SHOULD JAMES HOLMES, WHO COMMITTED
THE BATMAN MOVIE MASSACRE, BE EXECUTED?
I was deeply disturbed and upset when I heard about the movie theatre tragedy/massacre. James Holmes cowardly opened fire on a crowd in a dark movie theatre as they were watching The Dark Knight Rises. The utter disregard that a person can have for the well-being of others is utterly appalling. This completely senseless behavior ought to be publicly, swiftly, and severely condemned by our government, whose purpose is to protect our rights and promote our well-being.
But I read something today that also greatly disturbed me. Fox News reported, “District Attorney Carol Chambers said Monday that their office is considering pursuing the death penalty against Holmes. She said a decision will be made in consultation with victims’ families.” And ABC reported that she said, “We want to get input from the victims as to whether we’ll seek the death penalty.” My initial thought was, “What? What kind of philosophy of government is this? They might pursue the death penalty? They are going to consult with the victims families about that?”
Before I go further, let me explain my own philosophy of government as I derive it from the Scriptures:
1. The purpose of law is to protect the rights of the people and promote their well-being. See Deut 5:29; 6:3; 6:24; 10:13; Jer. 7:6, 23; 32:39; Lk. 6:9; Rom. 13:4; 1 Cor. 9:10; Eph. 6:3
2. The purpose of the penalty of the law is to give authority and influence to the precept (Ecc. 8:11). The sanctions of the law serve as motives for its obedience (Deut. 30:19; Deut. 11:26-28). The execution of the penalty of the law is a public expression of the governments regard for the law and its determination to uphold and maintain it for the good of all, and thereby deter and discourage others from doing as the criminal has done (Deut. 21:21-22; Eze. 23:46-48; Rom. 11:20-22; 1 Cor. 10:5-6; 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Pet. 2:6; Jude 1:7).
3. The severity of the penalty ought to be designed to publicly declare the value of the law that was violated (Gen. 9:6; Exo. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). The severity of the penalty is a public expression of the government’s estimation of the value of the law that was transgressed. In the case of murder, the life of the victim is to be declared so valuable that the murderer himself it put to death for taking it. Anything less than this is unjust to the law and to the victim, because their value would not be declared but their life would be devalued.
4. The purpose of executing the penalty of the law is not to console or gratify the personal and private feelings of the victims (Dan. 6:7-16; Eze. 18:32; 33:1; Lam. 3:32-33), but to honor and uphold the law for the good of all. Penalty is designed to be a public example of the governments regard for the law and determination to uphold it in order to discourage its transgression and encourage its obedience.
With this in mind, read again the quote that disturbed me: “District Attorney Carol Chambers said Monday that their office is considering pursuing the death penalty against Holmes. She said a decision will be made in consultation with victims’ families.”
The first part that bothered me was that “their office is considering pursuing the death penalty against Holmes.” This man murdered in cold blood 12 people and attempted to murder an additional 58+ people. He would have slaughtered everyone in the theatre if he could have. Why then is the death penalty only a possibility that they are “considering”? Is the value of the victim’s lives in consideration? Are they debating if the value of their lives demands it? Are they debating just how valuable the lives were that he took? It should be a given, not a consideration, that the death penalty is going to be the object of prosecution. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:6). It would be unjust to the law, to the victims, and to our society for this criminal not to receive the full extent of what he deserves for his crime.
The government is under obligation to do this, as the Scriptures declare, “For he [the government] is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4).
Not only should he be executed for his crime, but it should be a public execution to have its proper deterring effect. These private executions at Midnight defeat the deterrent purpose and fall short of their necessary effect. Public executions upon those who deserve it are approved of and even demanded in the Scriptures, as a public example to deter others: (Deut. 21:21-22; Eze. 23:46-48; Rom. 11:20-22; 1 Cor. 10:5-6; 1 Cor. 10:11; 2 Pet. 2:6; Jude 1:7; Rev. 14:10)
The Bible says, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecc. 8:11). These types of tragedies are becoming more common place. This is no longer an isolated case. Therefore, the public execution of Holmes ought to be enforced as a public expression of the governments determination to maintain the law, and thereby discourage and deter others from considering and contemplating from doing as this man has done. Being soft on crime has the inevitable tendency to encourage crime and embolden criminals.
Through a public execution, the government should declare that human life is of such great value that to take human life in murder will be punished with the loss of your own. The precept of the law is of such great value that nothing less than the loss of the transgressors life can adequately declare the value of the precept. Is not the criminals life also valuable? Yes it is. That’s the point. If their life was not valuable, taking their life for murdering someone else would not declare the value of that precept. How valuable the precept of the law “thou shalt not murder” be, if violation of it is punished with the loss of your own? The life of the innocent is so valuable that only taking the life of the murderer adequately declares it. Anything less would be a public expression that the life of the victim, and the precept of the law, was not really that important and valuable. The severity of the punishment declares the governments estimation of the value of its laws, and the value of the rights and well-being that they protect and promote.
The second part that disturbed me was, “She said a decision will be made in consultation with victims’ families.” And, “We want to get input from the victims as to whether we’ll seek the death penalty.” The good of our society demands the death penalty be executed upon Holmes, to uphold the law and discourage its transgression, whether the family of the victims demands it or not. The thoughts and feelings of the victim’s families ought to be irrelevant as to whether or not the government executes the death penalty upon criminals who break the law. Their private and personal opinions, preferences, and emotions should have no bearing on the prosecution of the law and the execution of the penalty. Whether Holmes is executed or not is not the decision of the victim’s family to make. It is the government that has that authority and is obligated to do so, not to console or gratify any personal vindictiveness or bitterness on the part of the victims and the victims families, but for the good of the people at large.
Noah Webster said that vengeance is “The infliction of pain on another, in return for an injury or offense. Such infliction, when it proceeds from malice or mere resentment, and is not necessary for the purposes of justice, is revenge, and a most heinous crime. When such infliction proceeds from a mere love of justice, and the necessity of punishing offenders for the support of the laws, it is vengeance, and is warrantable and just. In this case, vengeance is a just retribution, recompense or punishment. In this latter sense the word is used in Scripture, and frequently applied to the punishment inflicted by God on sinners.”
Albert Barnes said, “The design of punishment is not revenge or vengeance; for it is not to gratify private feelings or to redress private wrong, – which is the true notion of revenge or vengeance. It is not the infliction of pain for an offence committed against an individual. It is always, though it may be for a wrong done to an individual, inflicted for the offence regarded as perpetrated against the peace of a community; against the lawgiver; against the law itself. When a man is punished for assault and battery, it is not pain inflicted considered as a recompense to the individual who has been injured or wronged: it is as a just retribution for a crime against the peace of the society and the honour of the law… When a man is punished for murder, it is not as an act of recompense to the murdered man, – for he is beyond the reach of all such recompense,- but it is for an offence against the law and the peace of the community… The crime is punished, not as a matter of private vengeance or satisfaction, but as due to public justice… the affair is no longer one of a private character, but becomes one pertaining wholly to the public.”
If a murderer like James Holmes is not executed in capital punishment for his heinous crimes, the government would be saying that his life is more valuable than the lives of his victims. The government would be declaring that the life of this murderer is more valuable than the honor and authority of the law which protects our lives, and therefore that his life is more valuable than the well-being of the society. The honor and authority of the law demands his execution, as does the good of society.
No doubt, my endorsement and recommendation of capital punishment will incite the question, “Ought not Christians to be forgiving and merciful?” The answer is yes, in regards to personal affairs. But we are talking about law, government, and the good of society. Even in God’s moral government, He only forgives sin and exercises mercy through the atonement of Christ, which substitutes our penalty and thereby honors and upholds the law as our penalty would have. Jesus was publicly executed to honor and uphold the law that we violated! The mere exercise of forgiveness in governmental relations without such an atonement would leave the purpose of penalty unfulfilled and therefore, such forgiveness would endanger the well-being of all and would consequently be unloving. Pardon dishonors and weakens the law, encouraging transgression, unless an atonement is made. Never does God ever forgive in a way that would weaken or dishonor His law, or encourage its transgression.
