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Death penalty and the bible

David has posted about the Supreme Court and its deliberations of the death penalty.

I recall reading recently that some high court was trying to figure out if death by lethal injection was cruel and unusual. I looked up the defintion of cruel:

Main Entry: cru·el
Pronunciation: 'krü(-&) l
Function: adjective
Inflected Form(s): cru·el·er or cru·el·ler; cru·el·est or cru·el·lest
Etymology: Middle English, from Old French, from Latin crudelis, from crudus
1 : disposed to inflict pain or suffering : devoid of humane feelings
2 a : causing or conducive to injury, grief, or pain b : unrelieved by leniency
synonym see FIERCE
- cru·el·ly /'krü-(&-)lE/ adverb
- cru·el·ness noun

with thanks to
Merriam-Webster Online.

It seems to me that while the death penalty is certainly unusual, steps have been taken to make it less cruel. Should it be abolished? Charlie comments in David's blog that the bible might be cause for eliminating the death penalty. Perhaps, but the Old Testament allows for the death penalty for several different kinds of offenses.

Traditional Jews believe the Old Testament was given "from Mount Sinai" but also that the rabbinic deliberations to clarify things were also given from Sinai. The rabbis didn't like the death penalty and didn't want it used except in very extreme cases. They added requirements that make the penalty almost impossible to impose. For example, rape is punishable by the death penalty but there have to be so many nonrelated witnesses that it's impossible to impose.

I'm curious, did Jesus or the New Testament say anything on the issue?


To be overly simplistic, Jesus said "Turn the other cheek," which definitely contradicts "Eye for an eye" (at least in the context I'm thinking of). I also believe many modern Christians believe in the right to life, which seems as if it should include everyone, even convicts.

I am not religious, but I do acknowledge our country's laws are somewhat based on Judeo-Christian doctrine. (I wish all we took from it was the golden rule--wouldn't that solve so many of our problems?) I think in a matter of decades history will look back unkindly on the death penalty. To me, that's a sobering thought and one that will prohibits me from fully supporting capital punishment. That said, I still think the death penalty is more humane than locking someone up for life with no chance of parole, but many a death row inmate would argue with me.

Until the justice system is less discriminating, I think the death penalty should be put under a national moratorium. By the time we work those kinks out, I'm willing to bet we won't feel so great about putting people to death anymore. We all need to ask ourselves what purpose the death penalty should serve.

Posted by: Rachel at January 27, 2004 1:00 PM

I don't believe Jesus or the New Testament allows for the death penalty... and I agree with Rachel that forgiveness is stressed in almost all situations.

Posted by: Ed at January 27, 2004 1:18 PM

If memory serves, I don't believe that the New Testament deals with the issue explicitly. You have to read between the lines, much as Rachel did, if you're looking in the New Testament for a statement on capital punishment.

Posted by: david at January 27, 2004 3:06 PM

I can't speak for other branches of Christianity, but I know that the Roman Catholic church is officially opposed to the death penalty. Although I don't agree with everything the Pope teaches, I was impressed that he officially forgave the man who tried to assassinate him, which some say is the only reason the authorities did not execute him.

Posted by: Greg at January 27, 2004 9:53 PM

"I still think the death penalty is more humane than locking someone up for life with no chance of parole, but many a death row inmate would argue with me."

The real problem is that you can't be set free of the death penalty if new evidence comes to light.

Posted by: light at January 27, 2004 10:41 PM

I agree with Amy--that's why I think there should be a federal moratorium. (The reason I feel it could be considered humane is because I know I wouldn't want to be confined for the rest of my natural life.) There's too much uncertainty, especially with people who were convicted during the infancy of DNA testing. Also, despite our technological advances, juries are still made up of people. I think we can all agree that this will always prevent the justice system from being perfect.

To go back to Dr. Cytron's original question and to respond to David's comment, the Bible isn't really the best place if you're looking for stances on modern-day issues. You almost always have to read between the lines because of that. Even those rules that should be considered hard and fast can be interpreted in conflicting ways. For example, the Ten Commandments dictate "thou shalt not kill." But whose life does that apply to? An unborn child? An enemy in war? A convicted murderer? So we all draw lines and take sides, and I see those decisions as mostly arbitrary.

