Monday, August 13, 2007


In this article, one of the factors to which the high rate of executions in the state of Texas is attributed is the relatively high number of evangelical Christians in the state. As an evangelical, I find this evangelical support for capital punishment revolting, embarrassing, disgusting, and blasphemous. It represents a terrible misreading of Scripture and a denial of the nonviolent nature of God as revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. The way that evangelical advocates of capital punishment understand individual responsibility in this article also strikes me as Pelagian and self-righteous. I have stated that "evangelical" is a label I want to hold on to, but articles like this make it very hard to do so. Is there a point at which I would finally give up on the term evangelical? This article makes me ponder that question anew.


gavin richardson said...

i wonder why any grouping of Christians would support capital punishment when all have some perspective of God's working in people and Christ redeeming a person no matter what sin.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

My comments would have been too long. So, I blogged on this at my Levellers blog and linked to your post and interacted with it there.

Lee said...

I find it odd that many evangelicals, who tend to hold to a retributive account of the Atonement, would find it necessary to support the death penalty on retributive grounds. If Jesus has already taken the punishment for all human sins, what need is there for further punishment? It would seem to imply that the cross was insufficient for dealing with human sin.

(I shamelessly ripped this argument off from William Placher, btw.)

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Lee that argument has been made repeatedly by Christian abolitionists at least since the 17th C.--maybe before. I think it's a good argument, but the pro-dp folk seem to go, "Huh?'

Rhology said...

Hi all,

I'm here at Jonathan's invitation.

It represents a terrible misreading of Scripture

May I ask how?

nonviolent nature of God as revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Hmm, well, God is merciful towards some and not towards others.
Believers have peace w/ God, true (Romans 5:1).
But for those who don't believe, there will be wrath and anger (Rom 2:6-8).
God has destroyed the wicked (Luke 17:27, 29, Jude 5), will destroy at least some (1 Cor 3:17), will cast them into eternal torment (Rev 14:11, 20:14-15), will in some cases even put them to death (Acts 12:19-23).
It's unbiblical to characterise God as "nonviolent".

evangelical advocates of capital punishment understand individual responsibility in this article also strikes me as Pelagian and self-righteous.

Pelagian? This is not a question of the salvation of the soul.
Genesis 9:6 instates the DP.
The Mosaic Law continues it.
Jesus never comments on it.
Romans 13:6 affirms its propriety for capital crimes.

Is it self-righteous to say that I've never committed a capital crime?
Why assume that, if I did commit one, I'd change my mind all of a sudden since I'd be on death row? Maybe I'd still think the DP is just and I did the wrong thing (like the Thief on the Cross).

Is there a point at which I would finally give up on the term evangelical?

I've almost given up on the term, but it wasn't b/c of DP. It seems a bit of a strange priority to me...

I'd add that the DP is not a statement on the state of someone's soul. It's a just punishment ordained by God for punishing capital crimes. Someone can commit a capital crime and be on death row, get lethal-injected and go straight to heaven b/c they repented and trusted Christ as Lord.

support the death penalty on retributive grounds.

1) I don't hold to the DP on retributive grounds but rather on the cmdmt of Scr.
2) The Substitutionary Atonement has application for the SOUL, not earthly justice in its primary application.

If Jesus has already taken the punishment for all human sins, what need is there for further punishment?

Jesus took the punishment but it is not always procured by faith. The unregenerate bear their own sins.
Or are you universalist?


Jonathan said...


I'm not sure you understand how close we are, since I also believe all of the Bible to be inspired by God. If you assume that I am just another liberal who doesn't really believe in the Bible, we won't be able to have a meaningful discussion. The biggest difference between you and me is in how we interpret the Scriptures.

By the way, I would prefer that you keep your comments relatively brief, and that if you want to write more extensively, you do so at your own blog.

I have said that all Christians read some portions of the Bible literally, and other portions more loosely. I think this is where we will have to begin our discussion. Think Rhology, about your own interpretation of Scripture. Isn't it true that you take some passages literally, and others figuratively? We must wrestle with this question before we begin to get into the specific passages of Scripture you raise.

Rhology said...

Hi Jonathan,

OK, I'll try to be brief; my apologies for going crazy there.
"Literal" exegesis could mean several things. Here's how the Bible should be exegeted. Ready? Just like any other book.
Otherwise known as the "grammatico-historical method", whereby context, grammar, history, culture, etc are taken into acct in order to find authorial intent. Once the authorial intent is established, we have our meaning.
"Jesus said, 'I am the door.'" Literally? Jesus is a door w/ hinges and a knob. What's the "literal" meaning? Jesus is the way thru which one must enter to have eternal life, to know God, to receive pardon of sin, etc.

