Is the death penalty justifiable? There are solid grounds for arguing for the death penalty under strict provisions.

Source: De Wekker. 2 pages. Translated by Elizabeth DeWit.

Death Penalty

From time to time it comes to light that serious sex crimes are committed. Belgium is appalled and has mourned about the greatest sex crime in its history, committed by Marc Dutroux and his helpers. England was also put in a difficult situation by a sex crime through which people were killed. The Belgic justice system has been sharply criticized because of serious errors which were made. People failed in a number of aspects. The death penalty was officially abolished in 1996 in Belgium. In the Netherlands, this has already been the case for much longer. In the massive outrage aroused by such crimes, there sounds a call for the reintroduction of the death penalty.

Is the death penalty justifiable? Many people deny any justification of the death penalty. In an editorial in a daily (non‑Christian) newspaper, it is stated that the emotions of the moment do not carry weight over against the well‑founded arguments on the grounds of which more and more nations in the world have abolished the death penalty from their jurisdiction. It is argued that there are myriads of good principal and practical objections against the death penalty. The irreversibility of the death penalty combined with the fallibility of judges is the most important argument. There exists no death penalty in which innocent people are not also condemned. Even the parents of the murdered girls in Belgium have spoken out against the death penalty in spite of their pain and sorrow.

In this article I cannot delve deeply into the positives and negatives of the death penalty. Much has been written about it. No new arguments can be advanced, either positive or negative. The deciding factor for us is what the Bible says about it. Prof. Dr. W.H. Velema, in his book Rechtvaardiging van de straf, published in 1978, devoted the last chapter to the death penalty wherein he pleads, on the basis of what the Bible says, for the reintroduction of the death penalty.

The main proof text is (and remains) Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Also after the fall into sin, man continues to be referred to as the image of God. Whoever kills a fellow human being, created in God’s image, forfeits the right to continue to live as image of God. This text can be called the basis of the death penalty. It is the government who, as servants of God, do not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13). This government’s power of the sword may also be applied to the sword that is put into the hands of the executioner. Prof. Velema writes that central to this discussion is the question whether someone can forfeit the right to continue to live. One can hardly think of a heavier offence against the legal order than when a fellow person deprives another of his life. It is incorrect to plead for the reintroduction of the death penalty on the basis of the increasing number of murders. The basis of the death penalty lies in the transgression that has been committed. The death penalty means that the person has forfeited the right to continue to live. In the death sentence, that right is withdrawn from the criminal. Velema continues to write (p. 131): “It is not a matter of cultural refinement when people put the death penalty behind them. It is rather a matter of another rule of law, or another vision of the nature and function of punishment, when one pleads to maintain the abolition of the death penalty. Whoever portrays the death penalty as uncivilized, must bear in mind that the punishment of death is not about social niceties, but about what is justice and righteousness.” The right to punish is not only for usefulness. Rather, it is to exercise justice. The exercise of justice can never be cruel.

Being for or against the death penalty is based on a specific outlook. How does one see the human being? Will people acknowledge what God says about man? If we leave room for the death penalty, it does not mean that we should not exercise great care. There are judgmental errors, but the possibility of errors on the part of judges can never make the exercise of law impracticable. Judgment is always carried out by people. Therefore, the exercise of law can never be infallible. For this reason, people must be extremely careful with the death penalty. However, one cannot say that the death penalty is unlawful because people can make mistakes. Justice in the hands of people is always a risky situation. This risk does not take away our duty to judge rightly and to punish accordingly (Velema, 135).

Another argument that is advanced against the death penalty is that the murderer is deprived of the time to repent. Velema answers this by saying that it is exactly that period before the execution of the judgment that can be referred to as the time to repent. It is at that very time that all of life is pulled together into a short time span. Could that not be used by God to change that heart? With a death penalty, the time to repent is not completely removed. It is condensed into several weeks or months.

The punishment has its own place in the execution of justice. The law is a separate category and therefore the punishment is something particular. Punishment is also retribution for damage done and for injustice done to others. Punishment is more than a societal measure for rehabilitation. Punishment may not be administered in a cruel manner, but it must remain in place as punishment in order that societal constraints would not be destroyed. The element of restoration may not be removed from punishment.

It is clear that, for the foreseeable future, the death penalty will not be reinstated in the Netherlands. For that to happen, we as society have become too far removed from that which God says about people, authority, and the duty of the government to execute justice in the name of God.

Sin makes us guilty and deserving of death. That applies to every person. If murderers who knew what they were doing as they took the life from someone, are not sentenced to death by the earthly judge — although they deserve it — the heavenly Judge will execute his justice. That applies to every one of us. The gospel is that Jesus Christ, taking the place of all those who are his, bore the punishment of death and removed it. That gospel also applies to murderers!

But the execution of justice by the authorities has its own order. There are solid grounds for arguing for the death penalty under strict provisions. That has nothing to do with lack of civilization or a cruel way of thinking. Every person must keep his hands off the life of a fellow human being!

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