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Capital Punishment

Contrary to what many suppose, there is not a consensus in the Christian community on the morality of capital punishment. Although a majority of evangelicals probably endorse CP, at least in the case of premeditated murder, a significant minority oppose it. For example, representatives of the American Baptist Convention adopted this resolution in 1960 concerning CP:

"Because the Christian believes in the inherent worth of human personality and in the unceasing availability of God's mercy, forgiveness, and redemptive power, and

Because the Christian wholeheartedly supports the emphasis in modern penology upon the process of creative, redemptive rehabilitation rather than on punishment and primitive retribution, and

Because the deterrent effects of capital punishment are not supported by available evidence, and

Because the death penalty tends to brutalize the human spirit and the society which condones it, and

Because human agencies of legal justice are fallible, permitting the possibility of the executing of the innocent,

We, therefore, recommend the abolition of capital punishment and the re-evaluation of the parole system relative to such cases." (Cited in "The Argument against the Death Penalty" in The Death Penalty in America, pp. 167-68).

[For a brief history of capital punishment and the legal developments in the U.S., see John Jefferson Davis, Christian Ethics, pp. 176-78.]

Our approach to this issue must begin by a careful analysis of the relevant biblical texts.

A.        Biblical texts bearing on Capital Punishment

1.         Genesis 9:5-6

First, is Gen. 9:6 a statement of fact or a divine command? Is it predictive or prescriptive? Is it a forecast of what the consequences of murder will be, or is it a divine sanction for CP? The Hebrew grammar will permit either view.

If this is merely predictive, the point of the text is that divine retribution against the murderer will take its course and will sooner or later catch up with the killer. I.e., God's providence will ultimately insure that he/she be brought to justice. But:

a.         Verse 5b speaks of God's requiring the life of the murderer from the hand of man. If in v. 5b God requires the death of the murderer, it seems reasonable that in v. 6 he commands that it be done.

b.         Subsequent provisions in the Law of Moses explicitly require that murderers be put to death.

c.         Experience tells us that not all murderers have in fact had their blood shed by other men. I.e., if Gen. 9:6 is merely predicting what will happen to murderers, it is a prediction that has failed. The fact is, many murderers go to their graves after a long and happy life. Not all of them are brought to justice.

It seems more likely, then, that the text is prescribing CP.

Second, what reason do we have for believing this command is always and everywhere binding?

a.         The basis for the command is that man is created in the image of God (v. 6). "To kill a person was tantamount to killing God in effigy" (Kaiser/91). Man is still in the image of God. Thus the rationale for CP is not tied to any cultural or socio-economic phenomena but to a truth regarding man that is universally relevant.

b.         The command is part of the Noahic covenant which is universal in scope and carries no ethnic limitations (vv. 9-10). Noah stood as the new head of the race, even as did Adam in Eden. This is a new beginning, a re-creation of the world, as it were.

2.         Exodus 20:13

This text cannot be used to forbid CP.

a.         The word translated kill is one of several Hebrew terms which mean to take life. Here it should be rendered "murder". This is a prohibition against the unlawful taking of an innocent life.

b.         God commanded Israel to kill their enemies during the conquest of Canaan (Dt. 20:10-13). Clearly, this commandment does not prohibit all life-taking.

c.         God commands CP in Ex. 21:12.

[Special Note: The death penalty in the Mosaic Law was called for in numerous cases:

1)         premeditated murder (Ex. 21:12-14);

2)         kidnapping (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7);

3)         striking a parent (Ex. 21:15; the word means "to attack with great force," not merely slap; i.e., it is attempted murder by severely beating someone);

4)         cursing a parent (Ex. 21:17; a repudiation of parental authority; a verbal despising of them);

5)         sacrificing to a false god; idolatry (Ex. 22:20);

6)         sorcery/magic (Ex. 22:18);

7)         breaking the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2);

8)         adultery (Lev. 20:10-21);

9)         homosexuality (Lev. 20:13);

10)       incest (Lev. 20:11-12,14);

11)       bestiality (Lev. 20:15-16);

12)       human sacrifice (Lev. 20:2);

13)       blasphemy (Lev. 24:11-14,16,23);

14)       incorrigible juvenile delinquency (Dt. 17:12; 21:18-21; this is not a young teen but an "older youth"; this deals, not with a one-time outburst, but with a settled disposition; note the public trial);

15)       false prophecy (Dt. 13:1-10);

16)       fornication (Dt. 22:20-21);

17)       rape (Dt. 22:23-27).

