I’ve made brief references to the death penalty on this blog, but never put together a clear presentation of Biblical teaching on the subject. That was remiss on my part — in general, clear teaching should come before brief comments. In this post, I’ll attempt to begin to rectify that error.
The Death Penalty Before Moses
5 And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man.
6 Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.
This is in God’s covenant with Noah, who represented surviving mankind after the flood. The teaching is very clear — man is responsible to shed the blood of a murderer — to carry out the death penalty. The reason given still applies today: man is made in God’s image.
- The victim is in God’s image, of immeasurable worth. James 3:9 links the way we treat God’s image with how we treat God Himself. Capital punishment is warranted for murder because of the seriousness of the crime against God’s image in the victim.
- The judge(s) are in God’s image. God is holy, and by His very nature executes righteous judgment. His mercy comes not by diminishing punishment, but by bearing it. Capital punishment is necessary because those tasked with administering justice are in God’s image and should reflect God’s justice and holiness. Restitution is impossible for murder, so justice demands an equal punishment.
- The killer also is in the image of God. He is a moral agent, knowing right and wrong. He has sinned against God’s image in himself to such an extent that the only fitting punishment is death.
Note that the reason given for the death penalty is timeless — man is as much in God’s image today as he was in Genesis 9.
Declared Again Through Moses
Before the giving of the Law:
12 And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death:
13 There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.
In the Law itself (this is one of multiple places):
He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.
Carried out by Prophets
I Samuel 15:33
And Samuel said, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.
I Kings 18:40
And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
Both Samuel and Elijah personally executed the death penalty that God instituted. God commanded and fully endorsed capital punishment in the Old Testament, over and over again.
Capital Punishment Confirmed in the New Testament
Jesus rarely taught on the responsibilities of government. His teaching called individuals to believe, repent, and obey. But we see several statements like the following in His parables. Here He speaks of capital punishment as appropriate justice for those who commit great crimes — something we would not expect if He opposed the death penalty.
6 And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them.
7 But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.
In his appeal in Acts 25, Paul endorsed the death penalty by accepting the jurisdiction of Caesar, who thought nothing of executing prisoners. But Paul goes further, saying he would willingly accept the death penalty if found guilty of a capital crime.
10 Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest.
11 For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.
In Romans 13, in describing governmental authority, Paul says the government is to be a servant of God to bear the sword, “to execute wrath” against evildoers. “Bear the sword” means that force, up to and including deadly force, is the proper role of government as God’s “minister.”
For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
So we see capital punishment throughout the Bible. It appears before the Old Testament Law, in the Law itself, and is directly executed by prophets. It is accepted as normal justice by Christ in His parables and endorsed in Acts and the Epistles. If all Scripture is God-inspired, then God commanded the death penalty in the Old Testament, and rather than overturning it in the New, He provided further endorsement of it.
Many in this country, Christians or otherwise, oppose the death penalty. Some do so because of the words of Jesus in John 8, or because of the fear of abuses. Many do not fully understand the reasons for the death penalty, and so they look at potential problems instead. Lord willing, I’ll try to address these things in coming posts.