Capital Punishment, Part 3
Steve Robinson · August 7, 2009
In Part 3 of the series, Steve begins a discussion of the Church and State. How do we view Judaism as a theocracy? Is Jesus anti-death penalty? What is the purpose of civil authority? Is the State constrained to function on the level of the Gospel and should it?
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT PART 3
Welcome to part three of the ongoing series on capital punishment. Before I begin this week’s thoughts, let me say that I’ve gotten a lot of very kind and well thought out responses to the series so far, on both sides of the issue. Several people emailed me about last week’s podcast and the general thoughts were that while God may have killed Ananais and Sapphira, He didn’t kill David or St. Paul, and Jesus does not stone the adulterous woman to death. Hence, we can conclude that Christ is not in favor of the death penalty, but rather uses people’s sins to bring them to repentance. A couple people noted that no where in the NT does God justify one human being taking the life of another for any reason.
The last comment is what this whole series is about, so I’ll just have to say stay tuned. That said, I completely agree that it is an inescapable fact that a lot of people “got clemency” in both the Old and New Testaments, and that God is ultimately a God of love. However, His acts of mercy are not the only expression of God in either Testament, there’s plenty of death to go around. Jesus in His ministry did the same things God did in the Old Testament, He showed mercy on some sinners. Even though Jesus never “personally killed” someone during His ministry, in His parables of judgment, He likens God to an angry King who kills the evil vineyard keeps and warned the Jews of the coming judgment of God on Israel which resulted in the deaths of thousands. So I don’t think we can say “Christ is by nature anti-capital punishment” solely based on His earthly ministry any more than we can say God is based on His forgiveness of David etc.. If we isolate the ministry of Christ from the realities of God’s death dealing activities with evildoers we run the danger of bringing a raft load of problems into our theology of the unity of the Trinity. If we divorce Christ from the Father and say He had nothing to do with the coming Roman demolition of Jerusalem and Judaism, that would put us in danger of becoming Marcionites, separating the “God of the Old Testament” and the “God of the New” (another point that will have to be more fully explicated in a future podcast).
Ultimately, our theology does affirm that God desires the death of no man and desires the salvation of all. However it also affirms that the death of the all, including the evildoer, is in the hands of God as an event within the providential Love of God… even if He deems to kill them personally or permits them to be killed while still impenitent, like the thief on the left. (And that too is another whole issue worth exploring…nothing about this topic is simple). So if we accept the reality of God’s direct and permissive dealings with the death penalty in human history, the issue does at one level boil down to WHO is making the decisions of life and death and does any human being in the “gospel age” have the wisdom, right (or responsibility) to do that according to Scripture.
So, last week we looked at God’s dealings with fallen human society before and after the Flood, which, as I indicated seems to be a sharp line of demarcation in how the world functions in terms of death and fear both among the animals and humans; and it also introduces a subset of that new order among humans: capital punishment for capital crimes on the basis of the Creation story. The covenant with Noah was not abrogated by the Mosaic Law and, I believe, neither by the Gospel. Under Moses, the world still functioned as it did after the flood, but what the Law did was introduce a new level of revelation of God into the world through a national structure rather than through a family structure. The Mosaic Law taught an ethical and moral structure that lifted Israel out of the cruelty and evil of the surrounding nations. Specifically the laws of crime and punishment set boundaries that explicated further the reasoning given to Noah regarding a life for a life because man is created in the image of God. When Christ manifested God in flesh, the reasoning is brought to its full exposition in the person of Jesus: Without a doubt, the human being IS in the image of God because God becomes flesh. But we have to remember, this is God’s revelation of Himself to mankind. However ignorant WE may have been of the depth of meaning of being in the image, God has dealt with the human race on the basis of that fact from the beginning. He made it clear in the pronouncement to Noah that the rationale FOR the death penalty is that man is in the image of God, everything since then has merely been further explication of some aspect of that truth and what that means to God and for us. We know what that looked like under Moses, so the issue now is what does that mean to the Christian and how does that work in the world since the revelation of God in Christ?
What is different now is the presence of the Church within the world. But what we have to unpack is the fact that, as Christ said, His kingdom is not of this world. Even though it is called to be leaven on the earth, the world in fact is not the Church nor does it submit fully to God nor to the Church; and the Church is in the world but not of it. And therein lies the problem we need to unpack today.
So what IS the role of the Church and its relationship to civil authority? Christians, spiritual pagans and atheists all agree that the human being somehow innately understands something of the necessity and value of societal order and justice that supercedes the anarchist individual. Social order reflects some sort of “collective conciousness” that rises above any single individual’s level of perfection in an imperfect world. This has been philosophized and theologized about for several millennia. But the point here is, no matter how we frame it or explain it, it undeniably exists.
The Christian and the atheist would basically agree that one individual with unchecked power does not generally work well as a system of government because we know “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. According to Scripture, all “governmental systems” and civil authorities are established by God and are a necessary concession for the good order of the world due to the fall. But “systems of government”, even if ordained by God, are run by fallen human beings. This fact is not lost on anyone who knows anything at all about government and politics. St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on Romans 13 talks about how we should regard civil authority and evil politicians:
For do not tell me of some one who makes an ill use of (the institutions of government), but look to the good order that is in the institution itself, and you will see the great wisdom of Him who enacted this law from the first….whether in punishing, or in honoring, the state is a Minister, in avenging virtue’s cause, in driving vice away, as God wills.
“Systems” of government and societal order are a collective hedge against individual human anarchy which tends toward evil, and it also provides more or less for some definition of “the common welfare” of the members of society. And, realistically, some systems might be better than others, but NO system however elegant, if occupied by evil people will keep people from doing evil things.
The specific issue of the “common welfare” that we are concerned with is the protection the innocent from the evildoer. Regardless of comparative degrees of due process and specific definitions of what is a capital offense among different societies, the common denominator is a recognition that there is good and evil and there is a necessity to isolate evil from society somehow. If nothing else, the atheist can at least grant that the God of the Bible is a realist: there are real evil individuals who need restraint by the collective …and I’ll add so I don’t sound like Judge Roy Bean all the time, on the other hand, mercy is also a virtue.
So when we talk about God and societal order, the Scriptures do not say that Judaism was the ONLY civil order or government established by God. It was however, specifically a nation formed and its governance was directed by God for a foreshadowing of the Gospel. Its laws and rituals were tutors until the fullness of the revelation of God was realized in the gospel of Christ, which is unconditional love for our neighbor, which includes our enemies who are in the image of God. And it is here that the real issues get knotty.
Bp. Seraphim (and every other Christian anti-death penalty advocate I’ve read), calls for society to “forgive our enemies” because Christ calls on us to forgive our enemies. I agree that I as an individual Christian am called to forgive my personal enemies, which I struggle to do. (And of course in a future podcast we’ll have to unpack “What is the nature of forgiveness” and does it necessarily mean removal of consequences …) But if we say the state must forgive because Christians are called to forgive, then we are also commanded to turn the other cheek and give to those who ask without question and take no thought for food, clothing or tomorrow in that same sermon. The question is do all or any of these commands extend to civil order? Should human society, regardless of belief in the gospel, be universally constrained to forgive the enemies of all human beings who have been violated by evil? Why should this only be applied to the death penalty? Why then prisons at all if we are to forgive 70 times 7? It seems we are cherry picking from the commandments and applying them according to some vague (or at least unarticulated) principle of Church/State relations. Is the State called to forgive every evildoer in the name of the Christians within the State who were not personally violated by them? Should secular civil authority govern and order itself according to the law of Christ as applied to individual Christians? I think not for two reasons:
The Theocracy of Judaism is fulfilled in the Church, not the secular State. The call of the Gospel is ultimately to persons, not institutions. Living according to the gospel requires belief in it, not MERELY following legislation. That said, I believe it is entirely appropriate to legislate against evil for the same reason Noah was commanded to institute the death penalty: because we are created in the image of God. The God ordained order of the State, at some level, reflects the image of God in that it exists for the “good of society” which calls for defining good and evil through civil law. However, the question at hand is, “is the death penalty intrinsically evil”? Even if civil institutions were filled with Christians, those institutions would still have to deal with the fallen order and unbelieving members of society who indeed do evil…which begs the question: What does forgiveness look like and what is really demanded by it if Christians were the sole civil rulers?
In Old Testament Judaism God dealt with human beings on a revelatory moral and religious level, but the Jews at that time had no knowledge of the fullness of the revelation of Christ. Judaism, even if it is viewed as a shadow of the Gospel, was still God ordained. Apart from its unique religious rituals, it was a revelation to the world of universally applicable moral and ethical precepts, and it included the death penalty. I would conclude that these aspects of the Law of God, which included capital punishment apart from the fullness of knowledge and belief in the Gospel of Christ, is still a functional way to order a non-Gospel based human society. The modern world may disagree with the Bible about WHO should be put to death for what, and how. But from Genesis to Revelation the overarching principles of law and order that include justice, fear of consequence, punishment and restraint that deal with evil are universally recognized to be necessary for civil order, even by atheists.
This brings me to my second point. As I read it, nowhere in the New Testament do we see the State held to the standard of the Gospel in how it orders society.
Since its establishment, the Church has existed and functioned within many political systems. We don’t find the New Testament writers confusing the roles of the Church and state in the lives of human beings, probably because the state in NT times was either indifferent of hostile to the Church. Thus the apostles held up no political system as “the one true gospel party”, and Christians were constrained to pray for all civil leaders, godly or not. Jesus Himself told Pilate as he was condemning Him that he had no power except that which was given him from God. In Romans 13, St. Paul, who suffered unjustly under both Jewish and Roman law, teaches that the state has the God ordained responsibility to punish the evil doer and even to exact capital punishment if it deems it necessary. St. Paul, in spite of the injustices he personally suffered, does not even deal with the possibility of civil law being unjustly administered. St. Paul does not seem to have an issue with the possibility of the State being in error or unjust at times between the parentheses of the loss of Paradise and the fulfillment of the Kingdom. Both he and Christ personally stood above the civil order and the injustice they suffered and in doing so personally transformed the world around them without legislating “Christian values” through governmental systems. While the Church exists within the context of a state, it is interesting that the Church flourished the most when it had no state support or political influence for the first 300 years of its existence.
So, next week we’ll talk about utopian societies, Church/state political systems, personal convictions, and why God ordained civil authority knowing human beings are imperfect.
Let me say if you want to mull all this over, there are transcripts of all these podcasts on the Steve the Builder page at Ancient Faith. And as always your comments and thoughts are welcome.