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The Death Penalty

The question of the Death Penalty is an emotional question.  It is not only emotional, but it is also multifaceted.  Periodically, the question of the death penalty comes to the forefront.  This has happened this particular week as people have paid attention to the appeals and ultimate rejection of the appeals and then execution of a man in Georgia.  This post is not about this case at all.  I do not know the facts of the case and have not followed the news story.

This post is simply answering the question: Is the death penalty ever appropriate?

As we follow the theme throughout the Bible we begin with the dignity of human life.  Humans are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). This fact makes us different from the animal world in a significant way.  It makes our life more precious than animals.

Man being made in the image of God means that when one person murders another,  it is a serious offense to God.  In fact Genesis 9:6 makes it clear that if one person murders another, the murderer should be put to death, because they have killed someone who is made in the image of God.  This death penalty is to be done at the hands of another man.  Thus, it is wrong to murder someone made in the image of God, but no guilt is given to someone who administers the punishment of death to the murderer.

In the Mosaic Code the death penalty is expanded to other offenses as well.  It is not within the scope of this article to deal with all of the occurences, but it suffices to say that God sanctioned the death penalty under that covenantal law code.

The question for us, though, is whether or not today the death penalty can be administered.  Romans 13 indicates that such is the case.  Government has the right to “use the sword.”  This use of the sword is a means to administer punishment.  It is a way that God administers in-time judgment.  Again the text indicates that the death penalty is allowed by God even in our present situation.

The argument made by many is that we are to no longer under the instructions, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” but instead we are to love our enemies.  Both of these statements are made by Jesus.  However, I think we need to dig a little deeper before we blindly apply them to the death penalty situation.

In the Sermon on the Mountain (or gospel of the kingdom), Jesus is dealing with how those who want to live in the kingdom of God are to live.  In doing so he spends some time correcting/expanding certain teaching that the people had heard.  One such teaching is “eye for an eye.”  This teaching is found in the OT, but it was given as a judicial requirement, not as a means for interpersonal conflict resolution.  What had happened is that people began to take matters into their own hands.  The belief was that if someone harms me then I can immediately harm them back equally, or more likely worse than they harmed me.  Jesus speaks out against this use of the passage.  It was never meant to be administered interpersonally.  However, Jesus is not giving this as a law to be followed by governments.  Thus, the death penalty would not be precluded in this case.

“Love your enemies” is also used against the death penalty.  The point is if you punish someone you do not love them.  I think when you think through this you see the problem.  This would not only preclude the death penalty, but any type of punishment.  “Love you enemies” means we pray and bless them as individuals, again it does not deal with how the government is to function as a servant of God in promoting good and hindering evil.

The point of this post was to simply make the claim that the death penalty is not disallowed by Scripture. Rather Scripture teaches that if one person murders another person, than the murderer should be put to death (btw this precedes the Law).

We can debate whether or not the practice as seen today is right.  We can also debate whether we need to reexamine the evidential requirements for someone to be put to death.  But, it seems clear that the Bible is not inherently against the death penalty, but rather sanctions and assumes it.

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9 Comments

  1. Wesley,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Another verse that I think goes well with this study would be Eccl. 8:11 “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.”

  2. Aren’t all the passages advocating or approving the death penalty in the OLD Testament? Those who quote Scripture to support any position, in particularly a harsh one, often fail to recognize that the Old Testament evolves as the society does. Think of all the specifications about sacrifices in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and then of the attitude toward sacrifices in the Psalms. (“Do I drink the blood of goats?”) As for the New, one need hardly point out that its overall tone is compassion and mercy. WWJE?

  3. Wesley

    September 23, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Mary-

    The article speaks of Romans 13. It says the state has the right to bear the sword. That being said, Genesis 9:6 is based upon an eternal truth, man being made in the image of God, as the reason why murders should be executed.

  4. KnowTheTruthToday

    September 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    The death penalty was sanctioned before the law, during the law, and after the law. Case closed as far as the Bible is concerned.

  5. It is a common error for beginning students of the Bible to assume that everything in the Old Testament was part of the Mosaic Covenant that was fulfilled by Jesus Christ. In fact, there were 2500 years of human history between Adam and Moses. During that 2500 years, God made several covenants, most prominent among them being the covenant with Noah and the covenant with Abraham. Unlike the Mosaic covenant, neither the Noahic covenant nor the Abrahamic covenant were temporary or conditional. Thus, both are still fully in effect.

    The Noachic covenant (Genesis 8 and 9) does not make capital punishment for murder an option, but a requirement. Murder a man made in the image of God and you must forfeit your life at the hand of your fellow men.

    This covenant was made not only with Noah, but expressly with his seed, which includes everyone living today. We do not show respect for human life by being slack with murderers. We show respect for human life by exacting the maximum penalty against anyone who murders another human being. Our failure to do so and to so expeditiously has led to a lax attitude towards murder. Prison sentences are gradually becoming longer, but for much of the past several decades, the average time served for first degree murder in the United States has been less than four years, which means that liberal attitudes towards crime has prevented our governments from fulfilling their responsibiliies under Romans 13. bill@otu.org

  6. I should have said “have” prevented, in the last sentence of my post. Sorry.

    BTW, the orginal article was excellent, though perhaps more tentative than Scripture warrants.

  7. The question asked, What does the Bible say about the death penalty. The words An Eye for Eye etc. It also calls for the stoning of anyone who commits a crime against against God. Leviticus in chapter 18 and 19 many of the things being commited now that are against the laws of God. Homosexuality is mentioned there for a very good reasoning. To start off, the very commandment from God concerning the death penalty is THOU SHALT NOT KILL.

  8. Wesley, Thanks for the article consering the Death Penalty!
    Very informative and very helpful.
    Kim Foster

  9. Rom 13:3-14, “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou 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. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
    And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.
    (KJV)

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