Question: what basis do *you* use for interping any given text of the Scripture? Of Moby Dick? Of a physics textbook?


Jonathan said...

Thanks rhology. I think we can work with this. "Authorial intent" can be hard to establish, but I am willing to at least enter into that discussion. Ultimately, I believe that all the Bible is to be read in the light of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Are we also agreed on that? Martin Luther said the scriptures are the swaddling clothes in which the baby Jesus is wrapped. Would you share with me in this sort of christological reading of the Scriptures?

Rhology said...

Yes, the authorial intent of the Scr is to express the Word in flesh, Jesus Christ. The Word is God's self-revelation to humanity.

Jonathan said...

Good. So far, we are on the same page, I think....

It is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that God reveals God's self to us as non-violent. Once that revelation is clear, it colors the way we read all of the Bible. It is here that I suspect our paths start to diverge, eh?

Rhology said...

Well, yes, b/c of your 1st statement.
You haven't gone into WHY it makes God "non-violent." As I mentioned above, you'd need to deal w/ the biblical examples of where God is very violent.
So hopefully we can start there.


Jonathan said...

Hi Rhology,
The cross and resurrection of Jesus shows us how God deals with evil, not by overcoming it with force, but by subverting it through suffering love. In the cross, God has once and for all defeated evil (though its after-effects are still being felt). And God overcomes evil not through brute force, but by suffering love - through absorbing all the suffering and not returning it in kind or keeping it in circulation. Easter shows us that Jesus' way of suffering love, though it seems foolish to the world, is actually God's way of ruling the universe. At Easter, we see the ultimate eschatological fate of the universe: the lamb who was slain is the conquering King. Now for a much fuller explanation of how nonviolence is at the heart of our understainding of God, see John Howard Yoder's book The Politics of Jesus, but I am trying to say it as briefly as possible. The refusal of God to force his goodness upon us means that I am not a universalist. God will not impose his will on us (I am an Arminian Methodist, not a Calvinist). I certainly hope that all will be saved, but I have no proof of it. You have correctly noted the tension in the Bible between God's love and God's wrath. I understand God's wrath to be in letting us have our way - at least that is one dimension of God's wrath, esp. in Romans 1. But the New Testament teaches us that God is Love; it never says God is Wrath. To me, that suggests that Love (as defined not by sentimental mush, but by Jesus cross and resurrection) is more fundamental to God's nature than God's wrath. So wrath is a tool of God's love. Sort of like I sometimes get angry at my children because I love them. The wrath is in service to the love, not the other way around. I'll stop here for now, because I am sure you'll have many more questions. Note that my emphasis on nonviolence is not dependent on anthropology, but on theology, in particular Christology.

Rhology said...

A few comments.
I don't really use the word "tension" b/c it's loaded w/ baggage. "Tension in the text", for ex, is a quaint buzz-word for "contradiction" most of the time.

God WILL overcome evil w/ brute force in the end - are the Devil, Beast, False Prophet, Gog and Magog, etc, defeated by loving actions? Or by wrathful judgment and fearful power?
Romans 11:22 is a good illustration: 22Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God's kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.
The Lamb who was slain is also a Lion.

Part of the problem is that you continue to expound on your theology while leaving the source documented un-interacted-with. It might be best for you just to deal w/ the texts I cited.


Jonathan said...

If indeed God uses violent force to overcome evil, that is God doing it, and we are not God. Perhaps God has a right to use violent force - I won't tell God that He doesn't have a right to. Scriptural precedence for this idea would be the biblical injunction that we are not take vengeance, that we are to leave it for the wrath of God. In other words, it is not our job to use violence to vanquish evil, if there is anyone justified in using violence it would be Jesus, and he consistently refused to do so. Instead, he went to the cross loving his enemies, and commanding us to do the same. The lamb is indeed the lion, meaning that the one who has real kingly power and authority is Christ, the lamb of God. How many times does Revelation call Jesus "lamb?" 29 times. "Lion" is used as a title for Jesus one time. To me this suggests that Lamb is fundamental, and lion is understood only in relation to lamb. "the triumphant suffering of the lamb" as Yoder calls it.