In the case of all these offenses (with the exception of murder), it was possible to pay a ransom or make some form of monetary or property settlement and have the sentence commuted. See Num. 35:31.

Question: Was the Mosaic law strict, oppressive, heartless and cruel in its application of CP? NO.

The fact is, the Mosaic Law actually represents a massive reduction in capital offenses from the original list. As R. C. Sproul puts it, "the OT code represents a bending over backwards of divine patience and forbearance. The OT law is one of astonishing grace" (The Holiness of God, p. 148).

The original law of the universe is that "the soul that sins, it shall die." Life is a divine gift, not a debt. Sin brings the loss of the gift of life. Once a person sins he forfeits any claim on God to human existence. The fact that we continue to exist after sinning is owing wholly to divine mercy and gracious longsuffering.

We recoil and are aghast at what we are convinced was undue cruelty and severity in the OT law. Why? Because we are twisted and confused in our thinking. We think we deserve to live and that God owes us life. The fact that God made only 15-20 sins capital offenses was a remarkable act of mercy, compassion and grace. Why? Because it would have been perfectly just and fair and righteous had he made every sin a capital offense.

The Mosaic stipulations regarding the death penalty, therefore, were remarkably lenient and gracious.]

3.         John 8:1-11

[The textual problem: although this narrative is probably not a part of the original inspired text of John's gospel, it probably occurred precisely as recorded. See John 20:30-31; 21:25.]

Did Jesus abolish the death penalty when he said to the religious leaders, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," and to the woman taken in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you"?

a.         The incident took place on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. 7:2,37) when Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims. Chance encounters between men and women, leading to adultery, would be commonplace.

b.         They claimed to have caught her in the very act. It was difficult to prove adultery under Jewish law. Mere suspicion was inadequate. Even direct knowledge of their presence together was insufficient grounds on which to bring charges. There had to be at least two eye-witnesses who "must be able to testify that the movements of the people in question allowed no other interpretation" (than that adultery had occurred) (Leon Morris, p. 293).

c.         Their motivation is made clear in v. 6. They were not there out of moral outrage nor because of a commitment to justice. They intended to trap Jesus. They wanted grounds on which to accuse Jesus, not the woman.

d.         Where was the man with whom she had allegedly committed this sin? Had he escaped? Did they deliberately let him go? Had he bribed them? Perhaps they had intentionally set him up with the woman so they could make us of her against Jesus. Or did they regard only women caught in adultery as morally accountable? Was she married? If so, where was her husband? Was she single, engaged?

e.         Their intent was to entrap Jesus on the horns of a dilemma (cf. Mt. 22:15-22). The Jews could pass sentence on a capital crime but did not have the authority to execute someone (cf. John 18:31). If Jesus were to insist that she be executed, this could be twisted into an illegality or an endorsement of subversion against the Roman state that might serve as the basis for an accusation against him in a court of law. On the other hand, if he refused to demand that she be punished, they could persuade the people he was in defiance of the Mosaic Law and thereby undermine his reputation among those who were his followers.

f.          His response - v. 6b. The Pharisees interpreted this as a stalling tactic and pressed their attack by repeating the question (v. 7).

g.         Why and what did Jesus write in the ground? Suggestions include: (1) he was imitating the Roman magistrate who would first write down the sentence of a criminal and then read it aloud. If so, Jesus would be writing the words of v. 7b. But if this is the case, why does he write again, as v. 8 indicates he does? (2) Some say he wrote Jer. 17:13. (3) Other say it wasn't what he wrote but that he wrote that is significant. See Ex. 31:18 where God wrote the Law with his finger; hence, Jesus is symbolically declaring that he is God, author of the law. (4) Perhaps he was doodling, hoping to calm his anger or perhaps buy time to think. (5) Did he write the sins of his accusers? (6) Perhaps he first wrote Ex. 23:1b and then Ex. 23:7. We don't know.

h.         What did Jesus mean in saying, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her"?

