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CHRISTIANS AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT Print E-mail
Written by Kevin L. Howard   

Review of Clouds of Witnesses by M. Noll and C. Nystrom

Academic Wordiness: Humility Meets Clarity

 

Table of Contents

 

 I. Introduction

II. What does the Old Testament say about capital punishment?

          A. The image of God

          B. Man as a judge

          C. God's covenant

III. Questioning the death penalty with the Old Testament

IV. What does the New Testament say about capital punishment?

          A. The adulterous woman

          B. Turn the other cheek

          C. Put away your sword

          D. The government

          E. Vengeance is mine

          F. The Cross

V. What crimes, if any, merit the death penalty?

VI. Christians opposing the death penalty

            A. The value of life

B. Problems with the death penalty

                       1. Hasn't the death penalty failed to prevent crime?

                       2. What about discrimination and the finality of this decision?

            C. Questions for thought

VII. Summary and conclusion

 

 

Introduction 

Frank sits on death row the night before he goes to the electric chair.  His brown eyes move back and forth examining his green cell walls.  But nothing of beauty hangs there.  The bear and ugly walls remind him of his own empty and unattractive soul.  His darting eyes track his thoughts as they trace his life and how he ended up where he is. How could he have gotten into this mess?   

 

His fear is indescribable.  He's not hungry, he can't sleep.  Doing anything would help him forget what awaits him in several hours.  But who could enjoy a meal or nap on the eve of their death?  All he can seem to do is sweat, tremble, and smoke another cigarette. 

 

This stocky white man who once stood 6'3 is now helplessly curled up on his cot like a baby.  And he will be more helpless against the currents that will soon surge through his body.

 

He's confessed to his countless crimes of rape (including that of a 5-year-old girl), and to murdering and mutilating the bodies of three college women and one high school boy.  This burley criminal, Frank, doesn't have a chance of being exonerated by the governor or DNA testing.  He's guilty and nothing short of a miracle will deny him his date with death in the morning. 

 

What should happen to Frank, prisoner number 9109468, the only son of a broken-hearted mother who once caressed his smooth baby-soft skin?  What do we as Christians say about this man's verdict?  More than what our heart tells us, what does Scripture tell us?

 

Scripture, our guide

With all ethical issues, evangelicals hold varied opinions over what Scripture says about certain issues.  And not all ethical issues have the kind of scriptural clarity we would like (take for example In Vetro Fertilization and Cloning).  However, with the age-old issue of capital punishment, Scripture seems to be clearer than many issues.

 

As far as I'm concerned, if Scripture doesn't tell us how to think about capital punishment, then we wouldn't (or should I say "couldn't") figure it out on our own.  We need the light of God's revelation to give us clear vision on this matter of life and death.

 

To keep things as simple as possible, I will only consider the issue of capital punishment as it relates to murderers.  Much could be said about other crimes, like rape and incest, but I'll focus only on murder, since it would seem to be the best qualifier for the death penalty.

 

What does the Old Testament say about capital punishment?

 

            The image of God

Let's first consider Gen 1:26-28:

 

Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.'  And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  And God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth."

 

Let's also take a look at Gen 5:1-3:

 

"This is the book of the generations of Adam.  In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God.  He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created.  When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth."

 

Although the "image of God" is complex, here are two observations relevant for our discussion. 

 

1). Being created in God's image has something to do with being similar to God.

2). Part of being similar to God has something to do with the responsibility of ruling over creation.

 

Much could be said about even these two observations.  Instead of trying to unpack all of it here, let me just move to our main passage, Gen 9:1-7, after Noah and his family left the ark:

 

"And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.  And the fear of you and the terror of you shall be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given.  Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant.  Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. And surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it.  And from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man.  Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God he made man.  And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.'"

 

What God says in Gen 9 is relevant to capital punishment and the image of God.  God says that a murderer must die, because the one killed was created in the image of God.  But maybe God is saying more than that. 

 

            Man as a judge

Riding on the shoulders of an Old Testament Theology professor, Gordon Hugenberger, the image of God is a rich concept.  Being created in God's image means, among other things, that God has empowered man with the ability to declare verdicts and carry out judgments (again see Gen 1 and 3 for man's ruling responsibilities).  When man carries out justice, he uses his God-given role. 

