glen Stassen

    Comment by Glen Stassen — January 11, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

  3. i love your heart on this subject, i feel you love jesus and people, it shows in your words, i do support capitol punishment, its scriptural, although like you i think restraint can also be in order, mercy, we all need grace because if not for grace no man can stand.
    those things being said however , i see israek sufer some of the time because of “man made grace” instead of doing as YHWH commanded, like when they were instructed to kill every man, woman, child, even not to take any cattle or wealth of the heathens with them, yet they chose to allow some to escape who have now become thorns in the sides of their ancestors.

    and when we limit the punishment to only think its a deterant ( which by the way i agree hopefully tha it will be ) we also miss part of the point, because its not only a deterant , its also to keep those very evil men from the streets..we dont need wory about our families being brutalized a seciond time if they are dead, its about protecting the public, its also about punishment of the guilty that is proprtionate to the crimes.

    and yes some have unfortunately been found innocent, may god forgive us all, however i say after wharehouseing them for 20 years on death row, every one of them has an automatic appeal by law, thus the case has been reviewed and tested and retested, its had everything done, i belive dna testing should be mandatory in all cases that are death penalty sentences, in fact it should be extended to all prisoners , we should be very careful when we judge a men as a nation, amen

    thanks again

    ps. i found this while looking for a good school to go to, i am interseted in attending somewhere and feel god calling me to do so.

    im a grown man ( 47 ) i have 6 kids, and need to attend online, as i must work and provide for my family at the same time, and cannot leave the area, i also need flexible scheduling so i can study in my spare time, im unsure if this school has such a program, if so please let me know, if not perhaps you can offer some other alternative

    may the LORD bless you

    oh by the way, its as if God has already had me in school for many years , i also wonder about just testing out of soe of the classes, i am self taught on many things that may be offered in such a school, as an example ive studied hebrew/ aramaic for many years , i can read and write hebrew and aramaic with a great deal of understanding, im not yet completely fluent, he uses me as a lay evangelist and a bible teacher, i believ he has called me to missions to many nations, especially to certain places, and to many peoples, especially the lost sheep of israel

    bless you in jesus mighty name

    brother mark

    Comment by mark allen — January 12, 2008 @ 7:03 am

  4. Now with so many suicidal squads I wonder if captial punishment will serve as a deterrent. Life jail to me seems more reasonable than capital punishment. After all a person may repent even in jail.

    Comment by jeremiah — January 13, 2008 @ 9:14 am

  5. Beloved Dr. Richard Mouw,

    Good afternoon and Happy Sunday. Dr. Mouw, read your blog and agree with you that we must boldly proclaim that “Jesus paid it all!” Unfortunately, our Justice System does not see it that way, as you know. Years back, during late 80′ through mid 90’s, I was an abolitionist of the death penalty and ministered to death row inmates at Oklahoma State Penitentiary and especially Texas State Penitentiary, Ellis I and II at Huntsville my calling, the “Light of Christ Prison Ministry,” a correspondence and telephone ministry (death row inmates can call collect once every 90 days). I knew many of those death row inmates who became Christians (most of whom were executed over the years), but were ready to pay the price with their lives for their crimes (some were innocent), and go to heaven to be with Jesus. What hurt me was these inmates (men and women) became Christians and repented, but the were executed anyway.

    We did much service in jails and saw that the population, male and female, is mostly African American and/or Hispanic as you point out above. Modern day slavery. Not much has changed since before the Civil War or Civil Rights for that matter.

    Dr. Mouw, then I witnessed the Oklahoma City bombing (my immediate family is from Oklahoma). I heard the bomb blast, saw the utter destruction of our neighborhoods, knew the Murrah Building well; McVeigh, etal, bombed our neighborhood (at least six square blocks)in downtown OKC. Sir, thousands of people suffered for years and are still suffering in ways unimaginable. Today, would capital punishment be a deterrent for terrorism? I do not think so.

    I am grateful for your writing about The Cross and Capital Punishment.

    God bless.

    Sunny Murchison
    SOT MDiv Program – Recovery Ministry

    Comment by B.A. “Sunny” Murchison — January 13, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  6. Dr. Mouw,

    Great stuff as usual. One thing though: Deterrence, in the case of the death penalty, has effectively been written off as a actually preventing one from committing a crime. There is simply no evidence supporting it. Furthermore, a good number of crimes that incur capital punishment are crimes of passion, committed not while a person sits and thinks through the possible consequences of their action(s) but while they are drunk, enraged, etc.

    Despite this fact, I loved your essay, as usual. You are a remarkable leader. Perhaps you are creating, through your institution, a neo-Evangelicalism.

