It is both sad and interesting to see the world’s reaction to the execution of Saddam Hussein. I’ve long been an advocate of the death penalty. If carried out with caution and extreme care, it is a proper tool for administering justice and preventing future evils against societies.
There are a lot of good arguments for the abolitionist view of capital punishment, some of which I sympathize with. But I think the arguments for the retentionist view are far stronger, and much more in line with the Bible’s teaching—though retentionists do have some faults of their own. Clearly, the manner in which most capital punishment is carried out in modern societies does not meet the biblical standards. The death penalty is often assigned on circumstantial evidence—though often very strong. The biblical standard is multiple witnesses if guilt for execution is to be established. This does not mean that a person is not guilty and should not be punished, only that the standard necessary for a death penalty hasn’t been met. The penalty is often carried out too quickly, sometimes within hours or days of a sentence—especially in the Islamic world. But the Islamic world isn’t known for its mercy. In Saddam’s case I think a quick execution was justified. The facts surrounding his nearly 30 years of murders were more than enough to warrant the gallows, even though the actual trial only focused on an incident of 148 deaths.
In the case of Saddam Hussein, the biblical evidence necessary for Christians to support his execution was met, and passed, and circled several times.
There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein was guilty of mass murders, attempted murders, atrocities, and much more. Saddam’s guilt has never been in question. Estimates on the number of people killed by Saddam’s orders range as high as 1 million. No matter which side of the capital punishment debate you hang from, there is no way that any punishment of Saddam, either death or life in prison, could ever pay for those 1 million deaths. Letting a man live who has committed unspeakable crimes and giving him something to pass the time with doesn’t seem just—nor does an execution seen completely just in this case. You can only execute someone once, and you can’t spend a million lifetimes in prison to pay for such mass murder. That being the case, where is real justice? Can it even be done? Contrary to what my many of my brothers and sisters in Christ may think, Saddam’s torment in hell won’t be for sins he committed on the earth. Man doesn’t go to hell for specific sins he commits. He goes to hell for rejecting Christ. His sins won’t make it any easier for him in hell, but that’s another topic entirely.
The world has reacted to Saddam’s execution with its usual mixture of politics and ideological spew, even a good measure of hypocrisy. The British government condemned the execution, though not in so many words. The Fins, who hold the EU presidency, also condemn the death penalty. The Vatican called the execution “tragic,” making one wonder what it would call Saddam’s atrocities. Russia called on the Iraqis not to execute Hussein, which is hard to take seriously considering the radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. India expressed “disappointment,” which I don’t remember it expressing when Saddam was gassing Kurds. But neither did they send troops to Iraq to put a stop to Hussein’s murders. Except for Kuwait and Iran the Arab world is strangely silent. All but the last two nations protested the execution of a mass murderer—but you know they aren’t shedding any tears over his hanging. They are just glad to be rid of him.
So what is it about the world’s values that the execution of a man like Saddam Hussein brings derision instead of praise for at least some semblance of justice done? It’s one thing to protest or deny a death penalty in the case of a single murderer (we can make a very good case for that in many instances), but when that murderer is responsible for the death of nearly a million, demonstrates no remorse, sorrow, or repentance, but only pride and approval for his murders, then how can people justify allowing that person to live at the expense of the society or societies he so harmed? Where is the justice in that?
Where is the mercy that society needs in such a case as opposed to the criminal of such unconscionable proportions?
At what point do the abolitionists say, “Hey, wait a minute, a million murders and thousands of rapes, yeah, we can kill him.” Two million? Ten million? If Hitler had lived or Stalin had been brought to trial, would you vote to execute in punishment for the 6 million and 20 million murdered or give him a cell, paper, and pen to write his memoirs?
It’s one thing to say that capital punishment is demeaning to human dignity (in some cases that is true). But can it not be argued that keeping a person alive after he’s slaughtered millions is a far more shameless denial of human dignity? Where does the abolitionist find a balance of dignity between one mass murderer and his 1 million victims? At what human number does a man like Saddam surrender his dignity?