Jesus as lion is understood in light of Jesus as lamb. To me, passages of Scripture referring to God's wrath or violence are always to be understood in the wider context of Jesus' clear example and teaching of non-violent love. I realize that nonviolence does not always "work" at least in the short run, and that sometimes other people may suffer and even die because of a Christian's commitment to nonviolence. So, my position only makes sense in light of the resurrection.

Jonathan said...

By the way, citing OT examples of God commanding Israel to execute criminals does not hold any water in my book, since we are not Israel.

Jonathan said...

Devil, beast, false prophet and their forces are destoyed by the sword coming from the Lamb's mouth (the word of God).

Rhology said...


Yes, well, I've been responding to your "God is nonviolent" statement. Looks like we're mostly in agreement on it generally; you seem to recognise that God is sometimes violent against evil and evildoers, as do I. I don't think we've yet touched on the DP.

But I'm ready when you are.
Here is my brief thesis on the DP. I'll be waiting for your comment on it.


Jonathan said...

Rhology, I'm still sticking with my "God is nonviolent" statement. I'm just saying if one believes that God might use violence, that still does not mean that humans are justified in using violence.

Jonathan said...

1) I don't hold to the DP on retributive grounds but rather on the cmdmt of Scr.

I suppose you are referring mainly to the Torah. The Torah was part of God's covenant with the people of Israel, and it cannot be ripped out and applied to current USA. The USA is not Israel (God's special covenant people).

Perhaps you refer to Romans 13. I do not understand Romans 13 as an endorsement of capital punishment, but rather a recognition that the state of Rome does indeed use lethal force, and God can use whatever God wants (for example God can use Cyrus, but that does not mean that everything Cyrus did was ordained of God).

An alternative interpretation of Romans 13 would be that the "sword" was only a symbol of politcial authority and the right to collect taxes. Ben Witherinton has said that "the sword" in question was only a dagger used by tax officials for self-defense and not an instrument of capital punishment.

Jonathan said...

There is another hermeneutical factor to consider. The OT laws were for Israel as a covenant community with God and as a political state. The NT was not written for the state, but for the covenant community of church. Therefore the ethics we find in the NT are intended for the church, not primarily for the state. However, once Christians embody the gospel ethic as church, they also serve as a WITNESS to the state. My belief is that Christians are to embody the Sermon on the Mount and live nonviolently - and on a secondary level, we make a witness to the state to live peacefully. These are not "orders of creation" where each realm is autonomous. Christians live under the lordship of Christ, period. In living out Christian discipleship, we also make a witness to the state.

Rhology said...

Hi Jonathan,
Trying to make this as brief as possible. Please forgive any excessive length.

RE: Mosaic Law - I used the example to demonstrate that the DP has been instated throughout biblical history, demonstrating its continuity.

I refer you to Romans 13 to see how Dr. Witherington's interp doesn't fly.
You have to start at v.1 though. Paul is discussing subjection to the governing authorities and those who resist it. Particularly:, "if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake."

Taxes are a diferent discussion in v.6 - "For because of this you also pay taxes..."

Finally, where's the self-defense?

RE: Rome does indeed use lethal force... yes, it did, and that is part of the case. Where does God say that's bad? Seems to be a good time to say there's a "better" way than the law established all the way back in Genesis 9. The text refers to "governing authorities" in general, not just Rome. He could've said "Babylon" or "the gov't of our times" or sthg else if he had meant just Rome.

You said:
My belief is that Christians are to embody the Sermon on the Mount and live nonviolently


and on a secondary level, we make a witness to the state to live peacefully.

Yes, and part of the way the state can ensure that we have a peaceful society is to hunt down, imprison, try (speedily), convict (fairly), and execute capital criminals.
To fail to do any of those is to:
1) possibly embolden others to capitalise on the state's laxity at the expense of law-abiding citizens like me
2) possibly pad citizens' consciousness of the seriousness of capital crimes. After all, it always happens to someone else, not me.
3) deny justice to the victims of the crime, the families and friends.
4) deny God's retribution that He Himself calls for.


Jonathan said...

Rhology, I appreciate your respectful tone and civl way of discourse; however, you are focussing on my tangential thoughts and ignoring my more basic points. I am partly to blame for this because I have inlcuded some tangential thoughts for consideration. I will no longer do this, or make comments in the subjunctive mood, or point out other possible interpretations.

