And will you profane Me among My people...killing people who should not die, and keeping people alive who should not live...? (Ezekiel 13:19)
...it can be easily demonstrated that the death penalty strengthens the value of human life. If the penalty for rape were lowered, clearly it would signal a lessened regard for the victims’ suffering...When we lower the penalty for murder, it signals a lessened regard for the for the value of the victim’s life.
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch (1)
Capital punishment has always been, understandably, a very controversial subject. God is the giver of life, and whether done by gun, gas, chair, or needle, the taking of a human life must be approached very somberly and carefully. In light of this, we present Part 2 of our "Issues of Life" series (2). In this article, we will draw a concise, yet thorough overview of capital punishment throughout both Testaments, showing that ever since sin entered the world, God has ordained (and never retracted) the death penalty as a means to protect the innocent by eliminating violent criminals from society.
In the Book of Genesis, we see that God created human beings in His own image. Because of this, He sees murder as a particularly heinous crime. He sees human life as being so sacred that anyone who takes a person’s life must consequentially give up their own. The first civil law that God ever ordained (long before the Law of Moses) was Genesis 9:6: "Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed."
We then go on to God’s establishment of the Law of Moses, which is summarized in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). In verse 13, we see the sixth Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (Exodus 20:13). A better translation of this verse is "Thou Shalt Not Murder", murder meaning to willfully take the life of an innocent person. This could not have been a prohibition of the death penalty, since in the very next chapter, God specifically commands the death penalty for a number of different offenses. In fact, Numbers 35:33 tells us that when governments fail to punish murderers by death, God judges that nation guilty of the murder victim’s blood!
Moving on to the New Testament, we will begin by looking at an all important question: It has been asked "Would Jesus throw the switch?" My answer may surprise some, but yes, I believe He would. In Luke 19:12-27, Jesus shares the Parable of the Unjust Servant. Here we see an interesting, yet often overlooked element of Jesus’ teaching. In this parable, Jesus portrays Himself as a nobleman who goes on a journey, entrusting his goods to three stewards. When He returns, two of the stewards have made profits of the money entrusted to them, and He rewards them accordingly. The third one, however, hid his portion of the treasure, and gained nothing. The Nobleman’s somewhat shocking response is to take away the small amount of money from the unjust servant, give it to the servant with the most money, and to order the unjust servant to be slain before him! This is a start contrast to the weak, pacifist image of Jesus often presented by popular religion. In fact, many will be slain at Jesus’ return ( 2 Thessalonians 1:8; 2:8), and capital punishment will continue to be practiced during His Millennial reign as well (Isaiah 11:4-9).
We see further New Testament support for the death penalty in both the life and the writings of the Apostle Paul. In Acts 25:11, as he is standing trial before the Roman Governor Festus, Paul makes this interesting statement: "... if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die..." In other words, Paul recognized that, as a government official, Governor Festus had a God-given right to take his life if he had done anything to warrant it, and he was fully willing to submit to execution if necessary.
He further expands this principle in Romans 13:1-4. In these verses, Paul tells us that civil government is ordained of God, and that one of its duties is to bear the sword and execute wrath against those who do evil. These are strong words indeed. Since the only use of a sword is to kill, this verse is a clear reference to God’s endorsement of capital punishment when necessary.
In the debate over capital punishment, the word "compassion" is often used, and rightfully so. In arguing in favor of the death penalty, we are certainly not denying the need for reform in the way it is carried out. We do realize that there are tragic discrepancies in the current criminal justice system, particularly in regards to race and economic status. Thankfully, the Bible addresses these concerns as well. It gives us strict guidelines in order to be sure that the sentence is carried out properly and fairly. These include:
1. Proportionality (Exodus 21:23-25)
2. Intent (Numbers 35:22-24)
3. Due process (Deuteronomy 17:8-9; Numbers 35)
4. Individual responsibility ( Deuteronomy 24:16)
5. Fairness, regardless of the wealth or class of the accused (Numbers 35:29-31; Exodus 23:6-7)
6. Certainty of guilt (Deuteronomy 17:6; Numbers 35:30). (3)
When properly carried out, the swift execution of violent criminals is one of the most compassionate things a just government can do. It permanently removes the offender from society, never to harm another person. It also sends a powerful message to would-be criminals. Ecclesiastes 8:11 gives us wise counsel: "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."
Its a horrible thing to have to take a human life. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). In a perfect world, capital punishment would not be necessary. It is an unfortunate fact of life that, as long as sin, rebellion and violence exist on this planet, there will be a need for a properly exercised death penalty to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. In closing, I will again quote from Mayor Koch:
The death of anyone-even a convicted killer-diminishes us all. But we are diminished even more by a justice system that fails to function. It is an illusion to let ourselves believe that doing away with capital punishment removes the murderers deed from our conscience...When we protect guilty lives, we give up innocent lives in exchange. (4)
© 2003 JHB
1. Koch, Edward I. "Death and Justice: How Capital Punishment Affirms Life" article from "The New Republic." April 15, 1985. Reprinted by Jack Seltzer, "Conversations: Readings For Writing." Allyn & Bacon, a Pearson Education Company. Needham Heights, MA 2000, 1997, 1994, 1991. p 879
2. Part 1 of this series dealt with the topic of Abortion.
3. Adapted from "Capital Punishment" by D.W. Van Ness in "Dictionary of Christianity in America." InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of the USA, Downers Grove, Illinois. 1990. p.222
4. Koch, Selzer p. 881