How do I reconcile my pro-life beliefs with capital punishment? I'm extremely committed to upholding the sanctity of human life. As a result, I've been active for years in the pro-life movement, defending the rights of the unborn and speaking out against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The other day, however, a friend caught me up short by asking me if I believe that capital punishment is biblically justified. I had to say yes. To this my friend responded, "How is capital punishment different from euthanasia? If we have the right to take a human life in the one instance, why not in the other?" I'm ashamed to say I couldn't answer. Do you have a response?
The comparison between capital punishment and euthanasia is terribly misleading. Let's see if we can explain why.
When society, through the agency of its courts, decides to execute an individual, it does so only in response to overwhelming evidence or a "burden of proof." This evidence has to demonstrate "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the person in question is actually guilty of crimes defined by the law as punishable by death. The sentence, when it is carried out, is not simply an "act of violence" against the condemned. It's a corporate expression of an entire culture's unwillingness to tolerate the crimes in question.
Nothing of the kind can be said about abortion, euthanasia, or physician-assisted suicide. The law does not tell us at what point a sick or disabled person should be expected to bow out of his or her earthly existence. Nor should it. Similarly, there is no objective code providing guidance for doctors who want to know whether and when they should terminate a pregnancy or administer a lethal injection to a suffering patient. On the contrary, the Hippocratic Oath has always required physicians to "do no harm" under any circumstances.
Capital punishment, then, ought to be extremely rare. It always involves difficult, agonizing choices. But it is still morally and legally justifiable. By way of contrast, there is no justification of any kind for so-called "mercy killing."
Since you framed your question in biblical terms, we should add that capital punishment is also scripturally justified. Don't misunderstand. As Christians, we should have a strong aversion to taking any human life under any circumstances. No follower of Jesus can ever find pleasure or comfort in the death of a fellow human being. It doesn't matter what that individual may have done to deserve such punishment. In spite of this, it's clear that the Old Testament law made provision for capital punishment. It was an important part of Israel's system of justice. Furthermore, most mainline Christian denominations have historically affirmed its validity. They see it as a function of the civil authority God has entrusted to the state.
This idea is based on this statement from Romans 13:4: "It (the civil authority) is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil."
We can sum up as follows. Capital punishment is a terrible thing. But while it's always regrettable, there are times when it becomes necessary. Why so? Because it expresses society's corporate intolerance for certain crimes. It's also a way to protect the innocent from those who perpetrate such crimes. As we've already pointed out, it's impossible to say anything of the kind about euthanasia.
If you think it might be helpful to discuss your questions at greater length with a member of our team, call us. We have a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.
Christian Research Institute