Sympathy For The Devil?

When I was in high school I had an internship in the Dallas County District Attorney’s office. As part of that I had the unique experience of watching a capital murder trial in person. The defendant was named Danny Lee Barber, and he had brutally killed a woman named Janie Ingram. There was no question of his guilt – he left a bloody palm print at the scene, and later confessed to this killing as well as several others that had previously been unsolved.

After he was found guilty of murder, the trial moved on to the punishment phase. The DA asked for death, of course. I can remember like it was yesterday the very eloquent prosecutor making his closing statement to the jury:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Danny Lee Barber is a man who deserves to die. When his appointed day comes, you’ll be able to put your ear to mother Earth and hear the gates of hell slam shut on his murderous soul!

At the time I thought this was pretty cool. Having seen poster-size photos of the victim’s body, I agreed he should die. I got a weird sort of thrill in the courtroom, sitting only a few feet away from this savage murderer. I didn’t really think very much about what would happen to his soul.

I bring this up because the Saddam Hussein execution has sparked a furious debate among bloggers about the death penalty. If Danny Lee Barber deserved to die, the Saddam Hussein certainly did, too. My purpose today is not to answer that question. Rather, it is to think about the words many of us say about people like Saddam and Barber. It is especially common among conservatives and even many Christians: “I hope he rots in hell.” “He should burn for what he did.” This sort of thing. I’ve said them, too. What do these wishes say about us?

The fact is we can’t know where any particular person goes when they die. What should we wish for them? Of course, as Christians we want all people to be saved. Every human is created in the image and likeness of God. All are precious to Him. That’s why Christ and Satan are locked in a battle for every human soul.

Question: which side are we on? Let’s conduct a little linguistic experiment. Exactly what is the difference between these two statements?

  1. I hope Saddam Hussein burns in hell.
  2. I hope Satan wins the battle for Saddam Hussein’s soul.

Logically, there is no difference in the sentiment behind these two wishes. So when we wish someone would go to hell, or we express satisfaction at the belief that they are going there, we are quite literally taking the side of the devil. Is this really what we want? I hope not.

Did Saddam Hussein deserve to go to hell? Did Danny Lee Barber? Yes, they did. So do I. So do you. So does every human being who is stained with even the slightest sin. God doesn’t owe us anything at all, much less a place in heaven. He offers us a gift of salvation, and the free will to accept it or not.

If people like Saddam make bad choices, they have to face human justice. The eternal justice they face is not ours to decide. Our job in this life is to wish for, and work toward, the salvation of everyone.

Danny Lee Barber was finally executed in 1999 after almost 20 years on death row. It seems like this would be adequate time to think about where you want to spend eternity and then do something about it. Maybe he did. His last words don’t sound especially hopeful, though.

I wonder if he got letters in prison. I wonder if some people told him where he deserved to go. And I wonder if he came to believe that would be his fate, and there was nothing he could do about it. I hope not.

It is not my place to forgive Danny Lee Barber for his crimes, because he did nothing to me. It is my place, however, to hope that one day I will see him again when we are both in heaven. This isn't an easy thing to do. Yet, it is what God asks of us. Wishing damnation on our brothers is a bad habit we all need to break.


Anonymous said...

I think you're right. While some crimes are so heinous that there can be no other response that satisfies justice but the death penalty, we shouldn't revel in it and we should NEVER wish for someone's damnation.

Et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris.

Jennifer F. said...

Great point. I've caught myself saying that sort of thing many times, but I'd never really thought through the implications.

Anonymous said...

That murderers last words seem to hint at some remorse. I bet you might have a shot at meeting him one day.