How Should Christians Think About Lethal Injection? Christian Ethicists Respond

Undated photo of a lethal injection table.
Undated photo of a lethal injection table. | (Photo: Reuters / Handout)
Protesters against the death penalty walk with signs before the formal sentencing of convicted Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, Massachusetts, June 24, 2015.
Protesters against the death penalty walk with signs before the formal sentencing of convicted Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, Massachusetts, June 24, 2015. | (Photo: Reuters)
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Christian leaders are weighing in on Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor's recent comments about the death penalty, particularly lethal injection, which she suggests may be "our most cruel experiment yet."

In a 6-2 decision, along with Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the High Court's first-ever Hispanic judge dissented from the court's decision not to hear the case of Alabama's oldest inmate, Thomas Douglas Arthur, who in 1982 murdered his girlfriend's husband. The Supreme Court had recently moved to delay his execution while they deliberated hearing his case. Arthur's particular objection was to the use of the drug midazolam used in lethal injections due to the physical pain and suffering it can cause.

"After 34 years of legal challenges, Arthur has accepted that he will die for his crimes," Sotomayor wrote. "He now challenges only how the state will be permitted to kill him."

To flesh this out from a Christian standpoint, The Christian Post reached out two Christian ethicists, one who is supportive of capital punishment, the other opposed.

"Romans 13 makes that very clear when it says [the state] bears not the sword in vain," said Richard Land, who is the former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and current president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, North Carolina.

"The word sword there [indicates] the sword that was used for capital punishment in the Roman empire," he said.

If a Christian is going to support the death penalty, he added, they must be as dedicated to its fair and just and equitable application as they are to its being utilized by the state.

"And clearly, historically, in the United States, it has not been," Land explained. "You are far more likely to be executed if you are a person of color, if you are poor, or if you are a man."

Land believes the U.S. has substantially rectified two of those three inequities, "but it is still far more likely that you are going to be executed in the United States if you are poor rather than wealthy."

Regarding the method of administering the death penalty, a civilized society should do their best to determine the most humane and painless way to do so, he said.

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"That's why lethal injection was invented," Land continued, but "if indeed Sotomayor's objections are correct, then we need to find a more humane way to execute justice and capital punishment."

"Sometimes the only way society can bear fitting witness to the horrible nature of the crime committed and the callous disregard for their fellow human beings is the forfeiture of their lives."

CP asked Land if he thinks capital punishment deters people from committing crimes, if it is really effective anymore.

"It does have some," Land said, "and it would have greater deterrent effect if it were practiced more regularly and in a more timely fashion."

When people are in prison longer than some people live, as is the case with this particular case in Alabama who has been on death row for so long, "it robs it from its deterrent effect," he concluded.

Roger Olson
Roger Olson | (Photo:

CP also reached out to Roger Olson, Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics Truett Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"I have long advocated life in prison without the possibility of parole for those found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of truly heinous crimes such as murder," Olson wrote in an email to CP Thursday.

But the death penalty goes too far, he has argued forcefully.

Writing on his blog last year, Olson opined that authentic Christians must oppose the capital punishment for one distinctly theological reason.

"When we take another human life unnecessarily, we usurp God's prerogative for that person's eventual salvation or, if they are already saved, for that person's future service for the Kingdom of God," Olson wrote.

"I believe the Christian reasons for opposing the death penalty are so strong that capital punishment ought to be, as slavery was in the mid-19th century, an issue for a 'church struggle' that divides if sadly necessary," he said.

Follow Brandon Showalter on Twitter: @BrandonMShow Follow Brandon Showalter on Facebook: @BrandonMShow

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