The Injustice of Sparing James Holmes the Death Penalty

On Friday August 7, 2015 the jury in the case of James Holmes, the 2012 Colorado Aurora movie theater shooter who killed 12 and wounded 70, reached a verdict: they decided not to sentence Holmes to death, but instead gave him life in prison without parole. This is a disappointing verdict, and a miscarriage of justice. Holmes was guilty far beyond a reasonable doubt; he massacred the lives of 12 innocent persons, who, just like you and I do every month, were attending a movie – the showing of The Dark Knight Rises. Their lives were snuffed out and ended in an instance by an evil and heinous act.

Earlier this week (Wednesday) I served jury duty for Arapahoe County, Colorado (the same county that was trying Holmes). I was supremely impressed by the criminal justice system in my county, with the knowledge that the judges, clerks, and administrators evidenced regarding constitutional law and principles of justice: innocent until proven guilty, for criminal cases evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, and the great need for impartiality. I have no doubt that Arapahoe County tried Holmes in the fairest way possible, and he was judged by a jury of his peers. Unfortunately, the justice of a jury sentence not only relies upon the evidence, but upon the education and moral reasoning ability of the jurors themselves. In this case, a single juror was staunchly against the death penalty and refused to budge – most likely for ideological reasons. Because Colorado law requires a unanimous jury decision to hand out the death penalty, this became impossible and life in prison was the next default sentence.

This has impressed upon me the great need that our citizens be properly educated about the death penalty – what it is, when it is just and when it is not, its deterrent effect, and much more. I strongly believe that the death penalty is fully warranted in some cases, and Holmes’ case was definitely one of those. Unfortunately, I find that many Christians are very confused on this issue, and most of their confusion lies with a misreading and misunderstanding of Scripture. In addition, Twitter continually spawns 140 character “refutations” of the death penalty that are silly and evince misunderstanding. My favorite is something along the lines of “We can do better than killing to show that killing is wrong, especially for those of us who believe in Jesus” (I know Shane Claiborne has said this). But this is to badly confuse moral epistemology with moral obligation (it also evidences confusion between murder and killing). We don’t put criminals to death to show that killing is wrong; we all already know good and well that unjustified killing of the innocent is wrong (i.e., murder) because we have consciences and the law of God is written on our hearts. We put criminals to death because we believe their crimes warrant that sentence, and that such a severe sentence is in fact justice for the severest crimes. So it is necessary to both instruct Americans positively on what the death penalty is and when it should be used, and to refute the many poor arguments raised against it.

For Christians, the basic teaching and justification of the death penalty occurs in Genesis 9:5-6, when God covenanted with Noah when safely made land after the flood.

And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”

Christians, do we no longer believe Genesis 9:5-6? To murder another person – let alone 12 – is to kill those made in God’s image, which is an assault upon God himself. God has told us what divine justice looks like in such situations: the life of the murderer is forfeited.

Those who might appeal to Jesus’ teaching in Mt. 5:38-48 or the woman caught in adultery in John 7:53-8:11 to contest what I’ve just said should consider these points:

  1. In both instances Jesus is teaching on the Mosaic law, not the Noaic covenant. Nothing he says touches what God commanded and promised to Noah.
  2. We take every other part of the Noaic covenant literally and binding for today – all plant and animals for food, the rainbow as a sign, and the promise that the earth will never again be destroyed by a flood – so why do we excuse vv. 5-6?
  3. In the six antithesis of of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus in no way abolishes Old Testament law, for he says in Mt. 5:17 that he came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets to fulfill them. If you think the formula, “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you” is abrogating Old Testament law, then you must admit at Jesus abrogates murder (Mt. 5:21-22). Not so. The lex talionis – law of retribution – is still valid today and we know this so as it is the commonsense jurisprudential principle followed everywhere: that punishment for crimes should be proportional to the crime itself.
  4. Jesus’ instructions on the Sermon on the Mount were for the covenant community of believers regarding vengeance and retaliation, not criminal law for governments justly punishing evildoers. Rom. 13 is a more pertinent passage for that.
  5. Mt. 5:39 is best translated “Do not oppose [another] by evil means” (μὴ ἀντιστῆναι τῷ πονηρῷ). The verb does not mean “do not resist” in the sense of passivity, but do not oppose or set oneself against another. This is in the context of personal retaliation and the local court setting, not just punishment delivered by a jury on the basis of evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.
  6. John 7:53-8:11 is not attested in the earliest and best Greek manuscripts (not appearing until the 5th century Codex Bezae), and thus is not considered canonical by the majority of NT scholars. It should not be in the Bible and no pastor or teacher should ever use it as an authoritative and inspired passage to teach from (for more on this, see Andreas Kostenberger, John, BECNT, pp. 245-249).
  7. Even if we take John 7:53-8:11 to be a true account in the life of Jesus, if you read the passage carefully you’ll find that Jesus never abrogates the death penalty qua death penalty. Instead, he stays the law because there were not enough eye witnesses per Old Testament instruction (Dt. 17:6-7; 19:15-21). Thus, if there are enough eye-witnesses, the death penalty holds. Today’s technology such as DNA evidence and forensics is considered a modern equivalent to having 2-3 eye-witnesses. (Besides, in this case, it is beyond reasonable doubt that Holmes committed the crime he did).
  8. If you’re interested in reading more on the death penalty, see Bruce W. Ballard’s JETS article The Death Penalty: God’s Timeless Standard for the Nations?

Much more could be said on the biblical case for the death penalty and answering theological objections against it. Hopefully in the future I will be able to write in more depth on this issue, both on the philosophical, moral, and legal issues, but especially regarding the biblical text which is of critical importance for evangelicals.

So in sum, failing to sentence James Holmes to death for his heinous and evil crime that unjustly stole the lives of 12 innocent persons and inflicted great pain and deprivation upon their friends and families is an injustice – a violation of biblical justice. God does not take such injustice lightly and neither should we.

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