Why I Disagree With Matthew Arbo on the Death Penalty

This past week, Matthew Arbo argued very intelligently in an essay for the Gospel Coalition that Christians should not support capital punishment. I’m writing this essay to disagree with Matthew. Though we know each other personally and interact regularly over Twitter, I find that I need more than 140 characters to engage meaningfully with his very well-crafted argument. Ah, but wait! I have a blog. And so it begins.

I should start by noting that Matthew Arbo is more educated, more intelligent, and more philosophically inclined than me. If those facts alone end the argument for you, so be it. But as my high school football coach said, “At least you try hard.” Though I do not claim to be Arbo’s intellectual peer, I do hope to make some thoughtful contribution to the debate through my analysis and critique of his argument.

I write as a cautious supporter of capital punishment. Cautious, because as Arbo deftly points out, the application of this penalty within American jurisprudence leaves much to be desired. I basically agree with the entire second section of Arbo’s essay, in which he surveys the practical problems of racial bias and misapplication of evidence in death-row cases. He concludes that these are “reasons enough to place a temporary national stay on capital punishment” – with which I can heartily agree. However, that’s different than saying that the death penalty itself is objectively wrong. My own position, as I’ve discussed here, is that the death penalty is just in principle though it may be unjust in application. That’s the position I’ll seek to advance in this counter-essay.

Arbo’s contention is that “Christians… should not support [the death penalty],” and he divides his reasoning into three categories: philosophical objections, practical objections, and theological objections. Leaving aside the practical category – since I agree entirely with his points in that area – I’ll focus my counterpoints on his philosophical and theological arguments.

Philosophically, Arbo makes three main points:

  • Execution doesn’t settle the debt of justice: killing the wrongdoer can not reestablish the state of affairs that existed before the murder took place.
  • Capital punishment doesn’t have a pedagogical/restorative purpose: “The dead do not learn from their mistakes.”
  • Capital punishment doesn’t serve as an effective deterrent.

As it stands, I agree with all three of these points. A thoughtful Christian affirmation of capital punishment must affirm that capital punishment cannot undo the injustice of the crime committed, nor teach the offender, nor deter all like crimes. A Christian affirmation of capital punishment rests upon a philosophical foundation that Arbo seems to snub in his argumentation: the doctrine of the imago Dei. If human beings bear the divine image, the taking of a human life is a grave offense, unlike any other. In cases of murder, the death penalty is not required, but it is justified because of the imago Dei. And thus we turn our attention to theological considerations.

At the outset of his theological argument, Arbo seeks to put the burden of proof on those who disagree with him:

If one wishes to base one’s justification for capital punishment on the Old Testament’s lex talionis (eye for an eye) principle, then one must demonstrate how death as a punitive measure is morally right, since the civil and ceremonial elements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ.

In this statement, Arbo has made a category mistake, for the earliest instance of lex talionis – especially as it pertains to the death penalty – is Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Genesis 9 is neither civil nor ceremonial law, but is prior to both. Genesis 9 is a covenantal text. The very next verse is a restatement of the cultural mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Genesis 9:7). Some biblical scholars categorize Genesis 9 as a “covenant of creation,” in which God pledges his faithfulness never again to destroy the earth: “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:11). This covenant is made with ALL of humankind, not just with one people: “God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’”(Genesis 9:17). Therefore, Genesis 9:6 cannot be summarily dismissed as “civil or ceremonial law” which is fulfilled in Christ. And, perhaps even more importantly, the justification for lex talionis in Genesis 9:6 is exactly the doctrine of imago Dei: “…for God made man in his own image.”

The burden of proof, then, is on Arbo, not on those who disagree with him. Instead of blithely dismissing appeals to Genesis 9:6 as “far too paradoxical to accept,” he must show with cogent theological reasoning why the covenantal ordinance established in this text has been set aside. Broad, sweeping generalizations of “civil and ceremonial law” won’t do.

