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This book rigorously examines the controversy over the death penalty with clarity and cogency.
After Dr. Ron Gleason lays a thorough groundwork in history and law, he defines ethics philosophically, and then presents the Biblical mandate.
For the secular reader, he illustrates the positions of leading thinkers on both sides of the issue and examines their arguments down to the foundational premises.
For Christians–both for and against capital punishment, Dr. Gleason identifies the governing Scriptures and illustrates them with commentary from the confessional statements of the historic reformed church and some of the foremost voices in the church today.
Proponents on both sides will find the issues in focus and the arguments framed for more meaningful discussion.
But as he homes in on the heart of the matter, the reader may find himself drawn persuasively to Gleason’s conclusion. This book rigorously examines the controversy over the death penalty with clarity and cogency.
Dr. Ron Gleason challenges both sides of the capital-punishment debate to know and articulate their positions more definitively. He avoids simplistic answers to this serious topic, recognizing that real lives are at stake. This book assesses and provides clear guidance for establishing and maintaining a safe and righteous society.
—Dr. Dominic A. Aquila, President, New Geneva Theological Seminary Colorado Springs, CO
In a society that wants to deny a divine absolute standard, I find Dr. Gleason’s work both challenging and thought-provoking as he systematically provides the Biblical basis supporting his view on capital punishment.
—Brad Dacus, Esq., President, Pacific Justice Institute, Sacramento, CA
Fuzziness on ethical issues is the bane of modern thinking. Happily, there is a voice of clear reason on the scene. Dr. Ron Gleason brings genuine moral clarity to the issue of capital punishment by his illuminating survey of American History. The reader will be most appreciative of Dr. Gleason’s masterful discussion of the objections to the death penalty. This book is a must-read for all lawyers, judges, and law officers.
—Pastor Carl Robbins, Senior Minister, Woodruff Road Presbyterian Church, Greenville, SC
Speaking as an attorney and retired Marine Lt. Colonel, I find that Dr. Gleason systematically examines the historical background, the objections, and the scriptures to present a compelling argument. Dr. Gleason’s book has settled the issue for me and I challenge those on both sides of the issue to read it.
—Richard B. Hudson, J.D., Fallbrook, CA
Regardless of one’s own position on the controversial issue of capital punishment, Dr. Gleason clearly and effectively gives readers the
resources to work through this topic and equips them to discuss it with others. This powerful book will make a significant contribution to this topic. I recommend it for careful reading, study, and discussion.
—Dr. Charles Dunahoo, Coordinator of PCA Christian Education and Publications, Atlanta, GA
The Death Penalty on Trial is a must-read for anyone questioning the ethics of capital punishment. Dr. Gleason’s treatment lays a foundation and framework of thinking that is essential for discussion. Many have mistakenly tried to defend erroneous positions because they have been misinformed by historical inaccuracies. This treatment to key historical documents is crisp, clear, and a valuable resource for anyone discussing this often emotionally-charged topic. Those dealing with current judicial reform need to read this to gain insight, not only to the issue of capital punishment, but also to those issues that surround (and often cloud) it.
—Dr. John O. Bumgardner, Jr., First Presbyterian Church, Dillon, SC
Whether you are an abolitionist or believe in Biblical retribution, this is a must-read. Dr. Gleason tackles this controversial subject and
disassembles all of the arguments against capital punishment in a logical and persuasive way. The most convincing argument in the book
is Dr. Gleason’s response to those who argue against capital punishment on the grounds that it is better for ten guilty men to go free, than one innocent man to be executed.
—Charles M. Loopstra, q.c., Queen’s Counselor, Toronto, Ontario
At a time when sentiment and the spirit of the age too often characterize liberal ethical reflection, how refreshing it is to see careful Biblical reflection on one of the great issues of our day. Dr. Gleason not only articulates and defends the Scripture’s teaching on capital punishment, but also cogently responds to many of the contemporary objections raised. Accessible without being simplistic, this book should be in the hands of every individual seeking light on this controversial topic.
—Dr. Guy Prentiss Waters, Associate Professor of New Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, MS
One damp afternoon about 4400 years ago, the Creator of the universe had a little heart-to-heart with Noah, one of only eight persons to survive a world-wide cataclysm that effectively reduced the earth's population by at least 99.999999999 percent. The Creator was concerned that His creatures would not have to suffer another similar extinction event because of their sinful rebellion against His just and righteous authority.
