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The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Psalms 51: 17

ALBERT PIERREPOINT (1902-1992), served as Executioner for the British Home Office from 1932 to 1956. Pierrepoint never gave a definite figure but it is claimed he carried out over 400 executions. Hanging had long been the appointed method in Britain for enforcing the death penalty; it was the Executioner’s job to prepare the scaffold and escort the prisoner to the gallows. For the one to be hanged, the Executioner would be the last person he or she would see.


The Executioner was subject to strict employment conditions, imposed by the Home Office. The job required one of sober and dignified character, discreet and respectful, both during and after the penalty was carried out. It is clear from a BBC interview with Pierrepoint that he considered it his solemn duty to fulfil these conditions. In a formal but friendly manner Pierrepoint would lead the condemned to the trapdoor, place a white bag and the noose over the head and then enact the prescribed punishment.


The Beast of Belsen

During his time as Executioner, Pierrepoint never publicised the details of his work. Nonetheless he became famous, especially after the execution of Nazi war criminals sentenced to death at the Belsen Trials, including Joseph Kramer, commandant of Auschwitz and Belsen. The press consequently made Pierrepoint an icon of British justice.


Pierrepoint served in nine countries and believed that Britain had the finest laws and judges in the world. He never doubted the instructions given to him during his career, neither did he admit to any pains of conscience over his work. His confidence that he was doing right contrasts sharply with the later view he espoused after retirement. In his biography, he writes that ‘executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge’.


His words carry weight in the current debate in Britain over the possible resumption of the death penalty. In another interview with BBC Radio in 1976, some years after his biography was drafted, Pierrepoint had again changed his opinion. He states that he is ‘on a balance and does not know which way to think’.[fn1] He explains that at the time he wrote his book the country was pleasant and quiet and there were not the crimes ‘that there are today’. He justifies his revised view by the increase in violence and crime. His perception is reinforced by government statistics which show, that from a low rate of crime, there has been a steady rise from the 1950’s in the number of indictable offences, especially bodily assault and burglary, although the number of homicides per 100,000 of the national population is still relatively low, compared to most western countries.[fn2]


His view now seems to resonate with the current mood of the British public. For four days in early August rioting and looting began in North London and soon spread to several major cities in England. Over 1,000 arrests were made in London alone, and magistrates worked round the clock to sentence the offenders. The anarchic rampage led to a public outcry and calls for harsh treatment of the guilty. An on-line petition of over 100,000 signatures urged that social security benefits be withdrawn from the guilty. Such a public reaction chimes with Pierrepoint’s revised opinion that a drop in the common moral standard warrants a proportionate increase in the severity of justice.


An Eye For An Eye Makes Everyone Blind

In considering the Biblical injunction of ‘an eye for an eye’ many reject capital punishment and reckon the severe retribution of the law to be impractical and futile. What was God’s purpose in demanding such a hard exchange?


Genesis 9: 5, 6, sets out the principal reason:


And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.


Of this text, Hard Sayings of the Bible, says:


The person who destroyed another being made in God’s image in fact did violence to God himself so sacred and so permanent was the worth and value that God had invested in the slain victim.[fn3]


The Law of Moses

The death penalty in the Law given through Moses to Israel is representative of the perfection a holy God requires in those who understand His ordinances and are capable of keeping them. It is unvarnished Justice, which demands that the man or woman who sins wilfully against knowledge and ability be punished to the extreme extent of the Law: the soul that sinneth, it shall die (Ezekiel 18: 20). The Law’s demands are exact, a characteristic necessary to ensure an ordered society. Nonetheless, God is not without mercy, a divine quality later revealed in Christianity, yet traceable to the Jewish ordinances. The laws of Israel did indeed make allowance for those guilty of an offence but who lacked what is termed legally, ‘malice aforethought’ that is, the harm which resulted was not intended. For example, in cases of manslaughter the Mosaic code provided cities of refuge to which the unfortunate culprit could escape (Deuteronomy 19: 5):

As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the axe to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live.

In the sacrifices made on the annual Day of Atonement there was a further merciful provision for those Israelites burdened by guilt. In a foreshadowing of a better future arrangement, God forgave the sins of His people Israel (Leviticus 16: 34):


And this shall be an everlasting statute unto you, to make an atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year.


These sacrifices for sin did not pardon those who transgressed Israel’s laws; God required obedience and condign punishment for those who refused to obey. The bloody ceremonies of the tabernacle and the temple pointed (as types) towards the true sacrifice that would indeed bring forgiveness of sin (Hebrews 9: 13, 14):


For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?


