Capital punishment is an emotionally charged topic. It’s also muddied by rhetoric of both the uninformed and the dogmatic. Usually occasioned by a murder conviction, the death penalty stirs people to dizzying emotional heights as they argue for either the commutation of supposedly barbaric method of punishment or for the just execution of a deserving criminal. It’s a painful subject for many. Yet capital punishment is a subject that needs to be discussed, and be exposed to the light of God’s Word.
Simply put, God authorizes governments to rightly administer capital punishment to the vilest offenders in society. Although many claim the contrary, this has neither been diluted nor replaced by any teaching of the New Testament.
There are numerous groups in the United States dedicated to abolishing capital punishment as a cruel and barbaric response to crime — or perceived crime, as some view criminal behavior. Some members of these groups are guided by their love of humanity, however misguided that love. Some believe that Jesus taught that love outstripped the Old Testament law. However, while these lines of reasoning are understandable in a culture that denies Biblical authority, such motives are demonstrably wrong.
Death penalty opponents in the United States believe that death row is over-populated. This is hardly the case. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice website, 71 persons were executed in this country in 2002. That same site states, “At yearend 2001, 37 States and the Federal prison system held 3,581 prisoners under sentence of death, 20 fewer than at yearend 2000. All had committed murder.” The most recent census indicates that 281,421,906 people lived in this nation as of April, 2000. Sentencing deserving criminals to death has not reached epidemic proportions.
Many Americans have been led to believe that capital punishment is used as a penalty for being black in America. Notable commentators such as Jesse Jackson often make claims of racial bias in sentencing. Not surprisingly, Christianity Today magazine has helped to perpetuate this myth. In a commentary published in 1998, the editors stated, “The death penalty as it is practiced in this country is unfair and discriminatory.” The reason for this assertion was, “Race, class, and geography are the best predictors of who will get the death sentence for first-degree murder.” Yet the facts regarding the sentence of death do not support such claims. Of those 71 criminals executed in 2002, 53 were white. Only 18 were black. The most recent statistical breakdown of race on death row indicates that there are more whites awaiting execution than any other racial group. According to the Bureau of Justice, of persons under sentence of death in 2001:
-- 1,969 were white
-- 1,538 were black
-- 28 were American Indian
-- 33 were Asian
-- 13 were of unknown race.
Finally, the argument is made that criminal punishment is no deterrent to crime. Studies, in fact, have indicated the opposite. Columnist Don Feder put this in perspective recently, stating, “Since 1973, when the death penalty was re-imposed, we’ve had more than 660 executions nationwide. In 1999, the murder rate was the lowest since 1966 (5.7 per 100,000). Coincidence?” Opponents, of course have their own sets of studies. What is undeniably true, however, is that the criminal careers of those executed have been brought to a halt. They have been deterred.
However, there is a sense in which the typical secular counter-arguments are useless. None of them actually matters. Nor does it matter that the American people reach a consensus on the issue of capital punishment. Likewise, we should not be seeking a “Christian perspective” on the topic. What matters is that we accept Biblical authority on the matter of the death penalty — and all of life. The bottom line is that God’s Word teaches that criminal offenses have consequences. What we need to explore is exactly what Scripture says and how it applies to our society today.
Crime and Punishment in the Old Testament
Opponents of the death penalty often point to the Old Testament to prove that capital punishment is simply part of an anachronistic moral code for another historical era. Dismissing the very moral code they call upon to defend their position (“Thou shalt not kill”), these proof-texters miss a very important point. God instituted the death penalty long before He promulgated the decalogue. In Genesis 9:6 we read, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” Not out of revenge, but because man is precious to God — made in His very image — did God institute the principle that the penalty for murder is death.
This brings us to an often misread portion of Old Testament Scripture, Exodus 20:13. As translated in the NIV, this verse reads, “You shall not murder.” This reflects a proper translation and understanding of the Hebrew verb Xcr. We’ll leave exegetical considerations to those more able, but even the most untrained Bible student can discover that this word, whenever we find it in the Old Testament, always refers to premeditated murder or assassination. We can also discern that the penalty for breaking this commandment is clearly spelled out in Exodus 21:12, which teaches that, “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death.” Scripture differentiates between killing and murder. One is abominable in God’s eyes. The other is the prescribed remedy.
Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for 18 different crimes. The list includes murder (Gen. 9:6; Ex. 21:12-14), striking a parent (Ex. 21:15), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), cursing a parent (Ex. 21:17), causing the death of a pregnant woman and/or her child (Ex. 21:22-25), allowing a proven dangerous animal to kill a person (Ex. 21:28-20), sorcery and witchcraft (Ex. 22:18), adultery (Lev. 20:10), incest (Lev. 20:11-12,14), homosexuality (Lev. 20:13), sex with animals (Lev. 20:15-16), cursing God (Lev. 24:10-16), tempting people to idolatry (Dt. 13:1-16), rebellion against appropriate authority (Dt. 17:12), bearing false witness in a capital case (Dt. 19:16-20), rebellion against parents (Dt. 21:18-21), fornication (Dt. 22:13-21), and rape of a married woman (Dt. 22:25-29).
The “criminal justice system” of the Old Testament required that all evidence in capital cases be solid. Great care was to be taken to protect against error or vengeful motives. Deuteronomy 19:15 specifically teaches, “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Such care was to be exercised in accepting evidence that if a witness was found to have perjured himself, he was to receive the punishment prescribed for the offense for which the defendant was accused (Dt. 19:16-20). As noted in the list above, this meant that a false witness in a capital case was subject to the death penalty.
