The Christian Perspective on Capital Punishment: An Evaluation of Rehabilitation

Abstract

Regarding the Christian perspective on capital punishment, there are three basic views, namely Rehabilitationism, Reconstructionism and Retributionism. Rehabilitationism is the view that death sentence should not be allowed for any crime; Reconstructionism holds that death penalty should be allowed for any serious crime; Retributionism recommends death sentence for some capital crimes. The last two positions share a somewhat similar view. This paper focuses on rehabilitationism. Proponents of this view comprise those who appeal to the Bible for justification and those who do not. The paper presents the arguments of those in the former group. Contrary to the view of the rehabilitationalists that the aim of punishment is reformatory or remedial, the paper argues that the aim of capital punishment is justice and a good society.

Conceptualization of Capital Punishment and Rehabilitationism

Capital punishment is the taking of an offender’s life for a crime which he has committed and found guilty of by a court or tribunal under law. For Etuk, capital punishment is the death penalty when it is executed after a due process of law carried out by a society’s duly constituted apparatus (2000, 6). It is distinguished from other forms of extra-legal killings such as shooting on sight of suspected criminals, assassinations, disappearance of persons carried out by state agents, among others.

Capital punishment thus defined has existed in almost all civilizations and the modes of its execution have varied from country to country. Amnesty International in 1989 listed out the following modes of execution in current use: hanging, shooting, electrocution, lethal injection, gassing, beheading and stoning (Etuk, 6). In Nigeria, the most prominent methods are shooting and hanging. While the shooting is done in most cases before the public glare, the hanging of condemned criminals is done behind the prison walls to prevent the public from seeing the brutalizing spectacle. Once a person has been condemned to death by a court of law, he automatically becomes a condemned prisoner. From then on, he is put in a special cell for condemned prisoners under tight security to prevent possible escape or suicide. The waiting period may be very short or very long depending on when the State Governor or Administrator signs his death warrant.

The possibility of reprieve exists in some countries. In such countries, the State Chief Executive has the right under ‘the prerogative of Mercy’ to pardon a criminal and allow him to return to his family. A Chief Executive may also have powers to order a ‘ stay of executive’, which means that he has the powers to suspend or postpone an execution already scheduled to take place pending when he is able to go through the case again.

Coming to rehabilitationism, rehabilitationism is the theory that the criminal is not just a reprobate to be merely punished as he deserves with no interests of his own to be preserved, but a person in need of re-education and rehabilitation. Rehabilitationism is based on a remedial or reformatory view of justice. It sees the criminal as a patient who needs treatment or cure. Instead of being punished for his crime, the criminal should be corrected, re-socialized along the right path and taught to acquire suitable skills for honest and profitable livelihood (Iwe, 256). We cannot cure him by killing him. Just as patients need a doctor, socially ill people need a psychiatrist, not an executioner.

Also called corrective or emendatory theory, rehabilitationism is a relatively new theory of punishment which grew from the influence of the positivist school of criminology. Under the impact of this school, modern penal practice has tended to confine attention to the criminal and the circumstances impinging on him, instead of focusing on the crime. The assumption here is that the criminal is simply a victim of psychological disorder brought about by poor socialization in a socially deficient and poor environment. It is argued that since crime is a lower-class phenomenon, the better the lot of this class, the better the lot of the criminal.

Evaluation of Biblical Arguments for Rehabilitationism

Christians part company when it comes to the issue of capital punishment. While Christian Rehabilitationists quote the Bible to condemn capital punishment, Christian non- Rehabilitationists argue with equal force in favour of capital punishment, citing the same Bible. In what follows, we examine the arguments of the former group and the counter-arguments of the latter.

1. First and foremost, Christian Rehabilitationists argue that the primary aim of justice is rehabilitation or reformation, not punishment. This is anchored on the biblical declaration that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked but that the wicked turns away from this iniquisities and obtain pardon (Ezekiel 18: 23). God is not willing that any person should perish, but that all sinners should acknowledge their sins, turn away from them and turn to God (2 Peter 3: 9; Prov. 28: 13). God wants to heal the sinner, not to kill him. No wonder when God gave the Decalogue, his first commandment is “ Thou shalt not Kill” (Exod. 20:13). It follows from this that all must regard the life of man as sacred because God created man in his own image and likeness. If we look at the dignity of man in the light of divinely revealed truth, we cannot but esteem it more highly. Specifically, the rehabilitationist position regarding the outright abolition of capital punishment is based on a deeper understanding of God’s commandment to love the enemy (Matthew 5: 43 –47). This shows that even the life of the enemy is sacred in the sight of God and should as much as possible be protected and sustained (Ige, 2002; 24 –25).

