"Whole-lifers", inhumane treatment and basic human dignity

A recent story, carried by various media outlets, reported whole-life jail terms without review have been deemed a breach of human rights by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Unsurprisingly, outrage has not been hard to come by. In a guest post on the Archbishop Cranmer blog, Rev’d Dr Peter Mullen seems miffed. Similarly, the BBC reports several UK government ministers are not best pleased. The usual scroll down the Guardian comments section will lead you to several other unhappy customers.

I want to limit myself to the following brief points:

  1. The ECHR have not ruled that it is inhumane to imprison somebody for the rest of their natural life. They have merely stated that all prisoners should have a right to review with the possibility of release. It does not follow that, upon review, prisoners will be released necessarily.
  2. The outpouring of anger in response the newspaper headlines seems to rest on the idea that heinous, inhumane crimes revoke one’s right to humane treatment. “Whole-lifers” had such scant regard for the lives of those they attacked that their human rights should be treated with equal disdain, they aver.
  3. Whilst there may be some debate over the nature of human rights and that which constitutes basic human dignity, scripture is clear that all humans are of inherent worth and value, worthy of respect and require a certain level of dignity by virtue of being made in the image of God
  4. Scripture nowhere reasons that sin warrants the removal of basic human dignity, inherent by being God’s image bearers (see here for a more full defence of this view). 
  5. Therefore, even the most heinous crimes do not legitimise inhumane treatment. One may wish to argue against the notion that whole-life sentences without review are inhumane – that is certainly a legitimate debate to be had. Equally, there is legitimate debate to be had over what constitutes inhumanity. However, if our argument rests on the idea that inhumane crimes warrant inhumane treatment we may struggle to find biblical warrant for that view.
  6. Equally, how would we determine which crimes are so heinous they warrant removal of basic human dignity and those which, although sinful and clearly viewed seriously by God, do not warrant such treatment? How far would we be able to move away from self-justification and existential arguments of sins most people commit and those particularly horrendous one’s that are only categorised as such because we don’t tend to do them?


  1. Great and much needed balanced reaction Steve, I expect nothing less! You saw my own hasty reaction to this too, very much along the lines you are dismissing.
    I think you're spot on the need to debate whether or not life sentences actually constitute inhumane treatment too, as I think even when conceding all of these points that there is still plenty of room for objecting to the ruling.

    Along those lines, on point 4, how would you (or even just would you) factor in Genesis 4:12, where certainly something of Cain's right to freedom and a settled life is forfeit because of his act of murder? Yes, “basic human dignity” is not lost, in fact it is protected and vengeance is not allowed. But something substantial is lost, with no hint of potential redemption, based only on the severity of the crime.
    And also, how does the biblical treatment of capital punishment inform this? Surely that must be considered a loss of basic human dignity because of a serious crime?
    I'm not so sure that the assumption that a person's personal human dignity cannot ever be considered forfeit holds true.

    Having said all that, I'm thankful I'm only considering this in theory. If there was even a remote chance that my opinion might affect a ruling and another person's life I would be using far more caution, as much as possible in fact!

  2. Thanks for your comment Alan.

    It's really interesting you mention Cain because I wrote him into the post in support of (4) and then decided against it. So, I'm pleased your raised the point!

    God specifically protected Cain from inhumane treatment despite his sin. Indeed, this is Cain's main worry and God specifically protects him from that. Clearly there was a recognition from God that despite Cain's sin and subsequent punishment, he still remained an image bearer who warrants both dignity and humane treatment. So, I would argue Cain's case rather backs up my point.

    Cain certainly forfeited particular freedoms, that much is clear. However, just as those in prison forfeit certain rights, they only do so because they show they cannot live freely without infringing on the rights of others. However, this is all by the by to my original point which is – even when in prison or facing the consequence of crime (such as they may be) – people do not forfeit all their rights nor their dignity. They are still image bearers, just as Cain was.

    That there was no potential for redemption for Cain isn't explicitly stated in the text. I would venture Cain's main problem was that everything was always about him from his sacrifice (only giving 'some' fruits to God, not his best), his anger at Abel (you made me look bad) and his subsequent complaint at the punishment (I can't cope with this). I wonder if it is not the case that Cain saw no redemption because he never actually accepted his own sin nor sought forgiveness. He first lied about it and, even when God calls him on it, doesn't admit wrong just bemoans the punishment.

    Re capital punishment, Firstly, we must ask the question whether death is fundamentally undignified and inhumane. If so, would that extend to both natural death and wartime death? If not, does that mean there are some forms of death that are humane and some that are not? Secondly, we have to ask whether capital punishment was a prescriptive principle for all time or whether it was a specific measure for a particular people in particular circumstances e.g. a desert dwelling, nomadic people? What would be the alternative under such circumstances? How does Christ's statement of a “better way” come into play here?

  3. I noticed I was assuming Cain had no chance of redemption as I wrote it; I'd say it's not such a wild assumption, but then the message of the Bible as a whole would suggest otherwise!

    All in all I think you've convinced me and the thoughts I raised are the beginnings of the subsequent discussion on whether lifelong imprisonment might be the good alternative in our setting and the better way, or whether it is too much and should be considered undignified and inhumane.
    I suspect I won't get too far along that road before I side with grace and redemption! 😉

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