    Comment by Nic — January 14, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

  7. Good evening, Dr. Mouw,

    I agree with what you write. Years back, I had a prison ministry called the “Light of Christ” Prison Ministry via telephone and correspondence to inmates primarily on death row in Oklahoma State Penitentiary as well as Texas State Penitentiary, Ellis I and Ellis II, in Huntsville.
    What hurt me was though many of these people were Christians, and, yes, some innocent of the crimes for which the criminal justice system sentenced them to die, is that they still were executed.

    When I directly heard and witnessed the Oklahoma City bombing, I no longer was a capital punishment abolitionist with terrorists who kill and maim innocent adults, children and babies Thousands of those people suffered that April 19th, 1995 day, a Wednesday, 9:02AM. Many, many still suffer today.

    God bless.

    Sunny Murchison
    SOT M.Div Recovery Ministry

    Comment by B.A. “Sunny” Murchison — January 14, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

  8. I generally support your argument. One other factor which points to the need for change is the length of delays, not just in our capital punishment cases, but also in most criminal cases. Hopefully, DNA testing can increase the speed of justice. Currently, it seems somewhat ludicrous when a person is executed 10 or more years after committing a crime, as this does not seem to be much of a deterrent. For punishment to be effective, it should follow the offensive behavior as quickly as possible. Sadly, our current system regarding capital punishment seems less like justice and more like delayed revenge, and revenge accomplishes nothing.

    Comment by Jeff Bjorck — January 15, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

  9. This comment is in regards to Mark’s response.
    “and when we limit the punishment to only think its a deterant ( which by the way i agree hopefully tha it will be ) we also miss part of the point, because its not only a deterant , its also to keep those very evil men from the streets..we dont need wory about our families being brutalized a seciond time if they are dead, its about protecting the public, its also about punishment of the guilty that is proprtionate to the crimes.”
    What “evil” men are you talking about? What streets are you talking about? If you could describe those men on those streets, what would they look like?
    We as Christians can insulate ourselves until we no longer have any contact with anyone who is not a Christian and is not exactly “like us”, but we will then never experience the reconciliation of humanity to God by doing that. Building bigger walls, bigger prisons, and bigger government will only give the allusion of security, as it gave the same allusion to O.T. Israel, which ended causing them to end up in captivity. The U.S. spends $100 million a day maintaining bombs, are we any more secure now?
    I worked for the government for 10 yrs., 8 of those years as a law enforcer and simply enforcing LAW will never transform behavior, only contain behavior, if we are content with that, then we will be forced to insulate ourselves from “evil”. I do not believe this is the gospel.

    Comment by Paul — January 16, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  10. Mark,

    Fuller offers one primarily online degree, the Master of Arts in Global Leadership, which would be worth checking out.

    Comment by Chris — January 16, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  11. Dr. Mouw,

    On capital punishment:

    “As Abraham Kuyper reminded us, to abuse human beings who are created in God’s image ‘is to defy the love of the Maker for His handiwork, willfully giving offense, and grieving the Maker in that about which His heart is most sensitive.’”

    Thank you for your wonderful insight and understanding.

    Comment by Jeremy — January 21, 2008 @ 2:58 am

  12. Dear Dr. Mouw,

    I agree with you that to stop endorsing the idea that Christ died for our sins would be wrong. It’s what Christianity is about–the inability of people to save themselves. And I agree that only through God’s grace and love can humans be forgiven for their sins.

    I do not believe the act of capital punishment is a loving, forgiving practice. I don’t believe it is Christ-like. In fact, I believe capital punishment is a way that society attempts to save itself. In the process, it creates more sorrow, and propagates a fuzzy, compromised morality.

    If we judge the morality of an action by attempting to measure that action’s efficacy (how well we believe the measure serves us), well, obviously that line of reasoning doesn’t bear much weight. Why do terrorists bomb civilians? Because it’s the only way an outnumbered group can be effective against a stronger group. It makes logical sense. Christian morality is not dictated by what humans believe to be logical. Loving your enemy is not logical.

    I’m not claiming that killing innocent people is “equal” or “the same” as executing a convicted killer. But I don’t think God loves the murderer less. Who among us would call ourselves “innocent?” I definitely don’t qualify to cast a stone. And could killing a person actually be considered an act of love? Did Jesus kill or die for us? The more I read the Gospels, the more radical my view of love becomes.

    It is a sin for us to judge, or condemn other people. I don’t use the word “judge” lightly. The highest form of condemnation over which humans have authority is pronouncing, “You as a person do not deserve to live.”

    How could you choose to execute someone for whom Christ has given his life? I don’t believe Christ gives up on anyone, and I don’t believe we should, either.


    Comment by Adam — January 24, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

  13. I appreciated this blog. It seems like when someone commits a crime or do something “evil”, we get angry (kinda like Jonah) and we stop caring about his/her salvation. But even the worst sinner, is worthy of a chance to hear the gospel and to get saved. Jesus while on the cross extended mercy for the criminal. By not practicing capital punishment, we give the crimnal a chance to hear the gospel.

    Comment by Bikat — January 30, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

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