Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Capital Punishment: For the Exceptional Case

Stephen Monsma


January 5, 1998

There is no question in the minds of many that the sentence of death for Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma bombing represents exactly the right punishment for his crime. He evidently planned his attack months in advance to maximize the human destruction. The bomb killed 168 men, women, and children. Anything less than the death penalty would be a travesty of justice.

Others, however, argue that even in extreme cases such as this, the decision to take life should be left in God's hands. Christ's Sermon on the Mount, after all, teaches forgiveness and love, not vengeance and retribution.

Which is right: punishing by death or not? Actually, from a Christian point of view, there are at least three questions. 1) Does Scripture require the death penalty for convicted first-degree murderers? 2) May the state execute first-degree murderers? 3) Is it desirable for the state to administer the death penalty even if it does not have to?

In answer to the first question, Scripture does not require the death penalty for murderers. The passage most frequently cited to support capital punishment is Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." Yet this poetic verse is not a legal prescription for all governments at all times, and it makes no distinction between different kinds of murders, for example.

If the Bible does not mandate the death penalty, the second question must still be answered. May the state execute first-degree murderers? Here, it seems to me, the answer is yes. The Bible teaches that God established government to punish wrongdoing and to establish justice. Individuals should not take vengeance into their own hands. That is government's duty. Paul explains that government "is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4). And that may include the ultimate penalty of death.

That brings us to the third question. Should the state execute all first-degree murderers? No, there are a variety of reasons why capital punishment should be reserved for exceptional cases. First, there are other means of punishing some murderers. Life imprisonment, for example, is a severe penalty that can also protect society from the murderer.

Second, the criminal-justice system is fallible. Earlier this year, a federal judge exonerated Ricardo Guerra, an illegal alien who was convicted of murdering a Houston policeman, sentenced to death, and spent 15 years in prison. The judge concluded that the police officers and prosecutors had lied and conspired in the case. If Guerra had been executed, there would have been no way to right the wrong.

For these and other reasons, the death penalty should be reserved for exceptional cases, such as a serial killer or one whose crimes directly challenge government's ability to fulfill its God-given purposes.

Timothy McVeigh's crime is just such an exception. The bombing was an act intended to undermine government and the just order that government is called to uphold. It was carried out wantonly. Anything less than the death penalty would not do justice.

The state has the awesome right to use the death penalty. However, citizens, and Christians in particular, should not be seeking to expand its use as a quick-fix answer to crime. The death penalty should be reserved for the exceptional case, in which guilt is beyond doubt, the crime heinous, and the attack on the social order so great that life imprisonment will not achieve justice.

—Stephen V. Monsma, Professor
   Pepperdine University

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”