Since Noah was, practically speaking, the only one in charge as well as being the ancestor of every human being—tens of billions of them since then—the Creator made a covenant with him, an agreement in which Noah and all his descendants could fill the earth with joy and fulfill the promise that one day a Redeemer would come to lift the curse of sin from the human race. One of the codicils of this unilateral contract, however, specified how human beings should deal with persons who would murder their fellows:
Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made he man.
Right then and there, the Creator God laid down the law and established the moral and practical foundation for human civil government, making man responsible for dealing with crime. Murderers—those who kill for any reason except self-defense and to protect society—must always forfeit their lives, because to do otherwise is to thwart the Creator's will in making man in His image.
You'd think that would have settled the matter, but you'd be wrong of course. In their long war against God, the children of Noah have shown endless inventiveness in contriving excuses for their wrongdoing and circumventing God's expressed will, and the current widespread confusion concerning the death penalty is but one outcome of this battle.
In The Death Penalty on Trial, Ron Gleason presents as clearly as can be done just why the death penalty is essential not merely to maintain an orderly, civilized society but also why God instituted it—and why failure to implement it entails God's judgment. It's fair to say there is many a civil magistrate alive today who thinks s/he is doing a good, humane thing by not executing a murderer but who will one day be judged and condemned by the Creator for overthrowing His law as first revealed to Noah—a sobering thought, indeed.
Gleason shows how not only secularists but also self-deluded Christians present what they deem as sufficient rationales for doing away with the death penalty. Here are eight common reasons non-Christians offer contra capital punishment:
Gleason's replies to these objections are informed by not only Scripture but also secular research and just plain common sense.
Some "more liberal-leaning Christians" oppose capital punishment as well, usually offering these five objections:
Read The Death Penalty on Trial to see how Gleason responds to these notions. It's a short book, accessible, with good research to support the author's viewpoints. Every child of Noah should know how the Creator feels about the death penalty and, in contemplating the awesome righteous judgments of God, pray that he never have cause to be subjected to it.
- Mike Gray (stkarnick.com)
Gleason makes a bold and compelling case that the death penalty is the biblically mandated punishment for murder. While it is true that capital punishment was used in biblical days for a host of crimes, including Sabbath breaking, blasphemy, witchcraft, and belligerent children, Scripture teaches, he argues, that the death penalty for murder is for all time. A major point of the book is that while all murder is killing, not all killing is murder as in the case of self-defense, just wars, or the death penalty (59, 100).
Genesis 9:5–6 is “a foundational text” (24) because the covenant made with Noah was unilateral, universal, and everlasting (25–26). This text also provides the reason premeditated murder is a capital crime. “Murder is a capital crime because man is made in the image of God. Being God’s image bearer gives man a particular value that can never be eradicated” (26). Man’s divine creation provides the moral basis for the sanctity of human life. “Murder is punished with death because to kill another human being is to destroy one who is a bearer of the divine image” (27). Thus, murder is a direct assault upon God himself. Although Gleason does not address differences among theologians as to what extent God’s image remains in sinful man, Genesis 9:5–6 “direct us to the inherent value that every human being has due to the fact that he is created in the image of God” (27).
Gleason makes a bold and compelling case that the death penalty is the biblically mandated punishment for murder. While it is true that capital punishment was used in biblical days for a host of crimes, including Sabbath breaking, blasphemy, witchcraft, and belligerent children, Scripture teaches, he argues, that the death penalty for murder is for all time. A major point of the book is that while all murder is killing, not all killing is murder as in the case of self—defense, just wars, or the death penalty (59, 100).
Genesis 9:5-6 is "a foundational text" (24) because the covenant made with Noah was unilateral, universal, and everlasting (25-26). This text also provides the reason premeditated murder is a capital crime. "Murder is a capital crime because man is made in the image of God. Being God’s image bearer gives man a particular value that can never be eradicated" (26). Man’s divine creation provides the moral basis for the sanctity of human life. "Murder is punished with death because to kill another human being is to destroy one who is a bearer of the divine image” (27). Thus, murder is a direct assault upon God himself. Although Gleason does not address differences among theologians as to what extent God’s image remains in sinful man, Genesis 9:5-6 "direct us to the inherent value that every human being has due to the fact that he is created in the image of God" (27).
