By Brian Bolton
Bloodthirsty Bill Barr and deranged Donald Trump presided over 10 federal executions in 2020, ending a 16-year moratorium and greatly accelerating the rate at which federal death sentences were carried out, from just three in the half century before last year.
The former attorney general, who is a practicing Catholic, justified the government-sponsored killing spree by explaining that some people commit crimes so terrible that we are obligated to kill them. The ex-president, who now calls himself a nondenominational Christian, obviously agreed with the former AG.
Anticipating a potential shortage of drugs used for lethal injection, the ghoulish duo announced a new rule that allows the federal government to electrocute, shoot, gas or hang convicted criminals who are sentenced to death in federal courts.
What was the inspiration for this grotesque expansion of acceptable execution methods? A possible source is a 2019 Supreme Court decision written by Trump’s first appointee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who opined that any method of execution is permissible if it does not “cruelly super-add pain.”
Gorsuch, who has been described as a death-obsessed death penalty fanatic, incorporated into his judicial opinion a thorough discussion of the pain caused by various execution procedures, including firing squads, gas chambers and hanging.
As horrific as the Barr-Trump-Gorsuch federal rule is, some Christians may take comfort in knowing that the bible fully supports the application of numerous alternatives to lethal injection.
In the following sections I summarize a number of Yahweh’s approved killing methods and conclude with an appraisal of the current status of judicial killing.
This method of execution serves a cathartic function for the community, with all members participating in the meting out of justice. Also, it is readily adapted to collective punishment, which is strongly endorsed and widely practiced by Yahweh.
Yahweh decreed stoning to death by community members for the following: disobeying an order not to keep booty from the destruction of Jericho (Joshua 7:10–26), blaspheming the Lord (Leviticus 24:10–16,23), gathering firewood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32–36), and unpopular preaching (2 Chronicles 24:21).
Other violations that specify stoning as punishment include: worshipping other gods (Deuteronomy 17:1–7), encouraging the worship of other gods (Deuteronomy 13:1–11), sacrificing children to Molek (Leviticus 20:1–2), and communicating with the dead (Leviticus 20:27).
It could be reasonably argued that the electric chair constitutes a modern version of burning alive, which is possibly more humane. However, the procedure is not necessarily recommended. After all, wrongdoers deserve to suffer maximally for their crimes against Yahweh. Yahweh burned sinners alive for sexual immorality in the massacre of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18–19), for specified sexual misbehaviors (Leviticus 20:14, 21:9), and for offering incense without proper authorization (Leviticus 10:1–2, Numbers 16:35). Jephthah sacrificed his only daughter as a burnt offering to Yahweh (Judges 11:29–40). King Abimelech burned alive one thousand residents who had taken refuge in the tower of Shechem (Judges 9:49).
King Manasseh sacrificed his son as a burnt offering on a heathen altar (2 Kings 21:6). King Ahaz (2 Kings 16:3) sacrificed his son as well, and countless Israelites sacrificed both their sons and daughters (2 Kings 17:17).
Stabbing and impaling
Some of the earliest instruments of attack and defense were sharp implements, including knives, daggers, swords and spears. These weapons were designed to cause lethal damage by penetrating the body and therefore may be viewed as the precursors of guns. This suggests a possible biblical justification for execution by firing squad. Hence, the relevance of this mode of killing.
At Yahweh’s behest, the Levites used their swords to kill three thousand fellow Israelites for worshipping the golden calf (Exodus 32:27–29). Phinehas murdered a fornicating Israelite man and his consort by driving a spear through both of them (Numbers 25:1–18).
Acting as Yahweh’s messenger, Ehud killed King Eglon of Moab by plunging a sword into the king’s belly, causing his entrails to ooze out (Judges 3:12–25). Four similar killings by stabbing in the abdomen are reported in 2 Samuel 2:23, 3:27, 4:5–6, and 20:8–10. Three additional gruesome killings by bodily penetration are reported in Judges 8:19–21, 2 Samuel 18:14–17, and 2 Kings 9:24.
General Sisera was killed by Jael, who hammered a tent peg through his skull and into the ground while he was asleep, as prophesied by Deborah (Judges 4:17–22).
Finally, two of King Xerxes’s officers were impaled alive on poles because they had conspired to assassinate him (Esther 2:21–23, NIV). The villain Haman was also impaled (Esther 7:5–10, NIV), as were his 10 sons (Esther 9:13–14, NIV).
Drowning and suffocation
There is no doubt that drowning and suffocation are methods close to Yahweh’s heart, so it is entirely appropriate to honor the Lord’s predilection by recognizing that the gas chamber also involves asphyxiation.
