Several years ago Dan Van Ness, then president of Justice Fellowship wrote A Call to Dialogue on Capital Punishment. It was not meant to take sides on the death penalty, but rather explore some of the important issues raised by the various sides. This article is excerpted from Dan’s monograph. Dan now works with Prison Fellowship International.
Does Scripture mandate, prohibit, or permit capital punishment? Christians are divided on this issue. Let’s summarize the arguments for each position:
SCRIPTURE MANDATES CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
The principal argument is that because life is sacred, those who wrongfully take another human life must lose their own lives. This is a form of restitution; a matter of justice— the state purging itself of those who shed innocent blood. Proponents of this position cite three scriptural arguments:
Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” This is part of the larger covenant that God made with Noah after the flood. It not only reflects the great value of human life, but also gives the reason for that value: Man is made in God’s image.The absolute language of Genesis 9:6 suggests that all those who kill another human being must be killed. And since this mandate was given long before the Mosaic Law to all who survived the flood, it apparently has universal application.
The Law, as given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, ordained execution for several offenses: murder (but not accidental killings), striking or cursing a parent, kidnapping, adultery, incest, bestiality, sodomy, rape of a betrothed virgin, witchcraft, incorrigible delinquency, breaking the Sabbath, blasphemy, sacrificing to false gods, oppressing the weak, and other transgressions. (See Exod. 21, 22, 35; Lev. 20 & 24; Deut. 21-24.)
While no New Testament passage expressly mandates capital punishment, several imply its appropriateness. For example, in Romans 13:1-7 Paul calls his readers to submit to the authority of civil government, reminding them that “if you do wrong, be afraid, for he [the authority] does not bear the sword for nothing.” In its ultimate use, the word sword implies execution.
SCRIPTURE PROHIBITS CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Old Testament Law clearly calls for capital punishment. So those who believe Scripture prohibits capital punishment argue that the developments of the New Testament era supersede the Old Testament Law.
Israel was a theocracy, a nation ruled directly by God. Therefore, its Law was unique. Executing false teachers and those who sacrificed to false gods are examples of provisions that sprang from Israel’s unique position as a nation of God called to be holy. When Israel ceased to exist as a nation, its Law was nullified.Even the execution of murderers stemmed, in part, from God’s special relationship to Israel. Numbers 35:33 says that the blood of a murder victim “pollutes the land,” a pollution that must be cleansed by the death of the murderer. If the murderer could not be found, an animal was to be sacrificed to God to purge the community of guilt (Deut. 21).
Christ’s death on the cross ended the requirement for blood recompense and blood sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, replaced the sacrifice of animals. His death also made it unnecessary to execute murderers to maintain human dignity and value because the crucifixion forever established human value. Hebrews 9:14 says, “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”
Christ’s teaching emphasizes forgiveness and willingness to suffer evil rather than resist it by force. This may not be definitive on the issue of the state’s authority to execute, but it does demonstrate a different approach to responding to evil than that established on Mt. Sinai. Christ’s example in not demanding death for the adulteress supports this argument (John 8).
SCRIPTURE PERMITS CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Those who argue that the Bible permits capital punishment see strengths in both the pro and the con arguments, but disagree with the conclusions of both.
As noted previously, Scripture includes many provisions for capital punishment. The Mosaic Law significantly limited the scope of Genesis 9:6. For example, individuals guilty of manslaughter or accidentally causing another’s death were exempted from the death penalty.
Perhaps the most compelling arguments against capital punishment are the examples of capital criminals who were not executed, such as Cain, Moses, and David. And not only did Jesus refuse to condemn the woman caught in adultery, but He also suggested that only those without sin were qualified to perform the execution. Jewish interpretation of Old Testament Law reflected a great reluctance to impose the death penalty. For example, circumstantial evidence wasn’t admitted. The two eyewitnesses (Num. 35) had to have warned the accused he was about to commit a capital crime. If the two witnesses’ testimonies differed, the accused was acquitted. Men presumed to lack compassion could not rule on a capital case.
New Testament passages assume the existence of the death penalty but don’t take a position one way or the other. Romans 13 comes closest to speaking of the state’s authority to execute, but significantly it refers to the state’s authority, not obligation, to execute. This is consistent with the position that states are permitted, not mandated or prohibited, the use of this sanction.
UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS?
Those who believe that Scripture mandates or permits capital punishment must move on to another question: What conditions does Scripture give before the state may exercise capital punishment? The Old Testament Law did not simply address the “whether” of capital punishment; it also spoke of the “how.” These provisions need not be literally carried out today for our death-penalty statutes to meet biblical standards. For example, Deuteronomy 17 required the condemning witnesses to throw the first stones. This is impossible today, because stoning is not a current method of execution. However, the principle is that witnesses were held responsible for the consequences of their testimony, encouraging truthfulness. Here are some other principles drawn from the Mosaic Law’s procedures:
Exodus 21:23-25 establishes that punishment must be proportional to the offense. The extreme sanction of death should be considered only in the most serious offenses.
CERTAINTY OF GUILT
Before a murderer could be executed, two witnesses had to confirm his guilt (Deut. 17:6; Num. 35:30). This was a very high standard of proof. The Bible says nothing of circumstantial evidence.
Numbers 35:22-24 established that capital punishment could not be imposed when the offender did not act intentionally.
Several provisions of the Law ensured that executions took place only after appropriate judicial procedures (see Num. 35; Deut. 17). The issue was not simply whether the accused was guilty, but whether he also had a fair chance to prove his innocence.
RELUCTANCE TO EXECUTE
Although the Law may sound bloodthirsty, it was applied with great restraint. In Ezekiel 33:11 God laments, “As sure as I live . . . I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” The Lawgiver Himself was reluctant to impose the death penalty, preferring that the wrongdoers repent.Reluctance is not refusal. But it does imply that execution should be a last resort, and, as Ezekiel 33 suggests, repentance or contrition could commute the death sentence.