“To deny the death penalty is to insist on life for the evil; it means that evil men are given the right to kill, kidnap, rape, and violate law and order, and their life is guaranteed against death in the process. The murderer is given the right to kill without losing his life, and the victim and potential victims are denied their right to live … If I am loving and merciful to a murderer, I am unloving and merciless to his present and future victims. Moreover, I am then in open contempt of God and His laws.” — R. J. Rushdoony
In my own neighborhood, a few years ago, a young mother, with her toddler in tow, went out to do a little shopping. She never came home again. A man kidnapped her, dropped off the two-year-old on a city street somewhere, and for several hours raped, beat, and tortured the mother. After subjecting her to unimaginable suffering and terror, he finally murdered her.
The police soon captured him, and when confronted with the evidence against him, the man voluntarily confessed. He was tried for murder and convicted, there being no doubt at all of his guilt.
My home state has the death penalty for murder, but in practice it is never applied. This case was no exception. The jury shied away from imposing the death penalty and voted for “life imprisonment” instead.
When the sentence was announced in open court, the murderer laughed out loud and cruelly mocked the victim’s family. The jury foreman admitted to reporters, tearfully, “I guess we made a mistake.” Today the murderer is still alive, housed and fed by taxpayers, enjoying such amenities as television and a weight room and the company of fellow criminals. The victim’s husband is bankrupt, and her children have had to grow up without a mother. The killer can hope to be released from prison someday, but the widower and children of the murdered woman will never in this world be released from the prison of their loss.
Admittedly this is a long introduction to a book review. But if Christians understood the teachings of the Bible, and followed them, they would not make the kind of “mistake” made by the jury in the case described above.
Convincing the Christians
Dr. Gleason seeks to convince Christians that God’s law—not set aside by Jesus Christ, but still in force—requires the death penalty for the crime of murder. He does include a chapter on “Addressing the Secular Objections to Capital Punishment,” but we doubt his arguments will penetrate the closed minds of humanists.
This is not his fault. A bunker buster wouldn’t penetrate those minds. Showing leniency to murderers makes the humanist feel good about himself, and that’s all that matters to him. Dr. Gleason will not be able to convert him.
But he may be able to convert Christians who haven’t thought seriously about the issue, haven’t studied the Bible, haven’t done anything much more than indulge their own feelings and go along with those who are perceived as the smart, progressive opinion-leaders of our time. Many of these Christians vote, run for office, or sit on juries. Through them the author hopes to make the world a better place.
The thrust of the book is to equip Christians to defend the death penalty as the right response to murder. Gleason’s argument is Biblical. Where necessary, he provides arguments from criminology and the Constitution. But the real business at hand is God’s business.
Purging the Evil from Our Midst
Why does God find murder so abhorrent? “The time of murder is heinous precisely because every human being bears the image of God,” Gleason answers. “Someone who strikes down the image-bearer strikes at the holy, almighty Image-Giver, God Himself” (p. 6).
Why does God want murderers punished with death? One would think the answer would be obvious to any Christian who has a nodding acquaintance with Scripture, but apparently it isn’t. The title of Gleason’s subhead on page 33 says it all: “The Divine Reason for the Death Penalty: To Purge the Evil from Our Midst.”
No one can prove that the death penalty actually deters this or that it deters potential killers from committing a murder—although, as Thomas Sowell observes, “We know that the death penalty certainly deters those who are executed” (p. 83). But certainly “When members of a community give sympathy to evil, evil doers gain power in that community,” Gleason explains (p. 44).
More to the point, “If God’s people don’t preserve justice, God won’t preserve them in the land,” writes Gleason (p. 36), alluding to Deuteronomy 16:20. Swift punishment of certain crimes especially abominable to God is necessary to turn away God’s wrath from the community (p. 46). Earthly punishment is also a reminder of eternal punishment, and a statement that sin has consequences (p. 48).
“The command to purge evil from the community of God’s people by judicially executing evildoers is found in nine Old Testament passages” (p. 33): for instance, “So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee” (Deut. 13:5).
Does the death penalty “put the evil away from the midst of thee”? We might best answer by considering the moral and spiritual decay of a society that has abandoned the death penalty because people have grown queasy about applying it.
We have not purged out the evil, and it has grown among us. This is self-evident to anyone who’s old enough and honest enough to remember a better America—before rap “music,” violent video games, a 40% out-of-wedlock birthrate, mass shootings, and all the rest. “Horror hath taken hold upon me because of the wicked that forsake thy law,” says the psalmist (Ps. 119:53). Our nation’s lawlessness is proclaimed in every daily newscast. Horrors abound.
As Dr. Gleason demonstrates throughout his book, the Bible is perfectly clear in its teaching: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). Given that the great majority of Americans at least profess to be Christians, how is it that the death penalty for murder was virtually abolished in America? Although many states have reinstated it since the early 1970s, only a small percentage of convicted murderers are executed.
