Welcome to the Pastor Joey's Blog. This is a new tool provided to the Pastor to opine on matters of life, the Bible, and how it all fits together. It also focsus on applying the Bible to our lives. As you will see in this inagural post, it isn't always an easy topic. But rest assured, it is well thought out, researched, and prayed over. We hope you come to appreciate this blog as a source for spiritual growth.
Over the last few days, both houses of Virginia’s legislature have passed bills that would end the practice of capital punishment in the Commonwealth. A contentious issue, Virginia has put more people to death in its existence than any other state in the union, including Texas, the one state that has executed more people since the Supreme Court lifted the moratorium on the death penalty in 1976. Virginia’s love affair with capital punishment goes all the way back to 1608, when citizens at Jamestown put to death a Spanish spy.
As I write this from my desk at Berkeley Baptist Church in West Virginia, I realize that many people who read this are not going care because West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1965. However, over the last few years, and especially after the murder of Riley Crossman, a local Berkeley Springs teenager, calls for the reinstatement of the death penalty have been voiced. However, as a native of Virginia, I feel it necessary to express my gratitude to Sen. Scott Surovell (D) of Fairfax as well as Sen. Bill Stanley (R) of Franklin for sponsoring this bill. First, it is a step forward in the fight for life. Second, it shows that this is bipartisan, even though the final vote was a lot more one-sided.
There is a love/hate relationship with the death penalty in the United States, and it falls largely upon red and blue party lines. However, I think it would surprise many people to know that there are those who vote blue that strongly believe in capital punishment while there are those of us who vote red that abhor it, myself included. In the midst of the Virginia Senate’s debate over the bill, Sen. Mark Obenshain (R) of Rockingham cited Ricky Gray, who was put to death in 2017 for the brutal torture and killing of a family in Richmond in 2006 during a burglary. He is one in a chorus of Republicans who feel that, in some rare exceptions when crimes are so heinous, that the death penalty, an ultimate form of punishment, is warranted. They make a compelling argument. However, on the other side of the argument, bill sponsor Surovell shows statistics that 1 in 10 people put to death nationally have been wrongly convicted. Furthermore, historically, the death penalty has been “disproportionally applied to racial minorities and people with diminished mental capacity,” also a compelling argument. What’s the answer, then? Well, the Virginia legislature seems to feel that the best answer is to not have the death penalty. Therefore, capital punishment cannot be used disproportionately or against the innocent.
I suppose the next question concerns the unborn. When are we going to start protecting those lives? I only bring up abortion because it highlights the hypocrisy within both parties. The Democrats, who have long been the champions of abolishing the death penalty, are the strongest proponents of abortion. Likewise, Republicans, the champions of the unborn, are usually the quickest to “throw the switch,” or “push the plunger” to see people die in prison. Doesn’t it reek of hypocrisy? Sen. Surovell, who is the lead sponsor of this bill, is 100% pro choice, advocating for state funds to support abortions on demand. Furthermore, his voting records show that he believes that life does not begin at conception and the unborn have no rights. Meanwhile, Obenshain, who is so “pro-life” that he tried to pass legislature that required women who miscarried to report it to authorities within 24 hours,” passionately fights for the right to put Virginia prisoners to death. It all represents hypocrisy at its finest!
This has all been political so far. What about the Church? What about Christians? What should our feelings be since we are the ambassadors of Christ on earth? Well, would it surprise you that the church is about as divided as politics are? It is!
Every year in January, there is a Sunday designated as the “Sanctity of [Human] Life Sunday.” I have put human in brackets because sometimes it is not included in the title. It’s usually held the closest Sunday to the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and is used as a call to rally Christians and other supporters of life to speak out against abortion. In recent years, I have also included other examples of persecuted life during that Sunday, including death row inmates. When I started doing it, I also started catching flack from fellow Christians. While it has not caused anyone to leave the church, I have members, including leadership, cite Bible verses to me that supported the use of the death penalty. I know they exist, so let’s take a brief look at places in Scripture that support the use of the death penalty.
-First, let us look at Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.” On the surface, it seems as though this says whoever kills must be killed. However, when we make adjustments for language variations, it is better to say “whoever murders…” This is a solid example of how God has permitted the death penalty, Furthermore, this is not a part of the Mosaic law, but instead predates Moses.
-Moses’ law has the death penalty for many offenses, some our laws agree with today and some we scratch our heads and think, “Why?”.
-Many Christian supporters of capital punishment cite Romans 13, particularly verses 4 and 5: “For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience.” Therefore, if our government has the death penalty and chooses to use it, then we as Christians must submit to that authority and accept the use of the death penalty since the government is “God’s servant for good.”
