There is a growing animosity in our culture growing against capital punishment(CP). This is also tied in with different theological branches that also have input on this debate and ethical concerns. In this article, I will be taking certain pivotal assumptions. If one just denies inerrancy then these arguments will be pointless. They are merely making a religion of their own. You can’t convince someone that places their preferences on the throne of God.
Firstly, most recognize that the Bible taught CP in the Old Testament. This entails that it is at least plausible that it isn’t inherently immoral to invoke CP. Most also hold to the idea that there is such a thing as Just War. But if a just war is possible then it seems consistent that the government also enacting CP could be justified. It also is directly commanded by God, so it isn’t the case that God is commanding something that is morally wrong. They have to argue that it was perfectly fine then but for some apparent reason it isn’t necessary now.
Secondly, we have very good reason to think that CP is still prescribed for today. Let’s take a look at the Old Testament:
The Old Testament Law prescribed the death penalty for a number of crimes:
- Murder (Exodus 21:12-14; Leviticus 24:17,21)
- Attacking or cursing a parent (Exodus 21:15,17)
- Disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
- Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)
- Failure to confine a dangerous animal, resulting in death (Exodus 21:28-29)
- Witchcraft and sorcery (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 13:5, 1 Samuel 28:9)
- Human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5)
- Sex with an animal (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:16)
- Doing work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14, 35:2, Numbers 15:32-36)
- Incest (Leviticus 18:6-18, 20:11-12,14,17,19-21)
- Adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22)
- Homosexual acts (Leviticus 20:13)
- Prostitution by a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9)
- Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14,16, 23)
- False prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:20)
- Perjury in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16-19)
- Refusing to obey a decision of a judge or priest (Deuteronomy 17:12)
- False claim of a woman’s virginity at time of marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
- Sex between a woman pledged to be married and a man other than her betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
Remember that the Old Testament Law is operating on the Lex Talionis. Which is stated like this:
21 Your eye shall not pity: life shall be for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
23 But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
This is taken to mean the punishment should fit their crimes. It isn’t to be taken literally. This principle is telling because this tells us that God thought it was a fair punishment to inflict death upon an individual for certain crimes.
6 “Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.
This is probably the strongest text in favor of CP. It ground CP in the fact that humans are made in the image of God. The image of “shed blood” is to point to the unjustified taking of human life. This is grounded in the image of God, which also remains true today. Furthermore, it is apart of the Noaich covenant made with all mankind. So, it also seems plausible that it is still true today. Dr. Wayne Grudem states it in his work on Christian ethics:
The word “sheds” in this statement translates the Hebrew verb shāphak, which in this passage means “to pour out in large amount, causing death.” Therefore, “In this verse, ‘shedding blood’ refers to the violent, unjustified taking of human life (cf. Gen. 37:22; Num. 35:33; 1 Kings 2:31; Ezek. 22:4).”7 This commandment from God says that when someone murders another person, the murderer himself should be put to death. This execution of a murderer was not going to be carried out directly by God, but by a human agent: “by man shall his blood be shed.” Yet this was not to be seen as human vengeance, but as carrying out God’s own requirement of justice. God explains what he means when he says, “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man” (Gen. 9:5). The reason God gives for this is the immense value of human life: “for God made man in his own image” (v. 6). To be in the image of God is the highest status and privilege in all creation, and only human beings share in it (see Gen. 1:27). To be in God’s image means that human beings are more like God than anything else on the earth, and it also means that they are God’s representatives in this world (for they are like him and thus can best represent him). Therefore, to murder a human being is to murder someone who is more like God than any other creature on the earth. The murder of another human being is therefore a kind of attack against God himself, for it is an attack against his representative on the earth, an attack against the “image” of himself that he has left on the earth. …
This passage from Genesis 9 came long before the establishment of the nation of Israel (at the exodus from Egypt) or the giving of the laws of the Mosaic covenant (in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Therefore, the application of this passage is not limited to the nation of Israel for a specific period of time, but is for all people for all time. The covenant God made with Noah after the flood is nowhere called the “old covenant,” and it is nowhere said to be abolished or no longer in effect. The covenant God made with Noah applies to all human beings on the earth for all generations: When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. (Gen. 9:16)
I maintain that the Lex Talonis comes from this similar vein of thought that is codified in the Law. Thus strengthening the continuing authority of the prior argument in the broader scheme of things.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. 7 Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.
This is Paul commanding Christians to obey their government. That the government is God’s tool for inflicting justice. That we shouldn’t seek personal revenge but let the government be God’s tool for justice.
