As we’ve seen in previous posts, the Bible has a lot to say about the death penalty, and not only in the Old Testament. Many Christians are understandably uncomfortable with the death penalty, and I’ll say more about that later. One reason, though, is that some may not understand the purposes for the death penalty.
I’d like to look at those purposes now. In this post, I’ll look at the civic purposes of the death penalty, related to justice and society’s responsibilities. In the next, I’ll look at the redemptive purpose.
Previous posts on capital punishment:
Commanded by God (Old and New Testaments)
Supported, not undermined, by the account of the woman taken in adultery
Not abolished in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5)
Safeguards to Prevent Injustice
Purpose #1 — Cleanse the Land
30 Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.
31 Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.
32 And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest.
33 So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.
This is somewhat alien to our thinking. It is easy, in an age where environmentalism is the great world religion, to understand a responsibility to be good stewards of the land God has given us. We should use and protect resources rather than destroying them.
But God said there is a moral stewardship as well, that innocent blood defiles (morally pollutes) the land. Few people express it that way, but people instinctively recognise it. It is very difficult to sell a house where a horrible murder has taken place. Often, these homes end up being destroyed. God has put within us an aversion to the places where murder has been done. The land has been polluted, and deep inside, we know it.
God said one purpose of the death penalty for murder was to cleanse the land of the moral pollution which a murder brought. Capital punishment cleanses the stain of the murder.
Purpose #2 — Put Away Evil
And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.
The second purpose for capital punishment was a societal rejection of evil, a corporate statement that we, as a society, consider this evil so unacceptable that it must not exist among us at all, so abhorrent and destructive that we will put those to death who would bring this evil among us.
Stuart Hazel has been in the news for the horrific murder of Tia Sharp. Many people have said hanging needs to come back. Some who say that are angry because he made a fool of them by drawing them into a search for Tia when he knew she was dead. Others are angry for other reasons. But the general idea, that some crimes are so abhorrent that society must rise up and demand the ultimate penalty, is from God. Society needs to say, “No. Never. That evil, we will put away from us.”
Purpose #3 — Deterrence
9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
10 And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
11 And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you.
This passage says deterrence is one purpose of capital punishment. Many studies have been done on this subject. Some claim it does not deter evildoers, others claim it does. God says it does, though He does not guarantee that it will deter every evildoer.
Some have talked to murderers, and said they were not deterred, or would not have been deterred, by capital punishment. That may be true of those particular murderers — but no one will ever know how many people have considered a crime, down through the centuries, and decided not to kill because they feared being executed. Just because some people aren’t deterred doesn’t mean that no one is.
Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.
Where Western societies have used the death penalty, they have weakened its deterrent effect. Long delays remove the fear of the penalty. Requiring people to take part in the execution, as God required in Israel, made punishment of evil very personal for everyone. It wasn’t sanitised, or off in a secret prison somewhere. Everyone had to face up to it. That created a much stronger effect on those who might be tempted to do evil.
There is one way in which deterrence always works. A murderer or rapist who receives the death penalty will never commit the crime again. Tragically, this country has seen too many repeat offenders. Peter Tobin would have been deterred from murdering Angelika Kluk if he had been executed for his previous crimes.
Purpose #4 — To Obtain Mercy
14 Then shalt thou enquire, and make search, and ask diligently; and, behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you;
15 Thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein, and the cattle thereof, with the edge of the sword.
16 And thou shalt gather all the spoil of it into the midst of the street thereof, and shalt burn with fire the city, and all the spoil thereof every whit, for the LORD thy God: and it shall be an heap for ever; it shall not be built again.
17 And there shall cleave nought of the cursed thing to thine hand: that the LORD may turn from the fierceness of his anger, and shew thee mercy, and have compassion upon thee, and multiply thee, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers;
This is closely related to the concept of putting away evil, as described above. If an entire city should choose to follow an abomination, the nation was to apply the death penalty as a way of appealing to God for mercy for the nation by rejecting the evil.
Purpose #5 — Cleanse the Nation
11 But if any man hate his neighbour, and lie in wait for him, and rise up against him, and smite him mortally that he die, and fleeth into one of these cities:
12 Then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him thence, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die.
13 Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.
Not only does innocent blood pollute the land, it pollutes the people, making a nation guilty. The nation is delivered from that guilt in God’s eyes when it executes the killer.
Purpose #6 — Justice
And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
God intended the punishment to fit the crime, for justice to be just — equal. He did not want human government to minimise the value of the life that had been taken by requiring a lesser punishment.
These are at least six purposes that God gave for capital punishment. Some are somewhat alien to our thinking — but God gave them, so we know they are true. These reasons would still apply today, just as they did for Israel in the Old Testament. Equal justice is still justice, moral pollution is still moral pollution, deterrence is still needed, nations still need God’s mercy.