‘Capital Punishment, also known as the death penalty, is the execution of a person by the state as punishment for a crime. Crime is known as a capital offence, or capital crimes.’1 Capital Punishment has been a worldwide issue, and has been elaborated since the Christian faith was introduced into the world, although the Christian faith was introduced when capital punishment was an accepted feature of the legal system, as represented when Jesus and a penitent thief were on the crosses…”We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong”. It has and still being debated among a variety of countries and religions. Although only in recent times has capital punishment been questioned. The feature has still been retained by a few western European countries, or those of Anglo-Saxon origin in other parts of the world. 104 countries have formally abolished the feature from their legal system but some countries still retain the feature, but is only used under specific circumstances and capital offences, such as treason.
In the USA the practices varies among different states. Capital Punishment was partially abolished in the UK by 1965; at this time only major felonies passed the judgement of using capital punishment such as treason, piracy with violence and arson remained as capital crimes. By 1999 the act of Capital Punishment had been formally abolished as the home secretary (Jack Straw) signed the 6th protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights in Strasbourg on behalf of the British government. Lactantius was one of the first of the few early fathers to oppose capital punishment. The Christian community took a big part of the decision on whether to abolish Capital Punishment. Christians base their beliefs on the Bible and talking’s from heads of churches such as the Pope. It was partly because of the Christians that the act has been abolished. One of the key figures of the time was Pope John Paul II – he spoke of Capital Punishment as the ‘culture of death’.
In his encyclical ‘Evangelium Vitae’ he declared his ‘near’ total opposition to the death penalty, his ‘near’ opposition has only one case in which the punishment is appropriate “in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” At the time of voting for the abolishment of Capital Punishment, the Pope was one of the main Christian figures that opposed Capital Punishment, and voted for the abolishment of Capital Punishment. Although there was one other main group which also were against Capital Punishment, they are the synod of the Church of England (Vatican Council) they were the Church governing body.
In between 1929 and 1969 Capital Punishment was legal in the Vatican City, although it was only used to one specific case – if the pope was assassinated, although they never carried out any punishments. In 1969 Pope Paul IV removed Capital Punishment from the ‘fundamental law’. At the time, these figurines took up a majority vote when abolishing Capital Punishment. By doing this, they successfully were one of the main figures to be featured in the abolishment of Capital Punishment in the UK. The protestant view of Capital Punishment was derived into factors where it is equally diverse. St Paul favours the death penalty and tends to take the New Testament into disagreement. The utilitarian approach is bound to regard punishment itself as undesirable, epically in the founding of Jeremy Bentham. Bentham argued in his book of ‘Principles of Penal Law’ that ‘punishment is unnecessary if the offence will not recur; punishment is only appropriate to dissuade others from behaving in the same way; punishment is, therefore, to protect society for the future.’
The main issue of capital punishment in the modern day is whether the execution of criminals is ever justified and if so under what circumstances is it permissible? For my project I shall address the capital punishment from a Christian perspective, and I shall find and examine texts from the Bible with a conclusion of how Christians should view Capital punishment.
Christians often base their views on texts from the Bible and teachings from valued speakers and preachers with an authority background such as church priests and high valued figures such as the Pope. Although when basing views on the Bible many texts contradict themselves, this is a main cause of the division between Christians in modern debates regarding Capital Punishment.
The first approach that Christians take to appose capital punishment is reference to the Sanctity of Life. ‘Sanctity of Life arguments in the West are primarily, though not exclusively, the province of Christian traditions.’6Sanctity means the quality of being sacred or holy. Within the Christian traditions, many versions of the argument exists but the basic proposition is always the same, that ‘life is sacred and given to humans by God’. So God created human beings in his own image’8. Therefore each human being must be holy because they are made in God’s ‘image’ and by insulting or harming a human being they are in result harming or insulting God. Christians believe that humans do not specifically have the ‘image’ of God in their visual appearance, but rather that we have the God image in our nature, which makes us special. In relevance to Capital Punishment the sanctity of life is embedded in the line of the bible, ‘There is a time for everything.
A time to be born and a time to die …’ this tells us that God is the giver of life, but also he takes away life when he pleases, but he does not give us as humans the permission or does not grant us the will to take away another humans life rather that its his purpose. In addition, until God gives us the right or taking away a human life, human lives should be preserved, and should live out for its full purpose, and the life should not be cut short as there must be a reason for why and when actions happen. The order from God is emphasised in one of the 10 commandments’ thou shall not kill’10. Although in the commandment it specifies that ‘kill’ but what definition should apply to this word, and what acts should apply to it. ‘kill’ can have many different meanings, what Jesus or God is implying is the problem that exists. ‘Kill’ in some cases can be used in the good of mankind, such as if a person is suffering due to an unforeseen disease or infection or a person in a coma with a limited and not likely survival rate, and the doctor or family should come to a decision of whether to ‘kill’ the person for their own good. When approaching the word ‘kill’ in this situation, it gives a Christian a problem to where Sanctity of life applies.
