Hell and the death penalty

Hortus Deliciarum - 12th Century/Wikipedia
Hortus Deliciarum – 12th Century/Wikipedia

Recently, there has been some interesting discussion on the death penalty and whether or not it should be abolished. The question seems to turn on the moral nature of such a sentence. For instance, is the death penalty just? To my surprise, the majority of Christians weighing in on the matter favor the abolishment of the death penalty for various practical and moral reasons. What is interesting is that the moral reservations, contrary to first appearances, are not based on the Bible, but what I would call a modern moral perspective. If one goes by the Bible, then capital punishment is found not only to have been a cultural norm, but divinely mandated. We aren't even talking about the relatively humane executions practiced today, but rather horrific executions such as death by stoning.

Today, death is largely reserved as a penalty for only the most insidious crimes such as murder, torture, brutal rape, etc.  Christians who still find this to be morally contestable find themselves in a dilemma. Curiously, the Bible depicts God as not only in favor of capital punishment, but even applies it with great liberality. For instance, in Genesis 6 God executes all but eight human beings.  In Exodus 22, so called “witches” are sentenced to death.  In Deuteronomy 17, those who don't listen to the priest or judge are sentenced to death.  Leviticus 20 declares homosexuality a capital crime.  Even adultery, fornication and working on the Sabbath are considered capital offenses in the Bible. These are just a few examples.

Now, before any sort of defense is mounted on account of these being in the Old Testament, the New Testament is not free of such occurrences. Consider that Ananias and Sapphira were sentenced to death for merely lying and being greedy. So, on what basis do Christians reject capital punishment today, yet defend the bible on these matters? I don't know. Nevertheless, it seems that these Christians believe we have morally outgrown prescribing death as a punishment and so disagree with the Bible in this regard.

This leads to the next point.  In terms of punishment, there is nothing more grotesque, harsh, immoral and unjust than the notion of Hell, a place of eternal punishment.  Indeed, such a concept is hardly conceivable by humans.  What could possibly be the purpose of such a thing? As I was reading some of the comments concerning the death penalty I came across the following statement:

“So in the case of the death penalty Christian response would be to work to restore the devastated lives as best as can be, including the person who perpetrated the crime. That is true justice, when life is restored and relationships mended.” 

Now justice is a very deep and difficult notion to rigorously pin down and there are various theories concerning its nature. The above quote emphasizes the rehabilitative/restorative aspect or approach to justice and to a large extent I think it is accurate and true, if only incomplete. But given this, there is a conflict with also believing in Hell, since Hell, by its very nature does not allow for relational mending, rehabilitation or restoration. One is eternally separated relationally from God and eternally punished so that even if the offender changes his or her mind (i.e. is rehabilitated) it is to no avail.

Furthermore, the punishment of Hell is infinitely disproportionate to the “crimes” that supposedly merit it. I dare say, no one deserves never ending punishment, not even Hitler. In short, the idea of eternal punishment fails on every account of what justice is all about. Its only purpose could be purely retributive in nature inflated to vindictiveness. So, if Christians can come to the conclusion that capital punishment is actually immoral (or at least sub-par), then when will they also come to the even more necessary conclusion that the idea of Hell should be discarded as the most morally bankrupt, illogical and empty form of justice?

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  1. Ryan, thank you for this post. It’s very well written and you pose lots of great questions!

  2. Thank you Tracy.

  3. so would God really give the power to man to sentence someone to hell? seems improbable.

  4. Great post Ryan- I echo Tracy’s sentiment.

  5. Thanks Bruce

  6. Ernesto Tinajero

    Thank you for a well reasoned argument. My only question to your post, if you are right, is how do explain the historical fact the Christian groups, mainly the spirit movements of Quakers, Methodist, and Shakers were the first groups in history to, first, limit death penalty (William Penn 1682), and then call for its abolition. All these groups did so on Christian theological reasons and not from modern moral sensibilities. To be sure they did not read the bible the way you do, and they faced push back from other Christians using similar reasons that you cite. But the historical fact, they first opposed the death penalty and do so on Christian theological grounds, remains.

