Myth: Murderers deserve death.

Fact: Only God or an omniscient being could determine that; Jesus argued against "an eye for an eye."


Almost all societies have dispensed with the principle of "an eye for an eye," and considered it a step toward more enlightened civilization. Christians who cite "an eye for an eye" in their defense of the death penalty are usually unaware of the strict criteria that God imposed before it could be used to take human life. The Old Testament also allowed the death penalty for crimes that today we consider less than misdemeanors -- clearly, the Old Testament law is archaic. Finally, Jesus himself argued against the principle of "an eye for an eye."


Most societies dispensed with the "eye for an eye" principle of punishment centuries ago; indeed, it is considered one of the great advances of civilization and criminal justice.

We do not punish rapists by raping them, or arsonists by burning their houses down, or sadists by torturing them. Instead they are imprisoned, isolated from society where they can no longer do harm. There are three main reasons for doing so:

1. Any criminal justice system is inherently imperfect, and the human beings within it are inevitably fallible. Courts have a rich history of mistaken convictions; the Stanford Law Review has uncovered 350 cases this century where clearly innocent people were sentenced to death, 75 of them since 1970. Only God or an omniscient being would truly know what another person "deserves." And that would apply not only to questions of guilt, but questions of justness of punishment. Imprisoning people allows us to reverse mistaken convictions with the minimum of damage. For those inmates not sentenced to life, it allows them to re-enter society without being bent on a terrible vengeance.

2. Any society that responds to crime by committing more of the same teaches people that it is not the act itself which is reprehensible, but the enemy to whom you do it. But the classification of enemies is an intellectual exercise, one that changes with changing group identification. The result is the very moral relativism which conservatives and libertarians normally decry.

3. A law based on revenge serves no purpose; the purpose of punishment should be to reform the reformable and quarantine the unreformable. For those who say revenge serves the purpose of satisfying the emotions of the victim's families, there are several responses: 1) Life in prison is a severe punishment in its own right, and should fulfill this need; 2) Revenge does not bring the loved one back; 3) Revenge may make things worse for innocent people -- not just the mistakenly convicted, but the future innocents who fall victim to the higher murder rates that follow executions -- which is surely not the family's intent; 4) Our laws should be based on logic, not emotion, as overwhelming as the emotion might be. Laws based on emotion lead to barbarism. Victim's families are superior to the criminal precisely because they are not barbarians.

Some Christians point out that the principle of lex talion ("An eye for eye") was commanded by God in the Old Testament. But if Christians really knew the ins and outs of this law, they would never quote it in defense of the death penalty. First, Jehovah ordered very strict criteria to be used in determining whether a death sentence should be carried out. Consider: This would invalidate the vast majority of death sentences handed out in America today, since 98 percent are not even based on a single eye-witness, but on circumstantial evidence!

Most Christians would also greatly qualify their use of the Old Testament in support of their pro-capital punishment views if they knew the full range of circumstances in which it was allowed. Jehovah ordered the death penalty for the following: Obviously, many of these laws are archaic, and criminal justice has evolved considerably since then. Few people seriously argue that these laws should be replicated in today's world. For Christians, Jesus himself signaled a change away from the legal philosophy of lex talion when he said: Typically, pro-death penalty Christians counter this text with the following quote, from the same sermon: What Jesus meant by this is the subject of vigorous debate. However, what is obvious is that many laws changed under the New Covenant; Christians were freed from many of the ancient Jewish laws on circumcision, Sabbath-observance and temple sacrifices. So it is not a question of whether the Talmudic laws were changed or dropped; the only question is how many were. If some Christians maintain that at least the civil and criminal laws of the Talmud are still valid in their entirety, then we should expect that they actually subscribe to all of them. This would include the commandment requiring two or three eye-witnesses for a capital conviction, and the initiation of the death penalty in all the above instances. Needless to say, no Christian would ever agree to such a legal code.

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