Over the last twenty years, my wife and I have been asked to speak in many churches around the country to share our experiences and our biblical analysis with their congregations. Several secular organizations have realized that their members need the correct understanding of the biblical statements about capital punishment to refute the erroneous efforts to support the U.S. death penalty from Scripture.
That is how I found myself in Louisville to address multiple workshops on the U.S. death penalty in light of Scripture. The first portion of my two-hour presentation, attended by about 200 Evangelical seminarians, addresses the erroneous use of Genesis 9, the Mosaic Law, and Romans 13 to claim biblical support for our U.S. capital punishment.
“That attempt by religious death penalty proponents is a mission impossible,” I summarize gently, “in light of the legal restrictions required by the Scriptures before a court can morally even consider a death sentence.”
“Wait a minute,” a well-dressed young man from the last row throws up both hands in visible exasperation as he stands to challenge me. “What about the fact that Jesus himself approved of the death penalty? It’s in the Bible!”
“There is a Death Penalty in the Bible, but its requirements have nothing to do with our American death penalty. And I have not found any place in Scripture where Jesus approved of the death penalty.” My challenger’s stance is stiffening as I respond. We need to ratchet this down a peg I think to myself. Better start with Jesus.
“Help me out.” I sincerely request his assistance. “Where are you finding that in your Bible?”
He cracks open a well-worn leatherbound Bible, as he reads aloud from chapter 19 of the Gospel of John. The scene is the trial of Jesus before Pilate at verses 10-11. The context of the scene is that Pilate has peppered Jesus with questions. Jesus is standing silent, refusing to answer:
So Pilate said to Him, “Do You not speak to me? Do You not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify You?”
Jesus answered [him], “You would have no power over Me if it had not been given to you from above.”
This sincere young man starts to sit down, but I implore him to keep reading. “We have lots of time left. Please don’t stop in the middle of the verse. Please keep reading it to the end of Jesus’ statement.”
He seems a bit flustered and does not stand to read again. So, I move slowly in his direction with my hand outstretched, asking loudly enough for the whole room to hear, “May I read the rest of Jesus’ statement in verse 11 from your Bible?”
In answer, he courteously reopens his Bible to John 19:11 and holds it out to me. I receive it with a nod of acknowledgement and a warm smile. He is my brother in Christ.
“The entire exchange reads as follows,” I address the full audience from the front of the room.
“So Pilate said to Him, ‘Do You not speak to me? Do You not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify You?’
Jesus answered [him], ‘You would have no power over Me if it had not been given to you from above. For this reason the one who handed Me over to you has the greater sin’” (John 19:10-11).
There is not a sound in the room, not even of breathing. I continue gently: “Certainly, when Jesus calls something sin, He is not saying He approves of it. Pilate’s role may be the lesser sin, but it’s still sin. And Jesus does not approve of sin.”
I know from experience that most of the Christians in this room have never heard the second half of verse 11 quoted from the pulpits of their churches when the first half was being read aloud to support U.S. capital punishment.
“This full text can hardly be claimed as Jesus’ support for capital punishment,” I continue. “In fact, the Scriptures tell us that Pilate’s reaction to this exchange was just the opposite:
Consequently, Pilate tried to release Him (John 19:12).
“Suffice it to say, ‘Yes, there is a death penalty in the Bible, but it has nothing in common with the U.S. death penalty except that the defendant is killed.’”
A unified gasp of horror escapes from about a third of those attending this workshop. Most of the young people on the right side of the room are obviously aghast at my assertion of this Biblical truth. No one has ever laid bare for them our country’s almost whimsical use of capital punishment compared to the strict requirements of Scripture.
“The conclusion that the Scriptures condemn the U.S. death penalty is inescapable in light of those actual biblical requirements. One profoundly prohibitive requirement of Scripture that our U.S. system does not meet is absolute certainty of culpability.”
“Wait a minute!” the hand of a visibly agitated seminarian from down the row shoots up. “What if the criminal confesses to the killing? Surely that guarantees culpability!”
All the attendees in his row are nodding furiously, confirming that we have a seminary tag team present to discredit my biblical assertions.
“Actually, the opposite is true.” My voice is intentionally softer than normal. The biblical truth can be crushing. Whatever one’s opinion about the illusion of moral certainty around U.S. capital punishment, when that certainty fails, the void left behind can be painful and disorienting.
“The fact of the matter is that under the standards of the biblical death penalty, all confessions — true, false, coerced or voluntary — are prohibited from being used as evidence to convict the defendant in a capital case. We can see the wisdom in this, especially when we experience the power of false confessions to overcome all other evidence to the contrary.”
“But what if the confession is reliable?” Our young seminarian is struggling to preserve what he wants to believe is true.
I shake my head “no” without any exaggeration. “Unfortunately, it is not true that only guilty people confess.