Arbo makes a similar category mistake when he asserts that “Christian advocates of capital punishment will also have to reckon with Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:38–41, where he makes clear this retaliatory interpretation of the law was incorrect.” But most interpreters understand Jesus to be talking about a personal ethic, not a state ethic. Turning the other cheek to Vladimir Putin makes for bad geopolitics. If retribution is wrong in any and every case – including in national defense – then let’s just turn over the keys to the nearest dictator. (Or maybe we already have? But that’s another post). I surmise Arbo knows his Augustine well enough to respect the Christian just-war tradition, which is rooted in exactly this distinction. While persons are not justified in waging war, nations are. Likewise, capital punishment by the state heads off the temptation toward personal vigilante justice and retribution.

What’s odd about Arbo’s argument is that he seems to conflate arguments against capital punishment with arguments for wisdom in its application. To say it another way: a defender of capital punishment can agree with 70% of Arbo’s assertions in his essay. Without reading into his intentions, it seems he’s adopted a rhetorical strategy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – marshall any and all objections to the death penalty, in principle or application, and imply that they add up to “Christians should oppose the death penalty.” But this just isn’t so. For instance, when he argues, “Governing authorities are sometimes required to use force to uphold the law and secure peace, of course, but nothing constrains them to kill offenders in order to do so… Neither is the Christian insubordinate or disrespectful in pleading for measured clemency,” I find myself saying, “Yes and Amen!” But this is not an argument against the death penalty. It is an argument for wise jurisprudence and faithful Christian witness. And it’s an argument that works equally well for my position as for his.

One final point before I conclude. Arbo ends his essay sounding a note that’s being sounded far and wide in Christian circles these days – the note that “the Christian faith is fully and entirely pro-life—beginning to end.” This idea is being trumpeted as a de facto case against the death penalty, as if a Christian cannot be “consistently pro-life” without being anti-death-penalty. However, I have not yet seen cogent argumentation to back up this assertion. I was hoping that Arbo’s essay might fill the gap, but it didn’t (or it hasn’t yet; perhaps this response will spur fuller treatment). I consider myself someone who is “fully and entirely pro-life,” as well a supporter of the death penalty in principle. I don’t think I’m the only one. Therefore, I plead with all who are repeating this “consistently pro-life” trope:

  • Please distinguish clearly between Christian opposition to the death penalty in principle and Christian opposition to the death penalty in application (or, just admit that the main objections are practical/applicatory, and let’s focus our Christian activism there);
  • Deal meaningfully, exegetically and theologically, with Genesis 9:6;
  • Show why the basic assumptions of just war theory (state ethic vs. personal ethic) don’t apply to the death penalty as well.

Perhaps this work has been (or is being) done somewhere, and I’m just not aware of it. If so, feel free to point me there in the comments section. And then I’ll take Arbo to task for not quoting such work in his essay.

In the end, Arbo has made necessary arguments against the death penalty, but his arguments are not sufficient to establish his conclusion. I say this with humble gratitude for Matthew Arbo as a friend, a brother in Christ, and one of the church’s bright intellectual and philosophical minds. My critiques of his work are offered in charity, with the expectation that he may in fact answer every single objection in this post by breakfast tomorrow. And if he does, I trust I will have served the Lord’s people well by giving him the opportunity.


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  1. Bob, I thank you again for this thoughtful, substantive response to portions of my capital punishment article. Before I respond to some of your questions and criticisms, I should like to make a passing remark on some unavoidable limitations of the article. First, I was initially given a 900-1100 word limit for the piece, To keep remotely close the editors word ceiling I had to cut a tremendous amount of supporting argument. In some of these cases I distilled arguments much further than I really wanted to, thinning them out and then suggesting in a tacit, provisional way how the argument might go. Second, reaching a wider reading audience (like TGC’s) requires some regrettable simplification. I try to avoid it, of course, but sometimes its just not possible. I expound below on some of the underdeveloped arguments.

    So, throat now fully cleared, a few responses, touching primarily upon major objections:

    1. My central claim. I argued for the following thesis in the article: “that Christians are not obligated to support capital punishment, and indeed ought not support it.” That sequence is important. You point out, sensibly, that CP is just in principle but can be unjust in application. It seems we have different ideas of what the principle in punishment is. My own feeling is that the current (unjust) application is such that the real, theological principle cannot be met, meaning it cannot be supported. I’ll come back to this Principle point below, but I take it to be intrinsically retributive.