    While not to get into their reasons too much, as to simply cite their arguments in a comment section really does them no justice. The two arguments very rough (and still argued today) is since all of us deserve death as sinners, it is man’s wanting to like God to kill for any reason. The second, more Quaker, is that all men have the image of God (inner light) and no man has the right to kill another for any reason. These reasons were given, like yours, with Biblical citations. Whether you agree with their reasons or not, what cannot be denied is that they based their morality on their Christian understanding and not a modern moral perspective. (Actually, you can make a very convincing argument that these Christian groups are the source of the modern moral perspective as they were also the first to call for the abolition of slavery, the equality of woman, social reform for the poor, social welfare, equal rights for all regardless of social status and antiwar. They were always labeled by their enemies as those do-gooders.)

  7. Lots of theologians, current and past, have provided deep and honest alternatives to ECT (Eternal Concious Torment). Its a deeply mishandled, misunderstanding of the biblical texts in my opinion.

    Your observations are shard by many, your conclusions though, are not the only options.

    A few good, easy reads for most slightly interested folks are authors Brian Maclaren, Rob Bell or even CS Lewis.

  8. Ernesto –

    Thanks for the reply. To some extent, the fact that both sides can cite scripture in support of their conflicting views seems only to highlight the confused and contradictory nature of the bible. I would argue that the interpretation the quakers and shakers used was probably largely informed by their pre-modern moral sentiments. That is, since there is no official “biblical” teaching on the matter (in my opinion) the quakers chose to interpret the bible in a way that was consistent with their pre-modern moral perspective.

  9. Eric – Yes, those views are definitely better than the usual notion.

  10. Does any human being even deserve heaven? Humanity is sinful, God is holy; how is that compatible?

  11. Mark – You seem to be implicitly setting up a false dichotomy. Even if it is true that no human deserves heaven, it does not follow that humans deserve never ending punishment in Hell. There is no requirement that it be one or the other.

    You ask how is God’s holiness and humanity’s sinfulness compatible? It’s just as compatible as it is now. Surely God would have known that finite “free” beings of our kind would not be perfect.

  12. Ryan- It is not a false dichotomy. What I am saying is that because of the sinfulness of humanity, we all deserve eternal, never ending punishment in the Lake of Fire. It is because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, man has an opportunity to escape the just judgment we all deserve-never ending punishment in the Lake of Fire. God is gracious and merciful to us free, imperfect beings. His mercy in Jesus does not give us what we deserve (Lake of Fire) and His grace gives us what we do not deserve (a place in His presence in heaven).

  13. Mark –

    You are begging the question. This is exactly the thing I amy denying! You seem to have a deformed understanding of the term “deserve”. No one deserves never ending punishment. What a sick idea. There is no purpose for such a thing; it doesn’t accomplish anything that we normally think of punishment accomplishing.

    The work of Jesus would only make sense if there were good reason to believe it, but your answer totally and completely ignores the fact that there are honest skeptics out there that just aren’t convinced that Christianity is true. It also blatantly ignores the fact that there are billions of people who are sincerely convinced of other, radically different religious ideas. It’s not a very good “way out” if the majority of humanity honestly misses the boat and ends up in hell anyway.

    P.S. It is a false dichotomy because there are many more options that God could have implemented.

  14. Again, it is not a false dichotomy, because this is exactly the option that God implemented. There are no other options. This is plan A. There is no plan B.

    I am viewing reality through the lens of the Bible-God’s revelation to man; a revelation that we were given, because we could not have rationalized it ourself. Depending on the lens through which one views reality, a person forms his opinion on reality. Everyone looks through some kind of lens. I cannot expect you to see reality as I do, since we are looking through different lenses.

  15. You are simply making my point. If you cannot expect me to see reality as you do and everybody has their own lens, then how can God expect everyone to come to the proper conclusion? It would be unjust to punish people simply because they saw the world differently.

    Now, you HAVE presented a false dichotomy because to us, the options of what could be are numerous. You don’t know that (a) God even exists and (b) if “He” does you don’t know that this is how God to chose to make things. You are merely assuming this. What we can say is the following:

    (1) IF God exists and desires everyone to be saved, then “He” would choose the best option to accomplish this end.

    (2) The set up as described in the Bible is NOT the best option to accomplish God’s desired end.

    (3) Therefore, either God does not exist or God is not the sort of God you think “He” is, or “He” does not desire everyone to be saved.

  16. God gives us the choice to view things our own way, but in the end He says that “every mouth will be stopped (shut up!) and all the world will be shown to be guilty before Him”. To reject the unbelievable salvation purchased by God’s perfect Son is the ultimate insult, truly deserving of eternal punishment. I would also add that I believe Scripture teaches that God’s will is not to save everyone, but to save all the elect, which He will absolutely do.

  17. One more comment regarding the “free”finite beings you mentioned. Man lost his freedom when he failed the love and obedience test in Eden. Now we are slaves to our own sinful natures, hopeless and helpless without someone (God Himself) to reach out and make the first move (Jesus Christ), then the second (repentance), the third ( faith)………all given by God to those who are called.

  18. So, if man has lost his freedom and is completely enslaved to sin, then how can you say that God gives us the CHOICE to view things our own way? You seem to be contradicting yourself. Either God gives us freedom to choose, or we are enslaved and have no freedom to choose. Your view seems to be the latter, since you apparently believe in the cosmic lottery of the “elect”.

    I also think you misunderstand non-believers. There is a very important difference between rejecting the “salvation purchased by God’s perfect Son” and rejecting the proposition: there is a God and “He” requires you to believe in “His” “Son” for salvation. One cannot reject an offer that is doubted to exist in the first place.

    Also, why would any human deserve eternal punishment in the first place? What justification could you possibly give for such a useless and illogical thing?

    Finally, you say: “I would also add that I believe Scripture teaches that God’s will is not to save everyone, but to save all the elect, which He will absolutely do.”

    This seems to be an incredibly warped view of God. You actually believe in a cosmic lottery and that God plans for the rest to be tortured in Hell for eternity? That is a horribly sick and immoral view!

  19. God is the standard for all things. To call something immoral begs that fact that something (or someone) estabished some code to judge against. If that Person was God, then if He set the standard and is all-powerful, then we as His creation are out of line to call Him out, we must learn from and of Him. God declares that everyone starts with an ability to know about Him through creation itself (Rom. 1:18-32). That knowledge is suppressed in every thinking person, making them guilty before God. The subsequent darkness of mind and heart are a symptom of the suppressing of the truth in the first place. A person’s “doubt” about God comes from a willful rejection first.

    A lottery implies chance, God’s election is by His sovereign choice. As for the view being warped, it is what the Bible teaches for the one with courage enough to acknowledge it. Most teachers are too afraid of other men to let God be and say Who He is.

  20. Much of the confusion and “moral outrage” against capital punishment and hell as a place of punishment and torment stem for a severly inadequate understanding of God Himself. As He has revealed Himself in the Scriptures, in fact, no man can fully know or understand Him because He is completely other than us. His ability, power, intellect, and very essence are far above our total understanding. Most of our confusion comes from ignorance, and it’s an ignorance that won’t be cured in any except those who bow before this amazing God and some day will receive a mind and body more capable to understand Him.

    If God is absolutely Holy (morally perfect, a concept we fallen creatures are unable to totally grasp, even those born from above with a re-newed heart) then necessarily nothing unholy can exist in His presence. Jesus blood purchased the Way for us to be covered and eventually made totally holy ourselves so that it can be possible for us to exist in His presence forever (blessed thought!). I Cor. 15:50-53.

  21. Ryan,

    For me, Jesus explained God.

    I found Him to be a “way, truth and life” or a context that I could fit within and understand how to be. He made sense of life and how to live my life. He modeled a path that captured me, challenge me and liberated me. He left plenty unsaid, spun many truths in stories that allowed for space to contemplate, argue and wrestle with and experienced a fair amount of human story and responed in a manner that still gives me light.

    I am content to “believe’ Jesus as the most true image of God.

