Friday, October 21, 2022
It's Friday, October 21st, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Why Did You Use the Parkland Shooter’s Name on The Briefing? Should Mental Illness Be Considered Before Administering the Death Penalty? How Would Jesus Think About It? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners about Capital Punishment on The Briefing
We're going to devote the entire episode of The Briefing today to questions that listeners have sent in. I want to thank you for those questions. Some of them are very timely, some of the others will be described as timeless. Almost all of them are just good questions and questions that deserve an answer. I'll get to as many of them as I can. It is not accidental, of course, that many of the questions sent in this week have to do with the issue of the death penalty and the death penalty case out of the Parkland high school shooting in Florida. Good questions were raised.
For example, one listener, listening very carefully wrote in to say that I've invoked to the principle in times past that when talking about mass shooters, I try not to make reference to the shooter's name.
Now, this is partly because we don't want to draw attention and fame to those who commit such horrifying acts. In this case, I did mention the shooter's name and I want to explain why. You'll notice the same thing happened in the mainstream media. The same media who try not to mention those names, did in this case, and the reason is that it was a court action. We're not just talking about a police investigation, we're not just talking about a general consideration. This was a trial, it was a sentencing phase of a trial and one of the most important trials in recent American history. And that's why it was just a matter for the historical record that at times you have to use the shooter's name because this is not just talking about the issue, the tragedy of mass shootings. It's talking about a sentence that will be handed down by a valid Florida court. It will become a matter of history, not just a matter of justice.
A listener from Canada wrote in to ask about the issue of mental incapacity or mental illness and the death penalty. Should that be taken into consideration?
I would suggest that just about any sane society would have to agree that that issue should be taken into consideration. Now, for example, we talked about the fact that in a rightly ordered society, according to Scripture, Genesis 9, is one key and crucial text. The crime that most graphically demands the death penalty is premeditated murder. That's clearly the context of Genesis chapter 9. But as you're thinking about premeditated murder, the word premeditated is a very important part of the compound, and that premeditation requires a certain amount of intentionality and mental functioning in order to rightly describe the death of someone as a premeditated act. And so the law has ways of making those distinctions.
The issue when it came to the shooter there in Parkland was that the claim of premeditation was very hard to discount. And I think this is what has led to so much frustration on the part of so many people. The issue of premeditation was virtually impossible to discount precisely because we're talking about a mass shooting that was so intricately planned in advance. The shooter admitted in his own self-incriminating testimony that he had planned and plotted this in advance, that he put together a complicated, a complex plan. He carried it out. He talked about his own self-impressions moment by moment. And here's where we need to understand the limitations of psychology or psychiatry or any kind of therapeutic understanding here. It comes down to the fact that if you're capable of carrying out that kind of intentionality, that kind of complex plan. If you review and revise and in your own diabolical way, improve that plan over time, and then you talk about your consciousness at the time of carrying out that plan, it becomes virtually nonsensical to suggest that any kind of psychiatric diagnosis would justify defining this as anything other than premeditated murder.
By the way, there are other issues both in Canada and in the United States that come to play here, but in Canada, they don't come to play in the death penalty because Canada now no longer has the death penalty, but many states in the United States do.
And one of the other issues related to mental competence in terms of the death penalty is what about the application of the death penalty when the issue is not so much the mental competence of the person in the commission of the crime, but the mental competence of the person subsequent to conviction and some period of time in prison? That has become a big issue. That issue's gone all the way to the Supreme Court and American courts have made a distinction. It's not an absolute distinction, but I think it's a rightful distinction between some kind of question about the ability to understand the crime, the moral consequences, premeditation in the commission of the act and later after a term in prison where there could be some kind of mental injury or mental illness that might develop after the crime was committed and after the conviction was handed down.
Admittedly, in a fallen world, there are some excruciatingly difficult issues, but one of the things you can predict is that some kind of argument about mental incapacity is going to be used by defense attorneys, one way or the other, because it is one of the very limited arguments they have when they have a defendant on death row. By the way, in Christian theology, there's another insight that we just had to keep in mind here. And that is that in one very real biblical and theological sense, all sin is irrational, but the truly frightening and humbling thing about fallen human nature is that we will rationally commit sin. And so in one very real sense, it's biblical to say that the killing of a human being, the premeditated murder of any human being, but certainly of mass numbers of human beings, that must in some sense point to some kind of mental problem. And of course it does. But the most important issue there is the mental problem of being a fallen human being and being susceptible to the use of our rational faculties towards ungodly, horrifying, irrational ends.