    2. The Biggie–my use of Gen.9:6 and subsequent “snub” of Imago. I’m aware Gen 9:6 is a covenantal text. There is a *tremendous* amount that could be said about what is happening in Gen.9, of course, from post-flood context to the repeated use of “blood.” In its application to capital punishment, however, it is the principle in v.6 that has been enshrined in legal history. Taken literally the verse doesn’t speak to capital punishment. In spirit, however, it serves as an important legal rationale for retribution, a retribution itself based on the Image of God. I’m unpersuaded by your linking of v.17 with the logic of v.6., in part because the covenant involves *all* creatures and penal codes are meaningless for all but one species.

    Part of what is implied in my argument — again, which I wished I could have made more pronounced — is how the Noahic covenant is reinterpreted in light of Christ’s finished work. The church cannot draw a straight line from Gen 9:6 to formal justification of CP. It has to be interpreted and applied in light of the New Covenant. The church is a people reconstituted in the grace and love of Christ. It is under His love command, to love God and love neighbor. Could the condemned be a neighbor, I wonder? Are we loving family and friends of the slain, for example, when we affirm their longing to see the killer executed? If all human beings are bearers of the image of God, who is it we are supposed to love: the killed or the killer? If we cannot love the killed, then would it be some idealized Killed, representative of the one lost? Gen.9:6 doesn’t settle such questions, and wasn’t meant to. This is also kind of what I was getting at when I claimed that killing a person as punishment for killing is a paradoxical thing to “support” as a Christian. How do we love bearers of the Image and support the killing of them at the same time?

    I by no means intend to “blithely dismiss” Gen.9:6. But because I believe in a law fulfilled in Christ and a New Covenant established by him, the meaning of the passage must comport with new terms and new life he has set for his people. It strikes me as odd, in this respect, how few *New Testament* passages are cited in support of CP.

    3. Matthew 5. I’m aware of the church-state distinction. Jesus’ instruction is for disciples, individual and collective, not the state. You acknowledge I’m a good enough Augustinian to know all that! My main point there is to make a narrowly Christian application. Does the Christian who supports capital punishment do so out of love, or out of some appetite for retribution? The state may punish in any number of ways, but the church needn’t fully capitulate to all its methods; indeed it shouldn’t.

    It might be helpful to mention at this point that punishment is conventional in nature. I alluded to this on Twitter last night, but there is a distinction to draw between Principle and Rule. It is everywhere wrong to murder the innocent, for example, but penalties for the offense vary from place to place. A life sentence in the US differs from the UK, and the UK from China, etc. Punishment has always been conventional, including capital punishment.

    4. Bullet points toward the end, which I’ll try to take in turn. I don’t know that you ever state what your take the principle of capital punishment to be, but infer from your argument that it must be the Image of God; ie, that because humans are image bearers, those who kill should themselves be killed. But I could have that wrong, so feel free to clarify, if you like. Either way, I return to the question posed above about the Christian’s responsibility to uphold the Love Commandment and, in turn, to carry out the mission of God. What is the church’s mission with respect to the condemned? May the Christian offer no plea for clemency? And what about the condemned who are also Christian (cf. Gassendanner case in Georgia)? Or is there on your view no distinction to draw here?

    I have made only provisional comments on Gen 9, but I have no problem going into greater detail. I do not know that I really have to, however, since its meaning for the Church is reinterpreted in light of Christ’s finished work and the giving of his pentecostal Spirit.

    The reason rules of just war do not apply to capital punishment is because they share different ends. The purpose of war, as Augustine put it, is peace. But it makes no sense to say the purpose of capital punishment is peace. The purpose of capital punishment is at best retributive, which incidentally is expressly prohibited in just war. A nation may not use war to punish another nation. And I could say more, but I think that may suffice (for now!).

    A final comment. I believe the onus is on the Christian supporter of capital punishment to offer reasons for their support because it remains unclear how the supporter reconciles the moral order established under the New Covenant, particularly the Love Command, with support of a penalty that affirms human dignity by extinguishing it.

    Bob, I sincerely thank you for these comments. A discerning critic is a writer’s friend. Very much appreciated. I hope I’ve offered some clarification.

