Last week I laid out a few of the arguments for and against the death penalty. While I think Christians are perfectly within their right to oppose capital punishment, the case in favor of it is very reasonable. However, when a Christian explains that they support the death penalty, they sometimes face an unusual objection. Along with being pro-capital punishment, many Christians also oppose abortion and identify as pro-life. Naturally, the question is raised, “How can you call yourself pro-life and yet support the killing of human beings? Isn’t that hypocritical?” I think it’s time we answered this pro-life pro-death paradox.
What is the Paradox?
This issue, at least on the surface, seems pretty straightforward. Don’t we need to pick one? We could value the sanctity of life for all human beings, unborn and criminals alike. On the other hand, we could say that it is acceptable to take life with the proper justification, whether unborn or criminal. But trying to say one is okay to kill, while the other is not, seemingly creates this pro-life pro-death paradox. But in order to understand this, we need to have an accurate view of the two issues.
Properly Understanding the Pro-Life View
The Pro-Life case is simple. Taking the life of an innocent human being without proper justification is wrong, abortion does that, and thus abortion is wrong. There’s a single word in that argument that changes the entire scope of this conversation. Valuing the sanctity of life does not mean that no life should ever be taken. God commands the shedding of blood on numerous occasions throughout the Bible. But the key word here is “Innocent.” We are told that God will not tolerate the shedding of innocent blood.
16 There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, 19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.Proverbs 6:16-19
Does Innocence Change the Paradox?
That the pro-life argument refers specifically to innocent life, implies there’s an opposite alternative. The argument intentionally leaves room for acceptable punishment of guilty life. Maybe you’re a Christian who does not accept capital punishment. I disagree, but I have no quarrel with you. But wherever you stand, don’t get the importance of sanctity of life confused in this issue. We have intentionally left room here to say that death is reserved for those guilty of serious crimes. But under no circumstances have the unborn committed those crimes, and thus are still innocent under the law.
Consider the motivations behind the two different actions. Abortions typically happen for a few specific reasons. Either the child is unwanted, whether that be from emotional or socio-economic reasons, or the pregnancy poses a health risk to the mother. Criminal executions happen primarily to serve justice, punish wickedness, and protect innocents. The only real connection between these two actions is that they end a life. The circumstances they are done in and the motivations behind them are completely different.
How Do I Respond?
To get a bit more practical, how do you respond when someone calls you out on this? How can you be pro-life and support the death penalty? First, clarify what you mean by pro-life. You’re not saying that under no circumstances should life be taken. You are saying that innocent life should never be taken without proper justification. That could include any number of things from self-defense during an assault to capital punishment. For what it’s worth this same principle can often be applied when people bring up the violence in the Old Testament.
Second, you need to explain what is and is not proper justification. Is emotional pain or economic stress proper justification for executing someone? Try using the same argument on a toddler. Is it okay to execute a 2 year old child for the same reasons? If not, then the problem is not with consistency in valuing life, but what we consider to be life. Don’t get tripped up by this one. Answering the pro-life pro-death paradox is pretty simple if you properly understand the claims.
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