Let’s talk about evil. Sometimes folks accuse people who want to abolish the death penalty of being unrealistic, utopian, or oblivious to the fact that evil is real. What do we do with someone who is a threat to society? How do we deal with pathological killers, terrorists, and vicious murderers? These are good questions.
This is also one of the reasons victims of violence against execution inspire me so much. They have looked evil in the face, experienced it firsthand – and have found better ways forward than execution. And it is why Jesus inspires me: he was very familiar with the evil humans are capable of, and yet he was undeterred in his love for us.
The Bible has a lot to say about evil. That’s because evil is real. Sin, too, is real. All we have to do is look at the news or, if our vision is good enough, look in the mirror.
As I read, interviewed, and researched for [my book Executing Grace], I heard some of the most horrific stories I’ve ever come across.
Upon hearing a story about four men raping an eleven-year-old and killing her by stuffing her panties down her throat, any reasonable person is prone to think lethal injection seems like a pretty tame punishment in comparison to the crime. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said regarding the case, “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection [is] compared to that.” Sadly and ironically, the man convicted of the horrific rape and murder of this eleven-year-old girl, Henry McCollum, was later proved innocent by DNA evidence and released, after thirty years in prison.
Yes, people are capable of unfathomable evil. To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it. So the question is not, Do we respond to evil? but How do we respond to evil?
My concern is, How do we deal with evil without becoming it? If we aren’t careful, our “justice” can be as bad as the crime itself…we don’t want the cure to be as bad as the disease.
I want to go out on a limb and make a bold assertion: God loves people and does not want people to die. This is not a universally accepted assertion. As you hear some Christians talk about sin and God’s wrath, you get the impression that God hates people.
Here’s what it boils down to. God hates sin, because God loves people and sin destroys us. So divorce is bad because it breaks people’s hearts and rips families apart – not just because we broke a law. God hurts when we hurt. God cannot stand to watch us hurt ourselves and others. Sin leads to death – it eats away our bodies and our souls like a cancer.
“For the wages of sin is death,” says Romans 6.23 – but don’t stop there. It goes one, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Every day we are given the choice between life and death.
Sin is not just things we do; it is a condition we live with, an illness of our soul. When it comes to the law, it is not that we were made for the law, but that the law was made for us – which is what Jesus taught. The law was created to protect us – from ourselves. God wants to set us free.
So when it comes to this thing we call sin, it is not about breaking obscure laws that God put in place, like booby traps, to test our obedience. Instead, just like household rules established by a good parent, God’s laws are put in place to protect the “children” from harm. God loves us infinitely more than even the best mom or dad, which is hard for me to imagine (having the greatest mom in the world). Missouri pastor Brian Zahnd tweeted it well” “We are punished more by our sins than for our sins.” That’s why parents – and God – set rules: they don’t want to watch those they love get hurt.
The starting point, then, must be this: God loves people. And God wants us to love as richly and fully as God does. That’s another reason God hates sin: it is a failure to love as God intended us to. It is a falling short of what love requires of us. This is why the Bible says over and over, some variation on “All the law is summed up in this: love God and love others.” As we read the biblical story, it seems pretty clear that God’s justice is not just concerned with “getting what we deserve”; it is also about stopping the cycle of destruction. I want to be clear that I am not putting compassion and justice at odds with each other. Both of them are part of God’s character. But God’s justice may look different from ours – in part because God is more compassionate than we are.
As the author of life, God is concerned with preserving life, not ending it. Think of stories like the one about the plagues. They depict, in effect, God slapping our hand to save us from losing our arm. Even the story of Noah and the flood, in which humanity is decimated, shows a God who is committed to keeping the human experiment going, even though humans were (and still are) doing a good job of sabotaging things. And so painful was that experience to God that God “repented” = rethought things – after the flood, promising not to do that again and giving us a rainbow as the symbol of that covenant to preserve life.
One thing is for certain: the author of life is on the side of life.