Bind to this Romans 13 and you have "an abiding principle for the civil magistrate to execute the death penalty upon those who struck at God by the murder of one created in his image and to purge the evil from the midst of the land" (27-28). For Gleason, the death penalty is appropriate and necessary whether the criminal has murdered once or a dozen times. Even unintentional killing is taken with utmost seriousness in Scripture with regard to the image of God in man as indicated in the fact that one committing the act must seek confinement in a city of refuge until the death of the high priest (30).
Gleason discusses whether the death penalty should be abolished if there is an outside chance that innocent people might be executed. That mistakes will happen cuts both ways, he counters. There are also guilty people walking the streets who slipped through the system. The fact is, according to Gleason, God was aware that fallible people would be administering his law. “This was, however, God’s will and way for his people” (75, see also 96).
The author does not address the justice issue with respect to capital punishment along socioeconomic lines. Would it make a difference if poor, innocent people tended to get convicted and rich, guilty people could slip through the system? Is there not something other than inevitable human error going on if some are unable to get a proper defense, as a growing number of DNA cases indicate? Does not the same Bible that prescribes the death penalty for murder also trumpet a blistering abhorrence for a society where the poor are unable to access justice in the courts (cf. Ex. 23:6; Amos 5:12; cf. with Gleason’s appeal to Lev. 19:15 forjustice on S8)? Is it possible that poor, innocent "dead men walking” is something more than an outside chance for mere collateral damage in a system administered by fallible people?
To his credit, Gleason does hold that “we must do all within our power to strive for justice and to live by faith"· (98). For his contribution, he offers that there would be much less of a chance of error if we insisted on the Bible’s requirement that there be at least two eyewitnesses to the crime (75, see also 34, 39). That should raise some eyebrows on the bench.
Gleason also makes a good case for the injustice of a lengthy stay on death row after the verdict is handed down. As he notes, in California, the most frequent cause of death on death row is old age. Biblical punishment is to be swift, he contends (41-42).
Not a fan of our cultureʼs “lock ʻem up and throw away the key" attitude, the author opposes long-term incarceration as such (74, 86). He traces the roots for it in pagan Roman society, not anywhere in Scripture (74). We would add that the practice was especially propelled into modern society by Enlightenment rationalism as alluded to in Gleason’s unfavorable quote of Bedau who incredulously suggests, "long—term imprisonment is severe enough to cause any rational person not to commit violent crimes" (85). Staggering recidivism rates would prove otherwise as Gleason also maintains. In fact, he states that “a good case can be made that a life-time of uselessness constitutes cruel and unusual punishment" (73). Furthermore, "life—time sentences without the possibility of parole can subject the perpetrator to incredible and unspeakable brutality and ʻinjusticeʼ in the way inmates run their own subculture” (73—74). The mounting evidence of the debilitating emotional, physical, and spiritual effects of long-term incarceration upon an individual and his or her family also supports Gleason’s observations and raises issues with regard to alternative sentencing.
Is the death penalty a deterrent to murder? Gleason admits that it can not be decisively proven either way (34, 83). It is impossible to show beyond a reasonable doubt how many murders have been prevented by executing one murderer. However, he sees the evidence bending in the pro—death penalty direction because the execution of a murderer certainly deters that murderer from repeating a crime (83). Further, he finds convincing an assumption of economic theorist, Dr. Isaac Ehrilich of the University of Chicago, who once estimated that "every execution of a murderer may have saved as many as seven or eight lives" (83). In the end, Gleason concludes, “clearly, God believes that the death penalty, properly administered, is both a deterrent and a proper form of retributive justice for society because thatʼs what he teaches in his Word” (85).
Gleason harbors strong doubts that convicted murderers can be rehabilitatted in our humanistic prison system (88). As a Reformed minister, we would assume his answer to be in the affirmative with respect to the possibility for rehabilitation of criminals as such under Christian discipleship. In his system, of course, the issue is somewhat moot for murderers who are to be eliminated with swiftness.
