The recent squabble within Labor Party ranks as to whether the Bali bombers should be executed raises the old issue of capital punishment, and the biblical and ethical concerns surrounding it. How should the believer view this issue? Can a Christian support the death penalty?
There are two ways to answer these sorts of questions. One way, obviously, is to examine the Biblical data on the subject. The other is to discuss the various philosophical, legal and social implications of the debate. This article will mainly deal with the former.
Let me begin by saying that while all ethical issues can be complex and the subject of much debate and disagreement, for the believer, some issues are a bit more cut and dried than others. That is, I believe that Scripture offers a pretty strong case against certain activities. For example, abortion and homosexuality seem pretty clearly to be taboo. While some believers may seek to support such activities, they have little Biblical ground to stand on.
Some other issues, however, are perhaps a bit less forthright or clear. Thus genuine Christian disagreement may arise, and we may need to learn to agree to disagree on some of these contentious issues. I think certain issues like war and peace, wealth and poverty, environmental concerns, and so on, fall into this latter category. There is some legitimate room to move on these topics, and believers may find themselves lining up on various sides of the fence on these hot potato issues. I think capital punishment is also such an issue.
Thus there is some latitude here for the believer. Christians can rightly argue for either a pro or anti position on the topic. So where do I stand? I believe a case can be made that capital punishment is both biblical and something Christians can support. Having said that, I know many believers will take an opposite approach. I think this topic can be debated, and believers may well come up with conflicting conclusions. With that in mind, I offer the case for the death penalty.
Scripture says much about this issue. In fact, the first thing to note is that capital punishment is God’s idea: he initiated it. Genesis 9:5-6 gives the justification for it: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
The point of this passage is that man, as made in God’s image, has special value, above that of all other created life. Human death requires an accounting, and so serious is it to take a human life that the murderer forfeits his own right to life. The taking of human life is above all an offence against God. Thus the severity of the penalty. Interestingly, if an animal kills a person, it is treated the same as the human murderer: both are to be stoned to death (Lev. 21:28-32).
Man is given the responsibility of maintaining justice here. The way we become accountable to God in the preservation of human life is by means of capital punishment. God’s justice is thereby established, with the punishment being commensurate with the seriousness of the crime.
But, an objector will immediately interject, what about the sixth commandment? A good question, but easily answered. Exodus 20:13 clearly says in the Hebrew, “You shall not murder”. It does not deal with killing, but murder. All good English translations will make that distinction. The Hebrew word rasah is usually used for premeditated murder. Indeed, the verb is used nearly 50 times in the Old Testament, and in most instances it describes premeditated murder. It is not used of the killing of animals, the just killing of criminals, or the killing of enemies in battle.
And it is clear that all killing is not morally wrong, since on numerous occasions God himself orders killing to take place. For example, God ordered the death penalty (Gen 9:5, 6); God ordered the flood as judgment (Gen 6-8); God ordered the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as judgment (Gen 18-19); God ordered the death of Egypt’s first born (Ex 11); God ordered the death of the rebellious Israelites at Kedesh Barnea (Num 13-14); God ordered the death of 14,700 because of the sin of Korah (Num 16:49); and God ordered the taking of Canaan, and in the Old Testament war is sanctioned or commanded at various times (Num 1-4; 26; 32:20-22; Dt 1:6-8; 3:3; Josh 6:2-3; Jud 5; 1 Sam 15:2-3; 17; 2 Sam 5:19-20; 2 Ch 14:11-13; Ps 68; 83; 108; 124; 136)
Thus not all killing is wrong, or proscribed by the sixth commandment. When we wilfully take another human life that we have no Biblical authority to take, then we are indeed violating the sixth commandment.
Therefore deliberately and unlawfully taking the life of the innocent – what we call murder – is always wrong. But in various situations, Scripture allows killing: the death penalty, self-defence, certain types of warfare, and its use by police forces. I will not here lay out the biblical case for those other sorts of lawful killing. That remains the task of another article or two.
Just as in modern courts of law, the Old Testament distinguishes between different types of killing. Consider Exodus 21: 12-14: “Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death.” Accidental death is treated differently from intentional murder.
And just as in modern legal settings, various safeguards and due-process protections were in place to ensure – as far as possible – that justice in fact took place. For example, more than one witness was required for a guilty verdict for an offence punishable by death: “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Deut. 19:15); “Anyone who kills a person is to be put to death as a murderer only on the testimony of witnesses. But no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness” (Num 35:30).
Also, a very high degree of certainty of guilt was required. Deut. 17:4-5 says that if an offence “has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death.” This matches, and perhaps goes beyond, the modern rule of proof beyond reasonable doubt.
In addition, those accused of a crime awaiting trial could take shelter in a city of refuge. See Numbers 35:6-34 for details. Thus there were built-in protections for the accused in Mosaic legislation, until a proper trial could finally determine guilt or innocence.
What about a false accusation? This also was dealt with in the Mosaic legislation. If a person was found to have committed perjury, he too would face the death penalty: “If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime, the two men involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the LORD before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother. You must purge the evil from among you” (Deut. 19:16-19).
Moreover, in very difficult cases, judicial experts were brought in. “If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge – whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults – take them to the place the LORD your God will choose. Go to the priests, who are Levites, and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict.” (Deut. 17:8-9).
Lastly, if a person was found guilty, then the sentence had to be carried out. “No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; he must be put to death” (Lev. 27:29); “Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death” (Num. 35:31).
What About Jesus?
We have thus far only examined half of the Biblical data, that of the Old Testament. What about the New Testament? Did Jesus and the disciples adhere to the manner in which the First Testament dealt with this issue, or did they head off in a different direction? Such considerations will have to wait for part 2: