Who Says the Death Penalty is Right?
Opinions widely differ. To some, the death penalty is a cruel inhumanity committed by a society upon one of its own members, while to others it is of such vital importance to the preservation of justice that its abolition threatens all the members of that society. It either constitutes murder and offends God, or is the penalty prescribed by God himself for murder. That something ought to be said is agreed by both sides; even more that something should be done. But our pre-eminent need is to determine what God Himself has to say on the matter. Have we any word from our Maker on the subject?
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY?
The first pronouncement in the Bible on the subject is well known: ‘”Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen. 9:6). Man has special value to God. He is not an animal. Our fellow men should have special worth in our sight and therefore the unjust taking of human life is desperately wrong. Opponents of capital punishment often say that it devalues Man, but note that this text affirms its practice precisely because of the distinct value of Man. Defenders contend that it should continue as long as the image of God remains in Man, which it still does.
If this verse is not explicit enough, the whole of Numbers 35 is given over to the question and is as clear as human language is able to express. No less than three times do we find these words of the Lord: “The murderer shall surely be put to death.” God needs speak something but once for it to be true, but when He repeats it for emphasis we had better sit up and take note. The same injunction is found in Lev. 24:17, Ex. 21:12, and elsewhere. Contrary to many current philosophical and sociological theories, there is a definite and absolute standard of right and wrong – God’s Law. The Law not only forbids murder but also enjoins society to punish the killer by taking his life.
WHAT DOES THE NEW TESTAMENT TEACH ABOUT THE DEATH PENALTY?
Paul taught that the State is ordained by God as a means of enacting social justice according to the Law of God. See Romans 13:4, where he says that the magistrate has the authority to use the sword to punish certain wrong-doers. If that does not refer to capital punishment, then what does it refer to? That it means execution by decapitation is clear from Mark 6, and it is probable that Paul was reiterating Christ’s own formula: “All that take the sword must perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52, Rev. 13:10). Furthermore, when Paul himself was on trial he stated, “If I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die” (Acts 25:11). Obviously he felt that some crimes are deserving of death.
Some feel that Christ set aside the Law on the subject by pardoning the woman caught in adultery (John 8). Actually, if you read Num. 35:30 you will find that at least two witnesses for the prosecution were necessary. Since nobody was willing to testify, much less participate in the execution, Christ did not pass judgement. In addition, Jesus was not the legal magistrate or executioner as such, nor were the Jews at that time (John 18:31). Hence He refused to go along with a lynch mob (Ex. 23:2).
The greatest proof that Jesus Christ believed in capital punishment is the fact that He chose it as the means by which He would redeem Man. Take a good look at Gal. 3. Not only did Christ obey God’s Law fully by never sinning, but He also became our legal substitute at the bar of divine justice. “The soul that sins must die” (Ezek. 18:4), so far as our ultimate destiny is concerned. Therefore “Christ died for sins” (I Cor. 15:3). He was accounted as guilty of our sins and was punished accordingly. This took place through God’s Civil Law as well, remember. That means that Christ was treated as a murderer, as Luther put it, and therefore suffered the death penalty. Not only did this accomplish atonement for us but it also exemplified and established the Law (Rom. 3). And don’t forget the truth so eloquently confessed by one of the murderers who was crucified with Jesus: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:410).
Now some Christians admit that capital punishment is taught in the Old Testament but deny that it is the ethical norm for us who live in the New Testament era. This overlooks the explicit statements of Paul and the Lord Jesus, but it also ignores the basic fact that God’s Law is binding upon people of all nations and times. “But”, it is argued, “are we not freed from the Law of Moses?” This is a fine point. Scripture indeed states that there were certain laws or ordinances – such as circumcision – given through Moses which were meant only for the nation of Israel and only until the Messiah came. When Christ came, therefore, these ordinances were abolished (Col. 2:16-17).
However, the Bible also states that God’s basic Law (what we generally call the Moral Law) is eternal, international and unalterable. It was not given only to the Jews but to every person and nation, revealed through Nature and conscience (Rom. 1 and 2). Likewise, it preceded Moses and continues after the Mosaic dispensation ceased. Now we contend that the death penalty is based upon this unalterable Moral Law, for it rests upon the sixth commandment. Would anyone suggest that God now allows murder? Not only that, but note that capital punishment was given as a law to Noah in Gen. 9 several hundred years before Moses. Noah, you will recall, was the new father of the human race after everyone but he and his family were destroyed in the worldwide flood (I Peter 3:20). It was given for all his descendants and that includes us.
WHICH OFFENCES DESERVE DEATH?
