Light & Life
September/October 2002
By Alan Dowd

Through an unwed teenage mother-to-be, He reminded the world that things aren't always what they seem. In a barnyard, with only animals and shepherds taking notice, He showed us how easily and often we miss what matters. And from the boondocks hometown of Nazareth, He reversed the notion that we are defined and cursed by our beginnings. Could it be that on the cross--where man's desire for justice collided with God's desire for mercy--He was telling us that we’re wrong about at least one other thing?

The issue of capital punishment has become almost as emotional and controversial as abortion. Confronted by cases of innocent people being executed, states like Illinois have put a moratorium on death sentences. Religious leaders spanning Christianity’s wide and diverse spectrum of thought, literally from the Pope to Pat Robertson, have called on lawmakers and governors to follow Illinois’ example. And on the global stage, U.S. allies from Canada to Britain to Germany have condemned America as barbaric and backward for its stubborn refusal to ban capital punishment.

Each group has a different reason for opposing capital punishment: For some, it’s the fact that the sentence is disproportionately applied to African-Americans and other minorities. For others, it’s the possibility that innocent men are being put to death. Still others argue that since capital punishment doesn't deter crime, there’s no real need for it. But as a wise man once said, when you have one good reason to oppose something, you don't need half-a-dozen. And for followers of Christ, there is one very good reason to oppose capital punishment: Jesus argued against it with every breath--even His last.

A Life Shaped by Death

Uncounted thousands were executed on the Roman cross-works atop Golgotha, but only Jesus is remembered by name. His death is understandably overshadowed by what all Christians believe happened three days later--His resurrection. But as we wade through the wonder of that first Easter morning, we shouldn’t overlook what Jesus’ life and death say about our eagerness to kill each other.

From the moment Jesus was born, death circled over Him like a vulture. Herod executed hundreds of children in a mad attempt to kill the newborn Jesus. As Jesus began His public life, His friend John the Baptist was murdered. The Pharisees openly sought to kill Lazarus after Jesus raised him from the grave. Rumors of the plot to capture and kill Jesus hounded Him throughout His ministry. In fact, citizens of His native Nazareth tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. Through it all, Jesus knew a death sentence awaited Him. It was undeserved and unjust, but it was a death sentence no less.

In describing the execution of Christ, the Gospel writers sought primarily to show that the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah, David, Moses and a host of others had been fulfilled. But by taking such great pains to describe how the most infamous death penalty in history was carried out, they also drew up an indictment of the very punishment Jesus endured.

All the ingredients that make us squeamish about capital punishment in the 21st century are present in the Gospel accounts of Christ’s execution--the timid politicians (Pilate conceded that he found Jesus innocent); the indifferent masses (the people were clamoring for Barabbas to be released, not Jesus); the latent racism in how the sentence is applied (crucifixion was reserved for non-Romans); the lingering possibility that judge, jury and executioner are wrong (Pilate’s wife and even some members of the Sanhedrin expressed qualms about executing Jesus); and of course the finality and irreversibility of the execution itself.

Validating Vengeance

Still, there are significant differences between now and then. We don’t torture death-row inmates today; we don’t execute people without due process; and unlike Christ our death-row inmates are far from sinless. But the relevant comparison here is not between those who are executed, but between the societies that do the executing.

Indeed, it is not difficult to compare us to the mob that thirsted for blood and vengeance in Jerusalem on that Friday two millennia ago. Christians may not cheer when convicts are led away to the gallows (although it’s been known to happen), but deep down inside many of us have a sense of satisfaction when old-fashioned justice is done. It’s easy to see why: The men and women who populate death row are unsavory and unsympathetic characters. They are neither powerful nor powerless. And most of them have done heinous things. While we take positions on everything from Disney World to Harry Potter, most Christians remain silent when it comes to capital punishment. Instead of grappling with the life and death of Christ, we retreat to the words of Moses to justify our support for capital punishment.

It’s a fascinating transformation; perhaps you’ve even witnessed or experienced it: Christ-followers who condemn legalism, preach the gospel of grace and believe there is life beyond the grave, become latter-day Levites when it comes to capital punishment. Quoting Exodus 21, we demand an eye for an eye and a life for a life. But in doing so, we forget that the Law of Moses was handed down not as a divine validation of vengeance, but as a tool to rein in punishment.

