On this past Wednesday evening, while leading a small group of Christians through lesson 5 of Tim Keller's Gospel in Life (I highly recommend it), I found myself in a discussion of the death penalty. There were some in the group against it. Their thought, as I understood it, was that sending murderers to prison for life increases the chances of them embracing repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Ac 20:20). The problem is that this simply is not so. Nor is it biblical. If it were biblical, it would be so. Here is my brief argument:
1. God, in His Word, commands that whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed. For in the image of God He made man. As for you (Noah), be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply upon it (Ge 9:6f). This is not unclear. God is pro-life, pro-multiplication, pro-populating. And while this may seem strange to some, it is His pro-life stance that moves Him to command the killing of murderers. Following the great flood of God's wrath, and the subsequent release of Noah and his family from the ark, God established a government to protect the few remaining humans and their posterity. In Ge 9 God puts the fear and terror of man onto the animal world. The animals heavily outnumber Noah's family. Some of them are meat-eaters. Some of them are quite powerful. Therefore, God in his kindness protects humanity. This is why I don't see bears, crocodiles, porcupines, leopards, etc on the streets of . Since the flood, it is normal for animals to fear man. This is why when you startle one, it will usually run from you, or attack you. God also, to protect man from God, covenants with man and nature to never destroy the earth again by a flood. For the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done (8:21). The deluge had destroyed most of the sinners, but not the sin. Sin lived, in the hearts and minds of Noah and his family. God, being holy, is forever provoked against sinners (i.e. Ps 2:12 & 7:11). So to protect us from Himself, He covenants with us in grace. Yet there is still a threat - man. To protect man from man God institutes what we might call the death penalty, as a vindication of the image of God within man, and as a deterrent to murder. In murder, the image of God in man is destroyed. And God takes this personally.
By the way, this law of death is given within the laws of re-creation. It is not given in the law of Moses. In the law of Moses it is expanded. In the OT God repeatedly commands the extermination of corrupt murderous people. Also, the Apostle Paul clearly saw a place for the death penalty administered by civil government (Ro 13:1-4). The killing of murderers is not murder. It's judgment.
2. More time does not equal better odds. As a matter of fact, more time has nothing to do with the odds of redemption. Redemption is set. God has chosen. He does employ means and He does redeem murderers in prison (I imagine). But to argue that the longer they live in prison the better their odds that God will save them is not true. God's activity is what it is. There isn't anything else. To teach us the depravity of man, Jesus said that if people will not listen to the gospel of Moses and the Prophets (the Scriptures), these same people will not be persuaded of the truth of the gospel even if someone rises from the dead (Lu 16:31), which Jesus actually did. The issue is not a person's length of life, but depth of depravity, which, in fallen man, is a constant. God does grant opportunity for repentance. Many people get decades. But when a murderer murders, and is sentenced to death, still unbelieving, he has until the executioner does his work. That's it. His window of opportunity has become much more narrow. To send him/her to prison for life is rank disobedience to the command of God. As long as there is wicked violence on the earth, a corrective righteous violence will be needed.
God has never blessed disobedience. Even the disobedience of those disobeying for the sake of evangelism. The call of the death penalty is to trust God enough to govern His way. If the murderer is elect, he will, in the end, be saved, as was King David. This doesn't mean we shouldn't evangelize murderers. It means that we should trust God; that He is more loving, more merciful, and more patient than we are; and that the Lord knows those who are His (2 Ti 2:19). Therefore we carry on in obedience with the faithful execution of the guilty. So, convicted murderers should be executed within hours, not days, of sentencing. The execution, to be a deterrent, should be public and violent. The way of God was a swift stoning. Murderers don't normally load needles with sleeping serum and Valium, then murder you once you're comfortable and unconscious. Neither should the state. If this seems harsh, or even un-Christian, I suggest three things: First, ask if this position is biblical. If it is, case closed. We must adjust to God, not God to us. Second, imagine it's your loved one who has been unjustly robbed of life. That might change your perspective. Third, consider the worth of the image of God in man. That's what God is vindicating. It's not that human life is so precious. It's that God is precious, and His laws are sacred.