(1)       He was not requiring absolute sinlessness before one can rightly/justly participate in a criminal proceeding. If he were, there could never be any civil justice (neither judges nor lawyers nor witnesses nor juries) or ecclesiastical discipline, for all are sinners; none is sinless.

(2)       Others say he means that if you are a sinner you should refrain from ever judging or criticizing others. But see Mt. 7 and 18.

(3)       He may mean, "He who is without the sin of adultery . . ." I.e., an adulteress cannot be condemned and executed by other adulterers. But is it likely that all of these religious leaders were adulterers?

(4)       He probably means, "He who is without fault," i.e., whoever is qualified to serve as a legitimate witness against her and has fully complied with the law of Moses. In other words, Jesus questions their competence to serve as legal witnesses against her. Thus, "He who is faultless in regard to the criteria for a witness against her, let him cast the first stone."

The Mosaic Law required that both the man and woman caught in adultery be executed (Dt. 22:22-24). Also, more than one person had to testify to having caught them in the act (Dt. 17:6-7). If only one was willing to bear witness, the case would be thrown out. Also, the eyewitnesses had to throw the first stone, indicating that he, if he existed, was not present. Finally, if the victim was later found to be innocent, having been put to death on the basis of perjured testimony, the executioners (witnesses) were themselves to be executed (see Dt. 19:16-19).

Thus Jesus is probably challenging the integrity of the eyewitness case against her. The religious leaders leave, stunned and humiliated (v. 9).

i.          Why did Jesus decline to condemn her (vv. 10-11)? Primarily because he was not an eyewitness either. But neither does he condone her sin. He doesn't make light of adultery by setting her free. He commands her to "sin no more."

If Jesus abrogated the death penalty in John 8, he did it only in the case of adultery, not murder.

4.         Acts 25:11

Several important observations are in order:

a.         Paul recognized that there were in fact some crimes that were worthy of death. How many or which ones we cannot know; but at minimum, murder is in view.

b.         Paul says he would offer no resistance should he be found guilty of such a crime. He would make no plea for clemency simply because he was a Christian.

c.         Implicit in Paul's statement is his belief that the governing authority had the right to inflict capital punishment. He did not rebuke or denounce the government for usurping a prerogative it did not rightfully possess.

5.         Romans 13:3-4

Paul envisions a two-fold purpose of government: to promote and praise that which is good, and to prohibit and punish that which is evil. In order to carry out this latter function, God has invested the state with the power to inflict punishment: the sword (cf. Lk. 21:24; Acts 12:2 where the sword is associated with death). The sword is not merely a sign or symbol of the state's authority to enforce its laws but also a power to execute.

B.        Arguments raised against Capital Punishment

1.         CP is not an effective deterrent to crime

2.         CP violates the biblical warnings against seeking vengeance (Rom. 12:17-21; 1 Pt. 3:9); believers are to love their enemies, not execute them (Mt. 5:43-44)

3.         CP constitutes cruel and unusual punishment

4.         CP discriminates against minorities and the poor

5.         CP allows for the possibility of the execution of the innocent

6.         The demand for CP ignores the biblical examples of mercy and clemency (Cain, David, and Moses all committed intentional murder yet were extended mercy; David and Moses went on to live productive and godly lives)

7.         It is logically and morally inconsistent for Christians to argue in favor of capital punishment while at the same time arguing against abortion and euthanasia

8.         CP terminates all hope for the salvation of the victim

C.        Answers to the arguments against Capital Punishment

1.         Several things may be said in response to the argument from deterrence.

(a)        Statistical evidence on the issue is inconclusive. Studies have yielded support for both sides of the argument.

(b)       The question needs to be answered: what deters all of us who have never committed a capital crime? Could it be the prospect of death?

(c)        CP certainly deters the murderer from committing another murder.

(d)       "If capital punishment does not serve to deter the potential murderer, the abolitionist will thus need to acknowledge the grim reality that neither will any other form of punishment. (Thus, any punishment is arbitrary)" (Daryl Charles).

(e)        CP is not primarily for the purpose of deterrence but an expression of justice.

