Here’s when I realized the death penalty was a spiritual and a theological issue, not just an old-school political debate: I was talking to a man on death row, and he told me his story. He confessed to having done something terrible, which he will regret for the rest of his life. But then it got even more interesting. He told me the story of his trial. During the course of his sentencing, the victim’s family argued that his life should be spared, that he should not be sentenced to death.
“They were Christians, so they talked a lot about mercy,” he told me matter-of-factly, as if every Christian was against the death penalty. He went on, “They believed that Jesus came not for the healthy but for the sick. And they argued that God may not be done with me yet. So I was spared the death penalty because of the victim’s family.” Finally he said, “I wasn’t a Christian then. But you better believe that I am one now.”
I began to realize that what is at stake around the death penalty debate is one of the most fundamental truths of the Gospel: No one is beyond redemption.
This week, Pope Francis urged Catholic leaders to take action to prevent death penalties from being enforced. “The commandment ‘do not kill’ holds absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty,” he said. Arguments about the death penalty aren’t always included in discussions of pro-life views, in fact, many Christians support capital punishment.
I certainly can’t do an expository argument here of every biblical text that can be used to justify the death penalty (though it is why I am considering doing a whole book on this issue). Nor do I have the space to argue (as I would like to) that the same God who demanded the death penalty for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2) is fully incarnate in Jesus. What I can say here is that Jesus is the pinnacle event in all of history. He is the lens through which we read Scripture and through which we see the world.
And the grace I see in Jesus is in direct conflict with the punitive justice of our world. It is this Jesus who blesses the merciful, “for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). It is this Jesus who came not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17). It is this Jesus who loves us while we are yet sinners and dies for us so that we might be spared death. It is this Jesus who says inasmuch as we forgive, we will be forgiven.
Who among us dares worship this forgiving victim of the death penalty, and then call for the execution of another broken child of God?
It is our Christ who boldly halted the execution of a woman caught in adultery (a crime punishable by death). He entered the circle of men about to kill her and said, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And of course, He reminds them—and all of us—if we have looked at someone with lust in our eyes, we too are adulterers. If we have called someone “fool” we are guilty of murder in our hearts. No one is above reproach. And no one is beyond redemption. The stones drop and the men walk away, leaving Jesus and the woman alone.
The only one who has any right to throw a stone has absolutely no desire. We can see in Jesus that the closer we are to God, the less we want to throw stones at other people. When we have experienced mercy, it should make us merciful.
That is the Gospel. Mercy triumphs over judgment. If we do not believe that even a murderer should be shown mercy—then we should renounce David as a forefather of our faith, for he was a murderer, committing a heinous act of adultery with another man’s wife and then conspiring to kill her husband to cover it up. And if we believe that terrorists are beyond redemption, then we should rip out half of the New Testament, because it was written by a terrorist named Saul of Tarsus who went door to door trying to annihilate Christians and oversaw the brutal execution of a young boy named Stephen—but whose conversion was so radical he changed his name to Paul and went on to write more books of the Bible than any other person, all the while calling himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
In fact, our Bible is brim full of murderers, adulterers, liars and thieves—and this should not be a source of distress, but a source of comfort. For the heart of the Gospel is this: God so loved the world that Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it. Amazing grace how sweet the sound. And the theatrics of death—electric chairs, injection needles, nooses and firing squads—are the antithesis of grace. It is time we give a resounding and liberating “No!” to death, as Jesus did. It is time we renounce the myth of redemptive violence and the circular logic that we should kill to show that killing is wrong.
We Christians, of all the people in the world, should be the voices opposing death. For our Savior was a victim of the death penalty who died with love in His eyes and forgiveness on His lips. And He rose from the dead to triumph over death and condemnation. What a beautiful day it will be when people around the world say of us, just as my friend on death row once said, “Those people oppose death, because they are Christians. They believe in life. They believe in mercy.”