The Calvinist Case Against the Death Penalty

The death penalty debate is gaining new traction in Tennessee, though now with a decidedly different tone.  A number of Christian groups are speaking out asking Governor Bill Haslam to reconsider the string of upcoming executions, the number of which is unprecedented in the modern era for our state.   One inmate set to die even requested the governor personally meet with and pray for him.

With that background in mind, I came across something interesting: a resolution from the 2000 General Synod of the Reformed Church of America addressing the death penalty.  Here are the 7 reasons a Christian should oppose the death penalty as articulated by the synod:

  • Capital punishment is incompatible with the Spirit of Christ and the ethic of love. The law of love does not negate justice, but it does nullify the motives of vengeance and retribution by forcing us to think in terms of redemption, rehabilitation, and reclamation. The Christ who refused to endorse the stoning of the woman taken in adultery would have us speak to the world of compassion, not vengeance.
  • Capital punishment is of doubtful value as a deterrent. The capital punishment as a deterrent argument assumes a criminal will engage in a kind of rational, cost-benefit analysis before he or she commits murder. Most murders, however, are crimes of passion or are committed under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This does not excuse the perpetrator of responsibility for the crime, but it does show that in most cases capital punishment as a deterrent won’t work.
  • Capital punishment results in inequities of application. Numerous studies since 1965 have shown that racial factors play a significant role in determining whether or not a person receives a sentence of death.
  • Capital punishment is a method open to irremediable mistakes. The increasing number of innocent defendants being found on death row is a clear sign that the process for sentencing people to death is fraught with fundamental errors—errors which cannot be remedied once an execution occurs.
  • Capital punishment ignores corporate and community guilt. Such factors may diminish but certainly do not destroy the responsibility of the individual. Yet society also bears some responsibility for directing efforts and resources toward correcting those conditions that may foster such behavior.
  • Capital punishment perpetuates the concepts of vengeance and retaliation. As an agency of society, the state should not become an avenger for individuals; it should not presume the authority to satisfy divine justice by vengeful methods.
  • Capital punishment ignores the entire concept of rehabilitation. The Christian faith should be concerned not with retribution, but with redemption. Any method which closes the door to all forgiveness, and to any hope of redemption, cannot stand the test of our faith.

The General Synod resolution expressed its will “to urge members of the Reformed Church in America to contact their elected officials, urging them to advocate for the abolition of capital punishment and to call for an immediate moratorium on executions.”

Not bad for the descendants of the so-named magisterial Reformers who at times utilized state authority to persecute both other Christians and sinners with unblinking zeal.

Is anyone else surprised and delighted by this?

Also, here is a link for a petition asking Governor Haslam to consider a stay on executions.





5 thoughts on “The Calvinist Case Against the Death Penalty

  1. I am surprised to read so often that even Christians see capital punishment as retaliation or revenge, that is never the case. Capital punishment is the only way to protect society from those that make the choice to kill. When the murderer chooses to take the place of God and ends a life that is so very precious to God, they also make the conscious choice to forfeit their right to continue living. It should never be thought of as revenge, although it’s easy to understand those feelings when someone you love has been murdered, but always grievous, but necessary protection for those that choose to live peacefully.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I understand that viewpoint. I’d say a couple of things in response: 1) I agree that some individuals deserve the death penalty for their especially heinous crimes. However, I simply do not trust our fallible justice system to carry it out justly. There is too much evidence of both innocent convictions and prejudice based on race and class to believe the system is working. 2) The death penalty is simply not an effective deterrent. It doesn’t stop crime in any measurable way.

  2. If Christians really believe that the Gospel message is transformative, that the Holy Spirit can actually change lives, and that hell is eternal conscious torment, I don’t understand how you could logically conclude that the death penalty is acceptable under any circumstance. I’ve heard every excuse in the book, but none are convincing in the least. Al Mohler wrote a terribly weak piece recently in defense of the death penalty that reveals how thoroughly bankrupt the biblical and moral support for this position really is.

    1. Thanks for your comment Dean. I agree 100%. Not only biblically and morally, but increasingly it just doesn’t make sense from a utilitarian policy standpoint as well.

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