A rational society holds people accountable for rational acts, even if the morality, and by that I mean the morality of the sin itself is indeed irrational beyond our understanding or explanation.
Other good questions sent in by listeners about the death penalty include a question about repentance. What about the fact that God promises to forgive sin and that if an honest contrite sinner repents of sin, because of the atoning work of Christ, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness?
Well, that's a smart question and I appreciate the listener who sent the question in. But the issue here is that we have to understand two different categories. We have to understand the court of God's justice and the court of human justice. And here's the most crucial distinction. In the court of divine justice, God has the infinitely perfect sovereign ability to know all the circumstances and to know our heart better than we know our own heart. That is a competence not given to a human court.
Following the logic of repentance, all it would take to empty out the jails would be for people to say they repented their sins, but we would have no way of knowing if that is true or not. God does perfectly, infinitely have that ability. He has that knowledge. He actually knows our thoughts before we think them. If we had a human court of justice that could know our thoughts before we think them, then it could execute perfect justice in that sense. But then again, if human beings were able to look to another and know their thoughts before they think them, then we could prevent the crimes in the first place. It's just another indication of human finitude that makes very clear human justice can't be based upon the ability to read hearts, certainly not to read hearts comprehensively or perfectly.
There were so many questions sent in about the death penalty, but there's one more that I feel I need to take today. It was sent in by a listener who raises the question about how Jesus would look at say, capital punishment, given the fact that in Matthew 5 and specifically verses 38 through 48, Jesus talks about the lex talionis, that "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'" But Jesus told his disciples that we should be ready to turn the other cheek to live by a very different moral understanding. And the question is thus raised, how would you justify the death penalty in a secular society with Jesus giving that admonition?
But here's where we need to know that Jesus was speaking there, the Sermon on the Mount. And when it comes to understanding the Sermon on the Mount, you have to ask the question, is this Jesus's new command for the restructuring of human society? Or is it Jesus's command to his new covenant people, the people who would be his own about how we are to live not only in the community of the church, but also the witness we're to give in the larger society? Now, to answer that question, I just have to tell you, I think that's above the exegetical ability of any Christian or any New Testament scholar, except for the fact that the New Testament continues the revelation of God after the gospels in which we have access to the life of the early church.
And that again, the epistles, the remainder of the New Testament, just as inspired, every Word inspired, inerrant, and infallible as the four gospels. And in that record of the early church, we do not see any reference to the fact that Christians are to live, for example in Rome, by trying to order Rome according to say, for instance, rejecting an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and instead turning the other cheek. Instead, in Romans 13, Paul seems to assert plainly the recognition that the state, the government, and in this case that meant the Roman Empire, rightfully had and exercised the power of the sword. That doesn't mean in every case it's exercised rightly, but it does mean that's a power rightly invested in civil government.
I'm going to turn to completely different issues in terms of other great questions sent in by listeners.
Can the United States Survive the Sexual Revolution and the Radical Change We Are Seeing in Its Morality? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Next, Scott sent in a very interesting question about whether or not the United States has a future given the nature of the sexual and moral rebellion taking place around us. He writes, "With the political and cultural divide that exists today, along with the consistent breakdown to the institutions of marriage, family, government, due to the redefinition of morality in the sexual revolution, I cannot see how the United States will survive as a constitutional republic over the next five years." Now, Scott points to the fact that there was a great deal, moral and cultural and political consensus in the United States previously, and he's asking the question, can a society survive this kind of moral rebellion? And here, Scott, I want to say I don't think so. But the issue is that when a country starts to fail, when a civilization or a culture starts to fail in this light, the evidence from the fall of the Roman Empire is that that fall can take a very, very long time. In that sense, the decay of a civilization is more like the melting of an iceberg. It happens very slowly, but it is happening. And so the best analysis I can give is that when you look at the rise and fall of cultures, civilizations, and empires and human history from the best of what we know, at some point when those cultures go into decline, that decline appears to be in so many cases, unstoppable, irreversible, inexorable. Are we at that point in the United States? I have to hope we are not. And by the way, one of the issues that I would suggest for Christians to consider is that a clear line between when you are simply on an inevitable decline and when there's an opportunity for recovery is whether or not there is a process for a cultural recovery. Is there a process possible? In other words, are there mechanisms? Are there policies? Are there institutions? Is there a freedom or liberty? Is there cultural space for making arguments to press back on what's causing the cultural decay?