OK. What do you think of my understanding of Romans 13:

I do not understand Romans 13 as an endorsement of capital punishment, but rather a recognition that the state of Rome does indeed use lethal force, and God can use whatever God wants (for example God can use Cyrus, but that does not mean that everything Cyrus did was ordained of God).

Also, why start at Romans 13:1 ? Why not start with Romans 12:17 where Paul tells Christians not to overcome evil with evil? (the division into chapters of course did not come until many centuries later)

Do you really think Paul was writing to this tiny persecuted sect and giving a theory of statecraft for how Caesar is to act? Or was he writing to tell Christians how to live and survive amidst Roman persecution? I believe in Romans 12 and 13, Paul is saying: Love your enemies. Love even the Romans who are persecuting you and collecting taxes from you. Don't resist even the Romans as they are killing you. God can use even the Romans in spite of themselves. God "orders" even the Romans (not that he 'ordains' them, but God orders them). Sort of like a librarian orders all the books in a library, God orders all the authorities on earth, and can use them how he pleases.

According to your point of view, why should we only execute capital criminals? Why not execute everyone that the Mosaic law calls to be executed?

Rhology said...


And I appreciate your tone as well. I'll endeavor to keep mine very civil - we ARE brothers, after all. Sorry for my tangents

Why not start with Romans 12:17 where Paul tells Christians not to overcome evil with evil?

On what basis can we assume that DP is evil?

Do you really think Paul was writing...tell Christians how to live and survive amidst Roman persecution?

The latter.

Don't resist even the Romans as they are killing you.

B/c they bear the sword to punish evildoers, yes.
Now, of course, this gov't is wrong to execute Xtians as capital criminals, but why should we assume that Rome is wrong to execute murderers? "The sword" they bear is not a whip or handcuffs. It's an instrument of death.

According to your point of view, why should we only execute capital criminals? Why not execute everyone that the Mosaic law calls to be executed?

You correctly pointed out that the Mosaic civil laws are not in force, so that's the answer to the latter.
As for the 1st, Genesis 9:6 defines a lasting command, that murders are rightly subject to the DP. The Mosaic Law expanded the DP. Romans 13 affirms its justice in practice (when it's done properly, of course).


Jonathan said...

When Paul says in Romans "do not overcome evil with evil" he means do not overcome violence with more violence. The difference between you and me is that I think that goes for all Christians at all times because the Lordship of Christ is total. You on the other hand, think that there is a different set of rules for the state to follow, and that as Martin Luther said, a Christian can love an enemy as an individual, but execute an enemy as an official of the state. Am I reading you correctly? But "the state" is not mentioned in Noah's story, so why would you apply it to the state?

Jonathan said...

I would intepret Genesis 9:6 not as a commandment to execute murderers but as saying, "Life is so sacred to me that I forbid you to take it. If you live by the sword, you will also die by the sword" It is a recognition, as Jesus recognized, that those who take the sword will die by the sword. It's not saying that it's a good thing that people who live by the sword die by the sword, but it is recognition that those who live by the sword often do in fact die by it. No where did God tell Noah, "go out and kill any murderers you can find."

Rhology said...


Sorry I didn't get back to you before now.
Hope it's OK to post the end of Romans 12:

16Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
17Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY," says the Lord.
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I'm sure that "don't do violence to answer violence" is mostly the point of v. 17, true. He then goes on to speak of individual standards of behavior. He points to God's prerogative of vengeance. Then he goes on to Romans 13 to speak of the responsibility of the gov't. Notice, however, that the gov't is spoken of as an agent of Almighty God, charged w/ judgment of evildoers, w/ a sword. Not keys. Not a jail cell. Not a whip.
I think there are different rules for the state b/c the text supports that view.
It's not "executing an enemy" that is at issue here. The question is of executing a capital criminal.
The state is not mentioned in Genesis 9, that's true.

5"Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man.
6"Whoever sheds man's blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man. "

Yes, it says "shall", which could be taken either as a prophecy or as a command (as in the 10 Commandments: Thou shalt not...). Obviously not all murderers are then killed by man themselves, so that's out. The theme is that of a command from God - don't eat lifeblood. You are going to die someday. Don't murder, for man is made in the image of God.
Why did the Mosaic Law (which was given straight from God Himself) include the DP?
Why did the Ap. Paul say "sword" in Rom 13? Perhaps that future organisation is what God had in mind, but these large nation-states were not the only contexts in which the godly law would apply. Abraham's community (~500 people?) would be one of those. Jacob's community.


