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Against death penalty extremism

Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky’s cover story in the current issue of WORLD magazine focuses on what the Bible says about the death penalty and what life is like on death row. In a series of 10 columns here on wng.org (posted Oct. 7–18), Marvin addresses public policy issues involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness in capital punishment.

Baylor University professor Roger E. Olson, in an article titled “The Heresy of Capital Punishment,” argues that “capital punishment, at least as it is known and practiced in the U.S. today, is a heresy when espoused by Christians. It manifests an embrace of the myth of redemptive violence by humans and flies in the face of the ethic of Jesus which forbids violent retribution.”

Olson opines that “churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. They ought, at the very least, to declare it incompatible with Christian faith and put members who openly believe in it under some kind of discipline (not necessarily excommunication but at least forbidding them to teach it in the ecclesial context). And those who practice it, actively seeking it and participating in it, should be excommunicated from Christian churches.”

Olson continues, “It takes away a person’s time to repent and believe or to witness to other inmates, leading them to repentance and faith, and from just a humane point of view, it is extremely damaging to the families of those executed and is barbaric for a supposedly civilized society such as we claim to be.” Yet, he complains that for many Texas Christians “capital punishment is almost a sacrament. I have heard Texas ‘born again Christians’ cheerfully declare that they would gladly push the plunger down to start the poisonous chemicals flowing into a condemned person’s veins.”

I didn’t hear such a comment in two decades of living in Texas; still, I believe Olson’s contention that he has heard some Texas Christians waxing enthusiastic about the death penalty. I’ve now come to the position that life without parole in most situations involving murder is a better outcome than the death penalty, but I still wouldn’t say that those who favor capital punishment are heretics.

After all, Jesus affirmed the Old Testament, with its strict laws concerning capital punishment—strict in making sure that alleged perpetrators would be confronted by at least two reputable eyewitnesses, with the accusers liable to execution should their witness be false. (Biblical understanding of the importance of eyewitnesses is evident in Article 3, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution: “No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act. …”)

Old Testament judicial law is no longer required, for two reasons. First, the letter of the judicial law is no longer binding, due to Christ’s sacrifice. As the 370-year-old Westminster Confession of Faith states, God “gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the [Israelite] State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.” Second, the Mosaic law functioned within the boundaries of Israel but not outside it: Ancient Israel was a holiness theme park and other countries were not, so Israelites did not try to enforce those laws in Babylon, Persia, Greece, or Rome. (I’ve written about this extensively.)

But the general equity—the principle of the law, that murder requires a severe reckoning—still stands. It seems to me that we should avoid declaring capital punishment either a cornerstone or a heresy. And maybe the difficulty of prosecuting murder cases along biblical lines (two or more eyewitnesses, severe penalties for false witness, witnesses casting the first stone) is telling in itself: Could God be saying that we cannot have the sureness of His standards of justice? Is He teaching us to admit that all of us sin, and all of us desperately need Christ?

Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss his cover story on the death penalty on The World and Everything in It:

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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Marvin:Thank you for going against death penalty extremism and rejecting the idea that Christians who support the death penalty are committing heresy.

Ed Walkwitz

There's a contradiction.  If, as Mr. Olasky claims, Life without Parole is worse than the death penalty, than why advocate that the death penalty cannot be given without two witnesses, but a worse penalty can?

Neil Evans

God carries out the death penalty every day.  And in a great many of the cases it appears on the surface that the dying ones are very innocent.  It is true that physical life is very important and meaningful.  But it derives its  great value from the spiritual life that is the Life enobeling the life.   How are we to understand or communicate accurately and effectively the eternal value of persons if there are not radical consequences that command our attention when those values are breeched.The fly in the ointment is the fact that unrighteous people are ill equipped to carry out righteous justice.  The unrighteous carry out justice with varying amounts of coldness or glee; the truly righteous do so with weeping while yearning for repentance and eternal LIFE.


My sincere compliments to Olasky for allowing so much criticism of his essays. Even more important when the criticism is solidI fully rebutted Olson's "The Heresy of Capital Punishment", at the site of that article, but my comments were not posted.A very big differnce in standards of a search for truth and readers ability to observe it. Thank you Mr. Olasky.