Can we compare the death penalty to abortion?

I’ll just come out and statement my position up front: I oppose abortion but support, at least in principle, the death penalty. For some, this may seem like a conflicting position. I hope to convince you it is not.

I can think of a few good reasons to oppose the death penalty. You may believe that there are too many innocent people wrongly convicted. You may believe that too many are convicted on too little evidence, or because of bias within the courts. You may not trust the State to carry out such weighty matters of justice. In fact, all the “good” reasons I can think of to oppose the death penalty are because I don’t trust the State (I might be showing a bit of political bias here) to carry out justice. These might all be perfectly good reasons to oppose the death penalty in a lot of different situations but, for me, based on how I read Romans 13, they don’t warrant opposing the death penalty in principle.

I understand the above arguments, and variations thereof, but there is one argument I sometimes hear which I think entirely erroneous. The argument goes like this: “You can’t be ‘pro-life’ before birth and ‘pro-death’ after birth.” In other words, the argument states that if you oppose abortion you must also oppose the death penalty.

I think this is a bad argument. In fact, I think this is a downright offensive argument. No offense to those who hold it (I love you Joel!) but this argument drives me crazy.

The problem with this argument is that it frames the question entirely as a life/death issue, as if that is all it was: “Pro-life” before birth means opposing abortion and “pro-life” after birth means opposing abortion. There’s a certain attractive simplicity to this argument but it ignores the other fundamental principle in both issues: Justice!

Abortion is wrong not just because it takes the life of a precious baby, but because it takes the life of an innocent baby! It takes away the life of someone who has done nothing to deserve it. Abortion is murder, not just killing. Abortion is unjust. I’m pro-life because I believe that every life is precious and because I believe it is an affront to justice.

When the death penalty is enforced it is done so for the sake of justice. A man who slaughters innocent people in cold blood and is then executed by the states gets justice. We may still find his death tragic (I do) and we may still hope that he finds forgiveness from the family of the victim and from God but we cannot say he did not deserve the punishment he received from the State as it wields the sword as a servant of God’s wrath.

In both cases a life is lost. In an abortion it as an innocent life. In the death penalty it is a guilty one. That makes all the difference.

I believe there is biblical precedence for this position. In the Old Testament there is a clear command – “You shall not murder.” And yet, the following detailed law code allows for the death penalty for numerous infractions, including in the case of murder. The Old Testament sees murdering someone as wrong but receiving the penalty for that murder as right. What makes the difference? In the first case, the life was taken unjustly. In the second case, the life was taken as an extension of justice.

While many of the details of the Old Testament law code no longer apply, the underlying principles still do. There is a fundamental difference between a life taken unjustly and one taken as an extension of justice.

So I believe the argument that compares abortion to the death penalty to be wrong.

But I also believe it to be offensive.

Do we really want to compare the execution of a baby to that of a murderer or a rapist? Do we really want to compare the innocent to the guilty? Do we really believe that the two are one and the same thing? I’m offended for the sake of the aborted! I’m offended on their behalf.

I understand wanting to be consistently pro-life. After all, every life is precious to God, even the lives of those who are worthy of receiving the death penalty. But don’t ignore the other half of the equation. Don’t ignore the driving force between the arguments here. Don’t ignore justice. Both life and justice matter to God. In fact, justice matters to God because life matters to God (see Genesis 9:5-6). Those who shed innocent blood are worthy of judgment. Those whose innocent blood is shed are not.

17 thoughts on “Can we compare the death penalty to abortion?

  1. bentacoma

    Justice isn’t a good enough reason to end someones life in a Christian worldview because Christ models forgiveness and mercy to anyone and everyone.

    A worldview which defends the death penalty defends how Christ ended up on the cross in the first place, that is, state sanctioned killing in order to maintain justice and peace of the state.

    So while Roman 13 may give the state some sort of right to use the death penalty, Christ offers a better way. Death, in all its forms, stands against Christ’s work on the cross.

    Again, justice is simply not a good enough reason to kill someone, even if the state may have some sort of legitimate claim to it.

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      You may be right that justice alone isn’t a good enough reason to end someones life but that’s not exactly the point of the post. I am, though, a proponent of “proportionate retributive justice” as an overall good that does not stand in contrast with God’s love, mercy, or grace.

      I will have to strenuously disagree with you that defending the death penalty defends how Christ ended up on the cross. His death, from the State’s perspective, was clearly a violation of justice. It may have been done in the name of justice but it was, in fact, the most unjust execution ever. Nothing could be further from how I view the role of the State. I don’t defend the State doing things in the NAME of justice, only in doing JUST things. Huge difference.

