An Ethical/Spiritual Question: The Death Penalty and God’s Grace

Jesus tells us to love our enemies.

But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (Luke 6:27-28 ESV)

He also shows us, by example, that we are to forgive those who do the most heinous crimes against us.

And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:26-43 ESV Emphasis mine)

Jesus also made it clear that none of us is worthy to have a hand in putting someone to death and then, by yet another example, showed that we are to forgive those who are in the wrong.

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11 ESV)

If then, we are to love our enemies and forgive those who commit the worst of evils against us; and if we are, in fact, unworthy to have a hand in putting someone to death, what would be the most Christ-like (Christian) choice in this scenerio? What would you do?

Your daughter, who is 8 years old, is raped and murdered. After a brief search, the man is found and incarcerated. The law happens to work completely against this criminal and he is eligible for the death penalty.

  1. You get a good lawyer and you fight long and hard in the court to see this man given the death penalty. When the court rules in your favor, you are the first one there to watch his death and you are gladly the one who will push the button to begin his death. His family is present. You ignore them as they weep and watch their only son be killed.
  2. You consult a lawyer to see what your options are and in the process, you go to visit the man who killed your daughter. You tell the man that you forgive him for what he did to your family and you share Christ with him. You stay out of the man’s trial as much as you can and, when he is given the death penalty, you keep your hands out of it. You visit the man’s family as well and console them and are there to comfort them as their only son is killed.

I would hope that I would choose number 2. While I would be horribly devastated that my daughter had had to go through something like that, I would like to think that God’s grace has changed me so deeply that I would forgive the man and use the opportunity to share the gospel with him. Even if I didn’t go to the man and forgive him to his face, I would stay out of the court ruling regarding his sentencing because I would not want a hand in that. He may be deserving of death by law and by Scripture, but I know that I am not without sin and so I have no right to throw the stone.


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