No other issue in criminal justice is as loaded with meaning and emotion as the death penalty. Even at Prison Fellowship Ministries, which is closely associated with the issues of prisoners, victims, and the criminal justice system, there is split opinion on capital punishment, reflecting the division of opinion elsewhere among evangelicals.

Most death penalty debate among Christians centers on the biblical ideas of justice and mercy. One side argues that the wanton disregard for life exhibited by some murderers can be properly punished only by death. There is certain biblical support for this argument. When God gave the law to the children of Israel at Mount Sinai, he included capital punishment, not only for the intentional taking of a life, but for several other offenses as well.

Others ask how can a society that takes life claim to be upholding its sanctity? Taking the life of the offender only removes the possibility of remorse, repentance, and penance. All we do is exact our pound of flesh. Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees who had brought the adulterous woman before him under the penalty of death, said, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone." Rather than demanding vengeful punishment, we are to show forgiveness, compassion, and the opportunity for repentance. Part of the reason for this ethical impasse is not only that both arguments have merit, but that they are also consistent with a Christian world-view. Justice and mercy are integral parts of the gospel.

This issue cannot be decided on the basis of Scripture or theology alone. We have to put capital punishment in its legal and socioeconomic context. Courts carry out the death penalty in accord with legal strictures. Moving ...

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