The problem is, these are not sound arguments for the American Judicial System. It isn’t that they do not apply to us, but we must look at them through the context of Scripture as well as the lens of Jesus Christ. Obviously mankind took God’s mandate from Genesis 9 wrong as later, in the Mosaic law, God clarifies that those guilty of manslaughter or accidental killings were not necessarily susceptible to the death penalty. Furthermore, many famous people from the Bible who should have been put to death for murder were not, including Cain, Moses, and David. Each were guilty of murder or conspiracy to murder, each should have been killed according to both the preMosaic laws and the Mosaic law, and each were pardoned. As to Romans 13, Paul was writing about the Roman government. The Empire was beyond the control of the people. We live in a Democratic Republic, a completely different style of government. We elect our officials and we have influence over law. Therefore, if we wish to abolish the death penalty, it is in the purview of our power. So why should we abolish the death penalty?
First, most of the death penalty supporting Scripture of the Old Testament applied specifically to Israel as a nation. According to Dan Van Ness, “executing false teachers and those who sacrificed to false gods are examples of provisions that sprang from Israel's unique position as a nation of God called to be holy. When Israel ceased to exist as a nation, its Law was nullified.” Even the death penalty was an extension of Israel’s unique relationship with God. However, when Israel ceased to exist, so did the laws governing Israel. Second, as stated in the observation of Romans 13, Paul’s words are not meant as a validation of the death penalty. Rather, Paul’s words remind us that the government is a servant of God (13:4). We should be obedient to the government so long as the government does not circumvent God’s authority, who is also the master of the government. In the New Testament era, this was observed by Christians obediently paying taxes and following the rules of the Empire. However, when the Empire infringed upon God’s authority (worshipping pagan images, bowing before the statue of Emperor, etc.), Christians would not only refuse but they would willingly die. We should be obedient to the government, but if we can change the government to more rightly reflect God’s righteous standards, we should do that too!
I strongly believe that Christians should be opposed to the death penalty and do whatever we can to fight to see it abolished. While I see Scripture that seems to support its use, I also serve a Savior who I feel would be horrified by the fact that His children have an opportunity to change it and instead advocate for it. So here is what I propose. In the next three paragraphs, I will present teachings of Christ that contradict the death penalty, a tool created by Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays from their book, Grasping God’s Word, that helps Biblically apply Old Testament Scripture to New Testament living, and finally, how the death penalty is antithetical to the work of Christ and Christians.
Without quoting dozens of Scripture references, the core of Jesus’ teaching is on the concept of forgiveness: God’s forgiveness to us and our forgiveness of others. In Jesus’ model prayer, we read: “forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12). Jesus specifically talked about forgiving one another. In Luke 17, He told His followers that if you rebuke a brother or sister for sinning against you, and they repent, you must forgive. In Matt.18, Jesus told Peter that we must forgive until it becomes our nature (70x7). Forgiveness and the death penalty are not compatible. Lest we forget, Jesus also forgave those who condemned and crucified Him, even as He hung from the cross.
It is clear to me that Jesus would be opposed to the death penalty. It is also clear to me that there are many passages, most from the Old Testament, that advocate for the death penalty. So how can we reconcile this so we can present a clear picture as to where Bible believing Christians should stand on the issue? Enter Duvall and Hays and Grasping God’s Word. In order to aid both clergy and layman with Bible study, Duvall and Hays introduced a concept called “The Interpretive Journey.” This is a five step interpretive process that is designed to put Old Testament Scripture against a New Testament lifestyle and decide if the dictates from the Old Testament are applicable to New Testament believers. In order to understand, imagine a Biblical Town separated from a Modern Town by a river and a bridge. Step One, entitled “Grasping the Text in Their Town,” challenges us to understand what the text meant to the original hearers/readers. Step Two, “Measuring the Width of the River to Cross,” asks us consider the differences (culture, language, situation, time, and even the concept of covenant) between the Biblical audience and ourselves. Step Three, “Crossing the Principlizing Bridge,” asks us to look for the spiritual meaning, or theological concept, of the Scripture. Step Four, “Consult the Biblical Map,” requires us to find other Scripture, particularly New Testament Scripture, that supports the theological meaning we have ascertained from our original Scripture. Finally, Step Five, “Grasping the Text in Your Town,” challenges you to live the theological principles you have identified in your own life. I plan on utilizing this tool in just a few moments as I wrap up this article.