And at this point, we still have the opportunity to speak out loud. We still have the opportunity to speak the Christian conscience. We still have the opportunity to make our case. I still have the opportunity to make that case, as I'm doing right now on The Briefing. We still have the opportunity to exercise our stewardship, for example, as citizens in voting. We can still combine with other citizens. We can still establish institutions, institutions of higher learning, institutions of advocacy. We can support those institutions and they can seek to influence public policy. And just looking at the last, say 50 or 60 years, some of those conservative institutions have had absolutely massive influence in the larger society. And you say, "Give me one evidence of that." Okay, that would be the conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court. That did not happen by accident. And there were Christians articulating a conservative understanding, conservatives articulating, an originalist or a strict constructionist or a textualist understanding of how to read the Constitution. And frankly, it was by winning the arguments on how to read the Constitution that so much of that ground was regained.
Now, can it be lost? Yes, it can be lost almost as quickly as it is gained, but in a fallen sinful world, which after all, when you understand that fallenness means fragility, that's the way it is now, and that's the way it has always been, and that's the way it will be till Jesus comes. What will happen to the United States of America? I am not a prophet, but I can say that if the rebellion in the society, if the dissolution of structures as basic as marriage in the family, if the subversion of those institutions continue, I don't believe there's any possibility that any society can long endure. But the lesson of Rome and the lesson of other fallen civilizations is that that fall isn't always swift. Sometimes it takes a very long time.
And here's another problem. Looking at the historical record, it's clear that many people believe themselves to be in absolute and unprecedented comfort at the very time the civilization is coming apart.
When Voting, What are Our Guidelines for Increasing Taxation on Others? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Another interesting question comes from Judy. Judy's asking about taxes, and she asks, "Is voting for a tax or voting for politicians who will increase taxes the same as stealing? Isn't stealing by legal means still theft? According to God, we are to render under Caesar what is due, but when voting, what are our guidelines for increasing taxation on others?" Another really interesting and intelligent question.
Judy, First of all, let's start with taxes. Taxes are not contributions. They are legally defined confiscatory. That is to say the money is confiscated from you. The Internal Revenue Service doesn't ask you for the money. The federal government makes it a matter of law with compulsion and with penalties. And those penalties can be pretty draconian. Does the government, according to Scripture, have the right to tax? Well, interestingly, we see taxes in the Old Testament. It's sometimes described as tribute custom. It's all a form of tax. But when you look at the New Testament, even as Jesus spoke of the image of Caesar on the coin and said, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and unto God, the things that are God's." Well, the reality is that God gives government the power to confiscate some level of income or wealth from citizens in order to maintain the essential function of government. But of course, that raises a host of issues. That's just getting into the door of this discussion. The real room of the discussion is what level of taxation, what system of taxation is just?
And Judy, the answer to that is that is an ongoing argument. Now, it's not an argument without precedent. So just in the United States, there are some very interesting lines of argument on taxation. There's an argument that the most human flourishing and the greatest justice comes by low taxation. There are others who make the argument that the greatest human flourishing comes by high taxation. Now, I would simply argue that the economic evidence taken alone is that high taxation becomes a real diminishing factor in the economy. And furthermore, it removes what biblically is defined as the incentive for people to act responsibly as stewards, to be employed, to work hard, to make money, to save money, and furthermore, to spend money according to principles of stewardship to invest. And you'll notice there's just repeated affirmation of that principle in Scripture.
I don't believe that any party has an absolutely biblical proposal when it comes to taxation, but I certainly think there are arguments that are more biblical and less biblical. And Judy, you raise a very interesting point. There are those who genuinely see taxation as exactly along the lines of what you accuse, a way eventually to confiscate someone else's money for their own intended purposes. And that purpose may not be to enrich their own bank account, but to accomplish their own chosen social or political ends. And in that sense, yes, I would say that is a form of false confiscation. That's why we have a political system.
That's why it's never perfect, and that's why Christians need to be involved. And yes, involved right down to the questions of how human flourishing and the structures of our society can be preserved and conserved by a form of taxation rather than undermined.
