Capital Punishment and the Bible
The Bible is the written Word of God. Within its pages, we find the wisdom of God. We find what is best for the human race—how God intends for life to be conducted. What is God’s view of capital punishment? Both the Old Testament as well as the New Testament address this subject.
OLD TESTAMENT TEACHING
Very early in human history, God decreed that murderers were to forfeit their own lives: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he the man” (Genesis 9:6). This standard continued into the Mosaic period (cf. Numbers 35:33). As a matter of fact, the law God gave to Moses to regulate the Israelite nation made provision for at least sixteen capital crimes. In sixteen instances, the death penalty was to be invoked. The first four may be categorized as pertaining to civil matters.
1. Under the law of Moses, the death penalty was required in cases of premeditated murder (Exodus 21:12-14,22-23; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16-21). This regulation even included the situation in which two men might be fighting and, in the process, cause the death of an innocent bystander or her unborn infant. It did not include accidental homicide, which we call “manslaughter.”
2. Kidnapping was a capital crime under the Old Testament (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7). One movie, which was based on an actual incident, depicted the kidnapping of a seven-year-old boy as he was walking home from school. The man who stole him kept him for some seven years, putting the child through emotional and sexual abuse, before the boy, at age fifteen, was finally returned to his parents. He was a different child, and never again would be the same. God would not tolerate such a thing in the Old Testament, and much of the same would be stopped in America if such crimes were taken more seriously.
3. A person could be put to death for striking or cursing his parents (Exodus 21:15,17; Leviticus 20:9). Jesus alluded to this point in Matthew 15:4 and Mark 7:10.
4. Incorrigible rebelliousness was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 17:12). For example, a stubborn, disobedient, rebellious son who would not submit to parents or civil authorities was to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
The next six capital crimes can be identified as more specifically pertaining to religious matters.
5. Sacrificing to false gods was a capital crime in the Old Testament (Exodus 22:20).
6. Violating the Sabbath brought the death penalty (Exodus 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36).
7. Blasphemy, or cursing God, warranted the death penalty (Leviticus 24:10-16,23).
8. The false prophet, specifically one who tried to entice the people to idolatry, was to be executed (Deuteronomy 13:1-11), as were the people who were so influenced (Deuteronomy 13:12-18).
9. Human sacrifice was a capital crime (Leviticus 20:2). The Israelites were tempted to offer their children to false pagan deities, like Molech. But such was despicable to God.
10. Divination, or the dabbling in the magical arts, was a capital crime. Consequently, under Mosaic law, witches, sorcerers, wizards, mediums, charmers, soothsayers, diviners, spiritists, and enchanters were to be put to death (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 19:26,31; 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:9-14).
The next six crimes pertain to sexual matters.
11. Adultery was punishable by death under the Old Testament (Leviticus 20:10-21; Deuteronomy 22:22). Can you imagine what would happen in our own country if adultery brought the death penalty? Most of Hollywood would be wiped out, as well as a sizeable portion of the rest of our population!
12. Bestiality, i.e., having sexual relations with an animal, was punishable by death (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:15-16).
13. Incest was a capital offense in the Old Testament (Leviticus 18:6-17; 20:11-12,14).
14. Homosexuality was a capital crime (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13).
15. Premarital sex brought the death penalty (Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20-21).
16. Rape of an engaged or married woman was a capital crime in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). Again, imagine what would happen in this country if rape brought the death penalty! Much of the unconscionable treatment of women now taking place would be terminated.
Capital punishment was written into God’s will for the Jewish nation in the Old Testament. The death penalty was a viable form of punishment for at least sixteen separate offenses. Some people have misunderstood one of the Ten Commandments which says, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). They have assumed that the law forbade taking human life under any circumstances. But God required the death penalty for some sixteen crimes. Therefore, the commandment would have been better translated, “You shall not murder.” In other words, the command was a prohibition against an individual taking the law into his own hands and exercising personal vengeance. But God wanted the execution of law breakers to be carried out by duly constituted legal authorities.
NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING
Moving to the New Testament, which reveals God’s will this side of the cross, the matter of capital punishment is treated virtually the same. The New Testament clearly teaches that capital punishment is God’s will for human civilization. Consider, for example, Romans 13:1-4.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
This passage clearly affirms that the state—civil government—has the God-ordained responsibility to keep law and order, and to protect its citizens against evildoers. The word “sword” in this passage refers to capital punishment. God wants duly constituted civil authority to invoke the death penalty upon citizens who commit crimes worthy of death.
For about the last thirty years, Americans have actually witnessed a breakdown on the part of judicial and law enforcement system. In most cases, the government has failed to “bear the sword.” Instead, the prison system has been overrun with incorrigible criminals. Premature parole and early release has become commonplace in order to make room for the increasing number of lawbreakers.
