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.