"Indeed, a minimum of life, an unchaining from all coarser desires, an independence in the middle of all kinds of outer nuisance; a bit of Cynicism, perhaps a bit of ‘tub’."
Friedrich Nietzsche

12 Apr 2012

Why does God allow capital punishment?

This is one of the probing philosophical questions Werner Herzog poses in the opening scene of Into the Abyss, his documentary film about the State of Texas execution chamber in Huntsville. The god-fearing interviewees  prisoners and State employees alike  clearly are not used to having their moral assumptions challenged in this way. A very humbling experience thanks to Herzog at his best. Herzog leads the prison chaplain, Reverend Fred Lopez, into relating a story of how he only just avoided killing a squirrel by breaking his golf cart just in time. The Rev. Lopez had already come close to tears thinking about God’s miraculous intervention in saving the squirrel from certain death, not realising until too late the absurdity of this juxtaposition with his day job. He is interviewed among rows (over 2,000) of numbered but unnamed crosses in the Joe Byrd  Cemetery; nicknamed ‘Peckerwood Hill’ in reference to the poor, uneducated whites who are the cemetary’s principal occupants. 
Joe Byrd Cemetary
God seems to be the only consolation in an otherwise bleak Texan landscape occupied, or so it seems, only by the poor and dispossessed. For me, the most poignant moment of the film is the interview with Fred Allen, former captain of the death house team, whose job it had been to spend the last 8 to 10 hours with death row inmates meeting their last requests before strapping them onto the gurney ready for their lethal injection. And then, after pronounced dead, unstrapping them and transferring them onto the bier prior to disposal of the body. Allen explains to Herzog, how having personally been responsible for the execution of around 125 prisoners  obediently and automatically carrying out his ‘job’ with precision  that following his execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman to be executed in Texas for 135 years, he had suddenly started shaking involuntarily and crying. 

Fred Allen
Karla Faye Tucker
Far from receiving the sympathy, support and compensation for workplace related stress that most workers in Europe would have experienced, Allen’s nervous breakdown resulted in losing both his job and his pension. Presumably quitting such a role in Texas is tantamount to high treason. Karla Faye was executed in 1998, yet it was noted in the Washington Post that Allen quit his job in 2000 in response to the increasing numbers of executions that took place during George W. Bush’s five year reign as Govener of Texas. Bush personally endorsed 153 execution warrants, more than any other Governor in the history of Texas, ignoring the many pleas for clemancy including, in the case of Karla Faye, pleas from Pope John Paul II and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi. Allen speaks movingly that during his mental breakdown, he visualised the faces of all the 125 inmates with whom he had shared their last hours of life. No one has the right to take another life, Allen concludes, I don’t care if it’s the law  it’s so easy to change the law. The law won't change, however, because the voters of Texas are so sold on the idea of God's retribution. Allen sums up his interview by repeating how someone had described to him the little 'dash' carved into tombstones between peoples’ birth date and the date of death. The most important thing Allen has come to realise, is knowing how you’re going to live your dash.


  1. The trail court judge signs the death warrant in Texas, not the governor.

    The important persons in this process are the vicitm, who deserved to live, the judge or jury who decided that death was the just and approproiate sanction for the crime and the murderer, who deserved the sanction, based upon that crime.

  2. Mercy & Justice - Sanction & the Death Penalty
    compiled by Dudley Sharp

    1) Saint Augustine: " . . . inflicting capital punishment . . . protects those who are undergoing capital punishment from the harm they may suffer . . . through increased sinning which might continue if their life went on." (On the Lord's Sermon, 1.20.63-64.)

    2) Saint Thomas Aquinas: . . . the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore." Summa Theologica, II-II, 25, 6, 2

    as with:

    3) Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey: “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” synopsis: “A Bible Study”, from Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992. Dr. Carey was a Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College.


  3. 4) Romano Amerio, a faithful Catholic Vatican insider, scholar, professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council.

    “The most irreligious aspect of this argument against capital punishment is that it denies its expiatory value which, from a religious point of view, is of the highest importance because it can include a final consent to give up the greatest of all worldly goods."

    "This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to civil society, capital punishment can cancel all punishment due in the life to come. His thought is . . . Summa, ‘Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or a least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation and contrition; but a natural death does not.’ "

    "The moral importance of wanting to make expiation also explains the indefatigable efforts of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist Beheaded, the members of which used to accompany men to their deaths, all the while suggesting, begging and providing help to get them to repent and accept their deaths, so ensuring that they would die in the grace of God, as the saying went.”

    Some opposing capital punishment ". . . go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory. In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened. In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life.”

