Editor’s note: Marvin Olasky’s cover story in the Oct. 19 issue of WORLD magazine focuses on what the Bible says about the death penalty and what life is like on death row. In a series of 10 columns here on wng.org (posted Oct. 7–18), Marvin addresses public policy issues involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness in capital punishment.
One of the great perks of being a Christian journalist is the opportunity to see how the Bible repeatedly shows wisdom far greater than any of its critics. I’ve now seen how this works out in relation to capital punishment.
It was common in the 20th century for opponents of the death penalty to say we’ve outgrown the Bible. Clarence Darrow declared, “I believe in evolution. Everybody does nowadays who has any sense,” and an evolved mankind will banish capital punishment along with war and strife, substituting “cooperation and love.” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1958 opined about “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
The concept wasn’t new. Some Enlightenment-influenced lawyers spoke similar words in the 18th century. William Bradford, the second U.S. attorney general, complained in 1793 about “the Mosaical institutions” still hanging around: “Laws might have been proper for a tribe of ardent barbarians wandering through the sands of Arabia, which are wholly unfit for an enlightened people of civilized and gentle manners.”
In the 20th century’s second half, though, religious groups started opposing capital punishment. In 1959 the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing Reformed Judaism, opposed capital punishment “in the light of modern scientific knowledge and concepts of humanity.” The Unitarian Universalist Association acted similarly in 1961, for “Modern justice should concern itself with rehabilitation, not retribution.” Protestant mainline denominations followed.
That meme goes on in the 21st century. Eliza Wood, founder of ProgressPlanet.com, writes, “Judaism slowly progressed over thousands of years to the general position that … capital punishment was a matter best left to God.” Wood praises “the more open-minded Christians and Jews [who] discount some of what the Bible says … and draw value from the positive teachings.” The basic message: To be more modern, be less biblical. And yet the Bible, as our cover story in the Oct. 19 issue shows, creates a high bar for capital punishment.
Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss the death penalty on The World and Everything in It: