It is clear that the Old Testament has ordained the death penalty as part of criminal justice in a fallen world. Human life is so valuable to Yahweh that one who takes innocent life must lose his own life as a consequence.
But does the coming of Jesus and the New Testament change all that? Many Christians feel that capital punishment is wrong, at least by New Testament standards, and whatever the Old Testament may have said about it, believers today cannot countenance it. Are they right? Did the teachings of Jesus mean the end of capital punishment? It is to these questions that this essay turns.
Bridging the Testaments
First a word about theological method. One of the bigger debates taking place amongst biblical scholars is the relationship between the Testaments. This debate has been especially pronounced in recent times, but it has been a very longstanding discussion throughout the history of church.
The issue really comes down to this: is there continuity, or discontinuity, between the Testaments? The short answer is to say there is both continuity and discontinuity. Some things contained in the Old Testament surely seem to carry over into the New, such as the reality of sin, God’s love and concern for mankind, and his attempt to have us become reconciled to him. These are constants which run throughout the Scriptures.
Other things seem to have been discontinued. For example, the various dietary laws given to the nation of Israel, and certain religious practices such as animal sacrifices, seem to no longer be in force in New Testament times. Indeed, the related questions of how we are to understand the Mosaic law today (what is its purpose and function for the church, what aspects of it carry over into the New, etc.) are also bound up in this whole discussion.
While some of the matters that are either continuous or not can be easily identified, the real problem arises with those things which are not so clear. That is where the real debate arises. Thus gallons of ink have been spilt on this and related vexatious questions.
How we answer these big issue questions will in large part determine how we think about the specific issue of capital punishment, and whether New Testament believers should continue to support it.
For example, let me consider just one issue. Often those believers opposed to capital punishment will argue that we are no longer under law, but under grace. They claim that the death penalty may have been alright in Old Testament times, but Jesus has freed us from the law, and shown us a new and better way.
Several responses can be made to this. First, the provision for capital punishment was made in what is known as the Noahic Covenant, which preceded the Mosaic Covenant by quite some time. So even if most of the Mosaic law is no longer binding for New Testament believers, this law precedes it.
Moreover, other aspects of that covenant made with Noah are still in effect. The promise of the continuation of the seasons is still in effect (Gen. 8:22), and the dread of man by animals is still in effect (Gen. 9:2). Finally, we are still made in God’s image, so presumably Gen. 9:6 is still in effect.
But some believers argue that Jesus has put a whole different spin on things, and his call to love and show compassion rule out the death penalty. Several main passages or themes of Jesus are appealed to by those who argue against capital punishment.
The Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5-7 is an important portion of Scripture to examine in this regard. Consider especially Matt. 5:38-41: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
On the surface, this seems like a pretty clear denunciation of the principle of a life for a life, or at least any form of retaliation. But several replies can be made. Jesus is clearly teaching a personal ethic here, which may in fact differ from the social ethic taught elsewhere, as in Romans 13. That is, we have responsibilities as individual believers, but states also have their God-given responsibilities, which include maintaining social justice and punishing wrong-doers.
It would appear that what Jesus was talking about here in fact is a case of personal retaliation. As such, it has no direct bearing on the question of whether the state has been authorised by God to carry out the death penalty. The text seems to say that I can turn my cheek if I am personally attacked, but it does not refer to a third party coming under attack. Can I protect an innocent person under attack?
If I am walking down the street with my wife, and a gang attacks her and seeks to rape her, do I have an obligation to defend her, in the interests of justice? It is one thing if I defer my right to self-defence (which is established in places like Exodus 22:2-3) and allow myself to be wronged or attacked. But it is another matter to allow the innocent to suffer injustice. While I may not be permitted to take the law into my own hands, and should defer to the police forces, there may well be times where I need to lift my hand to avert tragedy.
For example, if a crazed gunman walks into a crowded kindergarten, ready to start shooting, is it in fact wrong for me to seek to stop him from carrying out his murderous intent? I could wait till the police arrive, but a massacre may by then have occurred. So I am not sure if Jesus is denouncing the protection of third parties here. He may merely be saying that for the sake of the gospel, we should personally be willing to endure wrong.
Thus it seems that an interpersonal relationship is the subject here. Individuals may have this mandate of non-retaliation from Jesus, but the state is given a different mandate (as in Rom 1:1-7). As J. Budziszewski, writing in the Aug/Sept 2004 First Things put it, “Christ did teach personal forgiveness, but he never challenged the need for public justice. The supposition that personal forgiveness implies a requirement for universal amnesty is not merely weak but mistaken. Taken seriously, it would destroy all public authority, for if punishment as such is incompatible with forgiveness, then why stop with capital punishment? Must we not abolish prisons, fines, and even reprimands as well?”
Another key passage appealed to by Christian critics of capital punishment is the story of the woman caught in adultery as narrated in John 7:53-8:11. But it is not altogether clear if this passage can be used to argue against the death penalty. Several considerations arise.
First, (and this is not meant to be an evasion of the issue), as most Bibles will note somewhere, we simply do not have good manuscript evidence for this pericope. It seems to be a latter addition to the gospel. So whether it is in fact part of the inspired original text is a debatable point.
Second, it is questionable whether this passage negates the Old Testament law. In fact, it seems to stringently fulfill it. Jesus seems to be affirming the strict requirements of Old Testament justice here (according to Deut. 22:22-24, the man involved was also to be included in the punishment). Jesus implies that the accusers were at fault, and were violating the Old Testament provisions for such a case.
If absolute sinlessness was being required here, we would have no judicial system at all. And as Jesus stated in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17), “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
And elsewhere Jesus seems to acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment. When Pilate tells Jesus that he has the power to either release him or crucify him, Jesus does not deny this, but simply tells him where this power has come from (John 19:10-11).
But still, the critics will argue that mercy triumphs over justice, and Jesus has fully renounced the old “eye for an eye” principle. What about mercy and grace, they ask? What about the cross? Does not the New Testament replace retribution with mercy?
Much can be said about this, but I must be brief. Mercy and grace may be free, but they are not cheap. They are very costly. God’s justice was not waived at the cross. Death and judgment were meted out, but on Christ. The reason why God is able to act graciously to believers is because the requirements of justice have been met in Christ. Justice was not for one moment minimised at Calvary. Instead, God’s grace as exhibited on the cross presupposes the fulfilling of justice. As Budziszewski again rightly points out, “The reconciliation of justice with mercy lies in the Cross. God does not balance mercy and justice; He accomplishes both to the full.”
The fact that we are now freely forgiven does not mean that somehow the needs of public justice have been swept away. Not only is God still a God of justice in New Testament times, but justice in this life must still be maintained. Thus the role of the state in dispensing justice has not been done away with by the coming of Jesus.
And passages such as Romans 12:14-21 which warn against revenge and retaliation do not contradict this. What Paul is arguing against there is personal revenge. We are not to take the law into our own hands and become vigilantes. It is the job of the state to fight injustice and punish lawbreakers.
Likewise the disciples seem to accept the legitimacy of state-sanctioned capital punishment. Paul says this to Festus in Acts 25:11: “If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”
And we have already mentioned Romans 13 as a pivotal passage in relation to the role and authority of the state, and as God’s means of achieving social justice. God has ordained the state to enforce public justice and to punish those who do what is wrong. Peter makes the same case: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” (1 Peter 2:13-14).
Public justice has not been abolished with the coming of Christ, and the provision of capital punishment seems to remain today.
Much more could be said on this complex topic. Other biblical texts could have been discussed. And many arguments have not been addressed here; arguments looking at such issues as deterrence, the effectiveness of capital punishment, various social and philosophical objections, and so on. Perhaps these will be addressed in a future article.
I have tried to show that a Christian can, in all good faith support the death penalty. But I recognise that other believers will beg to differ. As I said at the outset, this is one of those sticky issues where there will be a legitimate difference of opinion amongst believers. Those who oppose the death penalty rightly appeal to aspects of the life and teachings of Jesus to support their case.
Those in favour will argue that other Biblical considerations also need to be taken into account, such as the role of the state in promoting justice and punishing evil. This may well be an issue in which believers must be willing to learn to live with differences.
In sum, to those believers who argue that a New Testament believer must oppose the death penalty, I suggest that to my mind the case has not yet been fully and persuasively made, and much counter-evidence can be appealed to.
See Part 1 here: