A recent op-ed in the Christian Post hailed the increasing number of Republican lawmakers who are sponsoring measures around the country to repeal the death penalty for convicted murderers and serial killers. This has been accompanied, perhaps unsurprisingly, with an increase in the number of evangelical Christians who support ending capital punishment for capital crimes.
I am not among their number and am distressed at a move that so clearly demonstrates the collapsing reverence we hold for the sanctity of human life.
There’s a reason that in God’s ever-lasting covenant with Noah, the Creator ordained that “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” And the reason wasn’t vengeance, anger, or retaliatory rage. The reason followed in the very next line: “For in the image of God He made man.”
Human life is inviolable not because of anything it does, but because of what it is: a creature that bears the image of the Almighty. When someone callously destroys such an esteemed and valued being, the penalty inflicted will demonstrate the value we assign to what has been lost. In other words, when the state spares the life of a confessed or convicted murderer, it is implicitly assigning more value to the killer’s life than his victim’s. That devalues the image of God carried by that victim as well.
If we truly value human life, we must regard it as so precious that nothing short of a life can equal its worth.
The Post op-ed, written by Heather Beaudoin (national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty), while heartfelt and well-intentioned, unfortunately remains Biblically misguided. She writes,
God made us in His image, and despite our actions, we are the recipients of his love and mercy. Only God should be permitted to take a life.
Consider both of those statements. Yes, we are made in His image, and He is indeed good and generous towards us despite what we do. But remember the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Jesus offered the man paradise but did not remove from him the just penalty for his crimes on earth. God’s love and mercy are not to be confused with excuse for wrongdoing or lessening of punishment.
Further, the notion that, “Only God should be permitted to take a life” is a dangerous sentiment to express unless one is prepared to embrace an unrealistic pacifism that doesn’t comport with Biblical example or instruction. For instance, does Beaudoin think members of the U.S. military were sinning when they killed Nazis?
Even being generous and assuming this argument references personal vengeance, that is not what is occurring with state sanctioned death penalties. It is true that in Romans 12, Christians are told:
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (v 19)
But how will the Lord “repay” the wrongdoer? Keep reading a few more verses into Romans 13 and Paul gives the answer:
Whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
The Bible teaches clearly that we are not to take justice into our own hands and exact some sort of unauthorized vigilante justice on those who have taken the life of someone we care about. We are to make room for God’s wrath. And how does God executive that wrath? Through His “agent of wrath” who “does not bear the sword for no reason,” but instead wields that sword to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
A society that values the image of God is one that places the highest possible price tag on it with the severest consequence for those who dare to trample it. It is therefore altogether unsurprising that as our culture continues to move in a direction of devaluing life, we are seeing support for the death penalty drop. That isn’t a good thing.