The death penalty goes back thousands of years in human history. Controversy over applying it did not arise until after the ascendancy of Christianity as the religion of the Western world; but it has been a long time with us. John Calvin, for example, warned magistrates to avoid any “superstitious affectation of clemency” (p. 17).
To explain how the death penalty has fallen nearly out of use, Gleason first addresses secular objections to capital punishment (chap. 6). He finds in many Americans “a visceral aversion to capital punishment” (p. 57), which has been augmented by supposedly logical arguments. Along the way he cites a penetrating observation by Judge Robert Bork: “The same people and organizations manage simultaneously to adopt positions of extreme moralism and extreme moral relativism” (p. 61).
Yes—we are constantly told that we are exceedingly immoral when we oppose abortion, homosexual “marriage,” or Big Government, or when we execute a murderer: lectured on morality by persons who otherwise claim that all morality is relative. There is no way to have a logical discussion with such people.
In refuting their arguments, Gleason appeals to Christian readers who may have been misled by them. To examine just two of many:
- The death penalty is “cruel and unusual punishment,” and hence forbidden by the U.S. Constitution, Amendment VIII. But the Fifth Amendment assumes a death penalty: no one “shall be … deprived of life … without due process of law.” You’d think this alone would be enough to refute the constitutional objection; but, writes Gleason, “We live in a day and age when we have all but forgotten that the United States has a constitution” (p. 63).
Alas, too true—having chosen to disregard God’s commandments, we can hardly expect much respect to be shown for a man-made constitution.
- The death penalty is “arbitrary and irrevocable,” and only “the poor” and “the black” are executed—and some of them were wrongly convicted in the first place.
“This is part of the process,” Gleason grants, “but it does not make the case that it is far better to allow thousands of convicted murderers to live simply because of the outside chance that one innocent man might be put to death” (p. 74).
Gleason pleads with his audience to trust in God and not demand infallibility from any human institution. Additionally, American law contains more safeguards for the accused than any other legal system ever devised by man. It’s amazing that the same people who will trust the state to micromanage the economy, or even the environment, won’t trust it to reach a reasonably accurate finding in a murder case.
Gleason also addresses “Objections from Christians Who Oppose the Death Penalty” (chap. 7). We cannot help suspecting that those objections, too, come down to personal squeamishness and moral cowardice—with scriptural trappings as mere window dressing.
Among those objections:
- “Jesus’ ethics and teaching eliminates the need for capital punishment” (p. 89)—which, says, Gleason, is no more than a familiar pattern of “identifying Jesus with myriad left-wing political agendas” (p. 92).
- Death row inmates who convert are forgiven by Christ, “so we should forgive them, too” (p. 93). But such conversion, answers Gleason, does not win for the convert a pass for crimes committed in this world, although it does release him from eternal punishment. The convicted killer, when executed, will go to heaven if he has been converted, “like the thief of the cross” (p. 93)—who was guilty, and who himself admitted that his punishment was just (Luke 23:41).
- “I feel so sorry” for murderers who must be executed (p. 94). Feelings, feelings … “Sorry” would be better spent on the victims and their families. But, says Gleason, “People who have a defective view of sin have an optimistic view of sinful men” (p. 95).
Based as they are on feelings, and on a shallow or even willfully misunderstood reading of Scripture, none of the “Christian objections” to the death penalty stand up to scrutiny.
Reclaiming the World for Christ
So many books on controversial issues amount to preaching to the choir. Ron Gleason is trying to recruit a choir.
Christians must be convinced to honor God’s wishes when it comes to putting murderers to death. These are commandments, not suggestions; and the morally slothful nations of the West, once known as Christendom, have largely disobeyed them.
It would be interesting to see what would happen, if he read this book, to a Christian who is opposed to the death penalty. Dr. Gleason’s arguments are logical, compelling, and solidly Biblical. But are they powerful enough to overcome deep-seated “feelings”? Can they change the mind of someone who seldom consults the Bible on any subject, and who’s terrified of being called “one of those religious nuts”?
For it is not only the death penalty for murder that Christendom has forsaken, but the whole counsel of God, in every sphere of life. Why should we care what the Bible says about the death penalty, when we don’t care what it says about marriage, education, business, personal morality, the role of the church, limitations on the scope of civil government, or any other subject? All of these areas must be reclaimed for Christ—whose right it is to be obeyed.
Still, murder is a matter of life and death, immediately obvious to even the most limited intellect, the most atrophied religious sensibility—so maybe it’s a good place to start. Maybe if we can start taking murder seriously, we can persuade Christians to honor some more of God’s commandments.
The Death Penalty on Trial ought to be read, its arguments learned and mastered, and promoted by word-of-mouth recommendation from one Christian to another.
 R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. I (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1973), 78.