When the Kermit Gosnell trial came to an end, the death penalty debate once again captured the attention of the nation. Gosnell was sentenced to several life terms in prison and avoided execution; but the trial caused many Christians to re-examine what they believe about the use of deadly force. Gosnell’s case was unique in that it compelled many of us to examine and compare our beliefs related to the proper justification required to end someone’s life. How can we oppose abortion (on the grounds that it is murder), yet support the death penalty for Gosnell? It’s time for us to revisit what we believe about deadly force.
Over the past 16 years, as I’ve become more vocal about my identity as a Christian, several of my fellow police officers have come to me with questions about the use of deadly force, particularly after they’ve been involved in a shooting. As cops, we are often required to use our weapons; we always know it’s a possibility, but it’s usually not until we’ve used deadly force that we seriously confront what we believe on the matter. I think there is ample Biblical warrant to support the justified use of deadly force. The question is, of course, when is this use of force justified?
Proper Justifications for Deadly Force
This is the heart of the issue when it comes to distinguishing the difference between abortion and the death penalty. Scripture repeatedly offers two Biblical justifications for the use of deadly force: homicides committed in self-defense (Exodus 22:2) and homicides committed when trying to protect the life of an innocent third party (Exodus 2:11-12 and Genesis 14:14-16). These two Biblical exceptions are still represented in our country in the Penal Codes of each state related to “justifiable homicide”. Both justifications share one common feature: We are warranted in using deadly force when someone is trying to take the life of an innocent (either your own innocent life or another). When a “killing” is motivated by this proper justification, it is not “murder”; when it is not properly justified, it is. Murder, not killing, is condemned by God.
Is the Death Penalty an Act of Murder?
As Christians, we are not contradictory when we support the death penalty yet oppose abortion. Yes, both actions will end the life of a human being. But while the death penalty ends the life of a convicted murderer, abortion ends the life of an innocent baby. It is immoral for us to fail to see the difference between these two categories of humans. When I proclaim, “I am opposed to abortion”, what I am really saying is, “I am opposed to the unjustified killing of innocent human beings.” This is the difference between taking the life of a fetal human and taking the life of a convicted killer. If I believed convicted murderers were innocent human beings, I would be opposed to taking their lives as well.
The Bible affirms the distinction between innocent humans and guilty murderers. While the Old Testament protects the life of blameless human beings as described in the passages I’ve referenced (Exodus 22:2, Exodus 2:11-12 and Genesis 14:14-16), it also recognizes guilty murderers are in an entirely different category (as seen clearly in Numbers 35:30-31 and Genesis 9:6). Innocent humans are worthy of protection, guilty murderers deserve execution. In addition, the New Testament authors affirmed the justified use of deadly force by those who were in authority. Paul recognized the fact that government had the authority to use deadly force as it “bears the sword” (Romans 13:1, 3-4), and Paul did not deny the government’s authority to execute him if it found that he had done evil (Acts 25:9-11). When the government acts to end the life of a convicted killer, it is not committing an act of murder; it is instead performing a justified execution.
Understanding Those Who Hold a Position of Pacifism
I understand those who are still wrestling with their position related to the death penalty. Many Christians look at Jesus’ teaching on “turning the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-41) as a prohibition against the use of any force at all. While we may not all agree with that position, we ought to understand (and be sympathetic to) its genesis. But as Christians who properly distinguish between innocent fetal humans and convicted murderers, it is possible for us to be both “pro-life” and “pro-death penalty”.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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