Before and after the sentencing and death of the three people labelled by the Australian media as ‘the Bali bombers’, the usual debate over the death penalty has arisen again.

From a solely utilitarian perspective, capital punishment has three points in its favour. Firstly, the death penalty saves society the financial burden of keeping the convicted person alive and well; and, because it would be inhumane to imprison people without giving them the opportunity it better themselves, the cost of TV, internet, books and education.

Secondly, despite claims to the contrary, the death penalty is an effective deterrent. I don’t mean this facetiously, but it does at least prevent the executed person from killing again. But does the fear of capital punishment prevent other people from committing murder? A ‘life’ sentence means at least 25 years in gaol: a person convicted of premeditated murder (what the USA legal system defines as Murder One) may be released after that time and still have decades to live.

Thirdly, the death penalty brings us face-to-face with the fact that we all must die. It is a grim warning but as Arnold Rimmer said, ‘That’s more than most of us get. All most of us get is, “Mind that bus!” “What bus?” SPLAT!’ No one likes to dwell on unpleasant thoughts, but knowing we are soon going to die we will think about two things: what we’re going to lose and what will happen to us after we die. Although this might not help the person to be executed, thinking about these two subjects is good for us. Knowing what matters in life affects how we live: we will focus on what is most important to us. As a result, both our lives and those of other people will be more fulfilled, and possibly even happier.

There are two utilitarian rebuttals of the death penalty. (Most tellingly, I have heard no one assert that capital punishment is unjust or unmerciful.) The first is based on what we think we want society to be like. People against capital punishment assert that it is uncivilised or barbarous, and a civilized nation doesn’t kill its citizens. Individuals may, but society as a whole should rise above this.

This argument is specious. Why should preserving the life of a murderer be civilized rather than morally flaccid? Is it civilised to put a price on a human life? Is 25 years of imprisonment a civilized value?

Civilisation is defined as moral, social and cultural improvement or refinement: by what objective measure can we assert that we have reached greater cultural and social heights than a society that does make use of the death penalty? Our belief about the relationship of the death penalty to civilisation is a subjective measure: it doesn’t indicate that the death penalty is actually, objectively, wrong.

The second, more compelling, argument is that capital punishment is emotionally and mentally damaging to those who perform the executions. In wars, people who fight in the front line both see death and cause it. The experience usually affects them in one of two ways: they become desensitized or traumatised. A battlefield experience compresses a lot of killing into a short time; nevertheless, executing a condemned person will have a similar effect on the executioner. The effect will not be as dramatic but it will be there [1]. This response indicates that taking life is unnatural, and people were never meant to kill one another. However, for the good of society – I still speak about merely utilitarian (tangible, tradable) benefits – is the discomfort of the very few, the executioners, enough reason to reject the death penalty?

To minimize the risk of this happening to the person with the task of execution, those in favour of capital punishment should themselves kill the convicted person – as some people who reject the death penalty have suggested. And in ages past (in centuries BC) the responsibility of avenging murder fell to the family of the victim. This could lead to blood feuds, where the killing would escalate until whole families or clans were at war with one another. To prevent this, the Old Testament regulation – ‘if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise’ – was given; to put a limit on revenge. It is not, as so many people think, a case of what we can do to the other person in vengeance, but how far we can go: justice, and no further [2].

Safeguards should be required: the present standard ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ would be insufficient. The condemned person’s guilt must be demonstrated beyond any doubt – even unreasonable, although possible, doubts. The standards applied to a case where a person is on trial for their life must be the strictest.

But arguments of the death penalty rarely – thankfully – revolve around merely calculable benefits. The question is, is putting a murderer to death wrong or permissible, though regrettable. This is a moral issue that cannot be tested scientifically. Scientific proof, the most objective form of evidence, depends upon observation and measurement. We cannot observe or measure moral qualities such as justice, truth, love or mercy. We might feel instinctively that killing is wrong, through generations of being told so (a form of Lamarckian evolution?) but our certainty does not mean it is an absolute truth: the idea that ‘killing is bad’ is only a social construct, so its moral value is relative. Killing may be uncivilised or deplorable – it is bad according to us – but it still is not inherently bad. To be absolutely wrong or bad, we require a universal source outside ourselves that declares it is so, and that holds it true for every one, in every place and at every time.

This then, is where we must turn to words claimed to be from God. Specifically, the Bible (as I don’t know any of the others particularly well). People who don’t believe the Bible is God’s word won’t accept this, and must make do with utilitarian reasons. But those who do believe in divine revelation should know what, if anything, God says about the topic and the reasons, if any, He gives.

One passage that opponents of the death penalty may cite is the sixth commandment in Exodus 20:13, which the King James (or Authorised) Version translates as ‘thou shalt not kill’. But the Hebrew root word more properly means ‘murder’, and this is the word that recent translations use.

The first reason the Bible gives for the death penalty is not primarily that of justice: that the punishment should fit the crime. That is the case later, in Exodus; but its earliest occurrence in the Bible is in chapter 9 of Genesis.

And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man. (Genesis 9:5-6) [3].

It has been argued that the Genesis 9 passage is a description (‘this is what will happen’), not a prescription (‘this is what should happen’) but interpreting the passage as a command makes better sense of the immediate context and requires fewer contortions of the text and of reason. This interpretation is also supported by Leviticus 24:17, ‘If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death.’ It seems clear that God’s words are a command because of the reason given in the last two lines. God created all people in His image, and we are His representatives.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).

Even after the Fall, the Bible indicates that all people are still in the image of God (James 3:9), although that image has been marred by our rebellion [4].

So to murder (or insult, or disrespect: even just thinking that someone is a waste of space) a person is, by extension, to attack God. It’s like burning your country’s flag or a person in effigy: you’re rejecting them and what they stand for. This is why God will demand an accounting even from animals for killing humans [5]. To murder a human being is theocide by proxy: to attack God’s representative is, in effect, an attack on God Himself.


[1] In the psychology of conditioning, the two types of cause – an intense experience over a short time, and a gradual process – are respectively called ‘flooding’ and ‘systematic desensitisation’.

[2] Exodus 21:23-25. Leviticus 24:19-22 and Deuteronomy 19:16-21 say that the equivalent wound must be given. Both these latter references seem to indicate the intent to injure or murder: the Deuteronomy reference has the context of intent in a legal case, and a witness commits perjury. However, the Exodus reference seems to be rather referring to a situation where there is a lack of intent to kill or injure.

[3] The issue of blood seems to be the segway between diet and murder. This is the first time that people are given the permission to eat meat and, given the likelihood that the cultures that surrounded the Israelites performed human sacrifice and drank blood for cultic reasons, the Israelites needed this warning.

[4] Being made in God’s image means we bear His communicable attributes (the ability to relate, to love, to be just, et cetera.

[5] Whether or not ‘an accounting’ means holding animals responsible.

Addendum: I think the ‘capital’ in capital punishment is from the Latin, having something to do with ‘head’ – as in removing it: we have per capita – ‘by head’ (I think).