The crime which the Scriptures most often specify as a capital offence is malicious homicide, or first-degree murder. Num. 35:20 defines it as the taking of human life “with malice aforethought. . . . intentionally.” Moses differentiated this from accidental or unintentional killing in Deut. 19:4-6, 11, and Ex. 21:13-14. Murder is committed “with a high hand,” and in today’s jargon we would call it pre-meditated and cold-blooded.
Now some opponents contend that the sixth commandment forbids all taking of human life, including capital punishment. “The death penalty is itself murder”, they argue. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, the command clearly reads in the original Hebrew, “Thou shalt not murder” (Ex. 20:12), and is so interpreted by the Lord Jesus in Matt. 19:18. Any Hebrew dictionary will tell you as much. Second, the very next chapter commands the death penalty (Ex. 21:12-32). Third, surely one would not wish to suggest that literally all killing is wrong. Even a vegetarian kills plants in order to live! Life lives off other life and death. Cruelty to animals is certainly wrong – how much worse is the murder of human lives. (It is questionable whether one can murder a plant or an animal. Let us not confuse Judeo-Christianity with Hinduistic or Evolutionary concepts of life).
Both sides agree that it is wrong for anyone to take the life of an innocent man, for that is exactly what murder is. But capital punishment is the direct opposite. That is when the innocent takes the life of one who is guilty of murder. One is forbidden, the other is commanded. Rather than contradicting the sixth commandment, the death penalty is actually based upon and demanded by it. This commandment no more condemns capital punishment as murder than the seventh commandment condemns sexual relations within marriage as adultery.
WHAT ABOUT THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST THE DEATH PENALTY?
We repeat: Our sole authority is the Word of God, not human arguments. And there is no argument against the Word of the Living God. One popular argument has advocates on both sides. This concerns deterring other persons from committing the same crime: “Capital punishment does not stop murders, so let’s stop capital punishment.’” If you look at it for a moment, it begins to appear quite silly, actually. It would be the same as saying: “Jail does not stop theft, so let’s stop jailing thieves.” Don’t you see that this is really calling for the legalization of these crimes?
Furthermore, statistics alone refute this argument to all intelligent persons except those who are prejudiced by a baseless jurisprudence. The death penalty obviously deters the murderer himself, if nobody else, from committing another murder. Don’t forget that many murders are committed by convicted murderers free on parole or suspended sentences, not to mention those serving life sentences. What will deter them in jail if prison is the worst that can punish them? However, the chief end of capital punishment is not to deter the innocent from becoming guilty, but to punish the guilty themselves. Even so, it warns others. “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong” (Eccl. 8:11).
“But,” says another opponent, “a person should not be executed because we can never really be sure if he is guilty or not.” This is legal nonsense. First, what about confessions and eyewitnesses? Second, it overlooks the fact that most criminal cases, even murder, are resolved fairly easily in the present legal system, weak as it is, compared with Biblical Law. Finally, if one argues that there should be no penalty for the convicted murderer, one cannot logically call for a penalty for anyone convicted of any other crime. Would the proponents of this argument substitute a society of anarchy? Some do.
“Life imprisonment is a penalty more severe than death,” suggests another popular argument, but if this were true then we should find it in Scripture and we do not. And if it were valid, then life imprisonment would be downright cruel and sadistic rather than just. As a matter of fact, the Bible says almost nothing about imprisonment, much less about parole, suspended sentences, plea-bargaining or pleas of temporary insanity, drunkenness or environmental pressure. Unless this is recognized by the magistrates and social psychologists, our society will continue to worsen.
An argument similar to the above runs like this: “It is more merciful to forgive than to punish.” Sometimes they who argue thusly appeal to Christ and the woman caught in adultery. But apply this in society and there is anarchy. The naivete of this suggestion is equaled only by its ridiculousness. It is not ours to forgive murder in the law courts. The only two who could forgive are the victim (to forgive is to pay the penalty oneself, but the victim is already dead) and God (and we are not God; besides, the Lord has already commanded capital punishment). Anything other than the death penalty is explicitly forbidden by God as a miscarriage of justice (Num. 35:31). Moreover, if you plead the necessity of forgiving this crime, which is the worst of all crimes, why not also for all lesser crimes as well? The argument is a non-sequitor.
These critics generally cry that death by execution is a cruel and unusual punishment. Biblically this is blasphemy, for it charges the Almighty Himself with being cruel and tyrannical in laying down the death penalty in His Law. God instructed specific persons to enforce it (e.g., I Sam. 15:3), and sometimes the Lord Himself carried it out (e.g., Num. 16). Therefore we unequivocally oppose this argument in all forms.
