Summary: Death Penalty in the church
Why are we talking about the death penalty in the church? That’s the question some of you are asking as we complete our series on Tough Issues. Sometimes people tell me that they wish we would not discuss topics like this one in church or that they wish I would not preach on them. "We just need to talk about the Bible and God," they say. But is it really that simple? Many of my sermons are on overtly spiritual topics-sermons about the life of Jesus or prayer or the habits of highly effective Christians. But shouldn’t our faith have something to say to the really serious moral and ethical issues that concern our nation? What we believe about God and our understanding of the Bible should influence the way we face difficult challenges as individuals and as a society.
In our country the death penalty is an increasingly urgent topic. The United States is executing more people at the present time than any other time in our past. We cannot possibly think as Christian that God has nothing to say to us about this issue. Does God care whether we put to death those who have committed horrible crimes? Surely God does have a view . As Christian, our aim must be to seek to discern God’s will and to align our views and opinions with God’s perspective." (Adam Hamilton, Confronting the Controversies)
Furthermore, it is imperative, as we discussed during The Separation of Church and State, that Christians should be involved in the issues of morality facing our society. Our goal should be to shape the society and culture in which we live according to Christ. It is our responsibility is to look to the Bible, our Christian tradition, our experience of the Holy Spirit and our God given ability to reason to discern God’s will. But, as we saw last week, it isn’t always easy. The Bible can be used on both sides of the debate on the death penalty and I will admit that I have struggled with both sides and have found myself wavering on either of the debate at various times. My hope today is to wade through the controversies surrounding the debate to find God’s desire
regarding the death penalty.
We begin our study by looking to first murder recorded in the Bible, the story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel were the first off springs of Adam and Eve. While both boys gave offerings and homage to God, Cain’s gifts were not for God’s glory. Therefore, Cain fell into disfavor with God. Cain became furious with God and jealous of his brother and in his anger he killed his brother. The Lord confronts and condemns Cain to be a restless wanderer. Cain is fearful for he knows the others as soon as the other realize that he killed Abel they will come seeking vengeance and will kill him. But the LORD tells him, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. This is God’s first judgment on the topic of death for a murderer. Cain, the murderer, is punished but not killed.
But then in Genesis 9 following the Great Flood, it seems as if God reverses his position. He gives permission for the very first time to Noah and all of mankind to kill and eat animals, but he clearly states that humans should not kill other humans because each are made in the image of God. And he prescribes a punishment for those who might take another’s life “…whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Numbers 35:16-21 becomes even more explicit in support of the death penalty specifying that if death results from someone striking another with an iron, wood or stone object or if death occurs as the result of two people fighting and hitting with their fists, the perpetrator should be put to death with some provisions of forgiveness for accidental deaths. Throughout the Old Testament we find the death penalty supported and used as a form of justice and deterrent to keep people from killing one another. However, it is important to understand the reason behind this, for the Hebrew people it was because their faith taught them that all human life is valued by God and God alone has the right to end that life. They saw their actions as the direct and explicit hand of the wrath God.
But before we begin to feel that the Bible unequivocally supports the death penalty, it important that we understand the context of the Old Testament and the reasons behind their use of the death penalty. According to Adam Hamilton in Confronting the Controversies “there are five things to note about the death penalty in the Old Testament: The first is the key role it played in maintaining social order. The legal code found in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy had its origins in the Mosaic period when Israel wandered in the wilderness as a nomadic people. The use of the death penalty was a means of maintaining order in a society with no criminal justice system, no police force and no prisons. Judges heard cases and made judgment based on testimony of two witnesses but beyond that there was no adequate formal structure for maintaining order.