  2. Hi Bob, I’m really interested in your discussion of the fair/unfair attribution of the “pro-life” label to Christians who believe in life at both ends of the spectrum only. I can appreciate how pro-life “purists” might seem unfair to you for withholding the label “pro-life” from others, like yourself, who hold a position more tolerant of the use of capital punishment. While I humbly disagree with your position, I hope others engage in this conversation for the sake of Christian brotherhood.

    I disagree with you for about capital punishment for practical reasons of governance and how Christians enact justice and model God’s justice as image bearers to the rest of mankind. Imagine, if you will, a man who is rightly convicted of a horrendous crime and sentenced to death in a state with the death penalty. Imagine this man comes to a saving faith in Christ while on death row. and is truly repentant. Now imagine that this man is scheduled to be executed, and both his executioner (a state government employee), as well as the governor himself, are Christians. I acknowledge it is legally within the right of the executioner to execute his brother in Christ (indeed, it is his job), and it is also legally within the right of the governor to withhold his pardon or stay and for this man to be executed by the state. However, I see this as a grave miscarriage of divine justice — two Christian brothers with positions of authority, the governor especially, willingly executing a brother for past crimes. Perhaps the executioner was a death row employee who had gotten to know the criminal as his brother in Christ and had prayed with him. Pardon my use of emotional rhetoric, but it best illustrates my point: does one simply wake up one day, go to work, and, with the full power and approval of the state, execute a Christian brother strapped to a chair?

    I believe a Christian in either of these two positions of authority would be compelled to ask (as in any circumstance) what is God’s will in this situation? The permissiveness of the state to execute by means of settled law is not convincing on its own, because it does not convince you (Bob) regarding the state’s position on abortion. In other words, the state condones abortion, and so the legality of the act alone does not mean it is just. Indeed, Jesus was executed legally. So there must be another reason to equate state-sponsored execution with justice, beyond its mere legality. I would infer that you are asking how justice is best carried out on earth with human agents, and how Christians should act within the scope of what we know about God, creation, and our place in it.

    Using my example, because I believe it would be the most responsible course of action for the executioner to conscientiously object, or the governor to stay the execution, it opens the debate even further: is it ever appropriate to execute anyone? It seems inappropriate to apply this only to fellow Christians. Or in other words, if I can show an instance where this would be a miscarriage of divine justice, I would question the entire enterprise of state-sponsored capital punishment in an post-Christ age where full atonement for all time has already been carried out through bloodshed. Because of what Christ has done for each and every one of us, all sinners on our own death row of sorts, the greatest charity we could ever give someone on death row is more time to repent and entrust himself to the Lord of all.

  3. Matthew –
    Thanks for all these clarifications. They help me understand your argument much more fully. As I expected, your brilliance shines through even more fully in your comments here. But I remain perplexed on a few points:

    1) Though I agree that ALL of Scripture must be understood in light of the New Covenant, it seems that you’re applying this rather narrowly to Genesis 9. Is it only verse 6 that gets re-interpreted? My argument about Genesis 9 is that because it is a “covenant with creation,” there really ISN’T much in that covenant that gets substantively reshaped in light of Christ (unlike the Mosaic covenant, which is radically reshaped by the New Covenant). It seems to me like you want to say “We have to read Genesis 9 in light of the New Covenant” – and then you just re-interpret verse 6 and call it good. I’m asking you to make an EXEGETICAL case for your position, whereas you’re merely making a THEOLOGICAL one (New Covenant, Love Command, therefore Genesis 9:6 means something different now). I realize the exegetical case I’m asking for is more the purview of a biblical scholar than a philosopher… but hey, you wrote the article. I’m just telling you where the holes are. 🙂

    2) Again, when you say that “killing a person as punishment for killing is a paradoxical thing to “support” as a Christian,” I’m going to open my Bible to Genesis 9:6 and say, “Can you tell me where the paradox is? God here COMMANDS humanity to shed blood for the shedding of blood.” It seems that your argument is: the New Covenant, Sermon on the Mount, Love Command, etc reframe our understanding of neighbor-love in a way that makes Genesis 9:6 obsolete. I understand the argument you’re making, and what I’m saying is: you’re not MAKING the argument. You’re assuming it. As a rough parallel: despite all the thoughtful articulations of egalitarianism I’ve read, I remain a complementarian on gender roles because the Bible grounds the complementarity of the sexes in the Imago Dei and in creation itself (1 Timothy 2:13-14; Eph 5:31). And I remain a cautious supporter of capital punishment for a similar reason: because Genesis 9:6 grounds capital punishment in the imago Dei and in creation itself. (So yes, imago Dei IS my whole grounds for support of CP.) I need someone – perhaps you, perhaps someone else – to cogently show WHY a creation-rooted, Imago-Dei-grounded command from Almighty God is now abrogated – and where the biblical material is that shows that abrogation. In the case of “civil and ceremonial law” (which is the rubric you used in your original post, BTW), it’s easy: see the book of Hebrews. In the case of Genesis 9, I posit that it’s not quite so easy.