The apostle Paul, himself, articulated the correct attitude when he stood before Porcius Festus and defended his actions by stating, “If I am an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death, I do not object to dying” (Acts 25:11). Paul was acknowledging that the state properly possesses the power of life and death in the administration of civil justice.
Peter held the same position as that of Paul. He enjoined obedience to the government that has been sent by God “for the punishment of evildoers” (1 Peter 2:14; cf. Titus 3:1). Jesus implied the propriety of capital punishment when He told the Parable of the Pounds. Those who rebelled against the king were to be brought and executed in his presence (Luke 19:27). Compare that parable with the one He told about the wicked husbandmen in Luke 20:15-16 in which He indicated that the owner of the vineyard would return and destroy the husbandmen.
Those who oppose capital punishment raise a variety of objections to its legitimacy. For example, someone might raise the question: “Did not Jesus teach that we should turn the other cheek?” Yes, He did, in Matthew 5:39. But in that context, He was impressing upon the Jews their need not to engage in personal vendettas. The same point is stressed in Romans 12:14-21. Paul said, “Repay no one evil for evil” and “do not avenge yourselves.” In other words, Christians are not to take the law into their own hands and engage in vengeful retaliation. God insists that vengeance belongs to Him.
Notice, however, that Romans 13 picks right up where Romans 12 leaves off and shows how God takes vengeance. He employs civil government as the instrumentality for imposing the death penalty. So, individual citizens are not to engage in vigilante tactics. God wants the legal authorities to punish criminals, and thereby protect the rest of society.
A second objection to capital punishment pertains to the woman taken in adultery. “Did not Jesus exonerate her and leave her uncondemned?” Surely the story about the woman taken in adultery in John 8 has been misused and misapplied more than almost any other Scripture. Yet a careful study of this passage yields complete harmony with the principle of capital punishment. At least four extenuating circumstances necessitated Jesus leaving the woman uncondemned:
First, Mosaic regulation stated that a person could be executed only if there were two or more witnesses to the crime (Deuteronomy 19:15). One witness was insufficient to evoke the death penalty (Deuteronomy 17:6). The woman was reportedly caught in the very act, but nothing is said of the identity of the witnesses. There may have been only one.
Second, even if there were two or more witnesses present to verify the woman’s sin, the Old Testament was equally explicit concerning the fact that both the woman and the man were to be executed (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Where was the man on this occasion? Obviously, this was a trumped up situation that did not fit the Mosaic preconditions for invoking capital punishment. Obedience to the Law of Moses in this instance actually meant letting the woman go.
A third point to take into consideration is the precise meaning of the phrase “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7). If this statement is taken as a blanket prohibition against capital punishment, then this passage flatly contradicts Romans 13. Instead, what Jesus was getting at was what Paul meant when he said, “you who judge practice the same things” (Romans 2:1). Jesus knew that the woman’s accusers were guilty of the very thing of which they were willing to condemn her. He was able to prick them in regard to their guilt by causing them to realize that He knew they were guilty of the very same thing. The Old Law made clear that the witnesses to the crime were to cast the first stones (Deuteronomy 17:7). Jesus was striking directly at the fact that the woman’s accusers were ineligible to fulfill this role.
Fourth, capital punishment would have had to have been levied by a duly constituted court of law. This mob was actually engaging in an illegal action—vigilantism. Jesus, though the Son of God, would not have interfered in the responsibility of the appropriate judicial authorities to handle the situation. Remember that, on another occasion when one of two brothers approached Jesus out of a crowd and asked Him to settle a probate dispute, Jesus responded: “Man, who made Me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). So the effort by this mob in John 8 to ensnare Jesus was without legal justification.
Jesus actually handled the situation appropriately, in keeping with legal protocol of both Old Testament law as well as Roman civil law. The woman clearly violated God’s law, and deserved the death penalty. But the necessary prerequisites for pronouncing the execution sentence were lacking—which is precisely what Jesus meant when He said, “Neither do I condemn you.” Since the legal stipulations that were needed to establish her guilt were not in place, He would not override the law and condemn her. Jesus’ action on this occasion in no way discredits the legitimacy of capital punishment.
A third objection that has been raised in an effort to challenge the propriety of capital punishment is the insistence by some that the death penalty serves no useful purpose—especially when it comes to deterring other criminals from their course of action. Opponents insist, “capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime.” This kind of humanistic, uninformed thinking has held sway for some 30+ years. It might be believable if it were not for the inspired Word of God informing to the contrary.
Even if capital punishment did not serve as a deterrent, it still would serve at least one other worthwhile purpose: the elimination from society of those elements that persist in destructive behavior. The Bible teaches that some people can be hardened into a sinful, wicked condition. They have become so cold, cruel, and mean that even the threat of death does not phase them. Paul referred to those whose consciences had been “seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2). Some people are so hardened that they are described as “past feeling” and completely given over to wickedness (Ephesians 4:19). God invoked the death penalty upon an entire generation because their wickedness was “great in the earth” and “every imagination of the thoughts of [their] heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).
