Capital Punishment in Christological Perspective

September 29, 2017

Since capital punishments resumed nationally in 1976, my home state of Texas has carried out 543 executions, more than 1/3 of all executions nationally. Part of this is due to Texas being one of the most populous and fastest-growing states in the country, but part of this, as the other contributors have indicated, is an uneasy alliance between the institution of capital punishment and Christian thought. Texas is one of the most Christianized states in the country, with nearly 56% of the state claiming religious affiliation, in contrast to a 48% national average.1 One could argue against capital punishment on the basis of its prejudicial and racially-biased application, its insufficient account of justice, the cost, or any number of other practical bases. But, in my own context of Christianization and capital punishment, the argument must be discussed not only at the level of policy, but at the level of Scripture.

The problems with arguments for capital punishment which appeal to the Old Testament are legion, and will not be addressed here. In brief, simple application of any Old Testament law for the sake of public policy ignores both the way that Scripture reads itself, and the ways in which Christians for centuries have wrestled with the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. In the New Testament, the application of the death penalty as either religious or civic practice fights an uphill battle. If one turns to the ministry of Jesus for wisdom, we find Jesus declining its use when offered the opportunity to exercise it as commanded by the Law. If we look to the ministry of the apostles, the death penalty as a direct action by apostles is likewise left silent;2 we are provided instead with examples of the apostles being put to death in unjust ways.3 One could make an appeal to the framework of Romans 13, except that this appeal assumes that administering death as a punishment is always commendable by the state; Romans simply asserts that the state plays a role in maintaining order, but this assertion in and of itself is not an argument for execution’s legitimacy.

To provide a Christian description of capital punishment, one must pass through Christ not only in teaching, but in person. The examples above—whether with respect to what Jesus’ ministry does, or how the apostles no longer make use of capital punishment—seem secondary to a more fundamental theological consideration: what Jesus’ personhood means for capital punishment. What I want to do now is to provide an account against capital punishment (which takes up one of the stronger arguments against capital punishment) and thicken it.

It has become common as of late to argue against capital punishment on the basis of Jesus’ unjust death. The argument, rooted in the work of Rene Girard’s writings on violence, runs like this: Jesus, in dying an unjust death on the cross, reveals the law to be merely an application of force and thus, unjust. In his death, Christ unmasks the violence of the law for what it is, negating any application of law (particularly capital forms) which would pose as justice.4 This theory, adopted by a number of anti-capital punishment advocates, such as Shane Claiborne and John Howard Yoder, opens up an intriguing line of argument, that Jesus’ actions expose death for what it is.5

The problem with this argument is not that it doesn’t take Jesus’ death seriously—who could complain with looking to Jesus for our doctrine and ethics?— but that this argument is doctrinally incomplete. For Christians, the story of Jesus’ person continues beyond crucifixion and the judgment rendered upon death in that act, on through the resurrection and ascension as well. Following Girard, if the crucifixion of Jesus alone provides basis to question the application of death as a punishment, this leaves open the possibility that, if the state were adequately just, that it could once again take up capital punishment. But, once we link resurrection and ascension to crucifixion, then we apply a new dimension to our thinking about not only the significance of Christ’s work, but capital punishment as well. What I will suggest now is that the condemnation of capital punishment, when viewed from a fuller perspective of Christ’s death, is less about unjust application of capital punishment than it is about a misunderstanding of the use of death as a punishment at all.

Christ’s resurrection means, in part, that death is transfigured and transformed, that the sufferings of the world are made into something of glory. If all we have is simply the unmasking of unjust forms of death, we may say that death is not an appropriate punishment, but we are left with the quandary of what to do with the perpetrators of suffering: could they yet be executed in a just situation? But, if resurrection follows crucifixion, the unmasking of the injustice of capital punishment is followed by transforming our mechanisms of punishment into occasions for restoration; movements of restorative justice already are working this transformation out, both politically and theologically. Restorative justice movements seek not to dismiss the real damage which is done to the victims of crime, but to bring healing to the victims and restoration to the perpetrator.

To sum up: capital punishment is unmasked and transfigured toward restoration by the crucifixion and the resurrection. However, this still leaves open the initial question: can a just application of the procedure be found? Is there an edge beyond which criminality cannot be transformed? This is where we must continue on with the Gospel story beyond even resurrection into ascension, where, as Paul writes, Christ now reigns above every power and principality. In this eternal exaltation of Christ, the one who has been crucified and resurrected, we find not only that death is unmasked and transformed, but that this is a universal and permanent fixture theologically; there can be no reversal, and there are no fuzzy edges to this judgment of death.

As such, Christians are left without the option of capital punishment, and compelled, in the words of Jesus, to visit the prisoner and to join with Christ in the work of exposing and transfiguring those processes of death which continue to deform God’s creatures who await execution. For Christians, there is no moral road that does not lead through Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, whatever accusations that may entail for the followers of Christ.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

  1. Texas Almanac, “Religious Affiliation in Texas.” 

  2. The possible objection of Acts 5:1-11 with Annanias and Sapphira does not directly link the cause of death with divine action. 

  3. Acts 8, 12:1-2. 

  4. For the exposition of this, see particularly Rene Girard, The Scapegoat (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1989). 

  5. Shane Claiborne, Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us (New York: Harper One, 2016); John Howard Yoder, The End of Sacrifice: Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, ed. John Nugent (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2012).  

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