By Fr. Stephen Powley
“’An eye for an eye’ seems right to the point. Why should there be any further discussion on the matter of the death penalty? If they violated the law and the penalty called for is death, then that settles it. Put them to death!!” I recently heard that said by a person who also seems very committed to their faith. My namesake, Saint Stephen, was believed to have broken the law and the penalty called for was death. The Icon above shows him being stoned as recorded in Acts 7. Wait a minute, that’s not a fair comparison!! Welcome to the debate on the death penalty in our modern world.
Capital Punishment is certainly a very divisive issue facing both our society and our Church in this world we live in. Both sides of this issue are very emotional…many in favor of the death penalty and many opposed. Even within Orthodox Christianity there seems to be a great deal of division… both among the people and among the clergy. So much so, in fact, that very few groups have issued an official statement on the subject. I suspect that even within a local church there would be divided opinions. Even on a personal basis, I confess that I have believed both sides at different times in my life. With that in mind, let us proceed to take a closer look at the subject and ask ourselves some very difficult questions.
“Hey, the Bible supports capital punishment and that’s good enough for me!” Those are the very words I hear when discussing the matter with someone who is in favor of the death penalty. So let us begin with the Holy Scriptures, specifically the Old Testament. Capital Punishment was clearly a part of the Israelite society. The very stoning of St. Stephen was justified by their use of the Holy Scriptures at that time (what we call the Old Testament today): “Anyone who blasphemes the Name of the Lord must be put to death…the entire assembly is to stone him” (Leviticus 24:14-23).
God commanded the Israelites to put people to death for a great variety of things (such as: offering their children as sacrifices, cursing their father or mother, committing adultery or various other sexual practices outside of normal marriage, and being a medium or spiritist). Here are just a few verses found in Leviticus chapter 20:
“The Lord said to Moses, Say to the people of Israel: ‘Any man of the people of Israel, or any strangers that sojourn in Israel, who gives any of his children to Molech shall be put to death.’
‘For everyone who curses his father or mother shall be put to death.’
‘If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.’
‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.’
‘A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death.’”
The first tough question we have to answer is: “Does the fact that the death penalty was practiced under Old Testament Law make it a legitimate practice for today?”
The New Testament
Many would say that if it is in the Bible then it is okay. It is vital that we hear the whole counsel of God from the Bible, before we reach any Scriptural conclusions. By that I mean, what does the New Testament have to say? Consider these words of Jesus found in Matthew 5:18:
“For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
This verse, taken by itself, would seem to point us toward legitimizing the death penalty by virtue of the Law. It is important that verses of Holy Scripture be looked at within their context. We will do that in a moment, but first let us examine another passage dealing with our Lord Jesus Christ. In the 8th Chapter of the Gospel of John, we find the story of the woman caught in adultery.
The scribes and Pharisees brought this woman to Jesus saying:
“Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?”
It would seem fairly obvious from the verses both in Leviticus and in Matthew that were already quoted, that Jesus’ hands would be tied in this matter. The woman committed adultery and therefore would have to be put to death. But amazingly, Jesus tells those standing there:
“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
When they heard these words of Jesus, all of them left, until only the woman and Jesus were together. Still, the Law is the Law, and Jesus is the One without sin…so he had the responsibility to carry out the punishment; to follow His Own Law. Instead, the following conversation takes place:
“Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
It would seem that Jesus had failed to obey His Own Law. He admitted she had sinned, yet he did not carry out the mandate of His Law. Did Jesus violate the Law? Did he abolish the Law? No, you say…but why not? Here we have “God-Come-In-The-Flesh”, seeming to not obeying His own law, refusing to utilize the death penalty. What is the world is going on here. The answer is alluded to in Matthew 5, taking that earlier quotation in context. Jesus says this:
“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished…For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus came to fulfill the Law. The scribes and Pharisees were the religious zealots of the time. They strived to keep the Law at all times. Yet, Jesus calls us to a righteousness that exceeds theirs. The rest of Matthew 5 explains that righteousness:
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil.” “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
As we come to understand Jesus’ higher understanding of the Law, we begin to realize that we all deserve the death penalty. That’s why Jesus invited the scribes and Pharisees, who were without sin, to cast the first stone. All of us have sinned; none of us is worthy to cast that first stone. Jesus now calls us to a higher level…that of living under His Grace. Thank God for the Grace that we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.
If the scribes and Pharisees were unable to carry out the death penalty after speaking with Jesus, and if Jesus, Himself, did not carry it out, I believe we are quite safe to say that the Old Testament Law does not require us to execute people today. But even if this is true, our current life situation brings us to another dilemma: Can we, in our personal lives, live under the Grace of God, but as a society revert back to the Old Testament Law?
