The Death Penalty: Killing the Work of Christ (A Response to Al Mohler)

Death Penalty

CNN Belief Blog released an opinion piece by Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in which he argued that Christians should support execution.

If you’re familiar with me, you know that I’m against violence of any sort. But one need not be an advocate for nonviolence in order to know that what Mohler has presented here is morally reprehensible at best.

Mohler is arguably the most powerful person within evangelicalism. That is why the evangelical response to this issue is of utmost importance. More important than our response to “the gay debate” or “the liberal agenda.” This is literally a life-and-death issue. And, unlike many petty issues touted as such, this is a gospel issue.

Here are four reasons why we should reject Mohler’s argument:

Faulty Information

Mohler argues that morality in America is in decline. However, in terms of murder (which is what we are dealing with), this is patently false. A 2008 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that homicide rates were lower than they had been in four decades, and another study from 2011 shows that the rate has fallen by almost half since 1992.

Furthermore, he states matter-of-factly that the death penalty is a deterrent, and argues that Christians ought to support execution to prevent more homicides. However, many criminologists dispute the claim that execution effectively deters homicides. In fact, after reviewing the research for and against execution, this study in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology concludes that most criminologists agree that execution has little to no deterrent effect.

Political Manipulation

Perhaps what makes Mohler’s argument most deceptive is his attempt to scapegoat those who oppose the death penalty.

He suggests that those who oppose the death penalty have “lost confidence in human dignity” and further argues, “the secularization of human identity has made murder a less heinous crime in the minds of many Americans.”

Quite a bold accusation against people who argue against execution on the basis that all human life is sacred (others, on the basis that execution is entirely ineffective).

He even goes so far as to blame execution opponents for the recently botched execution of an Oklahoma inmate. (I’m still scratching my head over that one.)

Mohler writes, “They have attacked every form of execution as ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ even though the Constitution itself authorizes the death penalty.”

To which I say: Who cares?! The Kingdom of God is not dictated by the Constitution of a worldly empire. The Kingdom of God is led by Jesus.

Therein lies Mohler’s political genius.

He demonizes those of us who are against execution by suggesting we are somehow at fault for the “declining” state of morality, he sets us up as a scapegoat to rally support, and he uses fear tactics by suggesting there is an “attack” on the Constitutionally permitted act of execution.

These moves are, quite literally, textbook political campaigning.

Faulty Exegesis

Mohler confidently asserts, “the Bible clearly calls for capital punishment in the case of intentional murder” (emphasis mine). Though, as you can see here, it rarely works to say that the Bible is clear—especially on an issue as debated as this.

He appeals to Genesis 9 for his main support, noting that God told Noah, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed.” He also notes that in some places in Scripture, capital punishment is mandated.

This would be a valid argument if not for the fact that those mandates were under the Old Covenant and/or law code of the nation of Israel.

Jesus established a New Covenant and a new way to live for the church:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person…You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:38, 43-45)

Speaking of Jesus, he is strangely missing from Mohler’s evaluation. Not a single reference to Jesus or the gospel. Though, I suppose that should come as no surprise to us, considering that everything Jesus said about treatment of enemies, and everything the gospel accomplishes would completely dismantle his argument.

Come to think of it, the New Testament is almost entirely absent save a remark about Romans 13 being permission for Christians to support government-sanctioned killing.

Yet, even here, one only needs to read the verses immediately preceding in order to see that Paul vehemently rejects Christian involvement in such retributive actions. He explicitly states that vengeance is the Lord’s—not ours. In fact, rather than reestablish the Lex Talionis (eye for an eye, etc.)–which is what Mohler’s suggests–Paul echoes Jesus almost word-for-word, urging us to love and care for our enemies.

To make matters confusing, Mohler admits that some of the most righteous men in the Bible (Moses, David, Paul, etc.) were murderers who were given second chances. Wouldn’t that be sufficient reason to oppose the death penalty?

Faulty Gospel

According to Mohler, the death penalty is “the ultimate punishment for the most serious crimes.”

Yet, I assume he would agree that the most serious crime ever committed—the one of which we are all guilty—is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. What crime is more serious than taking the Son of God, stripping him naked, beating him senseless, and nailing him to a cross?

And what verdict is issued by Jesus–the only one worthy to judge humanity–to the ones who committed this crime (i.e. you and me)?

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Therein lies the grace of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The gospel is the wonderfully unfair proclamation that God extends forgiveness and favor to all people—even you and me; the one’s who willingly murdered the Son of God.

I, for one, am glad Jesus repealed the Lex Talionis; otherwise, I’d be the first on the executioners table.


8 responses to “The Death Penalty: Killing the Work of Christ (A Response to Al Mohler)

      • No problem at all. It happens all the time. Thanks for the link to your piece! I enjoyed it. It’s funny that you ask the question, “Who would Jesus execute?” I just finished a post for Missio Alliance about the death penalty by that title.

  1. 1) Whether the murder rate has increased or decreased, it doesn’t affect mohler’s point a whole lot. His point is that traditional Christian morality has declined in public life and is being replaced by secular morality. The murder rate could decrease, and it still be true that traditional Christian values are eroding in the culture.

    2) I agree with you that Mohler does make a mistake in not mentioning Christians who disagree with execution on the basis that all life is sacred. Without secularism, Christians would more than likely still be divided on this issue. However, I do not think his suggestion that the culture has “lost confidence in human dignity” is the same as him saying, “Christians who oppose the death penalty on the basis that all life is sacred is because of their lost confidence in human dignity.”

    Therefore, I do not think he was necessarily making an accusation against someone with your kind of position but one against culture. It is hard to tell. I do not know if an accusation against your position was implied by his statement.

