The Image of God and the Death Penalty

The verdict was not surprising. From the beginning, there wasn’t any question about whether or not he was guilty. Dylann Roof, the gunman who entered the Emanuel AME Church and shot African American church members during a Wednesday evening prayer meeting, had confessed to the crime and, chillingly, showed no remorse. As the jury returned the verdict, the question then turned to the question of sentencing.

America recoiled in horror on June 17, 2015, as the news flooded the media. And as the details of the crime unfolded, we recoiled even more. In his sentencing hearing, Roof reportedly said,

In my confession to the FBI, I told them that I had to do it. But obviously that’s not really true. I didn’t have to do it, and no one made me do it. What I meant when I said that was I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.”

Words like these chill us to our core and force us to ask what sentence could there be thatvictims would approximate justice in this case? From the beginning, everyone watched to see whether or not Roof would receive the death penalty. Something within the American moral conscience told us that nothing less than the death penalty would be suitable for someone who enters a church and guns down people in prayer because they are African American.

Inevitably, some in the mainstream media used the occasion to make their objection to the death penalty known. The Editorial Board of the Washington Post voiced their opposition saying, “But if the jury disagrees with us, at least it would hand down the ultimate punishment in retribution for a truly unusual crime and without a shadow of doubt about Mr. Roof’s guilt.” Even here, in acknowledging the heinous nature of the massacre, the Editorial Board admits that no other sentence, aside from the death penalty, actually came close to approximating justice.

A Biblical worldview recognizes the divine demand for justice. As such, humanity has been endowed with the inner desire for justice. Moreover, a Biblical worldview affirms the heinous nature of murder since it is the destruction of life made in the image of God.

As Noah exits the ark, the Lord makes a covenant with humanity in which he says,

Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man.

God considers capital murder a particularly heinous crime because it is an assault on His image. Each and every human life is sacred because each and every person is made in the image of God. Therefore, God demands that the one who takes a life forfeit their life.

Our human justice system can only attain approximate justice. In the case of murder, no penalty can actually restore the life that is taken. However, the death penalty comes the closest to approximating what murder takes, life for life.

While the application of the death penalty needs to be reviewed, discarding it altogether is an assault on the sanctity and dignity of human life. Christians must stand for the sanctity and dignity of every human life. Standing for the dignity of human life includes demanding the closest approximation of justice for assault on the image of God posed by murder that can be brought about on earth.

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