Vol. 4, No. 3
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In 1984, leaders of thirteen denominational churches in Florida signed a joint-declaration condemning the death penalty. This document characterized capital punishment as being inconsistent with God's love. They did not and could not say, however, that it is inconsistent with God's Word. Nor could they charge Scripture with inciting the evils that they lodged against capital punishment.
Consider for a moment the title of this article. It isn't, "Is Capital Punishment Political?" It is. Newsweek reports that "…capital punishment in Texas is in the cross hairs this political season" (June 12, 2000, p. 26). It isn't, "Is Capital Punishment Popular?" According to a recent Newsweek poll, it is supported by 73% of Americans (Newsweek, June 12, 2000, p. 27). This statistic is in all probability higher since "People who work in the news media are overwhelmingly opposed to the death penalty…" (John Leo, U.S. News & World Report, July 3, 2000, p. 14). It isn't, "Is Capital Punishment Controversial?" It is and always has been controversial. The question is, "Is Capital Punishment Scriptural and Therefore Right?" By scriptural, I mean that the Bible furnishes us with the objective standard by which to determine the legitimacy of this very controversial question (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Capital punishment comes from a Latin expression meaning punishment that takes the head, and hence, the life of a person. It means that life, for what is regarded justifiable reason, is legally taken by the existing form of government under which one lives. Executions in this country are relatively rare compared to times gone by. In the 1930's, executions averaged 167 per year. Between 1968 and 1976, there were no executions. In 1999, there were 98 people put to death for their crimes.
Undeniably, violence and flagrant disregard for human life have swept over our land. Why? Paul, explaining the sinfulness of men, said, "There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:18). This is certainly descriptive of our degrading national character. No wonder murder, destruction, misery and strife are so common! Again, Solomon wrote, "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Ecclesiastes 8:11). The Justice Department Bureau of Statistics confirms that the average sentence for murder is a mere 15 years. The convicted murderer is usually out in 1.8 years. Since 1960, when we began to relax sentencing procedures, violent crime has gone up 500 percent! There are about 20,000 homicides committed annually in the U.S. Fewer than 300 of these will lead to a death sentence. In those cases that do, there will be a series of appeals that will typically consume many years and millions of tax dollars before the execution is carried out, if it ever occurs.
The ranges of opinions surrounding the death penalty are basically two: you are either for it or against it. People hear the endless controversy over the death penalty and wonder whether it has God's approval. What does the Bible say?
Civil government is ordained of God for the proper regulation of society. Paul said, "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God" (Romans 13:1; cf., 1 Peter 2:13-14). This does not imply that God is pleased with every decision of government. The Neronian regime under which Paul lived was thoroughly corrupt. We are taught to pray that our rulers will govern wisely and rightly (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Every government on earth has basically three functions: First, to protect the innocent. Second, to punish the guilty. Third, to provide justice for all citizens. It is reasonable to believe that God has given civil government the authority to enforce its responsibilities. Paul continued,
"Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt though then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil" (Romans 13:2-4).
The sword was the symbol of the magistrate's right to use capital punishment. If citizens vote to take that power away from the government, that would be bearing the sword in vain.
The first mention of the death penalty in the Bible is Genesis 4:10-14. After cowardly Cain murdered his brother Abel, he immediately fears reprisal. Cain said,
"My punishment is greater than I can bear…and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me" (Genesis 4:13-14).
Those who might have sought revenge would have been members of his own family avenging the death of their brother.
Two basic reasons exist for the death penalty in the Old Testament. First, is the fact that all human being are created in the image of God and life is therefore precious (Genesis 1:26-27). The connection of the death penalty for murder, at this point, comes from Genesis 9:6, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." Taking away the life of another is the highest crime that can be committed against another, or society. The reason is the intrinsic value of human life in its divine connection.
The second reason for God's law on murder is that "…the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it" (Numbers 35:33). Matthew Henry was correct when he wrote,
"Where wrong has been done restitution must be made; and, since the murderer cannot restore the life he has wrongfully taken away, his own must be exacted from him in lieu of it, not (as some have fancied) to satisfy the manes or ghost of the person slain, but satisfy the law and the justice of a nation; and to be warning to all others not to do likewise."
Pilate asked Jesus, "[K]nowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?" (John 19:10). It is worthy of note that Jesus did not argue with Pilate over the legitimacy of the death penalty. Jesus acknowledged Pilate's right to carry it out, but denied his own guilt (vs. 11).
The Jews once charged Paul with capital crimes that they could not prove (Acts 25:1-10). The apostle spoke in his own defense: "For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die…" (vs. 11). Paul did not challenge the law, but merely the justice of the charges against him.
Again, Romans 13:1-4 shows the right of civil government to exercise the kind of punishment that the sword represents. Civil law is to encourage the good and punish the evil. Individually, we have no right to take vengeance (Matthew 5:38-39; Romans 12:19). The state, acting as "ministers of God" serves this function (Romans 13:4).
Some think that the sixth commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13) makes capital punishment wrong. "You shall not murder" (NKJV) is the more precise reading. The Hebrew word used here proscribes not only premeditated murder, but also manslaughter (Numbers 35:11). If the prohibition extended to capital punishment, it would be difficult to understand why there are twenty-two capital crimes listed in the Old Testament. In fact, the very next chapter provided for the death penalty under Mosaic Law (Exodus 21:12).
It is said, "Capital punishment is not a deterrent to murder." The main objective of capital punishment is not deterrence, but punishment. In the first place, it is not called capital deterrence. It is called capital punishment because the state has the God-given right to punish the murderer for his crime. Second, the deterrence argument is a farce in a land where the death penalty is so sparsely used (Ecclesiastes 8:11; Numbers 35:33). If the extreme punishment were consistently and regularly carried out, we might see that deterrence is very much a factor!
It is sometimes argued that capital punishment is contrary to God's love. These proponents of their own brand of "love" would have us to "turn the other cheek" even in the most extreme cases of brutality and murder. These people may not have any use for God in any other realm of life, except in this one where they find it convenient to exploit divine love for their own benefit. Human sentimentality does not change God's law in this or any other realm (Romans 13:4). Let it be remembered that God's love does not exclude his justice (Romans 11:22).
Capital punishment will always be a controversial subject. Arguments for and against it will continue to fly to and fro. May we never forget to ask what the Bible says on it and let that be the determining factor in our view of the matter.
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