Secondly, the words used for sword here is common for inflicting fatal punishment on a person:
He killed James the brother of John with the sword. (Acts 12:2)
[The Philippian jailer] drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. (Acts 16:27)
They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. (Heb. 11:37)
If anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. (Rev. 13:10)
You shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction. (Deut. 13:15)
And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. (Deut. 20:13)
This is the same thought found in 1 Peter 2:13-15.
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
Paul believed that criminals were deserving of death:
11 If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.”
The reason I say that, is because Paul doesn’t categorically deny that any deed is worthy of death. He just maintained that he was innocent of the crimes they charged of him. This same type of thought is found at the beginning of Romans:
32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
It is quite possible that CP isn’t being referred to here. That it actually is referring to the eternal death(damnation in Hell). This comes at the end of Paul teaches that general revelation teaches us how we fall short the glory of God. Bruce W. Ballard in an article titled “The Death Penalty: God’s Timeless Standard For The Nations?” he argued that Paul may be purposely ambiguous to imply both meanings for the term death and he points out the similarity to the sins mentioned with the OT laws use of CP:
The natural revelation of God forms a sufficient basis upon which people will be held accountable for their acts (1:19–20, 2:12–16). Interestingly, Paul lists particular offenses which are known through conscience by all to violate “the ordinance of God” and merit death (1:32).
But does Rom 1:32 refer to capital punishment here or the ultimate death penalty, condemnation to hell, with God carrying out the judgment? In keeping with his connection between sin and eternal death in the chapters of Romans that follow, it could be argued that Paul refers here to eternal death. On the other hand, the list of offenses includes crimes which drew the penalty of earthly death under Mosaic law, both for individuals and nations as well, whether by supernatural or natural means. That Paul does not explicitly distinguish one sense of death here is not surprising given that both fall under God’s ultimate standard of judgment. Other lists of sins Paul provides reiterate many of the offenses listed in Romans 1 (cf. 1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:9–10).
What are the particular offenses known through conscience to violate God’s ordinance and warrant death? In addition to a more general condemnation of evil, Paul lists the following specific offenses in Rom 1:23–31: idolatry, homosexual acts, greed, envy or spite, murder, strife, deceit, malice, being a gossip, slandering, hating God, insolence, arrogance, disobedience to parents, lack of love, lack of mercy. Following our list from the OT, we find these capital crimes reiterated: idolatry, homosexual acts, murder, deceit (false witness in capital cases), malicious treatment (of Israel and other nations), acts of greed (in the sacking of Israel by neighbors, for instance), slander against God, the arrogance that exalts self or nation as divine and self-sufficient in wealth and power, mistreatment of parents, the lack of love and mercy shown in some of these acts and in ignoring the cry of the needy (one of Sodom’s offenses). Again, Rev 9:20–21 provides a very similar refrain.
This leads us to counterarguments against this position and we will look only at a few:
The right to life of a guilty man should not depend on others judging him to be worthy of it. The right to life is absolute. The death penalty is an extreme form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
This position means the OT and God were not pro-life until the New Testament. Did humans only recently gain the right to life? The OT didn’t view the right to life as absolute, but in fact, that right can be lost or taken away by God himself:
See now that I alone am he; there is no God but me. I bring death and I give life; I wound and I heal. No one can rescue anyone from my power.
1 Samuel 2:6
The LORD brings death and gives life; He sends some to Sheol, and He raises others up.
If this is the case that humans have the absolute right to life, then God would have no claims to their lives. But this is obviously false. We have God-given rights and they can be revoked. God commands our right to life to be revoked in the face of murder.
The death penalty has never been proven to be a more effective deterrent than other forms of punishment. On the contrary, it can lead to an increase in violent crime because it contributes to trivializing brutal behaviour. The best way to prevent crime is not to impose more severe penalties but to guarantee that all crime will be punished.
I don’t think this is even partially true. I think CP is a deterrent to evil deeds. God certainly thinks this way. In biblical law, one of the enumerated motive clauses for the various death penalty statutes reads as follows: “[T]he rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.” (Deut. 19:20; see also Dt. 13:11, Dt. 17:13, and Dt. 21:21.) Scripture affirms that the death penalty is the God-ordained means of criminal deterrence.
I don’t see how life in free housing and free food provided at taxpayer expense is a better alternative. This confuses consequences with whether the initial act was the morally correct thing to do.
There is a real risk of executing innocent people in countries which apply capital punishment. The death penalty is discriminatory: it is applied in particular to minorities, to the poor and to members of ethnic or religious groups.