 

According to Gen 9, a murderer must be killed not because the one he murdered was created in the image of God (although this is true), but because mankind is created in the image of God, and being created in the image of God means, among other things, that man has been commissioned by God to carry out certain responsibilities, like administering justice.  So when a fellow man commits murder, although he is created in the image of God too, the community at large has a responsibility, for the protection of society, to exercise their "image of God" over that of the criminal's image of God.

 

Regardless of how one interprets Gen 9, it's clear what God says there about murderers.  They must die.

 

Besides, the command of Gen 9 to kill murderers came before God gave the law to Israel in Ex 20.  So God aimed capital punishment at civilization in general not only Israel.

 

            God's covenant

In the Old Testament, people had to be executed because God was serious about his covenant with his people.  God promised that he would give them land, that he would protect them, and that he would work through them to reach the rest of the world (Gen 12:3; Jer 31:27-34).  Note the orders God gave his people concerning the land he had promised them—"Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes" (Dt 20:16; also see 1 Sam 15:3).  This is the policy that the Israelites were following in Jos 6:21, where it says, "And they utterly destroyed everything in the city [Jericho], both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword."  Since God had commanded this, then certainly he approved of it. 

 

Again, God was serious about his covenant to his people—"I will give you the land, and my enemies must be destroyed" (Gen 12:3; Dt 28:7, 15-68; 30:7).  Surely this is what the Psalmist had in mind when he said of the enemies of God, "How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock" (Ps 137:9).  Also see Ps 18:40-42 and 139:21-22.

 

God's hatred of sin is why Achan and his family receive death in the book of Joshua.  They broke the covenant (7:11-12, 15, 24-25).  Achan's crime in our eyes was nowhere close to the evilness of murder.  Actually, Achan's actions were not unheard of, nor did God always forbid it.  The Lord sometimes allowed his army to partake of the booty of some cities.  But these weren't random choices.  God let them partake of the booty of cites that were outside of the promised district (see Dt 20:13-14; 21:10-14).  So even though Achan and his family did something that we would never consider a capital offence, God considered it a major offence.  Achan had committed a ritual sin against God's covenant—that he would give them the land entirely to be dedicated to the glory of God—with his people. 

 

That Achan's offense was not a hideous crime like murder makes the point of capital punishment even clearer.  If God commanded his people to put others to death even when they violated his covenant regarding ritual issues, what would his verdict be on murderers?  What is a fair judgment for a murderer?  God said it plainly in Ex 21:12, Lev 24:17, Num 35:30 and in other places—they must die.

 

Questioning the death penalty with the Old Testament

But what about arguments against capital punishment?  Some people quote Ex 20:13 where God says in the Ten Commandments, "You shall not kill."  However, the reference can't mean killing in general ("You shall not kill anyone ever.")  It must mean murder specifically ("You shall not kill anyone who is innocent.")  If God had forbidden killing of any kind in Ex 20:13, then he contradicted himself in Ex 21:12, Lev 24:17, and Num 35:30-34, where he commanded death to those who purposefully murdered innocent people.  Exodus 20:13 protects innocent life but does not ban capital punishment. 

 

But isn't God merciful?  Didn't he spare Adam in Gen 3:6 when he partook of the fruit?  After all, God promised that in the day that Adam ate of the fruit he would surely die (Gen 2:17).  Isn't it true that Adam didn't drop dead upon eating the fruit? 

 

Yes, in fact he lived a long life—930 years to be exact (Gen 5:5).  So what happened? 

 

Although Adam lived long after he ate the forbidden fruit, something died in him that day which caused him to eventually die physically.  Regardless of what we say about that verse, God kept his promise.  Adam didn't live in the fullness of life that he could have lived in forever; he eventually died physically for his sin.  He died for his crime.  And Adam's situation was worse than just death for him.  His death-sentence was passed on to us (Rom 5).   Adam's case leaves us pondering the deep riches of God's inexhaustible goodness, but it doesn't leave us wondering what God thinks about capital punishment.  The rest of Scripture makes this clear.

 

"But wait a minute," some will protest, "there's the story of Cain."  Cain purposefully killed his brother Abel.  If capital punishment should be carried out by society on murderers, then why didn't God have Cain or Moses (or later the Apostle Paul) executed for murder?  God is merciful in ways that we can't always comprehend.  And his compassion should not be overlooked.  He's merciful to all of us or we'd be in hell right now.  But the truth is that he has never let sin go unpunished.  And, as he tells the children of Israel, God takes sin seriously and deals with it harshly (Ex 27:28).  The Lord is gracious, yet he also punishes sinners (Ex 20:5-6; 34:6-7; Ps 103:8-9; Jer 32:17-18).

