I’ve looked at the Biblical support for capital punishment in The Death Penalty — a Biblical Command, and the question of whether or not Jesus abolished the death penalty in John 8 (the story of the woman taken in adultery).
Another question that is often raised has to do with the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically one section of Matthew 5.
38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
In verse 38, Jesus quotes the following passage from Exodus:
23 And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
This is the retributive principle of the Law. Justice sets a penalty equal to the harm done, and this is a major underpinning of capital punishment. By saying, “But I say to you,” Jesus could appear to be overthrowing the retributive principle of justice, and thus doing away with capital punishment. But Jesus had just said (verse 17) He had come to fulfill, not destroy, the Law, so we should be slow to assume He is contradicting the Law. In fact, there is no contradiction.
Breaking the “Rights” Mentality
The penal instructions in the Old Testament Law told a nation how to carry out justice in protecting innocent victims of violence. The instructions of the Sermon on the Mount were not a penal code, but telling individual followers of Jesus Christ that they are not to be seekers of vengeance.
In verse 40, Jesus says if someone takes you to court to take your coat, if he is trying to also take your cloke let him have it. In verse 41, He spoke of the law that Roman soldiers could force a civilian to carry something for a mile. Jesus told His disciples to carry it two miles.
In verse 42, He commands to give when nothing is due, to loan without expecting repayment. In verses 43-44, He says to give love to those who do not deserve it.
I may give up my legal rights. In fact, as a follower of Christ, I often should be prepared to do so — thus the Sermon on the Mount. We are not to be controlled by our rights. This is the point of the passage — it is not talking about a judicial system, or how government should behave.
Turning Someone Else’s Other Cheek
If someone hits people on the cheek, the police shouldn’t say, “Turn the other cheek, we’re not doing anything.” We’re not told to turn other people’s cheeks, but our own. If government neglects its responsibility to restrain evildoers, it turns the cheek of the victim to the smiter. Does anyone really think that is what Jesus is teaching?
Evildoers will always oppress those who are weaker if government does nothing. If someone is unjustly trying to take both a coat and a cloke from someone else, government should certainly not say, “Oh, go ahead.”
If government does not protect against evildoers, it is a party to oppression, to violence, to the next smiting. Nothing Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount permits that. Matthew 5 is not about government and penal codes. That isn’t in the picture at all. Matthew 5 has nothing to do with the way human government should punish crimes like murder and rape. It talks about being willing to let injustice happen to us again. No one thinks murder and rape should be permitted again. The passage has nothing to do with the death penalty for those crimes.