Carl Henry Excerpt

17 Apr




by Carl Henry.




As neo-paganism increases, the value of human life diminishes, and the

demand accelerates for the elimination of capital punishment.


A moral imperative obliges civil government to punish crime and, more

than that, obliges the state also to enforce capital punishment under highly

limited conditions. Hebrew theocratic government no longer exists, but the

divine enjoinment of capital punishment antedated the Mosaic law and the

Hebrew theocracy and remains in force. One reason law has lost its power

in modern life is the failure to recognize divine law as the fundamental law.

Modern states are, of course, free to compromise and ignore divine law,

but they do so at their own peril.


The Bible grounds certain moral imperatives in God’s universal creation

ethic and others in His special salvation-covenant with Israel. The Genesis

creation account affirms that all human beings bear God’s created image,

that God wills their propagation through monogamous marriage, and that

God prescribes a work ethic.


The classic text on capital punishment (<010906>Genesis 9:6), which enjoins the

death penalty for murder, likewise predates Moses and the Hebrew

theocracy. It reinforces universal respect for the sanctity of human life by

dooming a murderer to forfeit his life for destroying that of a fellow-human

made in God’s image. The sanctity of human life is guaranteed not simply

by God’s original creation of it, but also by a relationship to Him in which

all human beings stand perpetually in distinction from the animal world.


Although God did not openly enjoin the death penalty until after the

Noahic flood, Cain seems already to have feared death as a penalty for his

murder of Abel (<010414>Genesis 4:14ff.). God protected Cain by expulsion, not

because his act of murder was undeserving of death, but presumably to

establish even the worth of the murderer’s life against arbitrary blood

vengeance. The Mosaic legislation later also prohibited blood vengeance.


The Mosaic sixth commandment, “thou shalt not kill,” carries forward the

Noahic prohibition of murder. The law of retribution in the Old Testament,

stipulating the limits of punishment, allowed the taking of “life for life”

(<022123>Exodus 21:23ff.).


Although the Noahic passage (<010906>Genesis 9:6) might be read as an

indicative description that the blood of the murdered “will be shed,” this

consequence is more naturally understood as a divinely mandated penalty

in view of the preceding phrase (<010905>Genesis 9:5): “I (God) will require the

life of man” (cf. <263316>Ezekiel 33:16; <051809>Deuteronomy 18:9).


The Old Testament distinguishes deliberate, premeditated, intentional

murder from negligent homicide and accidental manslaughter, and

stipulates lesser penalties in such cases. But capital punishment is not

declared always mandatory even when the killing of a human is intentional,

as when a thief is overtaken in an act of theft or when there are not two

witnesses who agree in their testimony. Hence not all murder requires the

death penalty. Scripture in any case assumes the moral responsibility of the

offender; it speaks of man as bearer of the divine image and hence as able

to make rational and moral distinctions. It does not, therefore, preclude an

alternative to capital punishment in the case of psychological, psychiatric or

neurological disorder. If no previous indication of such disorder exists,

however, the extended confinement of the offender seems, apart from

medical cure, the only safeguard against spontaneous repetition of the



The argument that Jesus as the incarnation of divine love cancels the

appropriateness of capital punishment in the New Testament era has little

to commend it. Some have appealed to love to justify divorce and thus

weaken the principle of monogamous marriage, even as they appeal to love

to cancel the mandate for capital punishment. But neighbor-love and social

justice are best preserved by a regard for a marital commitment to

monogamy and an awareness that the taking of human life is an offense to

God. Jesus upholds the high view of the value of human life and of the

permanence of monogamous marriage.


I am not much impressed by appeals to the account of the dismissal of the

woman taken in adultery in John 8 in order to discount capital punishment.


For one thing, the passage does not appear in the earliest and best

manuscripts. But even if it is a reliable tradition, as it well may be, the

account teaches something else. The prevalent situation was that in cases

of adultery the woman was routinely punished while the male participant

went scot-free. Jesus invited those who were “without sin” to cast the first

stone. In any case, the passage cannot be used to depict Jesus as hostile to

capital punishment.


Jesus reminded Pilate that implementation of the death penalty is a divinely

entrusted responsibility to be fulfilled justly (<431911>John 19:11). He warned

Peter that to “die by the sword” is the punishment proper to those who

take human life (<402652>Matthew 26:52); it should be noted that the sword

was meant for execution, not for life imprisonment. Paul indicates that

capital punishment was a prerogative divinely conferred on civil

government (<451314>Romans 13:14), and in <442511>Acts 25:11 he indicates that he

would submit to a death sentence if he were “an offender worthy of death.”


But even the Old Testament requires high caution in imposing a death

sentence as seen in its requirement of several confirming witnesses. Only in

cases of deliberate, premeditated murder is it enforced; it is not imposed

for the taking of a life without premeditation under the impulse of a crisis

situation or as a consequence of negligence (homicide) or gross

carelessness (manslaughter) in which the death is involuntary and

inadvertent. But in cases of intentional murder, injustice already done to

the victim is compounded by further injustice except by the death of the



Mankind’s duty of rendering life for life is not to be carried out in a context

of private vengeance, but rather in a context of civil government which

under God wields the power of life and death. Where the state considers

the life of a deliberate murderer to have greater value than the life of an

innocent victim, it demeans the image Dei in mankind and weakens the

supports of social justice.


We do not, to be sure, live in a theocracy, as when God dictated the

Hebrew law of the land. But the social commandments of the law

nonetheless remain ideally normative for a stable society and for civil

government, whether in ancient pagan Rome or in modern secular

America. Paul instructs Christians in Rome not to fear the ruler’s power

but to merit his praise by the practice of love that eschews murder,

adultery, theft, false witness and coveting. Modern nations — bureaucratic,

democratic, or chaotic — determine their own destin. Disregard of the

revelatory basis and divine answerability of civil law has bred a crisis of

crime, a crisis of justice, a crisis of law, a crisis of culture. But the book of

Revelation climaxes in a crescendo in which God who gave the moral law

calls nations that mollify it to a final judgment. Nowhere does the Bible

repudiate capital punishment for premeditated murder; not only is the death

penalty for deliberate killing of a fellow-human permitted, but it is

approved and encouraged, and for any government that attaches at least as

much value to the life of an innocent victim as to a deliberate murderer, it

is ethically imperative.


Social justice demands uniform standards of sentencing so that neither race

nor economic status will affect the imposition or nonimposition of the

death penalty, and moreover requires that the most repulsive criminal’s

rights be preserved, including humane treatment on death row and retrial if

new evidence appears. In all these matters a vigorous social conscience will

need to identify itself with the humane treatment of prisoners, including

those who have defamed the divine image of their victims.


Yet to offer a convicted murderer a choice of the way in which he prefers

to die, commendable as that may be, is to extend to the murderer a

privilege that he withheld from the victim; the deliberate murderer acts out

of arbitrary assault, against which the law of the state protects even him in

its administration of justice.


Justice is warped by an excessive sympathy toward some criminals simply

because they are from minorities. Only a skewed sense of justice can

dignify crimes as a legitimate form of social protest and view criminals as

champions of social justice in a society that is declared to be intrinsically

unjust. Part of the penalty some social critics now pay for their

enthronement of sentiment over discernment is that they can scarcely tell

right from wrong.


The rejection of capital punishment is not to be dignified as a “higher

Christian way” that enthrones the ethics of Jesus; it rather reflects a sub-

Christian view that discloses the pervasive penetration of neo-pagan



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