Unreasonable Revelations: God Told Me to Kill
49 Pages Posted: 22 Apr 2019
Date Written: March 21, 2019
This article addresses the surprisingly many cases in which defendants claim that God commanded them to kill someone. This problem of “deific decree” murder is raised briefly in the Kadish et al. Criminal Law casebook, and one of the key cases, State v. Crenshaw, 98 Wash.2d 789 (1983), has become a familiar first-year puzzle in the context of insanity doctrine.
The article proposes a fundamentally different legal approach to deific decree murders. Standard criminal law doctrine (and most law review commentary) treats these cases as candidates for an insanity defense under an exception (or addendum) to the standard M’Naghten test, because God’s command either confused or countermanded the defendant’s “rational” sense of right and wrong, and rendered the defendant irresponsible. I argue that insanity is the wrong frame in which to consider these cases, because it too easily presumes that experiencing revelation is a sign of insanity, when much of the U.S. public believes, to the contrary, that revelation is both real and a better form of truth.
The legal questions above become a vehicle for a broader look at the way in which revelation challenges law – a timely and important problem in an era in which religious groups often deny the neutrality and ethics of established law and of legal institutions. I therefore organize the discussion of deific decree cases into a new taxonomy that attends to how courts confront the validity or authority of revelation. In explaining and exploring this taxonomy, the article dives deep into the philosophical and religious implications of deific decree murders, discovering that religious law, as well as secular law, struggles to evaluate such claims. In the end, I argue that neither secular nor religious forms of law can meaningfully adjudicate the authenticity of divine commands. The divine escapes jurisdiction.
Keywords: deific decree, insanity, M'Naghten, revelation, prophecy, murder
JEL Classification: K14
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation