Dan Popp
Jesus and the death penalty: "They may become Christians"
By Dan Popp
June 23, 2013

In two previous essays I've tried to refute the weakest and the strongest objections to the death penalty. In this article I'll address the silliest. I don't want to offend readers unnecessarily, but I won't be able to hide my contempt for this argument. It goes like this: "If we don't execute heinous criminals, eventually some of them may come to repentance and faith." This sounds very noble, doesn't it? It also sounds familiar. God told the first king of Israel:
    Thus says the LORD of hosts, "I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he set himself against him on the way while he was coming up from Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." (1 Samuel 15:2,3 NAS95)
But Saul had better idea.
    But Saul and the people spared [King] Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the fatlings, the lambs, and all that was good, and were not willing to destroy them utterly; but everything despised and worthless, that they utterly destroyed. (verse 9)
When the prophet confronted him for his disobedience, Saul pleaded good intentions.
    Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, "Blessed are you of the LORD! I have carried out the command of the LORD." But Samuel said, "What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?" Saul said, "They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; but the rest we have utterly destroyed." (vv. 13-15)
Rebuke and rationalization follow. Then flow the famous lines:
    Samuel said, "Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and insubordination is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king." (vv. 22, 23)
If we spare those that God has commanded us to exterminate, we can't pretend we did it for His glory! The question once again is shown to be: What did God say? with the follow-up, Will we obey? What God said is clear: Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man. (Genesis 9:6) He didn't say that to the Jews (there were no Jews yet); He said it to Noah and his family – to the entire population of the earth.

One offensive aspect of this objection is the puny view of God that underlies it. God may be able to turn a murderer into a Christian if we give Him 30 years to do it – but not 30 days? Only by disobeying God can we populate His Kingdom for Him? It begins to sound a little like, "Let us do evil that good may come." Paul feared that, after preaching to others, he might be "disqualified." Those who make this objection seem to lack his holy fear. Is there no chance they will hear the words, Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you?

But we haven't yet plumbed the depths of irrationality.

While the objection is a true statement, it's not honest. Yes, if we fail to execute the wicked, some of them may receive God's saving grace. But most will not. Let's consider someone in that large majority of criminals that will not be born again. Each day he thinks more evil thoughts, he speaks more evil words, does more evil deeds. He may even kill again. He is "storing up wrath" for himself (Romans 2:5) for the ultimate Judgment. With each additional sunrise he sees, he makes his eternity darker, hotter and deeper. In what sense is this "mercy"? So if we start backwards, as this objection does – with the eternal welfare of the criminal as the highest consideration – we could easily come to the opposite conclusion. We could argue that the greatest good for the greatest number would be achieved by executing violent criminals immediately upon conviction!

One more serious thought before we leave this very silly objection to the death penalty. It seems to me that one of the biggest problems in evangelizing people today is that they don't believe in sin. They have little conscious fear of the coming Judgment. How can a person with no grasp of absolute morality feel a need for a Savior? And isn't the death penalty a graphic illustration of absolute morality? Isn't it justice, brought home to the human imagination in the most primal and powerful way? If we're truly interested in bringing many sinners to repentance and faith in Christ, it might not be best to immerse everyone in a culture of mushy tolerance for sin. Even a relativist can be revolted by extreme wickedness. If the payment for that wickedness is equally shocking, he might just get a glimpse of the justice – which is not separate from the goodness – of God.

Next, and last: The red-letter objection.

© Dan Popp


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