Does God Speak to Us in Dreams? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
We're also going to turn to a very interesting question about dreams. A husband wrote in suggesting that he and his wife have had a little bit of a discussion over whether or not God speaks to us in dreams. He also says that he comes from a conservative PCA, that's Presbyterian Church in America background. He said that he's always held "that dreams are not significant for us in the way they were to Daniel or Joseph, and therefore they weren't up for interpretation, so to speak". He then writes, "My wife however believes that there is often significance to dreams, maybe not in their entirety, but perhaps in sections of the dream or in details, and therefore they need interpretation." He says, "With all that being said, what is your understanding of dreams and how do we understand to them biblically?" Jared, I'm tempted to say I wouldn't dream of answering this question, but by the very fact I've referenced it, here we go.
Here's what I would suggest. I'm actually more on your side of the argument here. I don't think you'll be surprised. I don't believe that God uses dreams as a form of revelation in the age of the church, the age of Scripture. And by the age of Scripture, I mean that we have God's gift of the Bible, the Old and New Testament, 66 books. We know what the Bible is, and we are not now living in the apostolic age in which the apostles were often the occasion for supernatural gifts to be demonstrated as the authenticating signs of their ministry. Rather, we have the apostolic testimony in Scripture itself. And so the age of Scripture means that we operate on the basis of what the reformers called sola scriptura, the final authority, the final sole authority is the Word of God.
Now, in the New Testament, we are reminded of the exhortation to test the spirits. So if you have a dream, there is absolutely nothing wrong with talking about that dream. There's absolutely nothing wrong with say a husband and a wife discussing a dream saying, "Is there something here that should have my attention?" But the answer actually has to come from Scripture. Now, that does mean flatly, that biblical Christianity, and here I'm speaking unapologetically as a confessional Protestant. Biblical Christianity allows for no new data, no new information, no new revelation to come by any means other than Scripture. And that includes, of course, dreams. But that doesn't mean that God doesn't send us impressions, but we have to test those impressions by Scripture, not the other way around.
There is no new revelation given to us in dreams, but dreams are often, and I know this from my own experience, a reflection of what we're thinking about, maybe even a reflection of what we should be thinking about. And yet I simply am not competent to understand my own dreams. I do know this. I cannot look to them as a source or vehicle for divine revelation. That comes by Scripture. But in testing the spirits, certainly that means we can test our dreams by Scripture, but we don't test the Scripture by our dreams.
Is It Wrong to Use the ‘Yuck Factor’ Towards Particular Types of Sins? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Finally, today, a question that came from the principal of a Christian school asking about what I discussed with relation to the movie known as, "Bros." That's an ardently in your face gay movie, and that's the only word to use for it. It's about a homosexual love affair. It's been released by Hollywood and Hollywood's quite disappointed that Americans haven't flocked to go see the movie. And I discussed the so-called yuck factor. That is a terminology that is given to us by a Jewish thinker, Leon Kass, but it's something we do recognize because it's clear in Scripture, it's known as the principle of disgust. And you certainly find this when you see, for example, in the Book of Leviticus and other sections of the law where something is described as detestable and an abomination. Sometimes that abominations quite visual.
And I discuss the fact that sometimes you see something and the response is simply something like yuck. Sometimes, as I mentioned, there was a child who actually articulated that walking in the park with the family, simply seeing something and saying, "Yuck." And I pointed out that's not wrong. But this headmaster or principal writes in and he mentions his engagement with a very prominent and faithful Christian writer who said that we shouldn't rely upon the yuck factor to describe other sinners when frankly we need to see the yuck in our own sin. Well, I will simply say, James, I totally agree with the author you cite there, for whom I have tremendous respect because we generally, and specifically for that matter, don't want to go around talking about other people and their sin as if that's yuck, and our sin is not yuck. We know that our sin is just that. It is detestable, it is infinitely wrong. It is horrifying, it is ugly.
But you know, James, I have to come back and say there is a distinction made in Scripture. It's not a distinction I'm trying to make. It's a distinction that is as clear as can be in Romans 1. Now, the Apostle Paul clearly affirms as he writes in Ephesians, that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The Apostle Paul is as clear about that as we might imagine, but in Romans 1, he describes certain sins as being not only transgressions of the law, but he speaks specifically of some say LGBTQ sins as being against nature. And I think anytime we come face to face with a picture of certain kinds of sin against nature, there's a particular kind of revulsion, a particular kind of concern that arises.
Even what is ethically defined as disgust, that's certainly not wrong. What is wrong is somehow looking at those sins and those sinners and making ourselves feel better that our sin is less detestable. To that, we should all say theologically, yuck.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.