IS IT REVENGE OR JUSTICE?
Opponents sometimes charge that ours is a position of revenge. On the contrary, we warn against lynch mobs which take the law into their own hands (Rom. 12:19, Ex. 23:2). More than that, we reply that our antagonists themselves reject true justice by neglecting God’s Law. For instance, they often carp that the criminal is sick, not sinful; he needs treatment in a mental hospital, not punishment in a prison or on a gallows. They thus substitute medicine for morality, and a flexible secularism for an absolute God.
But the Word of God states that Man is basically evil, not good. Crime is due to sin, not sickness. Man is responsible for his actions. If this were acknowledged there could be both justice and mercy, for there can be no mercy if there is no such thing as justice. If Biblical ethics were applied in the social and legal spheres, these would be possible. Instead we find ourselves rapidly heading towards a macabre nightmare in which an ungodly totalitarian State performs “treatment” on all who do not meet its capricious standard of acceptability. Is this really preferable to the Biblical ideal?
The legal structure of a society needs to recognize a basic tenet of Biblical Law, namely the concept of Lex Tallonis (Law of Retribution). In laymen’s terms this means that the penalty for breaking a law must be equal to the crime itself. “Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7, see Isa. 59:18). It is the principle of punishment and retaliation, not rehabilitation or reformation. Hence, the purpose of the penalty for breaking the Law is to bring back on the criminal exactly what he has committed. Since crime is not pleasant to the victim, neither should the penalty be lenient for the criminal. What a farce it is to see the inequalities of justice today, in which “penalties” for murder hardly exceed those for stealing a bicycle. Who says that crime does not pay? Then certain reformers come along and assert “convict and ex-convict rights” in such a way that makes them privileged members of society, not to mention the way in which the media often glorifies criminals and their crimes.
If Biblical Law were enforced, it would be seen that the criminal is the one responsible for his crime and the penalty he has brought upon himself. A murderer in effect takes his own life when he murders someone else. When a life is taken a life is owed, and the debt is owed not so much to society (as is commonly held) but ultimately to God. Since murder is the greatest crime, the greatest debt is owed – one’s own life. It does not matter if he is a mass-murderer or the killer of only one. Death is the ultimate penalty.
At this point it might be appropriate to ask our opponents if they would have called for the execution of Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. Can you imagine the outcry if we were to say, “Oh, the merciful thing to do would be to forgive them. They need treatment, the poor souls, and only for a few years. Let them live and then let them loose on society.” That would be insanity. Now if these fiends deserve hanging, why not the thug who kills an old lady for a handful of change? Our society is so liberal and decadent that the only way to stir up people is by referring to the extreme cases, while the single case is conveniently swept under a carpet of complacency and expediency. The sad thing is that the killer of one is as deserving of death as is the murderer of a million.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO RESPONSIBILITY AND JUSTICE?
That the Bible holds both the State and the citizen responsible carries definite implications. We are sometimes asked, “Could you personally pull the switch which terminates another person’s life?” In most cases we would not be allowed or required to do so unless we were commissioned by the State. Yet in some cases Scripture demands that certain witnesses or next of kin of the victim participate in the execution (Deut. 13:9, 17:7). Incidentally, the Scriptural means of execution are fourfold: stoning, decapitation, burning and hanging. But to answer the question, yes, we could participate in the execution. We would be hypocrites like our opponents if we were to reply otherwise. But the real question is not could we, but should we.
It should be plain, then, that what is really at stake is the Law of God itself. To the frequently heard argument, “You cannot legislate morality,” our reply is, “If you don’t legislate morality, you necessarily legislate immorality.” Our standard of right and wrong is the Bible, including the Law of God, and this implicitly negates the option of putting it to a majority vote. At present, public opinion is certainly in favor of the restoration of the death penalty (a fact which is an embarrassment to the “democratic” opponents of it, who choose to ignore it), but we will not change our position even if public opinion were to change. Popular opinion probably will change, since it has no substantial foundation. But we will not alter our views because they are based on God’s unchangeable Word.
The rejection of capital punishment is but the tip of the iceberg of a society which rejects the standards of its Creator. Looking at our society one wonders whether human life has any meaning anymore. The innocent suffer and the guilty often go free. To fail to execute the murderer is in effect to approve of the murder. Take heed to this warning: God judges that society which fails to deal with its killers (Num. 35:33). Do you now see why the rejection of capital punishment is one of the reasons for the many maladies which our nation suffers? Restoring hanging is not the end-all of the mess we are in, nor can there be national blessing to the optimum without its reinstatement. But it can at least be a start.
Who says the death penalty is right? God, that’s who.