Home » Ethics » “Hey, Ted, Your Dead!” (sic.): The Ethics of Capital Punishment

“Hey, Ted, Your Dead!” (sic.): The Ethics of Capital Punishment

bundy protestorsIn Fatal Addiction, James Dobson interviews serial killer Ted Bundy only a few hours before his execution.  Oddly enough, the main topic of conversation is not his pending death.  Rather, in his last hour, a seemingly sorrowful Bundy warns against the destructive influences of pornography.  In light of this man’s grizzly murders, one expects to encounter a demented individual, attempting in a final move of desperation to procure either a stay of execution, or the warped pity of society.  Instead, one meets a highly intelligent, composed man who does not want to talk about the death penalty, nor to impugn others for his actions, nor to use a supposed religious experience to preserve his life, though he does confess assurance of forgiveness in Christ.  One meets a man who understands the anger towards him, and knows that while he does not want to die, he still deserves the most severe punishment the state can give.

Certainly, the most disturbing image is the raging mob outside the prison, waving angry signs such as, “Hey Ted, Your Dead,” (sic) and cheering like football fans when Bundy’s hearse departs the grounds.  No death is pleasant to a sober person, and if one were to base his opinions on the issue emotionally, such images might only be countered by the personal anger at losing a loved one to violence.  The issue, however, goes beyond pity or anger.  If we are Christians, a defense for, or an argument against capital punishment must be built upon biblical principles.

To some, however,  the biblical teaching on the death penalty seems contradictory.  Opponents of capital punishment use the Christian ideals of grace and forgiveness to counter Old Testament “ideals” of law and retribution, and focus upon the individual in his relationship to God.  The proponents, however, rely heavily upon divine injunctions for the death penalty, and focus on the obligations of government in relationship to society as a whole.

The fact that eighteen offenses are met with death in biblical law[1] matters little to Christian opponents, since they dismiss the Mosaic code as an obsolete system superceded by Christian principles. The most powerful death penalty statement in Scripture, however, is not part of the Mosaic code, but is found in Genesis 9:6 where God says, “Whoever sheds man’s blood; By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.  Here, one is provided not just with a clear command for the death penalty, but with a supra cultural basis for it as well.  Behind the death penalty is a defense of regard for human life, one which serves both justice and prevention.[2]

One can hardly miss the fact that the Apostle Paul defends the death penalty[3] in both principle and practice.  In Romans 13:4, Paul teaches that governing bodies are appointed by God, and bear the sword as ministers of God’s wrath upon evil men.  In Acts 25:11, Paul, as one accused of a capital offense, says unwaveringly, If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die.

Even in the face of these texts, some are confused by biblical examples where divine forgiveness seems to supercede Law, namely, David’s adultery and murder in 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25, and Jesus’ pardon of the adulterous woman in John 7:53-8:11, where Jesus seems to reject the retribution principle in the Law in both principle (Matthew 5:38-42) and spirit (Matthew 7:1-5).

Such confusion is based, I believe, on both poor exegesis and misapplication. Neither David, nor the woman were punishable by law.  In David’s case, there was insufficient witness, and in the woman’s case, the witnesses had illegitimatized themselves according to halakic interpretation of Ex. 23:1-9.[4]  In Matthew, Jesus is not attacking the Law, but its misapplication. The Jews were applying principles of societal justice to personal relationships (i.e. revenge).  This mistake works both ways. Many principles of Christian living are not designed to establish law. Indeed, kind and loving attitudes cannot be the foundation of a national legal system.  Isaiah 26:9 explains it well, For when the earth experiences Thy judgments; The inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.  Though the wicked is shown favor; He does not learn righteousness; He deals unjustly in the land of uprightness; And does not perceive the majesty of the Lord.

Personal principles of love and forgiveness must exist side by side with societal law, and punishment, not replace them.  Christians must pray for men’s souls as individuals, and demand punishment on their bodies as governing officials. As official ministers of God’s wrath against wrongdoers, they must bear the sword with a purpose.

While I do not rejoice in the death of anyone, it was important for Ted Bundy to die for his crimes against society and against the image of God itself.  May God have mercy on his soul and all those like him.

What do you think?



[1]Exodus 21:12-18; Exodus 21:22-25; Exodus 21:28-30; Leviticus 20:10-16; Leviticus 24:10-16; Deuteronomy 13:1-16; Deuteronomy 17:12; Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Deuteronomy 22:13-21; Deuteronomy22:25-29.

[2] Of course, Scripture also teaches that a slow judicial system undoes the preventative elements. (Ecc. 10:11)

[3] It should be noted that Paul defends it in the face of the Roman system.  Prejudice, fairness, and equity in our own system can hardly have been outdone by the Romans.

[4] J. Duncan M. Derrett, Law in The New Testament. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970) pp. 156-188.

One thought on ““Hey, Ted, Your Dead!” (sic.): The Ethics of Capital Punishment

  1. Josephus says:

    What a great example for thought!

    If a malicious witness invalidates all witnesses in the bible (Exodus 23, John 8), one might argue that the mob’s desire for blood invalidated democracy’s right to preform the execution. Is a malicious witness simply a “lying” witness? Or is it thirst for the accused to be damned (rather than redeemed) that the biblical law is intended to target.

    Personally, I think the “two witness” requirement for the death penalty in scripture was an internal check and balance to a corruptly implemented (read frequent) system. In other words, it is very hard to have two simultaneous witnesses to a crime, without some sort of set up (which was also illegal in scripture i.e. “lying in wait”). Why make capital punishment so hard to enact? Unless this was the purpose of the law in the first place, i.e. to make capital punishment rare, very rare. Not based on the brutality of the crime, but on the audacity of it occurring in “open daylight.”

    Is there a biblical argument for having the death penalty? Yes. Is there a argument for suspending the death penalty until its implementation is less discriminatory and just, and thus more biblical? I think so.

    Otherwise we invent the same system of degrees of atonement that early Judaism created. In this system, atonement for a high handed sin required, 1. repentance, 2. ritual sacrifice, and 3. the death of the individual. Thus, condemned people could either die “in sin” or die “without sin” at execution. Jesus seems to be playing upon this in John 8, ironically toward his accusers.

    One might argue that the death penalty in America is already “rare” and has about as many “checks” and “safe guards” as possible. Still, we should be better than the dirt that soaked up Abel’s blood, and when we defend the death penalty we run the risk of missing the heart of God that “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.”

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