Jonathan said...

Indeed, why DID the Apostle Paul use "sword" in Romans 13 when the standard method of execution was crucifixion, in which the sword was not used?

Look, man, we could continue to pick apart individual passages of Scripture for ever. But the main difference between you and me is that you do focus on individual passages, and I look at the grand sweep of Scripture. When I look at the grand sweep of Scripture, and Jesus' teachings and example in particular, I see God's nonviolent, suffering love, which is finally vindicated eschatologically, of which we get a sneak preview at Easter. From that vantage point, I get my convictions about nonviolence, which in turn will color all my readings of Scripture.

A difference between you and me is that you begin with a question like "is capital punishment right or wrong?" and then you find a list of ten passages of Scripture to find the answer.

I start with how the Scriptures bear witness to the character of God, which I see most clearly in the life, death, and resurrection of His beloved Son.

One other difference, and then I'll close - this has been hinted at before, but I'll put it as starkly as possible: I believe there is ONE way of life for Christians in whatever circumstance they find themselves. And you seem to subscribe to a two-kingdoms view where Christians can act according to a different set of rules when they are acting on behalf of the state.

Rhology said...


He might have used "sword" b/c "cross" might have been a bit confusing, leading readers to conflate the cross of Christ w/ the current discussion about gov'tal authority and punition.
A better question is: Why did he use "sword" and not "whip" or "jail cell"?

You claim to look at the grand sweep of Scr, but I have granted the points that you referred to.
Yet, you have not denied that God sometimes presents Himself in a motif of violence, against evil and evildoers. Capital criminals are evildoers. The question of repentance from sin is a separate question from the question of DP.
It is not possible to properly appeal to the "grand sweep of Scr" when the psgs that specifically refer to the issue at hand all speak against your position. It is clear that, in this question, you are eisegeting - taking your modern mentality and reading it into the text. You don't focus on indiv psgs, true; you don't focus on *any*.
It is certainly possible that my view has implications for some kind of "two-kingdoms" view, but I am honestly ignorant of what that view might entail. Suffice it to say that the gov't has its authority from God to carry out the DP and God has thus ordained it for capital crimes. Appealing to Christ's death on the cross and other things is irrelevant to this narrow question.

Grace and peace,

Jonathan said...

Anybody else have any thoughts, or are Rhology and I the only ones still reading?

Rology said...

I'm reading! I'm reading!!!!!

Rhology said...

Hmm, maybe I've should've chosen a different mask my identity...;-)

Rhology said...

Um, I mean, rology should have. Not me. I'm not him. Or her. Them. I'm not them.

Anonymous said...

It's really no less violent to lock someone up, deprive them of freedom and ultimately let them rot of old age as a prisoner than to kill them outright. Its just much slower, a methodical violence which does have the advantage of allowing for new evidence to come to light, or for time for proven criminals to develop from thier primal self-serving action potentially into soulful remorse within the confines of society's justice.
But I can see how extending nonviolence... from a charitable Christian perspective... in a democracy... where there is potential of such folks gaining a majority... this could lead to trouble? If we forgive our enemies to the point of enacting no violence upon them... how do we even justify locking them up? Shouldn't we forgive them, chat-them-up about non-violence as it "is the right way" to emulate Jesus/God and then let them go on thier way?
Not being snide... just caught in between the two arguments and somehow still thinking I'm OK that way.

Jonathan said...

Skybison, you bring up an interesting point. There is some degree of violence (or threat of violence) even in locking someone up.

Like I say the NT was not written for the state, but for the church. I think the church's job is first to embody the gospel, then to be a witness to others (including the state). I think our witness would include witnessing against the violence of capital punishment. After we crossed that bridge, we could also look at how prisoners are treated, and help the state ask questions like, "how can we lessen the liklihood of crimes happening -- in the least violent way?" I think those would be good questions for us to explore.

Neil said...

I just blogged on capital punishment this week. I am familiar with most of the arguments people use against capital punishment from a Biblical perspective, and they are nearly all bad.

I'm not bloodthirsty for executions (I am active in prison ministry), but the only possible angle one has for a Biblical argument against the death penalty is that it isn't always administered properly (2 eyewitnesses whose punishment for perjury would equal the punishment the convicted person would have).

The whole enterprise was God's idea, nothing in the NT overturns it, Paul reiterates the role God gives to gov't (Romans 13), etc.