A seventh [Law of Nature] is, that in revenges, (that is, retribution of evil for evil,) men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of that in the good to follow. Whereby we are forbidden to inflict punishment with any other design, than for correction of the offender, or direction of others… revenge without respect to the example, and profit to come, is a triumph, or glorying in the hurt of another, tending to no end; (for the end is always somewhat to come;) and glorying to no end, is vain-glory, and contrary to reason; and to hurt without reason, tendeth to the introduction of war; which is against the law of nature; and is commonly styled by the name of cruelty.

-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: Chapter XV. Of other Laws of Nature

If your hand causes your downfall, cut it off; it is better for you to enter into life maimed than to keep both hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. If your foot causes your downfall, cut it off; it is better to enter into life crippled than to keep both your feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes your downfall, tear it out; it is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to keep both eyes and be thrown into hell, where the devouring worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

-Mark 9:43-48

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The Problem with the Death Penalty

The death penalty rightly ought to worry any Christian who believes in a civic polity reflecting the principles of Christ’s teachings. For the Scriptures unanimously proclaims that “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay” upon which St Paul justifies the counsel that we should “not seek revenge”. (Romans 12:19) Therefore if there is to be any justification for civic punishment in a Christian commonwealth, that justification must be purely consequentialist, as Hobbes argues, purely with an eye for future good and not for avenging the past.

However the problem with the death penalty of course is that if you do execute someone you would terminate all possible future good for that person. This is seemingly in conflict with the principles of the New Testament. Yet we are also rightly ambivalent about the wisdom and logic of permanent prison sentences, and we wonder how could we communicate effectively, to both the offender and society at large, the gravity of a crime deserving of death consistent with the principles of future reform and future good, to both the offender and society.

Better to Mutilate for Repentance than Execute without Hope

In that light Christ’s own counsels seems to give us a way forward. From the quote at the start, we can formulate the general principle that it may be better for someone to lose a hand, leg, and eye, and enter the Kingdom of God, then to be tossed into eternal death with all of one’s limbs attached. Could we not adapt this principle to the case of the death penalty? That it would be better for us to mutilate the offending limb, release that person and give that person a chance to understand the gravity of his crimes and repent, than to plunge him straight into death by execution? I am not saying that Christ is as a matter of fact advocating mutiliation as a substitute for the death penalty, I am merely drawing from his words a more general principle that it is better to lose a limb than to be plunged into eternal death, and from there I infer that mutilation is a better punishment to executions.

Mutilating the offending limb of a criminal would have many beneficial effects, for both himself and society. The sheer horror of living without a limb would serve as an effective deterrent to all future offenders. For the offender himself, the loss of the offending limb would serve as a permanent mark of shame, both for himself and to others, and a reminder of the gravity of his crimes that he might not offend again. And of course, disability would reduce the risk of him being able to offend again. However this is also in harmony with the Hobbesian principle that punishment should aim at future good, and by allowing him to live, we give him a chance to repent of his crime and to reform himself.


Of course there needs a lot more thought to turn this into a practical proposal. However, I think this proposal to replace the death penalty with mutilation is biblical grounded in the sense of retaining the justification of civic discipline as purely aimed at future good rather than revenge, and yet retaining the deterrent effects of death penalty against future crimes by both the offender and other potential offenders.

To reiterate, if as Christ himself says that it is better to enter the Kingdom of God without a limb than to be destroyed in eternal death with all of one’s limbs intact, than is it not better for us to simply mutilate a criminal than to toss him into death by execution?

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