VVhen it comes to the death penalty for murderers, Gleason claims to stand shoulder to shoulder with Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and the Westminster Standards. Therefore, one would be remiss not to ask whether Calvin and the Genevan elders erred in the execution of Serviettes for heresy. Though in his brief history of capital punishment, Gleason does acknowledge unbiblical excesses at points in church history that were in need of reform (10), a subsequent interview revealed that he does not think there was a failure by the church here. His exegesis regarding which “crimes” deserve the death penalty today, however, would appear to indicate otherwise.
Nordskog Publishing is to be commended for publishing this book on this controversial topic. The publisher includes extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and scriptural index. In addition, a subject index would be helpful. Gleason writes that he wants his book to reach Christians and non-Christians alike (134). However, while conservatives will undoubtedly applaud its release, The Death Penalty 0n Trial could have attracted a larger audience, including non-Christians, had derogatory labels for those with alternative viewpoints been toned down. Although the pastor clearly has strong feelings for the issue, we believe his arguments can by and large stand on their own merit. As elsewhere, the death penalty is a hot topic in Gleason’s denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, which has those who favor the abolition of the death penalty and those in the deconstructionist wing of the church who would expand its application. The Christian Reformed Church’s centrist position is that Scripture provides the modern state the right, but not the requirement, to make use of it in the punishment of premeditated.
That the Bible advocates and even commands the enforcement of the death penalty seems almost like it should be beyond controversy. The dignity God gives to humans, created as they are in his image, demands the utmost penalty for those who would recklessly and deliberately destroy life. Yet controversy abounds with many of those who profess Christ insisting that a God of love and justice would never endorse the use of this ultimate human punishment.Into the midst of this controversy wades Ron Gleason, pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Yorba Linda, California in his new book The Death Penalty on Trial. Written primarily for Christians, so they can support the death penalty and do so coherently from moral, historical and biblical perspectives, this book offers a thorough defense of the death penalty and a defense against the arguments, both secular and Christian, so often lodged against it. Gleason sets the book firmly in the context of church history, looking first to the death penalty in history and then in the history of the church, showing how through the years the majority of Christians have believed that the Bible gives license to the state to execute those guilty of murder. He looks as well to the Old and the New Testament. Though it is difficult to deny that God supports capital punishment in the Old Covenant, many Christians have argued that it should no longer apply in the New. Arguing straight from Scripture, Gleason shows convincingly that this is simply not the case—the New Testament assumes capital punishment and insists upon the right of those in authority to enforce it. The government, after all, (as we learn in Romans 13) does not bear the sword in vain, but is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Gleason dedicates a chapter to answering the objections of secularists and another to answer the objections of Christians (though, surprisingly, many of the objections are not far removed from one another). Writing as an American to a primarily American audience, he questions whether the death penalty can be considered cruel and unusual punishment and shows how the framers of the Constitution clearly believed in the capital punishment. He answers objections that the death penalty devalues human life (showing that, in fact, the opposite is the case) and that it has not been proven to be an effective deterrent (to which he responds, in part, that at the very least it is a deterrent to the one who has been executed). When looking to the arguments of Christians he answers objections that Jesus’ new ethics removed the need for the death penalty, that those who are forgiven by Christ ought to be forgiven by men and that the death penalty is an affront to God’s justice. In each case he answers well from Scripture or from plain reason. It bears mention here that Gleason is Presbyterian and at times his book is a little more Presbyterian-friendly than Baptist-friendly. This is to say that he would acknowledge a level of continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament that many Baptists might deny. But though this may affect one or two of his arguments, it certainly does not detract much from the power of his arguments.
A theme that runs throughout the book is this: all murder is killing but not all killing is murder. Thus a person who murders another can be justly executed by the governing authorities without multiplying the evil. To kill a murderer is not to commit another murder. Rather, terrible though it is to have to take a life, it is an act of justice and a fitting penalty for one who would destroy a person made in God’s image.
This is the first book I’ve read by Gleason, an old family friend and my former pastor from his years ministering here in the Toronto area. I was impressed with the logic and the fluidity of his writing as well as with the power of his arguments. The book is well-researched and well-documented, drawing from a wide range of sources. And though, as a scholar, Gleason could easily have written an academic treatise, this book is suitable for the rest of us. His argument are as easy to follow and digest as they are to read. Though it deals with a niche topic, this book deals with an important one and I commend it to you.