In response to the argument above, non- rehabilitationists argue that the primary purpose of justice is punishment, not rehabilitation or reformation. This, they argue, is clearly indicated in both Old and New Testaments. God himself punishes sin and enjoins those in authorities to do so (Exod. 20: 5; Ezek. 18: 4, 20; Gen. 9: 6; Exod. 12: 12). The core of the penal view is revealed in the death of Christ who received capital punishment as “the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3: 18). Paul the Apostle declares that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  While it’s true that those who commit non-capital offences can get reformed as a result of their incarceration, this is not the primary goal of capital punishment.

Since capital crimes deserve “a just recompence of reward” (Heb. 2:2-3), there is no room for reform, only for a just punishment for taking a life, which is giving a life. It is only in this way that justice can be done.

2. Rehabilitationists argue that capital punishment was abolished with the Mosaic Law as part of the Old Testament legalistic system, by Christ. The Old Testament gave death penalty for offences such as breaking the Sabbath (Numb. 15:23), blasphemy (Lev. 24:10-14), rebellion against one’s parents (Exod. 21:17), kidnapping  (Exod. 21:16), outright, premeditated murder (Numb. 35:16), witchcraft (Exod. 21:16), adultery (Lev. 20:10), prostitution (Deut. 22:24), idolatory (Exod. 22:20) etc. (Geisler, 194; Douglas, 248). It is also argued that, even in the Old Testament capital punishment was not always given for capital crimes. For example, when Cain killed Abel, instead of allowing him to be killed in retaliation, God put a mark upon him and protected his life. Thus “Blood revenge was averted by God through protective care, just as later removal to a city of refuge would avert an avenger” (Walvoored & Zuck, O/T, 34).

The case of David who committed two capital crimes (adultery and murder) and was pardoned and even restored to his throne after acknowledging his sins and confessing them (2 Sam. 12:13; Psalm 51) is also cited to buttress this argument. In particular, reference is made to Jesus’ rejection of the Mosaic principle of an “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” (Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). The words are called the Lex talionis, meaning the law of retaliation. The law was given to protect the innocent and to ensure that retaliation did not exceed the offense. Jesus stated, however, that while the rights of the innocent were protected by the law, the righteous need not necessarily claim their rights. A righteous person would be characterized by humility and selflessness. Instead of retribution, Jesus preached non-retaliation, non-resistance and non-violence (Walvoored & Zuck, N/T, 31; Geisler, 194). It is further alleged that Jesus set aside the Old Testament law prescribing capital punishment for adultery when He told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

The non-rehabilitationists responds to the foregoing argument by stating that capital punishment was not limited to Moses’ law nor abolished with it. The fact is that capital punishment was prescribed for capital crimes before and after Moses’ law. God actually instituted capital punishment in Noah’s time (Gen. 9:6). Because of the desire for violence and bloodshed that arises within the human heart (Gen. 6:1), God sought to guard the sanctity of human life by restraining murder in the society. He did this in two ways, namely, by emphasizing that humans have been created in His image (Gen. 1:26) and by instituting capital punishment, commanding that every murderer be punished with death (Exod. 21:12, 14; 22:2) (Stamps, 20). In the case of Cain who killed his brother Abel, capital punishment was not carried out on him because it was not yet instituted. Capital punishment actually came later when the wickedness and violence of human and became very great on the earth (Gen. 6:5-7, 11; 9:6). Again, there is the question of who would have carried it out on Cain. There was no human government in existence to carry out capital punishment. God would not expect the parents to kill their only remaining son. In the special circumstances, therefore, God the author and finisher of life, had to personally commute his death sentence. Cain himself obviously expected capital punishment when he said, “Whosoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4:14). In the case of David who committed two capital crimes (adultery and murder), his life was spared probably because Israel was a monarchy, and David himself being the monarch, his own capital punishment would have been carried out by him. Though David’s life was spared by God’s intervention through Prophet Nathan, David paid fourfold for his sins. Some of the penalty actually involved lives. The baby born in adultery died; Amnon, Absalom and Adonijah lost their lives; David’s daughter Tamar was defiled; David temporarily lost the kingdom, etc. In the case of the allegation that Jesus abolished the Mosaic law of which capital punishment was part, non-rehabilitationists are of the view that Jesus actually came to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17). Jesus did not abolish the moral law for all men (Rom. 2:2 – 14). Concerning the woman caught in adultery, non-rehabilitationists argue that Jesus did not intend to set aside capital punishment when He commanded her to go and sin no more. Jesus did not reject the Mosaic law on capital punishment here, since it demanded that at least two witnesses must volunteer to bring charges or testify against her and there was not one willing to do so (John 8:11). So, His statement that she should go and sin no more did not invalidate capital punishment, but only expresses His forgiveness for her sin. In fact, Jesus’ attitude toward the woman reflects His redemptive purpose for the human race (John 3:16).