God has never been as gleeful about ending life as we are. Consider how He reacted to history’s first murder, the killing of Abel by Cain. God didn’t execute Cain; He exiled Him. In fact, He promised to protect Cain from vigilante justice. And by throwing Cain out of civilization, God sentenced him to the equivalent of life in prison.

However, by the time God made His covenant with Moses, vigilantism had taken over. Might made right, and the natural human inclination for retribution often triggered violence that spiraled out of control. The Mosaic Law sought to change that by replacing the law of the jungle with a new law that balanced crime and punishment, motives and results.

Old Law, New Answers

In Jesus, that law was perfected, and the consequences of breaking it were redefined. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the story of the woman caught committing adultery.

John tells us that Jesus is sitting in the Temple courts when the woman is dragged before Him. Don’t miss the symbolism of the setting: It’s no coincidence that Jesus settled the matter in the shadow of the Temple walls, which jut skyward behind Him as an imposing symbol of the Old Law and the old way of dealing with sin.

There is no debate about the woman’s guilt--she has literally been caught in the act. The Pharisees want to make an example of her and of Jesus. They know the Law of Moses is air-tight: According to Leviticus 20, "Both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death." But according to Roman law, Jews are not permitted to carry out executions.

Jesus won’t fall into their trap. Not only does He refuse to join in the stoning, He shields the woman from the mob and in effect commutes her sentence. But why? It wasn’t because He feared a showdown with Rome. And it certainly wasn’t because God had changed His mind about adultery.

The answer is more obvious than you might think. In fact, anyone who has been a parent or a kid--which means all of us–could relate to what Jesus was doing in the Temple courts.

Children are expected to mature, and as they do, punishments sometimes have to change. For example, talking back to Mom is not permitted at the Dowd house. When I was six, it was punishable by paddling. When I was twelve, it was punishable by being sent to my room. When I was 16, it was punishable by having the car keys taken away. The law never changed, but the punishment prescribed by the lawgiver did. In the same way, Christ’s new covenant did not change the rules, but it definitely changed the consequences of breaking the rules.

Of course, there’s another side to maturity: Parents have a way of knowing when their children aren’t mature enough to handle the responsibilities they have been given. When that happens, the responsibility is usually taken away for the child’s own good. As a kid, I loved watching my dad mow the lawn. (For some reason, it looked like fun.) And by the time I was 12 or 13, I decided that I was ready to start mowing the grass. I suspect Dad was ready to pass the baton--or lawnmower in this case. But we both soon learned that I couldn’t do the job, at least not the way it needed to be done. I was too short, the yard was too big and the mower was too much to handle.

My brief stint as head groundskeeper ended as quickly as it began because my father was far better suited for the job. Likewise, God is better suited for the heavy burdens of capital punishment. While the responsibilities of the old covenant served a purpose and had their place, perhaps they were too much for us to handle.

Promises, Promises

Given the life He lived and all the dying He endured, is it any wonder why Jesus was eager to commute the death sentence against the adulteress? And isn’t it possible that in doing so, He was revoking the right we had once been given to kill our fellow man?

In a sense, Jesus was saying with His actions what Paul would later put into words: At its best, all the Law can do is expose sin and condemn; it cannot save the sinner. Only Jesus can do that (Romans 8). And at its worst, the Law leads to death, which is the very opposite of what God wants (Romans 7).

No one of sound thinking would compare Jesus of Nazareth to the killers and predators who line death row today. He was sentenced and killed for doing good; they are sentenced for doing evil. He was nailed to the cross for the sins of others; they are put to death for their own crimes. But it is Christ’s death that liberates us from the weight of capital punishment. Jesus revealed that death is not an end, but a beginning. And the promise of life after death is more than an assurance of eternal peace and joy for believers. It’s an assurance of just punishment for the unrepentant, a sobering reminder that divine justice awaits those who escape our anemic imitation of it.

Does that mean God would never use us as instruments of His justice? Of course not. Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, Esther and Haman, all could testify to that. But Christ’s example challenges us first to be instruments of His mercy. Justice can be delayed; mercy cannot.

We have tried to reconcile the mercy message of the new covenant with the here-and-now justice of the old long enough. It’s time for American Christians to let go of the burden and let God take care of the justice.