Capital Punishment, Final
Steve Robinson · September 10, 2009
Audio length: 14:51
In the final podcast in the capital punishment series Steve discusses punishment, retribution and hell in light of "God is love". Can Christians legitimately believe in retributive punishment and a loving God? And finally, what is the responsibility of Christians to those on death row?
So, last week we left off with a discussion of punishment, vengeance and retribution. As I noted these words have fallen into disrepute in the last few decades, even among Christians, and the death penalty debate is often framed by definitions of these terms. Punishment, retribution and vengeance are seen as concepts unfit for the modern “Enlightened Man” who has evolved beyond belief in the primitive moralistic gods of religiosity. While we would reject the notion that the God of Christianity is primitive, the problem is that, as I mentioned, Christians are often letting humanistic philosophy define our vocabulary and thus frame our understanding of capital punishment as a consequence for heinous crimes.
The reality is Christians do have some issues to dance with when it comes to a God that St. John says “is love”. His responses to sinners in the pages of the Scriptures, including wrath, punishment, vengeance, retribution and yes, the eternal fires of hell just don’t sound well…very loving. Like every other serious Christian, I’ve struggled with those concepts for decades now, and when I became Orthodox I was immediately taken with Alexander Kalomiros’ article “The River of Fire” that outlines how many of the Church Fathers understand the wrath of God in light of His nature. Basically, Kalomiros explains hell in terms of Hebrews 12:29 that says “our God is a consuming fire”: the fire is the love of God that is experienced by sinners as wrath, punishment or even hell. The typological Biblical illustration of this truth is put before us in every Matins service with the song of the Three Holy Children in the Furnace. There is one fire, and it consumes the Chaldeans but is experienced by the Holy Children as a “dewey breeze”. So, there is one God and He is experienced by faith as “love” and by sinners as “fire”. There is one Father and He is experienced by the Prodigal as loving, and by the elder brother as unjust and unfair.
I believe framing the wrath and punishments of God visited on sinners in this way makes sense, but it does not exhaust the Fathers’ vocabulary and teachings on God’s dealing with the sinner and ultimately with the unrepentant. One of the realities we have to face is that if the love of God is experienced by sinners as punishment, wrath, and even hell, it is still a very real experience and it is a proper definition of how they are experiencing God. You could tell someone who has jumped into a bonfire and is burning that what they are really experiencing is a dewey breeze, but the intellectual theological fine point will not lessen the heat or the pain. And we have to acknowledge that this vocabulary is the Scriptures’ and the Church Fathers’ definition of the experience also, even from the Fathers who in other places explicate “the river of fire” idea in other places. We could say that words like retribution and punishment are problematic when trying to communicate the love of God to the sinner, but they are only problematic if they are the only words that are used, just like it would be a problem if the only words we use are love, mercy and kindness. St. John Chrysostom mentions they had the same issue with the juxtaposition of a loving God and a just and punishing God in the 4th century in his commentary on Romans 2:14. He notes that there were those who denied the reality of God’s punishment and justice because St. Paul says He is forebearing and kind. There is nothing new under the sun. So to deny the usefulness of these terms and their ability to communicate something of how God regards sin and unrepentance is to deny the entirety of the Biblical and Patristic witness. It’s not that we need to eliminate these words from our vocabulary any more than Christ and the writers of Scripture did, but we need to use them wisely, fully and precisely when communicating the goodness and love of God and His action toward un-godliness. Pastorally, it is a harsh reality that there are people whose spiritual states require threats of punishment, vengeance and retribution to motivate them to repentance, and the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom for them.
So when we look at the Fathers, we see that they did not shrink from declaring God’s vengeance, retribution and punishment on sinners. Here’s a few quotes I’ve gathered and I’m sure they could be multiplied.
St. John Chrysostom commentary on Romans: For now what takes place is for correction; but then for vengeance. And this also St. Paul showed, when he said, “We are chastened now, that we should not be condemned with the world.” (1 Corinthians 11:32.)…. But then the punishment from God shall be manifest, when the Judge, sitting upon the fearful tribunal, shall command some to be dragged to the furnaces, and some to the outer darkness, and some to other inexorable and intolerable punishments.
St. Polycarp: The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Ch. XI: “Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little is extinguished, but thou art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly.”
St. Justin Martyr: First Apology 12: “No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments.”
St. Cyprian: To Demetrian 24: “An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will there be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life.”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Catechetical Lecture 18:10: “We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. …Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past.”
St. Gregory of Nazianzus: -Oration on the Holy Lights, Ch. XXXVI: “I know a cleansing fire which Christ came to hurl upon the earth and He Himself is called fire in words anagogically applied….I know also a fire that is not cleansing but avenging, that fire either of Sodom, which mixed with a storm of brimstone, He pours down on all sinners, or that which is prepared for the devil and his angels, or that which proceeds from the face of the Lord and burns up all His enemies all around. And still there is a fire more fearsome than these, that with which the sleepless worm is associated, and which is never extinguished but belongs eternally to the wicked.”… its is better to be punished and cleansed now than to be sent to the torment to come, when it will be time for punishing only, and not for cleansing.”
St. Jerome in the 4th century addresses the modern psychological view of hell: Jurgens, Vol. 2, Commentary on Ephesians, pg. 193: “There are many who say there are no future punishments for sins nor any torments extrinsically applied, but that sin itself and the consciousness of guilt serve as punishment, while the worm in the heart does not die, and a fire is kindled in the mind, much like a fever…These arguments and fraudulent fancies are but inane and empty words having the semblance of a certain eloquence of speech but serving only to delude sinners; and if they give them credence they only add to the burden of eternal punishment which they will carry with them.”
St. Basil the Great: Jurgens, pg. 21, On Psalm 28, No. 6: “The voice of the Lord divides the flame of fire. I believe that the fire prepared in punishment for the devil and his angels is divided by the voice of the Lord. Thus, since there are two capacities in fire, one of burning and the other of illuminating, the fierce and punitive property of the fire may await those who deserve to burn…”
St. John of Damascus, Exact Exposition, Ibid. Bk. 2:29: “Also one must bear in mind that God’s original wish was that all should be saved and come to His Kingdom 1 Timothy 2:4. For it was not for punishment that He formed us but to share in His goodness, inasmuch as He is a good God. But inasmuch as He is a just God, His will is that sinners should suffer punishment.”
And finally, a quote from the Synodikon of Orthodoxy which is to be read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy (but is usually shortened to just the section on iconography in most parishes…)
Synodikon of Orthodoxy: “Those who prefer the folly of the so-called wisdom of the profane philosophers and follow their teachers and accept the migrations of human souls or that they are destroyed like the souls of the animals and return to nothingness and on account of this deny the resurrection, judgment, and final retribution of the acts of their lives, anathema.”
So the bottom line is, as Christians we cannot appeal to “God is love” as a rationale for eliminating the death penalty as a retributive, vengeful or punishing consequence. St. John Chrysostom says, in his “Exhortation to Theodore” Letter 1, that the wrath of God is not a human passion but an expression of His tender care and lovingkindness. He says even if God threatens us with vengeance and punishments, He inflicts them in order to bring us to return to Him. God is like a doctor who does not listen to the insults and complaints of those he is treating and does not administer treatments for his own benefit but for the ultimate wellbeing of the patient. So within this framework, as I mentioned last week, the death penalty may in fact be the final medicine for the healing of the soul of the sickest of the human race.