    3) I think point #1 in your comment is the place where you probably have more to say that we need to hear. THAT point is clearly the purview of the philosopher rather than the exegete. I’m very interested in your elucidation of this statement: “My own feeling is that the current (unjust) application is such that the real, theological principle cannot be met.” I anticipate that whatever you have to say on that point might win me over. If you would consider writing further on that, I think it would serve the church well. It would certainly serve me well.

    Thanks again for the charitable dialogue. If you have more to say, this comment thread is all yours.

  4. Thanks again, Bob, for your comments. I wish I had time elaborate further on that philosophical point that just might win you over, but I’ll restrict myself here to explaining my interpretation of Gen.9. Hopefully this this will address some of your major concerns:

    (A) I read the covenant in Gen 9 has having two distinct but integrated parts — v.1-7 and v8-17. In the first part God tells Noah and his sons what they are to do and explains to them the relation they now share with other creatures. God gives to them “everything,” but with a couple of stipulations: they may not each meat with blood in it, nor may another man’s blood be shed. That’s the immediate context for v.9, which then pronounces the penalty for shedding another’s blood. Man is distinctive among creatures because of the Image. Then, the command to be fruitful is repeated, and only after this, in the second part, is the covenant broadened to include every living creature. It just doesn’t make any sense to read v.1-7 as including all creatures when all the provisions of the covenant are about distinctly human activities.

    (B) It is true that I see something distinctive in v.6 and believe it should be interpreted in light of Christ and the New Covenant he has established with this church. I do so because other provisions of the covenant in Gen 9:1-7 have only loose application to the church today, and in some instances are also fulfilled in Christ himself. Is “everything that moves” really meant to be food for us? It is possible (if not probable) that in context this is what is being commanded. Are we obliged to follow it? All humanity, or only the church? If so, what do you make of Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor 8 and 10? Is your view that these texts are fully congruous in what they allow or require? God also tells Noah and his sons that he gives them “everything.” If that is true, how then are we to interpret John 3:34-36, in which Jesus explains that the Father loves the Son and “has given all things into his hand.” The Noahic covenant is still meaningful and relevant for the church, of course, but for these reasons I do not interpret v.1-7 as a self-standing moral prescription.

    (C) Interpreting v.6 *as is*, apart from Christ work and covenant, carries rather odd implications. As mentioned, v.6 presumes the logic of lex talionis, but at almost no place in history has the principle been upheld in literal terms — ie, that the punishment should identically match the wrong. Not even in the odd Islamic codes does this happen. When someone steals from another’s produce stand, for example, the penalty is to remove the offender’s hand, not to steal produce from the offender. The latter would more directly reflect lex talionis. When politically institutionalized, as after many generations it inevitably would, penal codes do not specify total replication of the wrong upon the wrongdoer, but of proportionate justice upon the wrongdoer, particularly in form and severity.

    I go into detail on this point because your reading of Gen.9:1-18 as a covenant with all creation seems also to commit you to interpreting v.6 not just as a retributive principle *in killing*, but in every case of blood-spilling violence. An offense against the Image of God is an offense against the Image of God, on might say. But I hear no one lobbying for imposition of such penalties. The church does not do so, I posit, because of how it understands its basic task and its relationship to political authority in light of Romans 12&13. And so I ask, if the church doesn’t demand identically retributive punishment for *all* violent acts — on your reading of Gen 9 – -why make CP a special case?

    I hope that gives a clearer sense of the exegetical moves I’m making. In any case, I want you to know how much I’ve appreciated this exchange. I’m sure we’ll have ample time to retrace this debate when next we see each other, which I hope is soon.

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