This is an argument for improving and refining judicial standards, not removing the death penalty altogether. Notice that this objection collapses under closer scrutiny ─ indeed, it leads to self-vitiating absurdity. The fact is that a civil magistrate could wrongfully sentence anyone with any judicial punishment. If we take the example of a prison sentence, we should note the clear parity between losing one’s life wrongfully and losing one’s freedom wrongfully. However, it would be evidently absurd to forego prison sentences on the grounds that one may be wrongfully sentenced.
(Now, it is important to emphasize that this reductio ad absurdum does not fail to distinguish between life and freedom in terms of value; the former is indubitably greater than the latter. However, it seeks to demonstrate a kind of parity: that there is no functional difference between losing one or the other when it comes to evaluating whether to employ the said means of punishment.)
Therefore, the fact that it is absurd to outlaw prison sentences on those aforementioned grounds reveals the underlying presupposition: that which is morally necessary should be kept, even if man’s operation of it can be faulty at times. That is, the possibility of wrongfully sentencing someone to prison encourages the body politic and the civil magistrate to continually improve upon their standards of justice in order to minimise such tragic results – but one never thereby encourages the regular use of an even less “harsh” punishment (eg. fines) for that same crime, on those grounds, since less value is at stake when you fine someone wrongly. Rather, we keep the prison sentence since it is seen as morally necessary.
The death penalty does not allow the guilty person to repent
The death penalty is irreversible. It interrupts any process of healing, of reinsertion into society. It constitutes an admission of failure by society to show solidarity with those on its extreme margins. Killing a human being means eliminating him, not punishing him.
Repentance was a phenomenon during the OT. So, was God not caring about repentance in the OT? I believe we should preach the gospel to murders and still punish them according to their acts. Say someone becomes a Christian in jail, does that mean we merely wipe away all their deeds? Is just professing to be a Christian a way of not paying your fines or a get out of jail free card?
The honouring of the Lord’s command to us that certain crimes be punished by death is simply not an inhibition to evangelism. If a man is condemned to die there is nothing to stop the believer from going to him and witnessing the gospel; the evangelism of men on death row has long been an activity of the church. Of course, the objection might arise that by putting a man to death you cut off all further possibility of evangelism, and that extra time might be just the time needed for his conversion. Now while it is a possibility that the man would repent in the future if not executed, it is only presumptuous for the believer to set aside obedience to God’s law on the basis of what might or might not happen in the future. The fact of the matter is that only God knows who will be saved; yet He has given to us His law (including the death penalty statutes) with the expectation that it be observed.
“The secret things belong unto Jehovah our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29, ASV).
And what would happen if a criminal came to repentance after the magistrate delivered a lawful verdict against the criminal? In that case, the converted criminal should: (1) as Paul, say “If I am an evildoer and have committed anything worthy of death, then I refuse not to die” (Acts 25:11), for a born-again believer will respect the law of God, and (2) rejoice in his soon departure to be with the Lord, no longer fearing death as the greatest of enemies. Notice that there is no tension in the account of the dying thief caused by the fact that, although Christ had forgiven his sins, he was nonetheless to be executed; rather, that converted criminal rejoiced in the words, “Today thou wilt be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Moral forgiveness doesn’t entail legal forgiveness.
The arguments below are found here.
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).
The problem with this argument is the I’ve argued that the prohibition extends prior to the Mosaic Covenant. So, this argument doesn’t undermine my case. It further ignores my point of treating the books of Moses as a unit. It builds upon theological ideas throughout. Furthermore, the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant is also more complicated:
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!”
I hold to limited atonement. So, that would entail only Christians have human worth or value. So, I obviously disagree that this was the point of the atonement. The atonement was dealing with sin(propitiation/expiation) and Christ’s victory over the powers of evil. We shouldn’t cast these things in terms of atonement. The idea in atonement is substitution. They substitute takes on the wrath inquired and the other receives mercy. But instead, the man takes on the burden of his crimes himself and receives his just desert. Legal consequences are still able to befall many men for their crimes. So, even if one held to universal atonement, then it still isn’t inconsistent with CP.
There are other events that also are brought into this debate. Peter taking a sword to defend Jesus and Jesus uttering “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword”, the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus speaking on the mount.
Some people just find it to be unjust and immoral punishment. This is usually based The Roman Catholic Church has recently gone that way. The problem with that position is that would have God commanding things that are evil throughout the majority of human history. It is to abandon inerrancy. Secondly, humans differ on this intuition. Many find it perfectly fine to have the death penalty. I’m sure the victims of serial murders and rapists don’t share that same intuition and often neither do their parents.
I would like to thank Chris Matthew for his helpful additions to the article.