Some people protest that the position that some evangelicals (like myself) take on capital punishment is not in line with the Bible’s teaching on forgiveness and mercy. Certainly not all evangelicals agree on this issue. Some emphasize the teachings of the Old Testament Law that prescribe capital punishment for a limited number of crimes. Some emphasize Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and mercy, “Judge not lest you be judged” and so forth. Regrettably, I think that neither side really gets the full picture because neither side looks at the issue systematically. The Bible has a lot to say on this topic and it’s not an “either or” scenario. The Old Testament Law allowed judges to exercise discretion in capital cases and families could forgive and not execute punishment. The New Testament and Jesus himself placed an equal emphasis on God’s justice and wrath along with His forgiveness and mercy.
I think Scott B. Rae, Ph.D., associate professor of biblical studies and Christian ethics at the Talbot School of Theology sums up the proper biblical position the best. In his 1995 book, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, he states:
This demand for justice is not inconsistent with the New Testament emphasis on showing mercy and forgiveness, and vengeance belonging to God. However, the abolitionists are likely correct in maintaining that when family members of a murder victim express a demand for justice, they are often masking a desire for revenge that does not reflect the teachings of Jesus. Nevertheless it is true that the victim’s family has personally experienced the imbalance caused by crime, and thus their demand for justice may be a legitimate demand.The problem with bringing Jesus’ ethic for forgiveness to bear on the issue of the death penalty is the way in which abolitionists confuse personal and social ethics. The New Testament teachings on revenge and forgiveness are part of a personal ethic that forbids individualsfrom taking revenge and that requires forgiveness when wronged. But that ethic cannot be applied to the State. The responsibility of the State is to punish criminals, not forgive them (Chapter 9, “Capital Punishment,” page 186, “Capital Punishment Expresses and Appropriate Demand for Justice in Society.” Emphasis mine).
My favorite story in all of the Old Testament is the story of King Manasseh in II Kings 21:1-18 and II Chronicles 33:1-20. It is an amazing story. Manasseh was the Saddam Hussein of his day, and in many ways he was worse, even offering his own son as burnt offering in a pagan religious ceremony. Manasseh, like Saddam Hussein, embodied the very idea of evil. In fact, the word “evil” is used eight times in these two passages to describe the depth of…well…evil that Manasseh committed.
The Lord did not put Manasseh to death! The Assyrian King Esarhaddon carried him away into exile to Babylon. The Assyrians were exceptionally cruel to their prisoners, especially conquered kings—beyond the kinds of atrocities we hear about today. Manasseh’s suffering woke him up to the evils he had committed while he was king. The scripture says: “When he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to Him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.”
The Bible records that Manasseh used the rest of his days as king to reverse the evils he had committed. He was truly a changed man. God was merciful to him, so merciful in fact that Manasseh reigned longer than any king of Israel or Judah—55 years (even longer than David, the man after God’s own heart)—and Manasseh became an ancestor of Jesus Christ. That’s mercy. That’s grace.
Manasseh, for all of his evil, had a trait that Saddam Hussein did not possess. Manasseh had repentance, Saddam did not. Manasseh was truly, from the depths of his heart, sorry for what he had done. A court of men might have dispatched him anyway, but God saw fit to use him, so He restored him, making him a far greater man than he was before. We don’t know how long Manasseh spent in prison, but the time must have been at least a few years. Saddam spent 3-years in prison before his execution. His time was spent defending his evil, not reconsidering it. Perhaps if he had been tortured and abused like Manasseh had been his pain could have made him see the light. Regardless, at the end of his three years he was no different than when he was captured—a defiant old man full of pride in his accomplishments of evil. What a wastedoesn’t begin to describe it.
It is quite clear that Saddam’s crimes were worthy of death. It is also clear that a punishment of death was not worthy enough of the multitude of crimes he committed. But if some kind of justice is to be done you have to start somewhere. In Saddam’s case, regardless of the faults with Iraq’s legal system and its unholy reliance on the evils of Islamic law, some measure of justice still had to be meted out. The last thing Iraq needed was a Saddam Hussein in prison somewhere, his presence behind bars motivating baathist followers, and waiting for a second chance at bloody glory. For all the justice he denied to the hundreds of thousands of his people through the painful, gruesome, merciless murders he committed, a snapped neck in a noose was an exceptionally small price to pay.
And no one should feel sorry for him.