An execution taught me about grace

Grant Doepel

7 mins

I’ve personally witnessed the execution of convicted murderers multiple times.

I know death is an unsettling topic that brings about grief and despair. The earthly finality of death can be depressing, leaving a lasting impact on those left behind. But something happened to me in those executions. I found myself experiencing death in a way that gave me new life.

Capital punishment is a controversial topic, but in Ohio it is legal. I remember preparing to witness my first execution. Once the date was set, there was a pit that sat in my stomach.

I struggled mightily. I knew I was in this place for a specific reason, but I didn’t know what that reason was. While I had been with grandparents when they took their last breaths, this was different. It was planned.

Driving to the prison that morning, a song called “No Longer Slaves” came on my Spotify station. At 5:30 in the morning, driving through the foggy hills of Portsmouth, Ohio, the words of that song sat heavy on my heart.

We’ve been liberated
From our bondage
We’re the sons and the daughters
Let us sing our freedom

The next song on the playlist was called “Good Good Father.”

I’ve seen many searching for answers far and wide
But I know we’re all searching
For answers only you provide
‘Cause you know just what we need
Before we say a word

These stanzas reverberated in my mind all morning long as final preparations were being made for the execution. My palms were sweaty, and my heart was pounding out of my chest, but I was there to do a job. And that job is what I stayed focused on all morning long.

Then it was time for the execution. It was the moment I had thought about daily since I was hired. I wondered how I would react and hoped I would keep my composure. I prayed for the individual being executed as well as his family and the family of the victim.

I had no idea what to expect.

As the preparations began, my heart was breaking for the families who had lost so much, for this man on his deathbed, and for all of those involved in the execution. I listened as the deafening silence of the room was occasionally interrupted by a soft cry of family members.

I stood there, my entire body tense and stressed. The fear that I was feeling was palpable, my senses heightened like I’ve never experienced before.

It was at that moment that God spoke to me in a way that was more clear than ever before. It wasn’t a booming voice from the heavens or an out of body experience. It was a simple thought that came to mind. A thought that was clearly not my own.

You deserve to be on that bed just as much as he does.

For the first time in my life, as a man in front of me was being executed, I understood Jesus’ death on the cross. The payment for my sin is death. Not just the payment for murder, but all brokenness, all mistakes. When we sin, we experience that spiritual death. That’s why we feel guilt, or emptiness, or confusion. We are spiritually disconnected from God. Jesus died on the cross in our place, so that we can live forever with God one day.

I deserve death, but Jesus’ sacrifice for us gives new life.

As this man took his final breath, I felt a true peace as I looked at the criminal we had condemned. A man who had done truly terrible things, without a doubt, but a man who God says could be redeemed.

In John 11:25-26, Jesus said,

I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?

I knew this verse, but I can’t say I believed it. This man, who had been on death row for 20 years, was likely not the same as he was when he committed his crime. He seemed to have found a true peace, visible even in the face of his impending death.

“Do you believe this?” I felt convicted. I thought that such grace applied to me, but a murderer?

Yet seeing myself on that deathbed radically altered my belief. It brought the actual sacrifice of Jesus home for me and made it tangible in a way that a man with weak faith could grasp.

I drove home, unpacking the day’s events. When I got to the house, I walked inside, expecting to see my daughter. All I wanted was to hold her tight and escape the events of the day.

But she wasn’t home. She and my mother had gone for a walk. Instead, my father was sitting on the couch alone.

I walked into the living room and looked at him.

“How are you?” he asked softly.

No one had asked me that. My father looked directly into my eyes, and I immediately lost it. Every emotion that I had kept inside all day long came flooding out. I collapsed into my dad’s arms and wept uncontrollably. I was overcome by sadness, guilt, and thankfulness.

He and I said nothing. He just held me for what felt like an eternity.

A few moments later, he spoke up.

“Who did Jesus speak to as He died? A convicted criminal.”

Those words echoed again in my mind:

We’ve been liberated
From our bondage
We’re the sons and the daughters
Let us sing our freedom

Liberated from bondage, there is freedom in death.

One of the criminals who was hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!’ And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39-43)

In the face of death and unspeakable crimes, it became incredibly clear to me that there is no difference between a man being put to death for murder and me. And because of that, God’s grace and forgiveness are equally available to both of us.

We are all broken, living in personal prisons from which only Jesus can save us. He answers and saves all of us who are willing to ask for His grace.

I have witnessed multiple men be put to death—all sinners just like me. I don’t know their hearts or final thoughts, but each time it has been my prayer that one day we’ll be together in paradise.

Grant Doepel
Meet the author

Grant Doepel

Lover of classic rock, Lost, and tattoos. A proud husband and (exhausted) father, he spends his professional life playing on Twitter. His favorite place to be is in prison. Seriously, ask him about it.

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