Serious questions

The death penalty and a la carte Christianity

Issue: "CCM: Salt or sugar?," May 13, 2000

My sense is that WORLD is getting, from those trying to apply the Bible to news events, more thoughtful questions and fewer angry outbursts than we received a few years ago. I'd like to address some of those serious inquiries in this space occasionally, starting with this question from one reader: "The issue that has always seemed contradictory to me is that the same people who are pro-life for babies seem to be pro-death for adults (the death penalty). How does this work?"

Here's one part of a serious answer: It makes sense to me for a pro-life person to hang tough on punishment for those who deliberately take away life. Far more important, though, is this second part: If we act as strict constructionists concerning the Bible, rather than as readers who want to make the Bible fit modern liberal thought, it's clear that the death penalty makes sense to God.

The logic that makes sense for me is that abortion is about killing the innocent, while the death penalty is about killing the guilty. I see no inconsistency with opposing one and supporting the other. It's important, of course, that capital punishment be used only on those who have committed murder beyond the shadow of a doubt. I'm for appeals. I'm for full checking and rechecking of the court record. I'm for working to see that people of favored races or genders don't escape justice.

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Much more important than anything I think, however, is what God says. The Old Testament prescribed the death penalty for murder not only among the Israelites, but as the fitting penalty among all peoples for such a crime. Christ turned the other cheek to personal insults but upheld all the standards of justice laid down by the Father in Heaven.

It's important to see that our modern tendency is different. Even some who call themselves Christians say it doesn't matter what the Bible clearly embraces; if it feels right, obey it, and if it doesn't, don't. Many of us believe in a la carte obedience concerning capital punishment or anything else. The Washington Post noted earlier this year that "Americans write their own Bible. They fashion their own God ... turning him into a social planner, therapist or guardian angel."

The Post told the story of Ed and Joanne Liverani, who decided to "build their own church, salvaging bits of their old religion they liked and chucking the rest." They ended up with a god who "cheers them up when they're sad, laughs at their quirks." Lynn Garrett, a religious book tracker for Publishers Weekly, called this "an eclectic approach. People borrow ideas from different traditions, then add them to whatever religion they're used to."

We have many borrowing options in America today. Not only many variants of Christianity and Judaism beckon, but four million Muslims now live in the United States; that's five times as many as lived here 30 years ago. The number of Hindus in America has increased during that period from 100,000 to 950,000; the number of Sikhs has jumped from 1,000 to 220,000. That's fine, because biblical belief can stand up well to competition from other systems of belief; the greater danger lies in syncretizing or melding, as when the ancient Israelites tried to combine biblical religion with worship of Baal or some other idol.

Not only illogical people embrace "A Self-Made Deity," as the subtitle to The Washington Post story put it. The New York Times portrayed Steven Weinberg, a theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1979, musing, "Even if there is a God, how do you know that his moral judgments are the correct ones? Seems to me Abraham should have said, 'God, that's just not right.'" Professor Weinberg is brilliant, but if God is limited to judgments with which a very bright person agrees, then God can be no more discerning than that person. A God only as smart as Mr. and Mrs. Liverani, or even Steven Weinberg, would not be much of a God to follow.

So how should we think about capital punishment? Here's an analogy: As American citizens, we pledge to respect the Constitution. Because it was written by limited and fallible men, we reserve the right to amend it, yet we still respect it by agreeing not to choose unilaterally to ignore the parts we don't like. Isn't it surprising that some say they respect the Bible but don't give it even that much honor? If we praise the Constitution, how much more should we respect something done not by fallible man but by an infallible God? And since the Bible upholds the principle of capital punishment, shouldn't we also-while remaining open to improving the practice?

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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