(f)        Finally, "if executing a convicted murderer is 'barbaric,' is it not all the more barbaric to make possible the sacrifice of additional lives in order to save the life of the murderers? If, for the sake of argument capital punishment is implemented under the mistaken notion that it deters, the lives of convicted murderers are lost. If, on the other hand, capital punishment is abolished due to the mistaken belief that it does not deter, then innocent lives are lost. Social justice would therefore suggest -- all things being equal -- that the death penalty for premeditated murder should be retained, theological presuppositions aside" (Daryl Charles, "Outrageous Atrocity or Moral Imperative? The Ethics of Capital Punishment," Studies in Christian Ethics 6/2, 1993, p. 9).

Daryl Charles also contends, correctly I believe, that "no person who in principle is opposed to capital punishment will be sufficiently convinced by any statistics that are suggestive of changing trends in criminal justice" (8). In other words, if it could be proven that abolition of the death penalty would result in a 100% increase in the homicide rate, those opposed to the death penalty would in all likelihood remain opposed.

2.         There is a difference in Scripture between what is the prerogative of the individual in interpersonal relationships and what is the prerogative of the state in the administration of public justice. Whereas Christians are not permitted to seek personal vengeance, the state is allowed to seek public justice. The prohibition of personal revenge in Romans 12 is followed immediately by the endorsement of public retribution in Romans 13.

3.         This argument depends on what one means by the terms cruel and unusual. If cruel means painful and penal, then CP is indeed cruel. But justice requires the infliction of penal pain for certain crimes. Certainly torture is not to be allowed. But all punishment, to some degree, is painful. If unusual means irrational, we are back to the original question of whether or not CP is an effective means to accomplish the ends for which it is designed. If it is, it isn't irrational.

4.         As the Feinbergs point out, "discrimination does not show capital punishment to be morally wrong. Instead, it suggests a need to change the judicial system in order to administer the death penalty fairly. The proper or improper manner in which any penalty is implemented says nothing whatsoever about moral rightness or wrongness of the penalty per se" (136).

Furthermore, it is not at all certain from recent studies that minorities and the poor are discriminated against in cases of CP.

5.         Again, "cases where convicted killers were later found innocent do not demonstrate that the death penalty per se is wrong. They only show that demands for proof of guilt must be much more stringent than current judicial procedures require" (Feinbergs, 136).

Daryl Charles agrees:

"That there is room for error in the criminal justice system is undeniable. That 'mistakes' will be made is inevitable. Yet, to state the obvious, no domain of our present legal system is predicated on a zero-percent chance of error; fallible people in an imperfect system work toward 'just' results. Imperfections in the system justify efforts at working toward reform as it touches application, but not abolition of the underlying principle. The presupposition of error, incontestable in and of itself, must necessarily be tempered by the weight of New Testament apostolic teaching" (7).

Thus, even in an imperfect system, the governing authorities serve the will of God by restraining evil. This is Paul's point in Romans 13, which was written, by the way, at a time when "a homosexual, schizophrenic maniac" was sitting on the Imperial throne (Nero). "Religious abolitionists in contemporary western culture," therefore, "cannot legitimately use 'the fallibility of the criminal justice system' as substantiation for their views" (Charles, 8).

6.         In the OT exceptional cases, it was God who extended mercy, not society. Unless instructed by God to do otherwise, the state is bound to follow the dictates of Scripture in the application of CP.

7.         Can a Christian consistently oppose abortion and euthanasia while endorsing CP? Yes. We must remember that "the unborn, the aged, and the infirm have done nothing deserving of death. The convicted murderer has" (Feinbergs, 147). CP is not, as critics suggest, a disregard for the sanctity of life. It is, in point of fact, based on belief in the sanctity of life: the life of the murdered victim. Also, whereas life is indeed sacred, it can still be forfeited. Finally, the Bible opposes abortion and endorses CP. Therefore, if there is an inconsistency, the problem is God's.

8.         It is true that CP ends all hope of salvation for the lost. But so, too, does war and occasionally self-defense. Yet the Bible endorses the latter two activities. Also, "life is uncertain, and decisions about our eternal destiny cannot be delayed at our own leisure. God said to the rich and complacent fool, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you!' (Luke 14:20) (Davis, 187). Perhaps the prospect of impending death will serve to shock the unbeliever to repentance. Finally, again it is God who endorses CP. So, if there is a problem with it in relation to the lost, it is God's problem, not ours.