Imagine Henry is found guilty of several murders which he admits committing. Now imagine Henry’s mother begs the judge to let her son go free, and to let her die in the electric chair instead Henry. What would a just judge do? Would it make any difference if Henry accepted his mother’s willingness to die in his place and promised not to kill more people? Would this not simply create just one more innocent victim? If a single lie actually does warrant the eternal damnation of the liar, could it ever be just to eternally damn someone who had never lied as a substitutionary atonement instead of the actual liar?
In the same way, is it just to have an allegedly innocent Jesus tortured in the place of those who actually committed the offenses?
Some legal systems have allowed the sentences of criminals to be served by innocent friends or family members. Is this just? Let’s reflect on the scenario of Henry and his innocent mother within the framework of the most common reasons offered as justification for death penalties.
Rehabilitation: Perhaps his mother’s substitutionary death in the electric chair would motivate Henry to change his ways. But could any one seriously suggest the best method of rehabilitating criminals is to kill their mothers while releasing the actual criminals back into society?
Retribution: The notion that Henry should die since his victims died is quite intuitive. But what fundamental principle of justice would justify killing his innocent mother in a way similar to the way her son killed his victims? If compassionate persons were allowed to volunteer to die or suffer for those who are so devoid of compassion they indiscriminately kill or harm others, that would unquestionably result in a quite negative shift in the demographics of society: the ratio of psychopaths to healthy individuals would increase. But, more importantly, it would reflect an inversion of our notion of justice.
Appeasement of wrath: Let’s go with the notion that any human who doesn’t acknowledge the Christian God angers him so much that any love for the offender he might have had vanishes, and that he is compelled to eternally damn that human to hell. Would eternally damning the offender’s mother appease God’s wrath? Perhaps. If a man mutilated your face with a knife, perhaps your own anger would quickly dissipated if that man’s mother was sentenced to spend 30 years behind bars for her son’s offense. But would not that dissipation in your anger be accompanied by a horrified realization there has been a horrific legal injustice committed against that man’s mother? And if justice was based on the degree of anger of the judge, and that judge thought that any term of damnation less than eternal would not appease him, what could we say about the emotional stability of that judge?
(See also #32.)
Some Christian leaders conflate examples found in civil law in which family members may be held fiscally liable for debts incurred by other family members with examples of a penal substitution within criminal law. Does a judge permitting a mother to pay her son’s civil settlement equate to permitting her to pay for her son’s 30-year sentence for his aggravated assault?
Christian leaders also attempt to justify this intuitively unjust notion of penal substitution found in the Bible by invoking laws made by fallible humans. Can potentially flawed laws created by flawed humans serve as support for the justice of divine laws? One such type of law invoked by Christian leaders is called “vicarious liability” in which, in most cases, someone is held merely fiscally liable for the fiscally damaging actions of others such as a company being held liable for the mistakes of its employees. Few if any such laws require someone to be imprisoned for someone else who breaks criminal law. And nearly every human would recognize such a law to be unjust. To invoke the example of an unjust law made by fallible humans to defend a biblical notion of justice is to forfeit the notion divine laws supersede human laws.
Even the Bible affirms in one passage that only the one who commits the sin can be punished for that sin.
The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. (Ezekiel 18:20)
Yet, in another book of the Bible it appears that children ought not suffer punishment for the sins of their fathers.
You shall not bow down to [idols] or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. (Exodus 20:5)
Regardless of how Christian leaders reconcile these verses, we commonsensically understand that it is unjust for someone to be punished for someone else’s offenses.