 

But the question here is "Does God really want the death penalty to be implemented on those who murder?"  Let's look to the New Testament and see what insights we gain from the mind of our Lord.

 

What does the New Testament say about capital punishment?

As we reach the New Testament, some people would say that the new covenant removes the harshness from the Old Testament and now takes away the need of capital punishment.  How come Jesus didn't condemn the woman caught in adultery in John 8 if he was in favor of the death penalty?  Since Jesus had the law on his side, doesn't this prove that Jesus wouldn't have supported the death penalty?  Didn't Jesus say "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I say to you, don't resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Mat 5:38-39)?  And did he not also say, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mat 5:44)? 

            The adulterous woman

But consider the woman caught in adultery in John 8.  All we can really say about this situation is that, first, the law required that the male perpetrator also be put to death (Lev 20:10; Dt 22:22).  Second, Jesus never said that she should escape stoning.  He set the situation up so that she would not be put to death, but this doesn't give us conclusive evidence that Jesus was no longer in favor of the death penalty.  All it shows is that Jesus was compassionate and gracious.  This same compassionate Jesus threw over tables (Mat 21:12) and will one day cast his enemies into hell (Mat 25:46; Rev 19:20-21; 21:6-8, 11-13).

 

            Turn the other cheek

Just because Jesus said in Mat 5 to "Turn the other cheek" doesn't cancel the death penalty.  What he said is a far cry from saying that governments should not carry out the death penalty on capital offenders.  Christians should let God fight their battles—our instructions are to turn the other cheek.  This is a word to believers regarding our response toward those personally offending us.  But this verse does not tell us how our governments are supposed to treat criminals.  Imagine a nation responding to its criminals with a turn-the-other-cheek mentality?  It would be chaos!  The command to turn the other cheek is to Christians, not civil laws or even society at large. 

 

            Put away your sword

But what about Jesus' words to Peter in Mat 26:52?  Peter had just cut a man's ear off for trying to take Jesus away.  The Lord said to him, "Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword."  Does this give us insight about capital punishment? 

 

It tells us that violence isn't our calling in life.  But it falls short of giving us the weighty argument needed to say that capital punishment is not ethical in the eyes of Jesus (compare with Lk 22:36-51).  Jesus knew he had to die and that his kingdom was going to be set up in a different way, and at a different time, than what the disciples had imagined.  He would eventually come with a sword, but not now.  He had come to die on the cross.  The way of the sword, when it is carried out on an individual basis, leads to destruction.  Jesus didn't need Peter's help fighting the soldiers. 

 

            The government

And the Lord does not need our help administering justice.  Actually, he doesn't need our help doing anything!  Yet, he has chosen to use governments to bring about his justice.  That's exactly what Rom 13:1-5 teaches—God uses governments to carry out his good plan of justice.

 

"Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.  For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil.  Do you want to have no fear of authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good.  But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.  Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience sake."

 

In these first five verses of Rom 13, it's easy to see Paul's point—obey the laws of the land or reap the punishment the government metes out on you.  Romans 13:4 implies something significant about capital punishment—God uses it for the good of the people. 

 

Goodness comes to the people in the form of justice.  For the criminal, it means death. 

 

That the "sword" here connotes death is an inference, yes, but it seems to be a solid inference.  How else could we interpret the mention of a sword?  A sword was not used to reform offenders into good citizens.  It was used to kill.  The sword is not a tool for rehabilitation, but for condemnation.  Clearly the text states that the judicial aspect of any government is that of "An Avenger Who Brings Wrath."  Paul's imagery in Rom 13 is not likely to conjure pictures of social workers trying to civilize hardened criminals.  Rather, it paints, in blood-red hues, the chopping block in all of its horror.

 

In fairness to those who disagree with how I'm interpreting this passage, maybe this text just acknowledges that these types of governments existed.  Maybe it's a description and not a prescription.  This interpretation is possible, but such a conclusion does injustice to what this passage seems to be saying.  Paul is telling believers how to live in a corrupt world.  They can live for the Lord even when corrupt governments exist.  However, he's not saying that this judicial wing of the government is corrupt, but that it serves a divine purpose.  There are corrupt governments that abuse their power, but just because governments exercise capital punishment doesn't make that governing system corrupt.  In fact, how could Paul's words be given any meaning at all if he isn't saying that this judging and executing aspect of government is good?