      Jesus did end up on the cross for the sake of God’s justice when he took the penalty for our sin. We deserved death and Jesus willingly took the justice we deserved.

  2. bentacoma

    Also, you ask: “Do we really want to compare the execution of a baby to that of a murderer or a rapist?”

    Yes we do, they’re both human and Christ died for both their sins. Both stand before God condemned and both may receive his mercy in repentance.

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      Even if I were to accept the premise “they’re both human and Christ died for both their sins. Both stand before God condemned and both may receive his mercy in repentance.” (Which is a stretch, how exactly do unborn babies receive God’s grace through repentance? Topic for another day I guess) I still disagree with your point.

      On when level, all humans are comparable before God. This is not true before the State. Nowhere in Scripture do we see license given to the State to either avoid punishing the guilty or unjustly punishing the innocent. “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent– the LORD detests them both” (Proverbs 17:15).

      Even in our sin and frailty humans have the capacity to see guilt and innocence, justice and injustice, punishment of the guilty, and murder of the innocent. This is a gift from God and, while we don’t do it perfectly, we’re called to at least try.

      Please tell me you can at least see the fundamental difference between the two! Even if you don’t think it warrants the death penalty, I really hope you can tell that there is a big difference between the abortion and the death penalty.

  3. bentacoma

    In so far as the death penalty ends a persons ability to hear and respond to the Gospel, the Church must stand against it.
    Anything inhibiting or blocking the work of the Gospel must be resisted by the Church.

    The death penalty does just that by ending redeemable lives and so it must be resisted.

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      That’s an interesting line of reasoning not addressed in this post. I’ll have to give it some more thought – right now I have a few potential responses but nothing firmed up yet. I’ll pass on a response for that one at this time.

      My goal in this post wasn’t to develop a complete argument in defense of the death penalty – something I’m not terribly excited to do. My goal was more modest. I am only concerned that this particular argument, which compares abortion to the death penalty, is flawed, at least insofar as it states that “if you are against abortion you must be against the death penalty,” because it neglects a very important part of the equation.

      I’m relatively sympathetic with a position that opposes the death penalty (though I disagree with it). I just don’t have any sympathy for this particular argument.

      1. bentacoma

        It relates to your post in that both abortion and the death penalty confront the basic life affirming reality of the cross. If God died for everyone, then everyone deserves to live. In the reality of the cross both the lives of the most vile and the innocent find value. The basis for valuing life is established in the cross, and to deny life anywhere is to deny it anywhere. Thus, ‘pro-life’ must encompass not only abortion but the death penalty, war, euthanasia, and every other form of ending lives.

      2. stevenkopp Post author

        I think I’m getting a little closer to understanding your position. While I would love to convince you otherwise (and I’m sure you feel the same of me) I would be happy, at least, with mutual understanding, something I don’t think we’ve quite accomplished.
        With that in mind, please allow me to re-frame the argument presented above (if you are pro-life about abortion you must also oppose the death penalty), this time with justice included.
        By “justice” here I am referring to the kind of justice as it applies to the State, not the absolute justice of God, and not the ethics of individuals. For me, this kind of justice is a common grace which springs from an ultimately just God and which finds its clearest expression in the Bible, including the Old Testament. By “deserve” I am referring to basic human fairness not to the absolute justice of God.
        Here are a few possibilities for what the argument could mean:
        1. Abortion and the death penalty are both wrong and the question of justice is not relevant to the discussion.
        2. Abortion and the death penalty are both wrong. Abortion is wrong because it is unjust (it is the killing of someone who does not deserve to die). The death penalty is also unjust. It is unjust because no one “deserves” to die, even if they have made the choice to kill others. Not only is the State wrong in performing an execution but the death of the murderer would not correlate to appropriate justice.
        3. Abortion and the death penalty are both wrong. Abortion is wrong because it is unjust. The death penalty is wrong because, while it is based on justice, in performing the death penalty the State stands in the position of God and does wrong. It deprives someone of life, something only God is authorized to do. The State is not authorized to carry out the death penalty. It is authorized to perform proportionate justice up until the point of execution (i.e., life in prison is fine).
        Which of the above do you agree with? (Or, present a different variation)
        I have some additional questions for you?
        1. What is the role of the Old Testament in informing Christian ethics?
        2. What does Paul mean when he says that the civil authorities are “God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer?”
        3. Even if you don’t agree with my argument above, do you at least understand it, and why it is important to me?
        Thanks in advance!

      3. bentacoma

        I totally get why it’s important to you. I used to use Genesis 9 and Romans 13 as a biblical defense for state-sanctioned killing to maintain justice as well.
        But in my time at GBC I began encountered my first push back against that, and I actually started getting into the text for myself. Those passages have other possible ways of reading them of equal or greater plausibility.
        It’s starts with the Jesus, why he died and who he died for. Any sort common-grace justice system that existed before Christ simply does not matter anymore for the people of God. Even though it may still exist, as Paul owns in Romans 13, we view everyone through the lens of Christ’s love.
        Excellent passage demonstrating this: 2 Cor. 5:14-16,
        “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
        From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.”
        Paul goes on to talk about our ministry of reconciliation. If I defend the death penalty, how is that working toward reconciliation? This question clinched it for me. A ministry of reconciliation does not defend the use of killing, ever.

  4. supergirl2000

    Well, I for one, agree with this post entirely. The death penalty is punishing someone who personally made life decisions so evil and horrendous that they receive capital punishment. Abortion is punishing an unborn baby with death, for whatever the reason the mom decides an abortion is the answer. Since when do we kill someone who has committed no crime, intentionally?

  5. stevenkopp Post author

    In reply to a previous post (because apparently my WP doesn’t allow more than three layers of replies).

    You said:
    “I totally get why it’s important to you. I used to use Genesis 9 and Romans 13 as a biblical defense for state-sanctioned killing to maintain justice as well.”

    Oops, I meant to ask, “do you understand why I find the argument, ‘if you are pro-life you must oppose the death penalty’ to be offensive?” I already know you understand my position about the death penalty.

    In fact, I think the death penalty is clouding what I am trying to say. So, for the remainder of this chain, please imagine that I have accepted the position that the death penalty is wrong. Even if I did believe it was always wrong (because it prevented our ministry of reconciliation) I would still believe the above argument to be offensive. Could you see why?

    With the death penalty question off the table…

    You said:
    “Any sort common-grace justice system that existed before Christ simply does not matter anymore for the people of God.”

    There’s a TON packed into that statement and I’m wavering between, “yeah that makes sense” and “what?! that’s insane.” It all hinges on your qualifier “for the people of God.” If you mean, the people of God (i.e., the Church) are not supposed to impose a justice system then yes, I agree. If you mean a civil justice system doesn’t really matter then… well… I’m at a loss. Living in a country with a justice system pretty much rocks my socks off. It matters a lot to me. You don’t have to look far in the world to find lawless societies. They aren’t pretty.

    Let’s take the death penalty out of the equation for a second. Imagine you are a judge who can enforce a law civil society. No worries, though, you cannot give the death penalty. You can, however, choose to give a light or heavy sentence depending on the merits of the case. What criteria would you use to make the decision based on the sentencing? What would make your decision a “good” decision or a “bad” decision?

    Or, imagine you are a legislator, and you have the ability to make a law. How would you decide if it was a “good” law or a “bad” law. Again, we’re assuming NO death penalty.

    In these two cases, could you use some sort of common-grace system of justice to guide your decisions?

    1. bentacoma

      I get why it sounds offensive, putting the unborn up with the worst sort of criminals. Yes, that sounds bad, it’s an extreme statement making a pretty basic point.
      Do you understand why I still believe it to be true, despite it’s inflammatory nature? After deconstructing a biblical defense of capital punishment, everything boils down to protecting life in the name of Christ. An unborn baby is alive. A criminal is alive. To truly be pro-life is to defend the lives of both these people groups.
      To flip this over and look at it a different way, I am offended by Christians who defend the death penalty and call themselves ‘pro-life’. Clearly they are not pro-life, for they defend the killing of certain types of people. A better title would be ‘pro-life-for-the-unborn.’
      Yes, that point was in reference to only the Church.
      It’s not that common-grace-justice (by that I mean the rule of law and penal-enforcement in any state/nation) can’t be applied to the Church or it’s member. Yeah, that’s crazy.
      My specific point was that the mission of Church trumps the mission of the state when it comes to any sort of killing. Since the state will never relinquish it’s “license to kill” the Church will always be in conflict with the State on this point.
      To be clear, the defense of the death penalty as a part of common-grace-justice was the only part of common-grace-justice I meant. Nearly all the rest of common-grace-justice is compatible with the Gospel and the mission of the Church.

      1. stevenkopp Post author

        Thanks, that makes a lot more sense. I think I understand the argument better now. My main opposition is the way in which it is expressed rather the content in which you have described above. Peace.

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