So the human heart and mind can become so alienated from right, good, and truth that a person can be unreachable, incorrigible, and irretrievable. The death penalty would spare law-abiding citizens any further perpetration of death and suffering by those who engage in such repetitive actions. How horrible and senseless it is that so many Americans have had to suffer terribly at the hands of criminals who already have been found guilty of previous crimes, but who were permitted to go free and repeat their criminal behavior!
So even if capital punishment was not a deterrent, it is still a necessary option in society. It holds in check the growth and spread of hardened criminals. A careful study is warranted of the expression “so you shall put away the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21; 1 Corinthians 5:13).
But the Bible clearly teaches that the application of penal punishment, including the death penalty, is, in fact, a deterrent. For example, God wanted the death penalty imposed upon any individual, including one’s relative, who attempted secretly to entice others into idolatry. Such a person was to be stoned to death in the presence of the entire nation with this resulting effect: “So all Israel shall hear and fear, and not again do such wickedness as this among you” (Deuteronomy 13:11).
Another instance of this rationale is seen in the pronouncement of death upon the incorrigible rebel: “And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously” (Deuteronomy 17:13). The principle is stated again when the Jews were instructed to take a rebellious and stubborn son and stone him to death with the effect that “all Israel shall hear and fear” (Deuteronomy 21:21).
This same perspective is illustrated even in the New Testament. Paul emphasized that elders in the church who sinned were to be rebuked publicly “that others also may fear” (1 Timothy 5:20). Ananias and Sapphira, a Christian couple in the early church, were divinely executed in Acts 5, and in the very next verse Luke wrote: “So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things” (Acts 5:11). These passages prove that a direct link exists between punishment and execution on the one hand, and the caution that it instills in others on the other hand.
The Bible teaches the corollary of this principle as well. Where there is inadequate, insufficient and delayed punishment, crime and violence increase. Notice Ecclesiastes 8:11—“Because the 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.” This very phenomenon is occurring even now in America.
The court system is clogged and backed up to the point that many cases do not come to trial for literally years. Criminals who have been shown to be guilty of multiple murders and other heinous crimes are given light sentences, while those who deserve far less are given exorbitant sentences. A mockery of the justice system has resulted. Such circumstances, according to the Bible, only serve to encourage more lawlessness. The overall citizenry cannot help but grow lax in their own attitudes. This principle is evident in the biblical expression, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6).
If the Bible is to be believed, capital punishment is, indeed, a deterrent to criminal behavior. The elimination of hardened criminals is necessary if societies are to survive. The liberal, humanistic values that have held sway in America for the last 40 years are taking their toll, and getting back to God’s view of things is the only hope if the nation is to survive.
A fourth quibble that someone might raise is that capital punishment appears to be a rather extreme step to take since it is as cruel, barbaric, and violent as the action committed by the criminal himself. Is it not the case that capital punishment is resorting to the same kind of behavior as the criminal? May capital punishment be viewed as a vindictive retaliation? The biblical response to this question is seen in the oft’-repeated phrases: “his blood be upon him” (Leviticus 20:9,13,27; Deuteronomy 19:10; Ezekiel 18:13; 33:5) and “his blood be upon his own head” (Joshua 2:19; 2 Samuel 1:16; Ezekiel 33:4; Acts 18:6).
Those who carry out the death sentence are, in reality, neutral third parties. They are merely carrying out the will of God in dispensing justice. The criminal is simply receiving what he brought upon himself—his “just desserts.” The expression “his blood be upon him” indicates that God assigns responsibility for the execution to the one being executed. It’s like we tell small children: “If you put your hand in the fire, you’re going to get burned.” There are consequences to our actions. If we do not want to be executed, we should not commit any act that merits death. If we do commit such an act, we have earned the death penalty, and we deserve to get what we have earned. The one who metes out the punishment is not to be blamed or considered responsible for the execution of the guilty.
Rather than oppose those who promote capital punishment, painting them as insensitive ogres or uncaring, callous, uncivilized barbarians, effort would be better spent focusing upon the barbaric behavior of the criminals who rape, plunder, and pillage. It is their behavior that should be kept in mind. Tears and compassion ought to center on the innocent victims and their families. Lethal injection of a wicked evildoer hardly can match the violent, inhuman suffering and death experienced by the innocent victims of crime. They continue to suffer, while the perpetrator carries on for many years, many trials, and many appeals before justice is served—if it ever is. The God of the Bible is incensed and outraged at such circumstances. The time has come to start listening to Him as He speaks through His inspired Word.