Innocent Until Proven Guilty is A Christian Idea

In our society we have a wonderful legal principle summarized by the phrase “Innocent until proven guilty.”

Juries in our system can only convict a person of a crime if they determine that evidence dictates, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, that he or she actually committed that crime.

This assumption in our legal system ultimately allows the possibility that many people will be able to commit crimes and escape punishment for those crimes.

One of my favorite movies, “12 Angry Men” starring Henry Fonda, revolves around this question: can we send a man to the electric chair without being absolutely certain of his guilt? It tells the story of twelve jurors who must decide a murder case, and all of the evidence presented in court tilts toward the guilty verdict, but one juror isn’t convinced and ultimately convinces the other eleven to change their vote because there was a reasonable doubt.

There’s a lot of moral law philosophy wrapped up in this film, but the basic reality is this: the boy was probably guilty. The line is repeated throughout the film: “We may be trying to let a guilty man go free.”

This is incredibly unique. Our system favors the guilty because of the inability of man to know all reality. Our system recognizes the innate limitations of man to ascertain all truth, and so it errs on the side of mercy.

These two facts about our system are related to its distinctly Christian roots: (1) It errs on the side of mercy, and so (2) it assumes true justice will be done, in the end.

On the first point, as with my favorite Shakespeare story “The Merchant of Venice” our system recognizes that “the quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath… And earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy seasons justice.” Shakespeare got it from James.”Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

The point? Mercy is an Attribute of God, understood and displayed in its purest form in the gospel of Christianity. The gospel is the good news that, though you are a sinner, Jesus of Nazareth died and rose from the dead to save you from the penalty of that sin, death, and that by believing in him, you might receive resurrection unto eternal life.

Mercy is a Christian doctrine, and mercy is embodied in “Innocent until proven guilty.”

On the second point, it assumes a better trial will come.

Christians believe God will judge all humans after death. Revelation 20 describes a judgment of all the people who have ever lived, and their actions are judged either according to the book of life or according to their deeds as they appear in “the books.”

In short, Christians believe that if our juries make a mistake, and a guilty man goes free, he won’t go free eternally. This belief is fundamental to the justice of a system that says “Innocent until proven guilty.”

I would argue that the trend toward atheistic humanism has caused our coinciding trend toward “Believe all women.” The feminists of the #MeToo movement have a point if there is no justice after death. If, in fact, the final judgment a potential rapist will meet is our own American Judicial system, then of course we have to err on the side of guilt. It would be much worse for a rapist to go free and never receive the just penalty for his act than for an innocent man to be imprisoned. Justice is more important than freedom, when the arbiter of justice is not infallible. The net cost of erring on the side of mercy is too great! The injustice potentially done to the innocent man is merited if we humans cannot be trusted with 100% accuracy in our administration of justice. Shawn Oakman might have actually raped that girl, and if he did, then he got away with it forever! … … if there is no judgment after death.

When we remove God as our final authority, the next authority in line to take up that mantle is the government.

It is only in a Christian society that “innocent until proven guilty” can be seen as just. Without a true, final, after-death righting of all wrongs, we must adhere to guilty until proven innocent, for without it, the guilty might go free, and evil-doers prosper. But if it is true, as I and our founders believed, that any injustice done in letting a guilty man go free will be squared on “Judgment day.”

I fear in our culture we are witnessing the beginning of a trend back toward the pagan idea of guilty until proven innocent. I fear that the logic of my words will be taken the wrong way. I fear that those on the other side will agree with me, but instead of saying, “So let’s believe the gospel and follow God” they will say, “So let’s ditch innocent until proven guilty, since God certainly isn’t our guide.”

Church: pray for our country and our culture. Preach the gospel, encourage repentance, and pray for the return of our savior!