What to a Christian is the Death of a Murderer?
In a small county in rural Ohio, a serial killer is on trial.
Shawn Grate was arrested in the fall of 2016 and charged on twenty different counts including kidnapping, rape, murder, and defiling a corpse. Known to those around him as a “charmer with a dark side,” Grate was able to lure at least five women in three different counties into homes where he violently abused them before one managed to escape and call the police, ultimately leading to his arrest in Ashland, Ohio. Following a careful jury selection, the Ashland County Prosecutor’s Office is pushing hard for the death penalty.
The residents of Ashland County have been deeply disturbed by the Grate case. The killings themselves are shocking enough to the people of a quiet Midwestern town. Now a jury of those townsfolk is being asked to consider whether or not the perpetrator of those heinous crimes is fit for death. With most county residents identifying as Christians, the humble community is asking itself: what to a Christian is the death of a murderer?
The Christian understanding of capital punishment—as with all Christian moral teaching—is rooted in Scripture. Biblical arguments have been made both for and against the death penalty, leading some to the conclusion that the Bible does not provide adequate insight on the matter. This could not be further from the truth. The divine mystery is merely diluted, requiring nearly all of Biblical history—from Genesis to Revelation—to reveal the whole of its moral philosophy.
The dilemma is as old as humanity itself, confronting even the Bible’s first family. The story of Cain and Abel depicted in Genesis 4 catalogues the first premeditated murder and its punishment. When Abel earns God’s favor, Cain becomes dismayed and jealous of his brother, luring him out into a field and killing him. Cain is then confronted by God, who hears Abel’s blood “crying out from the ground” and exiles Cain while sparing his life.
God’s preservation of Cain is not a prescription against capital punishment; rather it is an act of mercy on both him and his parents. The execution of Cain would have only inflicted further tragedy on Adam and Eve. We see a similar case brought before King David in 2 Samuel 14 when a murderous brother is spared because he is a widow’s only surviving son. In this early patriarchal society, death of the son meant death of the family. The gravity is only amplified in the case of Cain because his death would have meant (literally or symbolically) the death of humanity. This would have been contrary to God’s will for mankind, for Wisdom 1 tells us, “God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living. For he created all things, that they might have their being.” Because God desires the life of His Chosen People more than He desires blood, mercy is shown to those whose execution would be harmful to the body of His faithful.
Such instances, however, are comparatively few and far between in the Old Testament. When giving the Noahide law in Genesis 9, God makes it clear that justice for bloodshed is retributive blood. This is reinforced in Numbers 35, which tells us that bloodshed is severe because it defiles the earth, and in most cases (for no fewer than thirty-six specified crimes, according to the Mosaic law) retributive blood is required to atone for such defilement. Just as the blood of animal sacrifices atoned for lesser sins, so too did the law require human blood for greater sins.
This ancient law is drastically changed by the passion of Christ. He himself attests to this in Matthew 5 when he says, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” According to Acts 13, Christ’s perfect sacrifice justifies the forgiveness of sins and all things that the Mosaic Law could only imperfectly justify.
This was possible because, as it is written in 1 Peter 1, man was redeemed “not with corruptible things…but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” This offering of God to man in the form of Christ results in the purification of what could not before be purified: human sinfulness. This extends even to the desecration and defilement of the earth experienced in the first murder, for Hebrews 12 says that the Blood of Christ “speaketh better things than that of Abel.” Christ’s innocent blood does not cry out to God as Abel’s did because Christ, who is both man and God, conquered death through his resurrection.
Through the resurrection Christ becomes the new and eternal high priest of God’s Chosen People, according to Hebrews 7, and no other blood offering need ever be made because of the perfect offering of his own life. The retributive demand of blood for blood written in the law is therefore not dismissed, but already fulfilled by the sacrifice and capital punishment of Christ.
Man is thus no longer required to demand blood for blood. This does not, however, necessarily eradicate the need for capital punishment for the Christian. This is because Christianity recognizes the validity of legitimate political authorities and the need to protect the moral order. St. Paul explains this in Romans 13 when he writes, “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. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.” If the authority is legitimate and acting in a way necessary for the defense of the moral order, then the Christian is not only able but also morally obliged to support capital punishment.
What, then, are the people of Ashland county to do about Shawn Grate? If he is guilty, then they must ask themselves three questions: is their authority legitimate; are they acting on behalf of the moral order; and is execution the only possible means of protecting that order? I think most would agree the authority of the law and the motive of the jury are valid. What remains is to determine what, if anything, would be gained by his death.
To this end, one must consider the purposes of punishment: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and restitution. For the Christian, retributive blood has been paid, but he still deserves a severe level of discipline and a limitation of his rights. That is to say, he ought never to be free again. Capital punishment does not seem necessary to provide that. The question of rehabilitation follows suit because he is not going to be formed for reentry into civil society no matter what happens. Deterrence also does not require a death penalty because Grate has no following and will likewise be incapacitated by any outcome. In reality, then, the crucial and necessary question is restitution.
I do not mean, of course, restitution for the lives of his victims. The only death that ransoms the value of human life is the death of Christ. What I have in mind is restitution of the moral order. There is a moral wrath—a righteous indignation—that burns in our souls when we witness sin, and it is only satisfied by justice. Grate deserves purposeful suffering because it is the only way to save his soul and to bring peace to those affected by his crimes.
But what form of suffering does he deserve? If he can be made to understand his own sinfulness in this life and reclaim his humanity, then he ought to be given that chance to seek some level of atonement. But if he refuses moral responsibility for himself, then he is already dead to moral society and has nothing left but to meet his final judgment.
If we believe him (and that is a very important “if”), then Grate belongs to the former category. In interviews he has said, "I'm going to ask God to forgive me. This life's just temporary anyways. We have to live it as best we can." Likewise, he also said that he should "probably get the death penalty.” Furthermore he has been the subject of intense psychological evaluation and declared competent. It would seem, then, that he is still capable of reason. To me, that is reason enough to err on the side of mercy (meaning life imprisonment without parole).
What to a Christian is the life of Shawn Grate? Equally valuable to God as anyone’s and equally sharing in God’s likeness and image. And while he will never be fit for civil society again, he may yet be reclaimed to the moral order. That ought to be sufficient reason to spare his life.