 

First Peter 2:13-15 says, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.  For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men."  This passage supports the government's right to punish criminals.  Although it does not mention capital punishment, neither does it mention prison or rehabilitation programs.

 

Vengeance is mine

Doesn't the Bible clearly teach that God will take vengeance?  This is one of the most common arguments used against capital punishment.  But, ironically, it ends up being one of the weakest arguments against the death penalty.  Deuteronomy 32:35-36a says, "Vengeance is mine, and retribution, in due time their foot will slip; for the day of their calamity is near, and the impending things are hastening upon them.  For the Lord will vindicate his people…."  The words of Dt 32:35-36 ("vengeance is mine, I will repay") show up in Rom 12:19 and Heb 10:30.  Romans 12:17-30 emphasizes that we as Christians should not retaliate.  But the topic must be personal vengeance, otherwise God would be saying that no one, nor any system of justice, should ever punish evil.  And God was obviously in favor of justice systems punishing crime, as a thorough reading of Deuteronomy will show.

 

If people quote Rom 12:19 to oppose capital punishment, then "taking vengeance" would have to include any type of punishment by any justice system.  Putting people in jail or even fining them would be vengeful and therefore not permissible.  If people argue that the death penalty is wrong because God is the only one who can avenge evil, then those same people have to argue that no crime, whatsoever, can ever be punished by a human justice system because, according to their definition of vengeance, punishing crime would be vengeful.  And to argue that is absurd.

 

Furthermore, the Dt 32:35-36 quote about vengeance, in Heb 10:30, must be seen in light of verse 28: "Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses."  Hebrews 10:26-31 contrasts the penalty for breaking the Law of Moses and the penalty for those who still defy God in light of Christ's death.  If it's a given that those who break Moses' Law were in danger of death, then what will happen to those who rebel against God after knowing the full truth of the gospel?  They will be punished all the more severely by God on the day of judgment.  Although Heb 10:26-31 isn't primarily about capital punishment, the context speaks of it as the norm rather than as immoral.  

 

Therefore, Rom 12:19 and Heb 10:30 warn against personal vengeance.  We as the people of God, especially as individuals, are not called to take it upon ourselves to deal out judgment on those who oppose our Lord or us.  These passages say nothing against capital punishment.

 

God will repay evildoers but he will use human laws and governments to carry out his plan of vengeance.  That's actually what we've already seen happening throughout the Old Testament. 

 

            The Cross

Does the cross of Christ shed any light on the matter of capital punishment?  When Jesus hung on the cross, he said of those executing him, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34).  Doesn't this prove that Jesus would have forgiven murderers today?

 

Jesus' words of forgiveness show that God hates sin and approves of the execution of Christ.  It also shows that he has a heart to forgive (1 Pet 2:23).  Christ had not sinned, but was dying for the sins of sinners.  God is just and requires that sins be paid for.  Christ's forgiving words uttered from the cross weren't a blanket forgiveness for his accusers.  He was expressing his heart, not making a statement about the destinies of his torturers.  He was full of love even though they were full of hate.  If his crucifiers were to be saved, they'd have to repent and believe.  In fact, this same loving Christ will one day reek havoc on his enemies (Rev 20:11-15).

 

What crimes, if any, merit the death penalty?

Even if one concedes that the death penalty could be used in some cases, how do we decide what is worthy of death?  In the Old Testament people were executed because they worked on the Sabbath (Ex 31:15).  Surely we don't want to execute someone for that!  Only a small segment of Christianity, Reconstructionists, would say that we should live under all of the laws (or at least the moral and civil laws) of the Old Testament. 

 

But what about moral issues like homosexuality (Lev 20:13), adultery (Lev 20:10), and animal molestation (Lev 20:15-16)?

 

Matthew 5:17-18 says Jesus came to fulfill the law not abolish it.  Hebrews 8 attests that Jesus' death and resurrection brought about some change in the law and covenant.

 

Although these sins (like adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, and all sins) still offend God, they should not be treated the same way now, as they were in the Old Testament.  We do not live in a theocratic government (a government with God as king), and thus we have to function differently.  While we should still take sin seriously, God will handle certain sins in his own time. 

 

Governments should not implement laws that condone sins such as mentioned above.  But since all governments are made up of sinners, then they show sinful traits no matter how fair they are.