Yahweh drowned all living people except eight adults for incorrigible wickedness (Genesis 6–8). He also drowned Pharaoh’s charioteers, their horses and the Egyptian cavalry to bring glory to himself (Exodus 14:21–31). Yahweh buried alive three disobedient Israelites, as well as their wives and children (Numbers 16:31–35), and Hazael suffocated King Ben-Hadad (2 Kings 8:15).
This is another mode of execution favored by Yahweh. However, it strikes most civilized people as too barbaric to even seriously consider. But with the expansion of zoos, wildlife parks and exotic animal exhibits, the means are readily available and rather inexpensive. In fact, lions, alligators, sharks and other large predators have to eat, and they are not vegans. So, this may be a truly cost-effective deterrent for potential evildoers.
Yahweh killed disobedient Israelites — including children — using venomous snakes (Numbers 21:6), lions (1 Kings 13:23–26, 2 Kings 17:24–25), and bears (2 Kings 2:23–24). Daniel’s false accusers, along with their wives and children, were also permitted by Yahweh to be ripped to shreds by lions (Daniel 6:24).
Although beheading or decapitation is an age-old mode of killing, it does not appear to rank among Yahweh’s preferred methods. In fact, he never specifically ordered beheading as punishment for any violation. Maybe if the guillotine had been invented 3,000 years earlier, Yahweh would have been more favorably disposed to beheading.
Of the seven episodes of cutting off heads described in holy scripture, only two are unequivocal beheadings, while the others involve hacking off heads after killing. In all cases, the severed head is regarded as a trophy to be displayed disrespectfully or (in one situation) treated with reverence.
David slew Goliath, cut off his head, and delivered it to Saul (1 Samuel 17:50–57). The Philistines cut off Saul’s head after he killed himself, and they hung up his head in the temple of Dagon (1 Samuel 31:9–10; 1 Chronicles 10:9–10). Other postmortem beheadings are described in Judges 7:25 and 2 Samuel 4:5–12.
It is not entirely clear whether Ahab’s 70 sons were slaughtered before their heads were removed, but the description of the event suggests that they were killed first (2 Kings 10:6–8). On the other hand, the account of Sheba’s death indicates that he was most probably beheaded (2 Samuel 20:20–22). Finally, John the Baptist was almost certainly executed by beheading (Matthew 14:6–12; Mark 6:22–29).
Throwing from heights
Another method that may be applicable today is that of throwing condemned people from great heights to their deaths. This gruesome spectacle permeates urban mythology surrounding violent drug gangs and infuses prison lore about inmate punishment. The fear of falling from dizzying heights ranks up there with snakebites and public speaking as causes of irrational anxiety and panic attacks.
Of course, some thrill-seeking convicts might actually opt for this mode of execution, for the same reason that sky-diving enthusiasts like to jump. The two examples in the bible are the 10,000 Edomite men who were thrown from the top of a cliff (2 Chronicles 25:11–12) and the wicked woman Jezebel, who was thrown out of a window (2 Kings 9:30–37).
Note on hanging
Because Barr, Trump and Gorsuch included hanging as an acceptable alternative method of execution, its omission from the list requires explanation. The consensus opinion of scholars is that hanging was not a biblical mode of execution, but the bodies of victims were often hung up for display after they were killed (e.g., Joshua 10:26; 2 Samuel 4:12).
One difficulty in reaching an unequivocal conclusion about this subject is the substantial differences in scriptural translations, as illustrated by two renderings of Esther 2:23: “both were hanged on a gallows” (NKJV) and “the two men were impaled on a sharpened pole” (NLT). Another problem is presented by the ambiguous expressions used in describing Jesus’s crucifixion: “killed by hanging on a tree” and “by hanging him on a cross” (Acts 10:39).
However, there is a conclusion on which all translations agree: Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5). Of course, this was a suicide, not an execution, and Judas may have died as a result of a fall (Acts 1:18).
Status of judicial killing
1. While secular opponents of the death penalty can have reasonable confidence that Yahweh’s preferred modes of execution will probably not be implemented on a large scale in the United States, because most would still be considered unnecessarily cruel, there is no doubt that capital punishment will continue to be the law in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri and a few other states.
2. Although the U.S. Supreme Court is overwhelmingly Christian and predominantly Catholic, and the Vatican strongly opposes the death penalty, the ultraconservative majority is unlikely to apply the criterion of “evolving standards of decency” and will continue to support the legality of capital punishment, especially given the disproportionate fundamentalist Christian influence in favor of executing evildoers.
3. With President Biden, also a practicing Catholic, believing that state-sponsored killings are immoral, arbitrary and often racist (as do many Americans), and with Pope Francis’s renewed condemnation of the death penalty, it is increasingly probable that nonbelievers will have to rely on the moral authority of mainline religionists in their continuing fight to abolish judicial killing.
FFRF Lifetime Member Brian Bolton is a retired professor/psychologist living in Texas.