3. It is argued by rehabilitationists that there is no room for capital punishment in the New Testament. The New Testament enjoins us to love our enemies and those that despitefully use us (Matt. 5:43  - 47). We cannot kill those we love. Love will constrain us to sacrifice all for our enemies; it will never permit us to kill them. The summary of it all is that love and killing are mutually exclusive.

Contrary to the argument of the rehabilitationists, non-rehabilitationists argue that love and capital punishment are mutually inclusive or compatible. If this were not the case, the sacrificial death of Christ would be a contradiction. It was love that constrained Jesus to lay down His life for mankind (John 3:16; 15:13). The principle of a life for a life which underlies capital punishment is the very principle that makes capital punishment imperative for capital crimes. The fact that God found no other way to release grace and satisfy justice than in releasing His only begotten son to die for mankind shows that capital punishment is  very necessary for capital crimes.

4. Christian rehabilitationists insist that the cross has ‘crossed’ out capital punishment. Because sin brings death (Rom. 6:23), since Christ died for the sins of the whole world, He has already taken away capital punishment for all.

In response to this argument, non-rehabilitationists argue that the cross did not abolish capital punishment for all men. Although the cross provides forgiveness for all sins, it does not cancel the physical and social consequences of sins. This accounts for the prevalence of sickness, suffering and death in human society. Although a Christian may receive forgiveness if he repents of a capital crime he has committed, yet he cannot escape the appropriate punishment. And the appropriate penalty for taking a man’s life is giving one’s life.

The above discussion portrays the divergent views of Christian rehabilitationists and non-rehabilitationists. It tends to show that the question of the propriety of capital punishment is an open-ended one.

Comments and Conclusion

Because of the dilemma in which the arguments and counter-arguments above have left us, some people feel that the issue of capital punishment is open-ended. In other words, a definite conclusion on the issue of capital punishment is impossible. Some Christians have even argued tat we need to continue to wait for the mind of Christ about the matter to be fully revealed.

Personally, I think that capital punishment is God’s order for mankind. The argument that capital punishment rules out the possibility of repentance for crimes does not hold water. It is doubtful that a person who does not repent with a death sentence hanging on his neck will ever do so under a life sentence. No one can deny that the execution of a murderer is horrible, but it should not be forgotten that murder is far more horrible. The modern concepts of naturalistic ideas of sociology and penology notwithstanding, the scriptures make it abundantly clear that capital punishment makes for an orderly, peaceful and safe society. Punishing a person for a crime should be considered a compliment to his dignity and freedom, not an insult. C. S. Lewis is quoted as saying that “To be punished, however severely, because we deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better’, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image”  (Geisler, 198). In other words, to be punished severely for a wrongdoing is to be respected as a person created in God’s image who should know better and hence deserves to be punished for his wrongdoing. The very fact that God places a high premium on taking another’s life is enough evidence that God places a great value on human life. Capital punishment, therefore, “is the ultimate compliment of human dignity; it implies the most affirmative stance possible” (Geisler, 198 – 199).

In conclusion, contrary to the view of rehabilitationists that criminals are patients who need treatment, it is my belief that criminals are responsible human beings who know better and therefore deserve to be punished for their wrongdoing. And the fitting punishment for capital crimes is capital punishment.

Works Cited

Douglas, A. God’s Answers to Man’s Questions. Greenville, South Carolina: Bob Jones University, 1979.

Etuk, U. “Capital Punishment as Violence”. SOPHIA: An African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 2 No 1, 2000, pp 1 – 18.

Geisler, N. L. Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989.

Ige, E.   “Death Penalty in the Dock: Seminar that Explores its Retention or Abolition”. Vanguard, November 1, 2002.

Iwe, N. S. S. Socio-Ethical Issues in Nigeria. Oruowulu – Obosi: Pacific Publishers, 1991.

Stamps, D. C. (ed.) The Full Life Bible Study. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.

Walvoord, J. F. & Zuck, R. B. The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Old Testament). USA: Cook communications Ministries, 1983.

Walvoord, J. F. & Zuck, R. B. The Bible Knowledge Commentary (New Testament). USA: Cook communications Ministries, 1983.

Dr. Andrew F. Uduigwomen
Senior Lecturer
Dept. of Philosophy
University of Calabar
Calabar, Nigeria, Africa

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