The justice of the death penalty
The jury in the Parkland shooting case failed to do its solemn duty
A jury sentenced Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz to life in prison last week, protecting the mass murderer from the death penalty. A unanimous decision was required to send Cruz to death row. Reportedly, three jurors dissented after being convinced of the argument made by defense lawyers that the killer is mentally unstable and was influenced by childhood trauma.
Dr. Ilan Alhadeff, whose teenage daughter was murdered in the 2018 attack, expressed his disgust with the jury and the legal system, arguing that the verdict sets a precedent that demonstrates a tolerance for murder. Parents of Cruz’s other victims share the same outrage. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis agreed with their response, asserting that Cruz did deserve the death penalty.
Those angered by the verdict are justified in their indignation. A life sentence in this case is not just. It devalues human life and potentially incentivizes similar murders in the future. The death penalty is the only righteous punishment for proven premeditated murder and protecting killers from such a fate favors criminals at the expense of victims.
While most Americans support capital punishment for convicted murderers, that support has waned over time. In a 2021 Pew Research survey, 60 percent of U.S. adults said they agree with the death penalty for murder when guilt is proven, versus 78 percent in 1996. Atheists and agnostics are most likely to oppose execution; white evangelicals are most likely to support it. If Christian affiliation further declines in the United States and as religious “nones” increase, support for capital punishment is likely to continue to slide.
What should a Christian make of these facts? As America becomes less Christian, and the depravity our nation accepts becomes more extreme, is it not reasonable to conclude that our understanding of justice may be becoming weaker, more secularized, and less Biblical?
A repudiation of the death penalty for convicted murderers is a repudiation God’s commandments. God, who created justice, first commanded the death penalty for murder in Genesis 9:6, providing a clear rationale: “for God made man in his own image.” Because God loves people so much, because they are immensely valuable, he declares that the only punishment harsh enough for taking the life of an innocent image-bearer is death. It is for compassion for human life, not cruelty, that God demands the life of a murderer.
God’s reasoning for capital punishment was not exclusive to ancient Israel, nor was it nullified by Jesus’s teachings or crucifixion, as some Christians claim, because it transcends time and cultures. We are still made in God’s image; therefore, the death penalty for murder is still necessary for justice.
To protect a convicted murderer from capital punishment in the name of justice or love is to claim to be more just and loving than God Himself. But, since God is love, that kind of competition is not only fruitless, but dangerous (1 John 4:8). When nations seek a new standard of righteousness outside of God’s Word, they will inevitably subvert their God-given role to punish bad conduct and reward good. Indeed, the state is to carry out this responsibility through the threat of “the sword” (Romans 13:1-4). When a government fails to do its job as designated by God, the people in a nation suffer.
Right now, that suffering is felt most by families of the Parkland victims, who are bearing the brunt of a system that failed to deliver justice. In a press conference after Cruz’s verdict, Dr. Alhadeff asked, “What is the death penalty for?” In other words, if the mass murder of children doesn’t get capital punishment, what does? But, in another sense, he’s asking something even more profound: why did the death penalty exist in the first place? Why did God originally demand it?
It is our nation’s growing inability to answer these questions that disallows us from understanding and executing true justice. Until our government seeks to fulfill its God-given responsibility to approve of good and punish evil, victims will continue to die, while murderers like Nikolas Cruz will live.
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