EXACT QUOTE: For if the wrath of God were a passion, one might well despair as being unable to quench the flame which he had kindled by so many evil doings; but since the Divine nature is passionless, even if He punishes, even if He takes vengeance, he does this not with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving-kindness; wherefore it behooves us to be of much good courage, and to trust in the power of repentance. For even those who have sinned against Him He is not wont to visit with punishment for His own sake; for no harm can traverse that divine nature; but He acts with a view to our advantage, and to prevent our perverseness becoming worse by our making a practice of despising and neglecting Him. For even as one who places himself outside the light inflicts no loss on the light, but the greatest upon himself being shut up in darkness; even so he who has become accustomed to despise that almighty power, does no injury to the power, but inflicts the greatest possible injury upon himself. And for this reason God threatens us with punishments, and often inflicts them, not as avenging Himself, but by way of attracting us to Himself. For a physician also is not distressed or vexed at the insults of those who are out of their minds, but yet does and contrives everything for the purpose of stopping those who do such unseemly acts, not looking to his own interests but to their profit; and if they manifest some small degree of self-control and sobriety he rejoices and is glad, and applies his remedies much more earnestly, not as revenging himself upon them for their former conduct, but as wishing to increase their advantage, and to bring them back to a purely sound state of health. Even so God when we fall into the very extremity of madness, says and does everything, not by way of avenging Himself on account of our former deeds; but because He wishes to release us from our disorder; and by means of right reason it is quite possible to be convinced of this.
So how can the Christian support punishment, vengeance or retribution as a legitimate response to evil? In the “The Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/3/14.aspx the Bishops note that the iconographic tradition of the Church can help frame this issue (and the issue of killing in war) for us. In the icons of St. George, the black dragon is trampled by the hooves of the horse always painted brightly white. This teaches us that evil is an objective reality, and our struggle with evil is another issue entirely. In overcoming evil we cannot participate in it. They say that the Scriptures and the Fathers do not condemn the struggle with sin, nor do they condemn the use of force to restrain and punish evildoers, and not even taking another’s life in the last resort, but rather they condemn the passions in the human heart. One indeed can kill, but do so with sorrow at the necessity of it rather than hatred for one’s enemies. Fr. Alexander Webster notes that our tradition is antinomical in the sense that one may be Orthodox and an absolute pacifist—or one may be Orthodox and a just warrior. While no person can be both at once, the Church embraces both the absolute pacifist perspective on war and that of the just warrior. And I would add, the Church embraces both mercy and clemency and the necessity for the State to exact capital punishment.
Well, there is one final issue for both the Christian and atheist, and that is the question: “What if a convicted felon has repented, or learned to love, or has been reformed”? (However one determines “reformation” without an objective measure). If a murderer shows some sign of humanistic redemption or societal benefit, should society go ahead and execute them like California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger did to Tookie Williams in California recently, or give them clemency? Under the laws of the civil authority, that is for society to judge from whatever philosophical framework it wishes to use. His temporal fate is not the concern of the Christian because from the Church’s perspective, God has already judged and forgiven him if he has repented. And if he has repented, he is prepared to meet his Creator. If that is the case, then he is ultimately better off than we who are left behind and have to continue the struggle to avoid evil, repent and prepare to meet our God. As St. Paul says in Romans 14, whether he lives or dies, he is the Lord’s. If someone is prepared, physical death, whether sooner or later and by what means is not the ultimate issue for the Church. Let the atheist work out his own reasoning.
In the end, in light of Scripture and the Fathers, I believe that Christians cannot be categorically anti death penalty. However, we CAN be anti death penalty for individual persons, like Augustine was. In this sense Bp. Seraphim is ultimately correct: the call of the gospel is for us to visit those in prison regardless of what they are in prison for. In my opinion it is unchristian to light candles outside a prison wall when someone is executed and we’ve never met the person. It IS Christian to visit those in prison and then to advocate for justice or mercy based on a personal relationship. Jesus said, I was in prison and you visited me, not, I was on death row and you wrote philosophical journal articles, passed joint statements, blogged and lit a candle when I died.
So, ultimately, can someone believe in the sanctity of life and mercy, work with prisoners and convicts and still believe in the death penalty?
I think so. I do today.