The Bible gives many approaches to take when debating against Capital Punishment. “Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.”11 This shows that Gods providence will catch up with the slayer. This also contradicts itself as it says that if a person kills another ‘slays’ that person therefore the person that kills the original murderer is a murderer and so forth, therefore justice is served but because the ‘slayer’ it self is killed by another ‘slayer’ it contradicts the point of capital punishment. But the next problem is who gives the person the right or permission to kill the murderer, and in what cases is this valid? The argument that is backed up “but if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer”12. In this case the person(s) carrying out the punishment is the ‘servant’ of God, therefore they are given the permission and the purpose to punish the ‘wrongdoer’.
Also a more theological issue is to what degree we do as humans have the God’s authority to carry out his judgement… “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”13 Peter has the power to ‘bind and loose’ which means to forgive and condemn the sins. But there is no limit to what degree is given to the Christian community. In the particular case there are only three possibilities. The first is Maximum authority which is when the community are shown and acts like God’s agents on earth, by taking the leas from Genesis, which gives the authority for man to carry out punishment. Therefore if God’s kingdom is on earth, then the face of evil action should be exercised.
The next possibility is Minimum authority is the waiting for the coming of God’s final judgment, therefore for God to send his ‘servant’ to get rid of the evil. The last possibility is Retrained Authority, this is that the Christian community is given the authority to judge but they are not allowed to cross the line by creating terror, but are limited to create mercy and restraint. The contradiction occurs when the 6th commandment is brought into the argument, “thou shall not kill”, and it specifically says that you should not kill, therefore it contradicts the whole purpose of capital punishment and the defence provided by Genesis 9:6 and Romans 13:4.
On the other hand in the Old Testament is has a positive view of capital punishment, evident in “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand…”14 It empathises that if a man commits any form of harm to a woman that is pregnant then they must be punished for each part of the body that they have harmed, ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth…’ But when we read the first part of Jesus’ gospel we find he rejects the Old Testament’s morality ‘But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also15’, therefore Jesus says that when we are abused in any way, we should just ignore it and just move on, in modern day ‘just walk away’. Jesus rejects the Old Testament morality because he teaches that we should forgive people of their sins. Although Jesus did teach us forgiveness and tell us to ‘turn’ the other cheek he did not refer to any form of Capital Punishment and kept silence upon the act but rather God’s initiative in graciousness towards the most sinful not primarily murder.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’16. If ‘God’ gave his only son ‘eternal life’, why did Jesus die on the cross, this therefore gives a contradiction of God’s will power, and truth in the Bible. On the other hand there is a brief outline of the truth as Jesus is resurrected for a short time and met three women… ‘Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him’17. This therefore represents God’s true power and wilfulness.
Christianity has four main theories that justify punishment overall; theses are Retribution, Deterrence, Reformation and Protection.
Retribution is the action in this case punishment, taken upon the criminal for satisfaction of the victim or the society; it is the theory of revenge and moral balance. Therefore the line from the bible… “But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand…”18 is taken upon by the victims as for each crime that has taken place, the criminal shall pay in exchange in the form of punishment. ‘In other words, a grievance caused requires satisfaction on the part of the victim to which he or she (or society) is entitled.’19 In modern language it is also referred to as ‘payback’ as the criminal is ‘paid’ back in full for what he has done and caused. Retribution does have its advantage of giving the ‘satisfaction’ to the victims and the society, but on the other hand it does not take away the ‘grievance’.
Another problem with retributivism is that ‘it offers no objective evidence nor any particular reasoning as to why we should act in this way’ thus Wilcockson is saying that it does not give us a reason why we should do this, or if it has any effect on the criminal, it is simply relieving satisfaction which may not have any particular effect therefore no specific or valid reason. Although despite most of the objections, there is the feeling of satisfaction which attracts people to this theory in the system of punishment. Retribution is known as looking backwards at the crime and judging the type of punishment the criminal requires, thus it is also contrasted with Utilitarianism and it looks forward. Although some Christians have mixed feelings towards the theory of retribution as ‘the individual is responsible for his or her actions, and part of growth into maturity is facing the consequences of ones actions, in this case wrongdoing’21. On the other hand this does not justify the point of retributive justice in the context of capital punishment, as in this case he/she would suffer a physical punishment rather than having a deterrent or reformative effect on the criminal which would lead to be far more effective and would not have the ‘unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide’.
Deterrence is a more common and favoured form of justice and is shown as the other end of retribution, as it has the forward looking view of punishment. It is also shown as a combination of the utilitarian principle and reformation, with a slight retribution but it is not empathised, and weakened. Deterrence is more effective than retribution, as the punishment I at minimum and is only justified at the rate of greater happiness, and therefore not only have justice, but also dissuade others from behaving in the same way. Therefore it is not only to protect the society in the present but in the future as well. Arguments against this theory are that it falls under two kings, observational and philosophical. The first that it cannot give any empirical evidence that the deterrence has had any effect on the criminal until he/she does another act of violence or crime, which may be in affect be to late to use punishment. Also the punishment is not based on the crime that they have done, but rather that they have committed a crime or an offence in the first place.