I present the argument to all Christians that the death penalty is antithetical to the work of Christ. First, Christ came to save and redeem. By condemning someone to death and then carrying out the sentence, you harden their hearts to the possibility of God’s forgiveness as well as limit the time you have to reach the person for Christ. Second, the death penalty is directly opposed to the concept of forgiveness. The core concept of salvation rests on forgiveness, both God’s forgiveness to us and our forgiveness of one another. Condemning someone to death, even by a government, represents the opposite of forgiveness. The final point I would make is on the New Testament’s advocation, acceptance, or prohibition of the death penalty. As already observed, both those in favor of and opposed to the death penalty can cite Romans 13. However, there are no other Scripture in the New Testament that seem to directly advocate and support the death penalty. Yet, there seems to be a passage of Scripture in the Gospel of John where Jesus directly condemns the use of the death penalty. In John 8, a woman is accused of adultery. In Leviticus 20, the punishment for adultery is death. So in Jesus’ story, the woman accused should justifiably be put to death. As a test against Him from the Pharisees, the decision was put into Jesus’ hands. A woman, caught in the act of adultery, deserving death, stood before the Son of God. Jesus, in His way, lingered on the question. When pressured, He said, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” They all dropped their stones and left. Jesus, as the sinless Son of God, was the only one who was qualified to carry out the punishment. Jesus nullified her death sentence with His mercy. Who amongst us are qualified to condemn and carry out such a punishment? Is there anyone alive today who has never been guilty of sin?
In deference to Duvall and Hays, let’s use the Interpretive Journey on this topic. Genesis 9:6 is one of the strongest Biblical sources in support of the death penalty. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.” So let us first ask, what did this mean to the original audience. Whether we are thinking about those who Noah passed this down to or more likely Israel in the wilderness after Moses wrote Genesis, the message is clear. If you kill, it is not only permissible but possibly even divinely mandated that you be killed. Now we must ask ourselves what are the differences between those readers and ourselves. They are vast. First, we live under a completely different concept of government and law. They were, at best, a tribal confederation under the leadership of a divinely appointed representative from God. We live in a Democratic Republic with duly elected representatives that can be easily removed from office as well. Our law code is vastly different. Spiritually, we are not a chosen people or nation divinely picked from all the people of the earth. These are only a few of the many differences between us and them. The third question to consider is the theological meaning in the text. Again, that seems to be clear. If you take human life, you can expect humans to take your life. It is a theological mandate for the death penalty. Here is where we throw a monkey wrench into the pro-death penalty argument. How does this theological concept match up to other Scripture, particularly the New Testament. Now, look back up at the end of the last paragraph. Jesus, the Son of God, stands in direct opposition to the death penalty. In scientific terms, our hypothesis did not work out. We must rethink the question. Our spiritual answer, or Duvall and Hays point number five, the death penalty is not theologically compatible to the Christian life. So how can Christians continue to fight to put people to death?
I close with two thoughts. When I was young, WWJD was once again becoming a popular phrase, especially among true Christians. “What Would Jesus Do?” In our Youth Group, we were often told to ask ourselves that question when faced with a situation that presented a moral dilemma. Whether sex or drugs, when presented with the opportunity to engage, what would Jesus do? The point was that if the answer was no, Jesus wouldn’t do something, then we shouldn’t do it either. So here is a simple question: What would Jesus do if presented with the question, “Should we have the death penalty?” The only Biblically sound answer is no. He would say, “Let Him who is without sin throw the switch.” Who amongst us is sinless in this life? If any of you answered, “I believe Jesus would support it,” I think you need to go back and reread the Gospels again…and again and again until you see a different answer.
To the Virginia Assembly, I commend you for taking this giant step in securing life. When the day comes that your governor, Ralph Northam, signs this into law, then I will commend him too.
And then, without missing a beat, I will ask “And now, when will you extend the same courtesy to the unborn.”
Rev. Joseph N. Giles, Jr.
Pastor: Berkeley Baptist Church
Gregory Schneider and Laura Vozzella; https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/virginia-death-penalty-marijuana/2021/02/05/2ac37662-6708-11eb-8c64-9595888caa15_story.html
Laura Vozzella and Gregory Schneider; https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/virginia-abolish-death-penalty/2021/02/03/1fa40e58-6641-11eb-8468-21bc48f07fe5_story.html
Dan Van Ness, via Prison Fellowship International; https://www.prisonfellowship.org/resources/advocacy/sentencing/the-death-penalty/?mwm_id=295759731745&sc=PGNWAAG190104012&sc=PGNWAAG190104012&gclid=CjwKCAiA9vOABhBfEiwATCi7GA2A2hRlSmEGraISmZB1KysDLDX9py1bg0IKnaiBe4Hp6JaBxWX3IBoCjpoQAvD_BwE