Posted by: Rachel at January 28, 2004 10:47 AM

Wow, thanks for all the feedback.

I agree that I wouldn't look to the bible for soutions to modern-day problems necessarily, I was just curious what the New Testament might say on the issue given the commentary after the Old Testament greatly restricted imposing the death penalty.

I used to think that our justice system was very biased toward protecting the innocent. But in view of recent DNA evidence that's exonorated people found to be guilty, I don't believe we're as good at the justice thing as we think we are.

So I agree about the moratorium, and I wish the standard could be: would any reasonable jury find the person guilty to the point of deserving of the death penalty.

About the death vs life with no parole, how about giving the person a choice? To me, life without parole is very cruel and unusual.

Posted by: rkc at January 28, 2004 12:02 PM

I know that I'm a little late into the game here, but whatever. I personally am opposed to the death penalty for a variety of reasons. One, I don't think that we are anywhere close to being good enough at judging events to know 100% that everyone who is put to death is guilty. In my view, one innocent person put to death is enough to make the death penalty not worth it.

I also think that I am morally opposed to killing another person, no matter who horrific the act that they commited was. I have never thought that I have the right to condemn another person to death, because I'm no more or less human than they are. I simply do not think that it is my place.

In regards to Rachel's comment about "Thou shall not kill." I was reading a book recently on Judaism, and the Rabbi writing it said that a more appropriate translation should be "Thou shall not murder." Clearly the Bible has no problems with killing, but it does have issues with murder. However, I'm not sure if that clears, or muddies the water.

Posted by: Nathan at January 29, 2004 12:59 PM

Many people who are against capital punishment are only thinking of the person who committed the crime and how cruel it is for them, but shouldn’t we think of the families that are broken apart because of the heartless acts of these criminals? Capital punishment needs to be less merciful. It is not immoral, it should not be replaced with life imprisonment, and it is not murder.
Capital Punishment is not immoral. It is the best way to ensure safety from criminals. Referring to the Natural Rights of Americans: the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to freedom, you’ll think that everyone deserves these no matter what. But if you think even harder you might realize that criminals don’t have rights. The Bible says "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” He who violates that right in another sacrifices it for himself. That’s the morality behind capital punishment.
The longer a person spends imprisoned, the higher the risk of escape, or committing a crime while in prison. Even when a criminal is sentenced to life without parole, innocent people are not safe from them. As long as the murderer lives, there is always a chance, no matter how small, that he will strike again. And Taxpayers should not have to support criminals living in comfort for years. Do you think that people who go to prison for a crime actually learn their lesson? No. Prison fosters resentment, anger, and rage. They can’t wait to get out into society and break the law again. Do you think that when they are released they won’t have figured out how to not get caught again? No. They get out being smarter and more rebellious towards the government. Putting a murderer away for life just isn't good enough.
One argument to capital punishment is the question: "Why do we kill people to show that killing people is wrong?" That two wrongs do not make a right, therefore, executions are equivalent to murder. First of all, the term murder is specifically defined in any dictionary as the UNLAWFUL killing of a person with hatred and premeditation. So logically, the word murder cannot be used to describe executions since the death penalty is the law. Second of all, comparing executions to murders is like comparing incarcerating people to kidnapping. There is a difference between violent crime and punishment. One displays a serious lack of moral judgment to believe that just because two practices share a physical similarity means that they are morally identical. And moral aspects examine the reasons and motivations behind one's actions. What separates crime from punishment, murder from execution, are not their physical aspects but rather their moral aspects.
Incarceration does not equal rehabilitation. And the death penalty does not equal murder. Capital punishment is the only penalty severe enough to make criminals think twice before committing major crimes.

Posted by: Ally at March 9, 2004 7:29 PM

I noticed that someone was dumb enough to try the "eye for an eye" arguement. Of course I say dumb and assume it was a Christian, if it wasn't, I apologize, but if it was, then that idiot's Messiah said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Think about that one.

Posted by: Will at March 23, 2004 8:56 PM

No, i'm not a Christian. And yes it is dumb for those who call themselves Christians and are against the death penalty because of it.

Posted by: Ally at March 30, 2004 8:03 PM