Reformation is another forward looking theory of punishment, and shares many of the characteristics of deterrence. The punishment has combined both means and the opportunity to give a chance to the offender to be accepted back into society. Also it includes some characteristics of retributive justice but in another form of observation and verbal grievances from the victim and the families, therefore guiltiness of the criminal is empathised and they feel they have ‘paid off or atoned for their guilt’23. Another reformative aim includes a more ‘compassionate’ or ‘benevolent’ understanding of what led up to or caused the criminal to do the offence. On the other hand the questions that come into effect regarding reformation is why should the aim of punishment have to apply to certain moral values? The criminal has committed a crime therefore should pay back in full rather than given another chance. But then it comes back to the disadvantage of retribution that in effect the victim has simply overcome satisfaction but they still have the grievances.
Utilitarian’s had a view upon the topic of Capital Punishment; although their views are not looked up upon much because Jesus himself was not a Utilitarian therefore it is not as valued as the Christian views. But in most arguments involving Capital Punishment, the Utilitarian approach is mentioned. On the other hand the Utilitarian approach is valued when brought up as a defence in arguments against Capital Punishment as it takes into the account of happiness, and the outcomes of the action. Utilitarian’s find that if any actions is justified the balance of happiness and unhappiness must have the greater balance in happiness otherwise it cannot be justified. Therefore Utilitarian’s can only justify Capital Punishment if the criminal has learned his lesson and stop him or her from repeating the crime, and by discouraging the crime upon other offenders to repeat. On the other hand the Utilitarian approach has its drawback is the fact of empirical evidence being evident in the situation. If not the Utilitarian approach must be dismissed.
Some Christians therefore support capital punishment on the grounds that God does not limit the authority of which He gives us when carry out punishment, nor does He specify what ‘Thou shall not kill’ applies to. Also that the contradiction that Christianity was introduced into a world that accepted capital punishment in the legal system, of which was also carried out on the ‘son of God’. The majority of Christians that support capital punishment are also for retribution, as they see it in all its fairness of the criminal suffering for exactly what he has done, which is also defended and in the Bible, ‘an eye for an eye’.
Also the fact that Jesus did not speak of any arguments against the reasoning or regarding the issue of capital punishment represents that it was not an important issue, and also that in turn shows the sanctity of life is not an absolute principal. Immanuel Kant views upon capital punishment were that of support, ‘whoever has committed murder must die.’24 Therefore he says that the criminal of which committed ‘murder’ must suffer the same consequences, therefore must ‘die’ of which comes back to the support of retribution, of suffering the consequences of the actions. Christians appose to the grounds of reformative justice for the reason of it leading to a second chance for the criminal of which all he/she has to do is suffer the grievances of the society and victim. In short, in the general Christian view of the state of punishment capital punishment is not excluded, but neither is it required, rather what is required is using it in particular circumstances to justify it.
‘For if justice and Righteousness perish, human life would no longer have any value in the world’.
Definition and History – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment
Timeline and History – http://www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/timeline.html
John Paul II – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/angel/procon/popestate.html
Bible – http://www.biblegateway.com – New International Version
Jonathan Glover – Causing Death and Saving Lives
Michael Wilcockson – Issues of Life and Death
New Dictionary of Christian Ethics – John Macquarrie & James F. Childress
2 Luke 23:41 – New International Version Bible
3 Timeline – http://www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/timeline.html
5 Michael Wilcockson – Issues of Life and Death – Published 1999, Page 78
6 Michael Wilcockson – Issues of Life and Death – Published 1999, Page 10
7 Michael Wilcockson – Issues of Life and Death – Published 1999, Page 10
8 Genesis 1:27 – New International Version Bible
9 Ecclesiastes 3:1-3 – New International Version Bible
10 Exodus 20:13 – New International Version Bible
11 Genesis 9:6
12 Romans 13:4
13 Matthew 16:18-19
14 Exodus 21:22:23
15 Matthew 5:39
16 John 3:16
17 Matthew 28:9
18 Exodus 21:22:23
19Michael Wilcockson – Issues of Life and Death – Published 1999, Page 76
20 Michael Wilcockson – Issues of Life and Death – Published 1999, Page 77
21 New Dictionary of Christian Ethics – John Macquarrie & James F. Childress
22 George Orwell: ‘A Hanging’, – Adelphi – 1931(Jonathan Glover – Causing Death and Saving Lives – 1977 – page 228)
23 Michael Wilcockson – Issues of Life and Death – Published 1999, Page 80
24 Immanuel Kant: Philosophy of Law (Jonathan Glover – Causing Death and Saving Lives – 1977 – page 228)
25 Immanuel Kant: Philosophy of Law (Jonathan Glover – Causing Death and Saving Lives – 1977 – page 228)