Is Capital Punishment a Deterrent?

By Wayne Jackson

With more executions in Texas recently, the nation once again has been plunged into the stormy controversy of capital punishment.

Some are insisting that execution—even of a vicious murderer—is wrong, though they offer no moral criterion save their personal inclination for that judgment. Others, with an appeal of sorts to the Scriptures, allege that capital punishment is incompatible with the teaching of Jesus.

What these sincere folks forget, of course, is that Jesus frequently spoke of the punishment of hell—which is the ultimate capital punishment!

We believe there is ample biblical evidence to establish the fact that the practice of executing criminals, especially those who commit premeditated murder, is consistent with the will of God. Such judgment has been implemented by divine authority in all dispensations of history.

But one of the arguments commonly used against the practice is that executing criminals is not a deterrent to violent crime. Is capital punishment a deterrent to violent crime?

While all sorts of statistics are cited on both sides of the controversy, several facts appear rather obvious:

Statistics don’t tell the whole story

This is not an issue that may be measured accurately in terms of statistics. No one can ever know how many potential murderers have refrained from taking human life due to their fear of prosecution, conviction, and ultimate execution.

Non-biased assessment

It will not do to ask those on death row: “Did a fear of the death penalty have any bearing on your inclination to commit the crime which brought you here?” One can hardly expect an unbiased answer from convicted killers. Moreover, a fear of execution may well have been resident in their minds, only to be overpowered by other urges, stronger at the moment of their violence, i.e., hate, rage, greed, lust, etc.

Besides that, according to Scripture, there is, in every soul (not liberated by the promises of the gospel of Christ), to some degree, the “fear of death” (see Heb. 2:15). The phrase “whistling in the graveyard” was not born in a vacuum.

All forms of punishment deter

If the death penalty does not deter murder, and therefore ought not to be employed, are we to conclude that, similarly, imprisonment does not deter any type of crime, hence, ought not be utilized either?

Every lawbreaker knows there is the possibility he may be apprehended, convicted, and incarcerated. What sort of logic is it that argues that simply because men are reckless in terms of crime’s consequences, the government ought to neglect an appropriate penalty for criminal activity?

But it is argued that the legal system is so flawed that injustice frequently prevails. It is quite true that the justice system is fundamentally flawed, and one of those flaws is that the “teeth” have been extracted from the law. But the solution is not to “throw the baby out with the bath water”; rather, resolute people need to repair the system.

Biblical principles for capital punishment

There are several biblical principles which, when in place, would make the death penalty eminently more effective than it now is.

Fairness

Capital punishment ought to be administered with absolute fairness. Neither race, money, influence, nor any other trivial factor should have any influence upon the facts of the case. If there is any doubt about a man’s guilt, grant him the benefit of that doubt and spare his life.

In many cases, however, there is no doubt about the guilt of the perpetrator. There is no excuse for not demanding the full penalty in such instances.

Swiftness

Punishment of the convicted murderer ought to be implemented speedily. The policy of an endless string of appeals which can stretch out over a dozen years is a mockery of the law. “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).

Public

Let me make this point, though it is bound to be controversial: while it may seem insensitive to those who view themselves as refined products of our modern world, the fact of the matter is, executions would probably be significantly more effective if they were carried out publicly.

The antiseptic, secluded manner of the current process, which is relatively recent—and even novel (from an international vantage point)—undoubtedly neuters the effect of capital justice. In the Old Testament, offenders were put to death in view of all the people; and frequently the criminal’s body was hanged upon a tree till evening (Deuteronomy 21:22).

God, whose “foolishness” is greater that the “wisdom” of man (1 Corinthians 1:25), apparently feels that public execution is a deterrent to capital crimes.

Issues of this nature cannot be decided on mere emotional bases. For those who regard the Bible as a divine revelation, its instruction must be sought—and it is not silent on this matter.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.