Power to Forgive Sins

The rigour and exactness of these injunctions served as a ‘schoolmaster’ to bring the nation of Israel to Christ. Nathanael was one of those Israelites indeed whose heart had been disciplined by the law and whose conscience was tender (John 1: 47-49). Such as he were ready to recognise the Lamb of God that ‘taketh away the sin of the world’ (John 1: 29). Only a heart so prepared could accept the good news declared by Jesus, whose teachings promised a release from the penalty of the law. Christ’s crucifixion was a substitutionary death on the part of Adam, who made his descendants heir to his sin and consequent punishment. Jesus’ unselfish obedience unto death undid Adam’s sin and purchased life for Adam and his children (Romans 5: 17)

For if by one man’s offence death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by one, Jesus Christ.


With Jesus came the hope of life and the gift of the holy spirit. This heavenly gift offered assurance to offenders of the law that its reforming powers would strengthen and rehabilitate the transgressor (Titus 3: 5):


Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.


Here was something new: for the Jews, a righteousness apart from the Law, an opportunity to demonstrate repentance by conforming one’s character to the image of Christ. It is a principle which has shaped Christian thinking and society for the last two thousand years and encouraged the belief that there is something redeemable in all humanity. It is worth noting that an acquaintance with the supposedly harsh regulations of the Mosaic Law did not harden the hearts of those who saw in it a pointer to Christ.


Forgiveness is not Forgetting

The media gives prominence to victims speaking words of forgiveness towards their attackers. Such mildness and placidity appears saintly when juxtaposed with those crying for vengeance. But true forgiveness means more than putting aside personal feelings of hurt. When Jesus announced the forgiveness of sins he was not displaying an ordinary kindness. He spoke anticipating success in the work before Him, laying the foundation for atonement between God and man.


Kind words alone are not enough. To forgive unconditionally may confuse an impenitent offender, and is in itself unjust. True forgiveness is the graceful acknowledgement that justice has been or will be served and so prepares to welcome back into friendship the offender.

Reformation and Rehabilitation

There are over 130 Prisons and Young Offenders Institutes in the United Kingdom, run with the aim of reforming and rehabilitating the more than 84,000 inmates. Several programmes attempt to reform hearts and minds in preparation for life on the outside. Success is judged by the rate of recidivism – how many prisoners go on to commit other crimes within a year of their release. A rough average of 5 out of 10 prisoners are re-convicted within twelve months of their release into society.[fn4]


This figure suggests that for about half of the criminals who have served their time, prison has done its work of reform. But it is perhaps rare that a deep work of atonement has been achieved. Nor does prison reconcile the victim to the offender. The desire for reconciliation motivates organisations like the Restorative Justice Council to bring victims and offenders together, in the hope that through discussion the offenders come to understand the injury they have inflicted on their victims.


Fruits Worthy of Repentance

It is by such interaction that the first feelings of repentance may be aroused, a sense of sorrow for the wrong done. This kind of remorse is referred to by Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 7: 9, 10):


Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner . . . . For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.


Paul knew by experience God’s work of repentance in the heart. An accomplice to the stoning of Stephen, Paul had zealously persecuted the first Christians, even ‘breathing and threatening slaughter against the disciples of the Lord’. Christ’s confrontation with Paul on the road to Damascus pierced his conscience. Blinded and shocked, Paul realised he was in opposition to God. In his letter to Timothy, Paul confesses his early waywardness. His description of himself testifies to the work of reformation God can do through Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 1: 13-16):

Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.


John the baptist reproved the crowd that came to hear him preach, exhorting them to ‘bring forth fruits worthy of repentance’ (Luke 3: 8). What sort of fruit? After the apologies and expressions of remorse, deeds must demonstrate that words are in earnest. The work of repentance is not complete until the offender has repaired the wrong to the best of his ability. Restitution is the golden aim of the truly penitent heart.


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Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved, but sites may expire or be moved.


[fn1] A recording of Albert Pierrepoint’s interview with BBC Radio Merseyside in 1976 is available on the internet. Pierrepoint’s manner is candid and to the point. His straightforward answers reveal an integrity of character that is no longer widespread. The recording is available to listen to in RealPlayer on the BBC website here:

(retrieved 13 August 2011).

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[fn2] Joe Hicks & Grahame Allen, A Century of Change: Trends in UK statistics since 1900, (House of Commons Library, 21 December 1999), 14. The report is available from the UK government website: (retrieved 13 August 2011).

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[fn3] Hard Sayings of the Bible (Illinois; InterVarsity Press: 1996; p. 115, col. 1).

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[fn4] Iain Bell, Compendium of Reoffending Statistics and Analysis, (Ministry of Justice, 4 November 2010). The report is available from the UK government website: (retrieved 13 August 2011). (Problem with the link)

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