God, as the Moral Governor of the Universe, only forgives our violations of His moral law through the atonement of Jesus Christ, which satisfied public justice. God has upheld and honored His law through the atonement, just as He would have through the execution of the penalty, so that transgression against His law is discouraged through this public expression of His regard for His law and determination to maintain it. It would be unsafe to the public for God to pardon sin without the atonement, as this would encourage the transgression of His law throughout His universe under the hope of impunity. So God substituted our eternal penalty of damnation with the atonement of Jesus Christ, to show His regard for His law and maintain His government, even though He remits our penalty when we repent. When the atonement brings us to repentance, it is now safe to the public for God to forgive us. But God only forgives and exercises mercy when public justice is satisfied by the atonement.
Certainly, Christians ought to be forgiving toward others for personal offenses, but when a crime against the community is committed the civil government is obligated by the well-being of the community to uphold the law and enforce the penalty. See Romans 13 again. If the government were to forgive crime, without any atonement made to honor and uphold the law, then the authority and influence of the law comes to naught. As we saw, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecc. 8:11).
Someone might say, “But James Holmes is an unrepentant sinner who will go to hell if he is executed. He should avoid capital punishment to get a chance to repent.” My answer: he is 24 years old. He has had plenty of time to repent and get right with God. But his repentance is irrelevant in regards to capital punishment. The law ought to be properly vindicated and his crime discouraged. Repentance or not, the law must be upheld and enforced for the good of society. By not taking his life, the government declares that the law was not that important and his victims not that valuable. We should not endanger the population and employees of the prison by sending murderers there, nor waste tax payer dollars. The death penalty takes time before it is executed so Holmes will have time to repent and get right with God. And they should send a minister to him before he is executed, for him to get right with God and avoid the damnation of hell through Christ. God can forgive him through the atonement, but our government cannot forgive him without being unjust to the law and the society.
A person’s rejection of God and refusal to come to Him should not give him impunity or immunity from the civil penalties that he deserves and which should be executed upon him for the good of society. Think of how many unrepentant sinners he has already killed, and how many unrepentant sinners he may kill in prison if that is where he is sentenced. James Holmes should not be given any more opportunities to send unrepentant sinners to hell. What about their time to repent, which James Holmes has cut short and can continue to cut short if he is allowed to live?
It may be the fear of the death penalty that will make Holmes consider eternity and his appointment with God on Judgment Day, and consequently bring him to repentance. So the execution of the death penalty may bring him to repentance so that he finds salvation in Christ, while not executing the death penalty upon him may only prolong and encourage his impenitence.
Someone might say, “But the Bible says that killing is wrong!” Actually, the Bible teaches that murder is wrong. Murder is defined as the shedding of innocent blood. Right after God gave Moses the Ten Commandments where He forbad murder, He commanded Joshua to kill entire people groups for their wickedness. Was God commanding that His own commandments be violated? No. God only forbad the shedding of innocent blood. Murder is unjustified killing. But the Bible declares that a murder has forfeited his right to life. There is no injustice done when a murderer is executed. There is only injustice done when he is not.
Someone might say, “You are referring to the Old Testament to support capital punishment. Things have changed for the New Testament.” Yes, but capital punishment was not merely for the “Old Testament” (Gen. 9:6; Deut. 21:21-22), as Jesus endorsed capital punishment in the New Testament (Lk. 19:27) and so did the Apostle Paul (Acts 25:11). Paul said, ” For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die” (Acts 25:11). Jesus even voluntarily endured the taking of His own life to atone for our violations of God’s law (Jn. 10:18). The atonement of Jesus Christ, above anything else, shows that God believes that laws that promote the well-being of others ought to be honored, upheld, and enforced by penalties. And when the precept of the law is important enough, it ought to be honored, upheld, and enforced through capital punishment.
Interestingly enough, it has been my research and study on the atonement that has given me an understanding of the basis and purpose of capital punishment. A lot of the points I just wrote about above came from my upcoming book, “The Vicarious Atonement of Christ” that will be available soon.