Safeguards against vengeance are an integral part of the Old Testament law. The often misapplied Lex Talionis is a primary example. Found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, this principle states:
If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution — life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured. Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a man must be put to death. You are to have the same law for the alien and the native-born. I am the LORD your God. (Lev. 24:17-22)
Often purported to be a license for vengeance, this principle is more properly viewed as a limitation on punishments. It states that punishments are to be proportional to the offense — and no more. This law then, acts as a precaution against allowing emotions to compound the original offense by the sin of excessive punishment.
The New Testament Ethic of Love
Many — especially those who believe in a dichotomy between an Old Testament God of Wrath and a New Testament Jesus meek and mild — have assumed that the New Testament refutes Old Testament teaching on the subject of capital punishment. To state simply that this is wrong is to understate matters considerably. This important subject matter deserves a more thorough reading of God’s Word, not just a glance at a condensed version.
It is claimed that Jesus set aside all teachings on capital punishment — and the rest of the law — when He preached what we have come to know as The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. 5:38-39). It is hard to make it say that Jesus is overturning the Old Testament law. Far from it. Rather, Jesus is teaching that we need to exceed the requirements of the law. We need not only to carry out the provisions specified, we need to reach out to condemned criminals with love and prayer. We need to offer them the peace of the gospel of salvation.
Not only did Jesus not refute the law, He told us specifically that this was not His intention. In Matthew 5:17-18 He makes clear His adherence to the authority of the law, stating:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
The apostle Paul also affirms the authority of the state both to try citizens and to impose capital punishment. In Acts 25:10-11, Paul stood before a judge and declared, “I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die.” This was no self-serving, theoretical statement on Paul’s part. On the authority of God’s Word, he placed himself in the hands of the Roman state.
In Romans 13:1-7 Paul elucidates his best argument in favor of capital punishment. Here he teaches that the magistrate is a minister of God in his administration of justice. The power of the sword is placed into the hands of civil authorities. That those in authority may be heathen is of no consequence in this regard. God has often used heathen nations to chastise His people. John Calvin explains that since the magistrates cannot perform their duties “unless they defend good men from the wrongs of the wicked, and give aid and protection to the oppressed, they have been armed with power with which severely to coerce the open malefactors and criminals by whose wickedness the open peace is troubled or disturbed.”1
Contained within Paul’s instruction is yet another safeguard against vengeance. Note that the power of the sword is not given to grieving families or wronged victims. It is given to the state as a solemn ministry.
Several of those crimes for which capital punishment was prescribed in the Old Testament give pause to the modern reader. Particularly difficult to understand are the crimes of children against their parents. Surely, some assert, these cannot rise to the level of capital offenses. In a November 1997 article, Kenneth Gentry answered these objections well. He wrote:
Often anti-theonomists will bring up Deuteronomy 21:18-21 as a horrible example of the danger of theonomy. Be sure to get clear as to what the questioner of theonomy is saying. Is he saying that this law is so obviously horrendous that it should self-evidently not be practiced today? Often, that is the tone of the question; the mere quoting of this law is deemed to evidence the absurdity of theonomy. If this is the approach taken, you should note: (1) This was, in fact, a part of God’s Law revealed by God to Moses. Would we be able to defend the integrity of Scripture against the secularist who points to this law as cruel. Whether or not it remains valid today, for those who hold to the inspiration of Scripture, it was valid in the Old Testament era. We need to be careful that we not quote God’s Law in a mocking manner. (2) This law calls for capital punishment of rebellious children and was reaffirmed by the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 15:3-6. Not only does he not mock this law, but he appears to reaffirm its validity.
In addition, the following may be added for those who are careful not to laugh at the “absurdity” of God’s Law: (1) The modern anti-theonomic interpreter does not really understand the law, if he applies it to ten-year-olds who do not take out the garbage. It very obviously does not speak of minor children. It speaks of a situation so dangerous that the parents have lost control over their son, who does not respond to their chastening. He is evidently a danger to them and to society. (2) In fact, he is such a danger that his own parents seek his capital punishment! This obviously is a grievous situation, in that parents normally seek to protect their children, not seek to bring criminal charges of a capital nature against them! (3) The “general equity” of this law is at least three-fold: (a) It provides principles regarding incorrigible criminality. Such a person is a repeat offender, who is so bad that his own parents seek his death. (b) It denies the right of parents to exercise capital punishment themselves (the state has to do it). (c) It illustrates procedural guidelines for capital cases. Criminals must be brought to civil authorities (“elders sitting in the gates”); the civil authorities must pass the judgment and oversee the execution.2
Is the Law Regarding Capital Punishment Normative Today?
It is well and duly noted that there are divisions of laws within the Old Testament. Some have been superceded by the sacrifice of the spotless lamb, Jesus Christ. Gone are the ceremonial laws of Israel. The moral law, however, remains. The principle of proportional punishment was set in place before the moral code was delivered; it was a major part of the teaching of the Old Testament law, and it was upheld by the teaching of the New Testament. Nowhere is there to be found any teaching that supplants the teaching on capital punishment. Man is made in God’s image. If we destroy that image-bearer we are still subject to the penalty, that is, death.
This is a hard teaching for many people. They simply can’t get their arms around a teaching that calls for the shedding of blood. But, it is God’s Word. This does not mean that there are not questions and problems involved in the administration of the law. We can rightly ask whether capital punishment can be fairly administered in imperfect societies by fallen men. We can question whether our apparatus of justice is doing its job in protecting the population and seeking justice for all.
Christians must, as Jesus taught, exceed the provisions of the law. It is our responsibility to minister to the fatherless and the widows, the hungry and the thirsty. But we must also recognize that sin is in our midst. God’s Word instructs us that criminal offenses have consequences. This we question at our own peril.
1. John Calvin. Institutes, Book Four:XX:9.