“Although the U.S. ideal for testimony in capital cases is that only reliable confessions would be allowed as evidence, the actual practice in America is that even inherently unreliable confessions are freely allowed as evidence and are used by the prosecution because they are extremely persuasive with juries. Both the ideal and the practice fall far short of the biblical standard, which would strictly prohibit use of any confessions by the defendant in a capital case, regardless of the circumstances.”
The seminary row is furiously taking notes but not responding, so I continue.
“The biblical death penalty acknowledges that some people may attempt to commit suicide by execution, confessing to a murder that they did not in fact commit. A variant of that is confessing to a killing and asking for the death penalty even though there are mitigating circumstances that reduce the offender’s culpability.
“Suffice it to say, Yes, there is a death penalty in the Bible, but it has nothing in common with the U.S. death penalty except that the defendant is killed.”
“Give us an example,” asks a young woman from my now favorite row in the audience.
While I pause to frame a response, a professionally dressed, middle-aged woman, raises her hand. “I know of such a case.”
“Please, share it with all of us,” I nod toward her.
“I know of a case. The man had been in severe clinical depression since his early teenage years. His childhood and teen-years were a horror story of abuse. Every kind of abuse.”
As her eyes well up with tears, I suspect she knows this man well.
“He had a plan to kill himself by stealing a car and running it into a bridge or a tree.”
The story is sounding familiar to me. Very close to the history of a man on Florida Death Row who meets with me for spiritual counseling every month. I make a mental note to say nothing about him or his case and to minimize any speaking to this woman after my presentation. Social contact between a volunteer prison chaplain and friends and family of death row inmates is strictly prohibited except in cases of imminent death. The signing of a man’s death warrant for execution is considered a case of imminent death.
“He got drunk at a bar and stole a car from the parking lot. He was so drunk that he didn’t realize there were a guy and a girl in the back seat.” Yep. I think to myself. This is my guy’s story alright.
“The guy in the back seat jumped out with the car in motion. The girl didn’t. When the car thief crashed, the girl died and the thief survived.”
“In the county jail, the thief was so despondent about the girl’s death that he signed a confession and asked for the death penalty. The confession was prepared by the sheriff and the prosecutor and carefully covered all the legal points necessary to justify a death sentence.”
The horrified silence engulfing the room is only broken when a member of the seminary team who has not yet spoken raises his hand.
“Where is he now?”
“On Florida’s Death Row.” The woman wipes tears from her eyes with a hankie from her jacket. “The court was happy to oblige him with a death sentence. No one has been able to get him a new sentencing hearing. I met him on Death Row through a group that provides pen-pals. I visit him on Death Row. He is a gentle and kind person. He didn’t mean to kill anyone. Only himself.”
“How can he be on Death Row if he didn’t premeditate to kill anyone?” our newest talking seminarian is genuinely bewildered.
“May I?” As I step forward to field this hot potato, the woman who has shared this tragedy nods toward me with an expression of relief. My sense is that it’s very important to answer this question with technical legal correctness. I’m not a practicing lawyer anymore, but I am a lawyer.
“Under the biblical death penalty, he could not be facing a death sentence unless he intended to kill the person he killed. That’s not the case with our U.S. death penalty.” I note that in our row of seminarians, everyone is still taking notes.
“In some of our death penalty states, we have the doctrines of felony-murder and law-of-the-parties. With felony-murder, if one is committing a felony — stealing a car, holding up a bank, whatever — and an innocent person is killed, even if no one was supposed to be killed, the intent to commit the underlying crime satisfies the required intent for murder. So, the crime becomes a capital crime.”
“Is that from the Bible?” our newest seminarian is still on his feet and still has the floor.
“No, felony murder for capital punishment is contrary to the Bible.”
“What about this party stuff?” Our inquiring seminarian smiles good naturedly, as a soft chuckle rolls through the audience.
“It’s not parties like a frat party,” I’m chuckling myself. “It’s in a legal court case sense, where each of the codefendants is a party to the criminal case. Even if the planning of the crime was not supposed to involve any killing or shooting or stabbing, if any of the bad guys pulls out his gun and kills somebody, all the defendants in the crime are guilty of the murder.”
“Is that from the Bible?” a new questioner from a different row jumps in.
“No, law of the parties for capital punishment is contrary to the Bible.”
“So, I have a question,” a new participant to the exchange rises from her chair. “Instead of trying to abolish the death penalty, why don’t you just get it changed to meet the requirements of Scripture?”
“I’ll take that,” I respond quickly, while knowing further explanation is necessary. “That was the proposal in my book on the Bible and the death penalty. But you need to know that one of the reasons the Rabbis of old gave for abandoning capital punishment is that none of the cases could meet the strict requirements of the biblical death penalty.”
“Was there any other reason?”
“Yes. Another reason is what I call the 11th Commandment. In Scripture God warns us to avoid any part in the execution of an innocent person (Exodus 23:7). The strict requirements of the biblical death penalty were meant to accomplish that. Do we really want to take a chance of violating that command?”
Dale S. Recinella