    Since he was making an argument that Christians should support the death penalty, he should have addressed Christians who believe like you do, and I can see why you were frustrated with the article in that way.

    3) It is not surprising to me that he didn’t mention Jesus. He believes the bible is inerrant, and therefore, he used what he could use from it to argue his point. Now, that doesn’t make him right, but it is understandable. If you believe the gospels and the old testament are inerrant, then you believe they go together in someway and do not fundamentally contradict. Jesus did say to love your enemies, but that doesn’t mean that he was against capital punishment.

    I do not see how his admission that some people in the bible were complicit in, or were, murderers is a sufficient reason for him to oppose the death penalty.

    Your last point is good, but though we should forgive, does that mean we should not punish people who are guilty? We will still die physically because of sin. You said at the beginning that Mohler’s view is “morally reprehensible at best.” Are you sure these were the right words to use? Does that possibly demonize him in the way you say he demonizes his opponents? If it does, and you are okay with that, are you returning an eye for an eye?

    • 1) I see what you mean here. Though, when I made my point about morality in decline, I specifically said, “…in terms of murder (which is what we are dealing with)…” If other areas of morality are in decline, then it really doesn’t matter to this conversation. However, I would still challenge the claim that morality is generally in decline. He can mourn gay marriage and “liberalism” all he wants, but society is much better today than it was 100 years ago (e.g. in terms of slavery, murder, women’s rights, etc.). I digress.

      2) Yea, he just made a blanket statement concerning all who oppose execution. The statement about losing confidence in human dignity is specifically geared towards the lack of supporters for execution. I don’t see any other way than to take that personally.

      3) While I have an entirely different view on Scripture than Mohler, I do believe that all Scripture is authoritative. So, I don’t necessarily mind someone using Scripture outside the words of Jesus to make a point. I don’t think this has anything to do with inerrancy. It has to do with knowing what Jesus taught. Jesus specifically rejected Lex Talionis and Mohler is calling for Christians to reinstall it in our moral code. This is literally undoing the teaching of Christ. As many other responders have mentioned, if Mohler wants to enforce some of the Law, then he has to enforce all of it (which is exactly what Paul said to his opponents).

      I stand by my statement that Mohler’s argument is reprehensible at best. It is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ teaching on morality. Therefore, Mohler’s argument is, by definition, morally reprehensible. Now, there is a difference between demonizing your opponent (which is what Mohler does by blaming execution opponents for society’s problems) and denouncing an idea (which is what I’ve done by exposing the idea’s problems). I did my best to refrain from slander or anything of that nature. My argument is entirely against his methods and arguments. Not him. So, no, I am not returning eye for an eye.

      • 1) I read your post carefully. I knew you were specifically talking about murder. Mohler, however, never said anything as to whether murder has increased or decreased and was talking about how morality(traditional Christian morality)is declining in public life. You can argue with him about whether morality has declined or not. I do not think we can know. Somethings have progressed and somethings have gotten worse. That is how it appears to me. He would point to the acceptance of abortion and other such things as signs of moral decline. Also, the murder rate, and crime rate, fluctuate, and there are different possible reasons for this that can be pointed to other than a rise in healthy morality(though that may be a part of it).

        2) Mohler says, “There is also the larger cultural context. We must recognize that our cultural loss of confidence in human dignity and the secularizing of human identity has made murder a less heinous crime in the minds of many Americans.” I do not think you should have taken this one personally, but then again…later on Mohler says, “It is a testament to moral insanity that they have successfully diverted attention from a murderer’s heinous crimes and instead put the death penalty on trial.” I can see that one being taken personally….though, he may have been referring to the Lockett case specifically.

        3) I do not think Mohler is necessarily blaming society’s problems on those who oppose the death penalty. He is saying society has a problem, and that is why some are confused on the issue(not saying I agree with why people are confused). He does blame anti-death penalty groups for creating the problem that happened in Oklahoma. I have read another argument like that elsewhere. It appears to be a somewhat reasonable argument, at least the other one I read. The problem is that he didn’t go into any of the reasons for his belief on that in his post.

        Now, I can say I agree with you about Jesus rejecting the lex talionis, or perhaps going above and beyond it(it may have been put in place to actually protect people from not getting a punishment more worse than their crime). But does that make it clear on what Jesus would’ve thought about capital punishment? You blame Mohler for using the statement, “The bible is clear.” Are you not doing the same thing with Jesus?

        Distinguishing between ideas and people is important. At the same time, how can an idea be “morally reprehensible” on its own? It can be wrong, no doubt, but doesn’t the phrase “morally reprehensible” imply something of the holder of the idea, since only a moral agent can do things or think things morally reprehensible? I think there is a fine line, and language is the key to whether that line is crossed or not.

        That being said, I do think you focused more on the arguments than the person. You usually do.

  2. Fascinating. So in Mohler’s article we see some of the hallmarks of conservative American Christianity:
    1. A pessimistic view of the world’s moral trajectory (unsupported by statistical evidence),
    2. A somewhat “flat” reading of Scripture, with a topical or encyclopedic emphasis,
    3. A portrayal of theological opponents as somehow “Anti-American”,
    4. A simultaneous affirming of Jesus as the most important thing ever and basic lack of any theological engagement with his teachings, (he’s there to absorb God’s wrath and “save” us, not radically upend our viewpoint)
    5. A fear-based, us-and-them view of criminals; WE could never ever ever be like THEM. So whatever happens to them, it’s for the best.

    I see these traits in nearly everybody from my conservative past-life.
    Great job engaging with the actual content of Mohler’s argument; it highlights how the entire world that he represents is premised on lots of mythological ideas about society, the justice system, and morality.

    • Excellent post and reply from Luke Allison! I hope Mohler this blog is brought to Mohler ‘ s attention.

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