    He and His teaching are solid rock to build ones underrstanding of God upon. It is enough to claim Jesus, to worship Him, follow His teachings and seek to respond to this world in response to His indwelling action.

    John 14:5-9
    Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

    6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know[b] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

    8 Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

    9 Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?

    I share this not as an evangelistic breathless ‘yah but’ but simply as a testimony of a way forward that has helped me navigate many of the issues discussed here and the manner in which some of these issues are framed by certain theological persuaions.

  22. Dennis –

    [“God is the standard for all things. To call something immoral begs that fact that something (or someone) estabished some code to judge against.”]

    First, to call something immoral begs nothing of the sort. Moral philosophy is much more subtle and varied than that. That would be like arguing that to call something illogical begs the fact that something or someone established the laws of logic. But this is absurd. The laws of logic simply hold, by necessity. The same could be true concerning morality. There is nothing about morality which requires it to be established, as if at some time T there was no such thing as morality and then at T+1 there suddenly was.

    [“If that Person was God, then if He set the standard and is all-powerful, then we as His creation are out of line to call Him out, we must learn from and of Him.”]

    Your view of morality seems to be that might makes right. Why would God being all-powerful give him the right to establish an arbitrary morality? Moreover, even if it is true that God established morality, the question is, how would we tell if something was revealed by God or not? Under your program, one could justify ANYTHING. God could declare hatred, murder, and rape to be moral and who are you to object to such an all wise and powerful God. You simply need to learn from and of “Him”. So you see, your “safeguard” of resorting to our poor understanding is a double-edged sword.

    I am claiming that if there is a God who is the standard of morality, then “He” would have no program such as Hell (at least not the way you conceive of it).

    [“A person’s “doubt” about God comes from a willful rejection first.”]

    I am really tired of claims like this, so I call bullshit!

    [“A lottery implies chance, God’s election is by His sovereign choice.”]

    I’m not sure what your point is here.

    [“As for the view being warped, it is what the Bible teaches for the one with courage enough to acknowledge it. Most teachers are too afraid of other men to let God be and say Who He is.”]

    Or maybe most teachers just realize that that could not possibly be what God is like. It is clearly false.

    [“If God is absolutely Holy… then necessarily nothing unholy can exist in His presence.”]

    This is clearly false, since if God exists, is absolutely Holy, and is omnipresent, then many unholy things exist in “His” presence.

  23. Ryan, what you’re really saying is that you are god and He is not. When you stand before Him someday you’ll have a hard time saying the word b***s*** in His face. Whether you give anything I say any credibility or not, the Bible says what it says and no amount of arguing or declaring it “clearly false” just because you say so is going to cut it.

    Might makes right is not it at all. God reveals Himself in Scripture as Almighty, so He does have the might. He also declares that He alone is Holy and Righteous, so He is right also. But He is not right just because He could crush this tiny universe of His, He is intrinsically what He is. Just because finite minds cannot fully conceive of all that an infinite Being is doesn’t make Him wrong, it just makes us ignorant because of our limitations. God rebukes Job because of his whining by saying, “Job, where were you when I created all these things.” Some scientists today claim far more than they really know just because they can’t stand to think that they would have to submit to some Diety. God says the same thing to them.

  24. Dennis –

    [“Ryan, what you’re really saying is that you are god and He is not.”]

    Actually, I am not saying anything like that at all. What I am saying is that IF God exists, “He” would not be anything like what you are describing.

    [“When you stand before Him someday you’ll have a hard time saying the word b***s*** in His face.”]

    That isn’t my intention if it is true that there is a God and I will have to stand before “Him”. I’m saying it to you in regards to your very unjustified claim.

    [“… no amount of arguing or declaring it “clearly false” just because you say so is going to cut it.”]

    Well done! Now, if you could just apply the same reasoning to yourself and the Bible. No amount of quoting the Bible and declaring it true is going to cut it.

    [“He is intrinsically what He is. Just because finite minds cannot fully conceive of all that an infinite Being is doesn’t make Him wrong…”]

    You’re missing the point. I’m saying YOU are wrong. You are wrong about what and who God would be if “He” exists.

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