 

But if some of the sins and crimes that warranted death in the Old Testament don't necessarily warrant death today, why murder? 

 

I defend the death penalty, at least in the case of murder, because murder cuts at the core of being human and being created in the image of God.  Again, see Gen 9:6-7.  Murder takes from an innocent person something essential for life and happiness, something which cannot be given back.  An innocent life ceases. 

 

The murderer's life is forfeited by his own wrong doings.  The murderer's ruling and judging privileges—the image of God—are overruled by the image of God present in those carrying out justice, added with the fact that he murdered someone who bore God's image.  He has become a threat to society and must die.

 

Christians opposing the death penalty

Several things could be said regarding Christians who oppose the death penalty even in cases of murder.  If they're going to oppose the death penalty they should have Scripture and solid interpretation to base their arguments on.  Many argue against the death penalty because they say that the death penalty devalues life.

           

The value of life

Life is devalued when our laws say that no one can ever do anything to deserve death.  The only way to guard the sanctity of life is to show that life is so precious that there are crimes so evil that the perpetrator deserves death. 

 

Problems with the death penalty

Despite my arguments supporting the death penalty, there are some arguments against capital punishment worth considering:

 

Hasn't the death penalty failed to prevent crime?

At what point in American history have we ever tested whether the death penalty prevents crime?  Has it ever been implemented in such a consistent way across the country that we know it doesn't work?  Maybe the problem with the way we've carried out the death penalty in the U.S. is that we've been too slow and too inconsistent.  Scripture teaches that swift judgment does deter crime (Eccl 8:11).  Whether or not the death penalty stops the potential murderer from possibly murdering, it effectively stops the one who did murder.

 

Besides, if capital punishment does not deter murder, then why think that something else will?  Why try anything?  What's the one thing that every person facing the death penalty wants to do?  He wants to live, and that should tell us something about the value of life and the deterrence that the death penalty can bring.

 

What about discrimination and the finality of this decision?

We acknowledge that the faultiness of man's laws and decisions are a serious consideration.  Inmates have been released from death row due to DNA testing.  No doubt, the biggest problem with the death penalty is that innocent people can get caught in the system, even a system that is based on "Innocent Until Proven Guilty." 

 

Anywhere people exist, sin abounds, even in justice systems based on fairness.  But should we not enforce it because of a possible flaw in the system, even if Scripture encourages us to enforce it?  No one doubts the possibility of injustice.  And because there is no undoing a mistake of this nature, we need to be working for a thorough and fairer justice system, not opposing the death penalty.  DNA testing can help us deal justly with the right people rather than stopping capital punishment altogether. 

 

Innocent people might end up there because of error or discrimination.  But can we let those possibilities stop us from doing what is right in the cases where evil has reigned and guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt?

 

            Questions for thought

I have two questions for Christians who oppose the death penalty for murderers:

1). Where is the scriptural support?

2). What is the proper punishment for murder, if not death? 

 

Some will say they don't have an alternative solution, but they know capital punishment is not the right answer.  Why?  They don't have an alternative solution because they've rejected the only answer Scripture gives.  And for those who say they do have alternative solutions, are those solutions derived from Scripture?

Summary and conclusion

I've tried to show that the Old Testament teaches that God implemented the death penalty.  The clearest passage is Gen 9:1-7.  The New Testament doesn't condone violence or personal retribution, but it does support the death penalty.  The clearest passage to demonstrate that is Rom 13:1-5. 

 

Admittedly, no New Testament passage mandates capital punishment, but neither does it mandate prison or rehabilitation programs.

 

Even though the death penalty will continue to be a controversial issue among Bible-believing Christians, the Scriptures must be the basis for our beliefs and actions.

 

If someone rejects capital punishment on moral grounds, then no one should ever die by the death penalty, including people like Hitler, Stalin, Hussein, or Bin Laden.  The people who argue against capital punishment have to at least be consistent in their position.

 

Whether a murderer has confessed his crime, expressed contrition, and sought to redeem his actions by performing good works are not a legitimate issues.  We should weep for the victims and then proceed with the death penalty.  Otherwise, a person's way out of death row is a confession, a few tears, and a little bit of work.  Should we really cheapen the lives of their victims to make ourselves feel more humane?

 

 

Letter(s) From Andrew Objecting to Capital Punishment

Tennessee's Death Penalty Moratorium

IN MEMORY OF A FRIEND: Matthew Hopkins

 
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