The United States of America is not a Theocracy, as was Israel when the Law was given. We are a democracy, with human beings for our President and other leaders. Our laws are passed by people and enforced by people. So this brings us to today and our society. Our laws, both Federal and many States, have reinstated Capital Punishment. Those in favor of the death penalty often quote Romans 13:1-2 as a reason:
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
If we say that capital punishment is justified because it is the law handed down by our government, then we should perhaps think about other governments that have issued laws in the past that justified the death penalty for certain “crimes” against humanity. This could begin with Rome and the death penalty for those practicing Christianity and extend right up to recent history. Can any right thinking person really believe that St. Paul had in mind supporting the death penalty for Christians because the governing authorities had passed that law? Saul may have believed that, but not the converted Paul!
According to the media, the vast majority of people in our country are in favor of the death penalty. Some people say it is a matter of money, thinking it is cheaper to kill someone rather than imprison them for life. In actuality, the most conservative estimates say that it costs 10 times more money to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life. California did a study that showed the death penalty system cost the taxpayers in that state around 137 million dollars per year whereas a system which imposed a maximum penalty of life time incarceration instead of the death penalty would cost them 11.5 million dollars per year. There is absolutely no evidence that would support the death penalty using money as a reason.
Other Ethical Issues to Consider
Capital Punishment is much more than a money issue anyway. It is an ethical issue on which most of Christianity has avoided taking a position. There are other ethical issues on which Christianity has taken strong opposition. Perhaps it would be helpful to look at two of those issues to see if any of our own arguments would apply to Capital Punishment:
- Abortion: The vast majority of Christians oppose abortion. Orthodox Christians oppose it because it is the taking of a human life. The debates within the abortion issue are usually over the point at which life begins. We oppose abortion because we believe life begins at conception. Our conclusion is that abortion is murder. That baby is made in the image and likeness of God, even in its mother’s womb. That being the case, when did we decide that that human being ceased to be someone made in the image and likeness of God? How is it that we can draw an imaginary line that allows us to take any human life through the death penalty? We can talk about the innocence of the baby and the guilt of the convict, but if we cannot stand on the Old Testament Law, then what gives us the right to take a human life, someone clearly made in the image and likeness of God?
2) Euthanasia: Proponents of euthanasia usually hold up the quality of life as the reason for killing an elderly or sick person. Certainly the abortion arguments are relevant here as well. But, the argument I have most often heard against euthanasia goes like this: “What gives anyone the right to play God by taking the life of an elderly or sick person?” If this is the Christian argument against euthanasia, then what gives us the right to “play God” when it comes to the death penalty? Playing God” means that we are in some measure taking responsibility for the eternal destination of another human being. That may sound too strong, but if we kill another person we have immediately placed that person before the Judgment Seat of Christ. Could it be that we have sentenced that person to eternal separation from God with no further opportunity to live a life of repentance? Only God knows!
A Life of Repentance?
This brings us to another question that Orthodox Christians need to ask themselves: Is it possible for a murderer to repent and be forgiven by God? Is it possible for that murderer to experience the Grace of God in their lives? I know a man that took a gun and killed another man with a shot to the head. The death penalty could have been given, but it was not. Many years later, this man is still in prison. But, he is living a life of repentance as an Orthodox Christian, having committed his whole life to Christ. I believe he is a different person through the Grace of God. He will stay in prison, paying his debt to society, but he certainly has different hopes for eternity. By living, even in prison, he was given the opportunity to find forgiveness in the waters of Holy Baptism and to live a life of repentance with Christ Jesus as his Lord. His story is repeated over and over again by others who deserved, but did not receive the death penalty.
Certainly, the early Christians of our Faith understood this concept. Lactantius (260 to 330 AD) wrote in The Divine Institutes, Book 6, Chapter 20:
“When God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits the violence that is condemned by public laws, but he also forbids the violence that is deemed lawful by men…Nor is it [lawful] to accuse anyone of a capital offense. It makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or by the sword. It is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, regarding this precept of God there should be no exception at all. Rather it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred creature.“
There were many great men and women of God that deserved (by today’s standards) the death penalty early in their lives, yet went on to live holy lives later. St. Moses of Ethiopia (4th Century) comes to mind. He was an evil person who not only stole, but even went so far as to commit murder. Later he became a great Christian leader as the abbot of his monastery and eventually became holy martyr for the Faith. There are countless similar stories.
Although not directed toward the death penalty, this quote from St. Maximos the Confessor (7th Century) seems very appropriate:
“But men have given up weeping for their own sins and have taken judgment away from the Son. They themselves judge and condemn one another as if they were sinless. Heaven was amazed at this and earth shuddered, but men in their obduracy are not ashamed” (Third Century on Love, 54).
In closing, let us consider one last question: In light of all that we have examined, how can we, as the “bearers” of the Good News of Jesus Christ, not take a stand against Capital Punishment, if for no other reason than the possible salvation of the souls of those human beings, made in the image and likeness of God, who would be put to death?
ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS FROM EARLY CHRISTIANS
“Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”
- ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)
- “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)
- “It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donative. I am a soldier of Christ; it is not permissible for me to fight.” ~ Martin of Tours (315AD – 397AD)
- “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
~ Athanasius of Alexandria (293AD – 373AD)
- The Christian poor are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.” ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)
- “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.” ~ Tatian of Assyria (died around 185AD)
- “The Christian does not hurt even his enemy.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- “None of us offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful…it is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury…we repay your hatred with kindness.”
~ St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258AD)
- “We Christians are a peaceful race…for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”
~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)
- “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.” ~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)
- “We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.” ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)
- “For what war should we not be fit and eager, even though unequal in numbers, we who are so willing to be slaughtered—if, according to that discipline of ours, it was not more lawful to be slain than to slay?” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established… brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, and gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.” ~ Hippolytus (170AD – 236AD)
- “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- Christians “love all people, and are persecuted by all;…they are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and are respectful.” ~ Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (late 2nd Century)
- “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors…It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.
- “Say to those that hate and curse you, You are our brothers!”
~ Theophilus of Antioch (died around 185AD)
- “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- “For the Gentiles, hearing from our mouth the words of God, are impressed by their beauty and greatness: then, learning that our works are not worthy of the things we say, they turn to railing, saying that it is some deceitful tale. For when they hear from us that God says: ‘No thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you; but thanks will be due to you, if ye love your enemies and those that hate you’—when they hear this, they are impressed by the overplus of goodness: but when they see that we do not love, not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, they laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed.”
~ The 2nd Epistle of Clement (140-160AD)
- “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- “It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God…. They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies…. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.”
~ Aristides (written around 137AD)
- “We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.”
~ Athenagoras (133AD – 190AD)
- “Learn about the incorruptible King, and know his heroes who never inflict slaughter on the peoples.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- “Christians appeal to those who wrong them and make them friendly to themselves; they are eager to do good to their enemies; they are mild and conciliatory.”
~ Aristides of Athens (2nd Century)
- “I recognize no empire of this present age.” ~ Speratus (martyred 180AD)
- “For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those beings which are esteemed lawful among men….Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all, but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.” ~ Lactantius, instructor of Constantine’s son (240AD – 320AD)
- “Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ.” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- “I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once—his country, profession, family; the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.”
~ St. John Chrysostom (347AD – 407AD)
- “If anyone be a soldier or in authority, let him be taught not to oppress or to kill or to rob, or to be angry or to rage and afflict anyone. But let those rations suffice him which are given to him. But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the [post of] authority, and if not let them not be received. Let a catechumen or a believer of the people, if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not let him be rejected. For he hath despised God by his thought, and leaving the things of the Spirit, he hath perfected himself in the flesh and hath treated the faith with contempt.”
~ The Testament of Our Lord (4th or 5th Century AD)
- “We have become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”
~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)
- “If you enroll as one of God’s people, then heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”
~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)
- “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors. It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.
- “God called Abraham and commanded him to go out from the country where he was living. With this call God has roused us all, and now we have left the state. We have renounced all the things the world offers…. The gods of the nations are demons.”
~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)
- “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts—for there is no agreement between the divine sacrament and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar…But how will a Christian engage in war (indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime) without the sword, which the Lord has taken away?” ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)
- “This is the way of life: first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, secondly, thy neighbor as thyself: and all things whatsoever thou wouldest not should happen to thee, do not thou to another. The teaching of these words is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you: for what thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.”
~ The Didache, also known as The Teachings of the 12 Apostles, is an early Christian document written between 80AD – 90AD
PRAYER FOR SOMEONE CONDEMNED TO DEATH
O Most-merciful, All-gracious and Compassionate Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior, Son of God:
Out of Your love for sinful men, You graciously condescended to accept condemnation, even unto death, to be crucified for the sake of our salvation, and on the Cross, to give up Your righteous Spirit into the hands of God the Father.
We entreat You, Most-gracious Master: With Your compassion, look also on (Name), who has been condemned to death by the judgment of men.
Forgive his (her) mortal transgression; inspire in his (her) heart true repentance, that he (she) may, if even in this hour before death, also confess You, his (her) God and Savior, as once did the wise Thief, and be granted mercy from you.
Yea, O Long-suffering Lord of many mercies, condemn not by Your just judgment this condemned sinner, (Name); pardon him (her) his (her) transgressions; deliver him (her), by this penalty of death, from the eternal death prepared for unrepentant sinners, that he (she) may glorify You with all the sinners who have repented and been justified through You, for You alone are sinless and to You are due all glory, honor and worship, together with Your Most-holy and Life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.