A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
For some time now, there has been a debate in the public space about death sentence with two people being hanged in relatively quick succession. The debates have been on two fronts. One dimension examines and asks the question if death penalty serves any purpose in terms of deterrence and reduction of violent crime. A case often made is that Europe is a continent where death penalty does not exist and yet crime levels are relatively low; the Unites States retains the death penalty, and there are numerous instances of violent crime in the country. The other plane from where death penalty is examined is its ethical and moral dimension—does anyone, including the State, have the right to take away life, even after following a very rigorous process of scrutiny? As a Christian, what opinion should I hold?
Acts Of God
In the Old Testament, there are many instances where we see God commanding the use of capital punishment. This may be seen in the acts of God Himself. He was involved, in one way or the other, in the taking of life as a punishment for the nation of Israel or for those who threatened or harmed the nation. One example is the flood of Noah in Genesis 6-8. God destroyed all human and animal life except that which was on the ark. Another example is Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen.18-19), where God destroyed the two cities because of the sin of the people. Later, in the book of Exodus, we find that God took the lives of the Egyptians' first-born sons (Exod.11) and destroyed the Egyptian army in the Red Sea (Exod.14). There were also punishments such as at Kadesh-Barnea (Num.13-14) or at the rebellion of Korah (Num.16) against the Jews wandering in the wilderness.The Old Testament is full of references and examples of God taking life. God was using capital punishment to deal with Israel's sins and the sins of the nations surrounding Israel.
We see in the Old Testament that God instituted capital punishment in the Jewish law. In fact, the principle of capital punishment even precedes the Old Testament law code. According to Genesis 9:6, capital punishment is based upon a belief in the sanctity of life. It says, "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God, He made man." The Mosaic Law set forth numerous offenses that were punishable by death. The first was murder. In Exodus 21, God commanded capital punishment for murderers. Premeditated murder (or what the Old Testament described as ‘lying in wait’) was punishable by death. A second offence punishable by death was involvement in the occult (Exod.22; Lev.20;Deut.18-19). This included sorcery, divination, acting as a medium, and sacrificing to false gods. Thirdly, capital punishment was to be used against perpetrators of sexual sins such as rape, incest, or homosexual practice.
Within this Old Testament scheme of things, capital punishment was extended beyond murder to cover various offenses. The principle of a life for a life is tied to the creation order. Capital punishment is warranted due to the sanctity of life. Even before we turn to the New Testament, we find this universally binding principle that precedes the Old Testament law code. But then, is it true that capital punishment does not apply to the New Testament and church age?
Sermon On The Mount
First we must acknowledge that God gave the principle of capital punishment even before the institution of the Old Testament law code. In Genesis 9:6 we read, "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God, He made man." Capital punishment was instituted by God because humans are created in the image of God. The principle is not rooted in the Old Testament Law, but rather in the creation order. It is a much broader biblical principle that carries into the New Testament. Even so, it may be argued that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus seems to be arguing against capital punishment. But is He?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not arguing against the principle of a life for a life. Rather, He is speaking to the issue of our personal desire for vengeance. He is not denying the power and responsibility of the government. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking to individual Christians. He is telling Christians that they should not try to replace the power of the government. Jesus does not deny the power and authority of government, but rather He calls individual Christians to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.
Some have said that Jesus set aside capital punishment in John 8 when He did not call for the woman caught in adultery to be stoned. But remember the context. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus between the Roman law and the Mosaic Law. If He said that they should stone her, He would break the Roman law. If He refused to allow them to stone her, He would break the Mosaic Law (Lev.20:10;Deut.22:22). Jesus' answer avoided the conflict: He said that he who was without sin should cast the first stone. Since He did teach that a stone be thrown (Jn.8:7), this is not an abolition of the death penalty.
In other places in the New Testament we see the principle of capital punishment being reinforced. Romans 13:1-7, for example, teaches that human government is ordained by God and that the civil magistrate is a minister of God. We are to obey government, for we are taught that government does not bear the sword in vain. The fact that the apostle Paul used the image of the sword further supports the idea that capital punishment was to be used by government in the New Testament age as well. Rather than abolish the idea of the death penalty, Paul uses the emblem of the Roman sword to reinforce the idea of capital punishment.
Is capital punishment a deterrent to crime? At the outset, we should acknowledge that the answer to this question should not change our perspective on this issue. Although it is an important question, it should not be the basis for our belief. A Christian's belief in capital punishment should be based upon what the Bible teaches, not on a pragmatic assessment of whether or not capital punishment deters crime. That being said, however, we should try to assess the effectiveness of capital punishment.
Opponents of capital punishment argue that it is not a deterrent, because in some countries where capital punishment is allowed the crime rate has not decreased. Should we therefore conclude that capital punishment is not a deterrent? Certainly, capital punishment will not deter all crime. Psychotic and deranged killers, members of organised crime, and street gangs, will no doubt kill whether capital punishment is implemented or not. A person who is irrational or wants to commit a murder will do so whether capital punishment exists or not. But social statistics as well as logic suggest that rational people will be deterred from murder because capital punishment is part of the criminal code. Many people oppose capital punishment because they feel it is discriminatory. Secondly, we can and should acknowledge that some discrimination does take place in the criminal justice system. Discrimination takes place not only on the basis of race, but also on the basis of wealth. Wealthy defendants can hire a battery of legal experts to defend themselves, while poor defendants must rely on a court-appointed lawyer.
Coming back to the Scriptures, opponents of capital punishment who accuse the government of committing murder by implementing the death penalty fail to see the irony of using Exodus 20 to define murder but ignoring Exodus 21, which specifically teaches that government is to punish the murderer. Some people question the validity of applying the Old Testament law code to today's society. After all, wasn't the Mosaic Law only for the Old Testament theocracy? There are a number of ways to answer this objection.
Finally, capital punishment is never specifically removed or replaced in the Bible. While some would argue that the New Testament ethic replaces the Old Testament ethic, there is no instance in which a replacement ethic is introduced. As we have already seen, Jesus and the disciples never disturb the Old Testament standard of capital punishment. The apostle Paul teaches that we are to live by grace with one another, but also teaches that we are to obey human government that bears the sword. Capital punishment is taught in both the Old Testament and the New Testament and, along with other forms of punishment, it has its place.