    Some death penalty opponents “deny the expiatory value of death; death which has the highest expiatory value possible among natural things, precisely because life is the highest good among the relative goods of this world; and it is by consenting to sacrifice that life, that the fullest expiation can be made. And again, the expiation that the innocent Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through his being condemned to death.”

    “Amerio on capital punishment “, Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, May 25, 2007 ,

  4. 5) The Catechism of The Roman Catholic Church (2005) states: “The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” "When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation." 2266

    This is a specific reference to justice, just retribution, just deserts and the like, all of which redress the disorder.

    We must first recognize the guilt/sin/crime/disorder of the aggressor and hold them accountable for it by way of penalty, meaning the penalty should be just and appropriate for the guilt/sin/crime/disorder and should represent justice/just retribution/just deserts and their like which “redress the disorder caused by the offence” or to correct an imbalance, as defined within the example of 2260:

    "For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning.... Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image." "This teaching remains necessary for all time."

    as with:

    6) Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey: " . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none. It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect." "A Bible Study" (p. 111-113) Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

  5. 7) G. K. Chesterton : Children are innocent and love justice, while most adults are wicked and prefer mercy.” http://www.online-literature.com/chesterton/

    8) C. S. Lewis: "Some enlightened people would like to banish all conceptions of retribution or desert from their theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself. They do not see that by so doing they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it? And if I do deserve it, you are admitting the claims of retribution. " "The Complete C.S. Lewis", Signature Classics, The Problem of Pain, P407, Harper Collins, 2002

    9) Reconciliation has to be built with full recognition and accountability for the wrong. –Martha Kilpatrick

    10) George MacDonald: God will give absolute justice, which is the only good thing. He will spare nothing to bring his children back to himself, their sole well-being, whether he achieve it here—or there. http://www.george-macdonald.com/

    11) William Law : "To say, therefore, as some have said, if God is all love toward fallen man, how can he threaten or chastise sinners is no better that saying, if God is all goodness in Himself and toward man, how can He do that in and to man which is for his good? As absurd is to say, if the able physician is all love, goodness and good will toward his patients, how can he blister, purge, or scarify them, how can he order one to be trepanned and another to have a limb cut off? Nay, so absurd is this reasoning that if it could be proved that God had no chastisement for sinners, the very want of their chastisement would be the greatest of all proofs that God was not all love and goodness toward man."

    "And, therefore, the pure, mere love of God is that alone from which sinners are justly to expect that no sin will pass unpunished, but that His love will visit them with every calamity and distress that can help to break and purify the bestial heart of man and awaken in him true repentance and conversion to God. It is love alone in the holy Deity that will allow no peace to the wicked, nor ever cease its judgments till ever sinner is forced to confess that it is good for him that he has been in trouble, and thankfully own that not the wrath but the love of God has plucked out that right eye, cut off that right band, which he ought to have done but would not do for himself and his own salvation." A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, http://www.answers.com/topic/william-law

    12) Jesus: Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." (Jesus) replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Luke 23: 39-43

    Mercy, salvation and redemption will not be measured by the method of our earthly death , but by our state of grace in the context of the eternal.

  6. Fred Allen volunteered for the Texas execution group and he resigned from his job with the Texas Prison system.

    Look at the date after the dash of all of those innocent murder victims and realise what they all lost, then look at the date after the dash of all of those murderers woh voluntariliy took the lives of those innocents, who so deserved to live, and understand that those murderers earned their own deaths because of that murder and know that those murderers had 10 years to prepare for their own deaths, who had all of that time for repentance and to seek atonement.

  7. If you can convince me that Jesus, who was the victim of an unjust capital punishment, is in favor of capital punishment then I will begin to believe that it is just. However, under our criminal justice system, so many people have been exonerated after having been assessed the death penalty, that we know we do not have a perfect system for making decisions concerning people's lives.

    1. Pope Benedict XIV

      “If to save us the Son of God had to suffer and die crucified, it certainly was not because of a cruel design of the heavenly Father. The cause of it is the gravity of the sickness of which he must cure us: an evil so serious and deadly that it will require all of his blood. In fact, it is with his death and resurrection that Jesus defeated sin and death, reestablishing the lordship of God.   “It Is Not ‘Optional’ for Christians to Take Up the Cross”, 8/31/2008) https://zenit.org/articles/cross-not-optional-says-benedict-xvi/ 

  8. Jesus and the Death Penalty

    "All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

    Saint (& Pope) Pius V, "The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder." "The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent" (1566).

    Pope Pius XII: "When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live." 9/14/52.

    "Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars"

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