A Biblical Defense Of Capital Punishment

Dec 29th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

As with the issue of war, capital punishment is filled with intellectual and theological tension.  In this Perspective, I am not defending how capital punishment is practiced in the United States or any other country.  Instead, the focus is whether one can make a biblical defense for capital punishment as a responsibility of the state.  If humans bear God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), then ethically taking the life of an image-bearer in a premeditated act of murder demands just punishment, for killing a human being in such a manner is an attack on our Creator.   It is a rejection of His sovereignty over human life (see Deuteronomy 32:39).  But is it just to make the punishment capital?

First of all, it is important to consider the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” (Exodus 20:13).  The Hebrew term for “murder” here is ratsakh, which means “to murder or slay.”  The Old Testament consistently uses this term to refer to the unlawful taking of a human life. This is not the normal term for judicial execution or for the killing in war.

There are several key biblical passages that make the case for capital punishment as a just obligation of the state:

  • Genesis 9:5-6. This passage is the foundation for human government in the Bible.  As Noah exits the ark, God establishes a new relationship with the human race and a new code on which to base human relationships.  Because of the Flood’s destruction of all life, future generations might conclude that life is cheap to God and assume that humans can do likewise.  However, the covenant affirms the sacredness of human life and that murder is punishable by losing one’s life.  The reason:  “God made man in His image.”  The murder of a human being is therefore an attack on God Himself, on His representative on earth.  The text, therefore, institutes the principle of talionic justice, or the law of like punishment.  It is not a harsh principle of justice, for it establishes the premise that the punishment should fit the crime.  It is summarized elsewhere in God’s Word as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23-25).  The point of this covenant with Noah, then, is that God took justice out of the hands of the families of the deceased and placed it in the hands of human government, thereby neutralizing personal revenge and emotional anger.

 

  • The Mosaic Law. God’s moral law revealed to Moses was not the first time God delegated the authority of capital punishment.  It is central to Genesis 9:6 and is clearly implied in Genesis 4 in His dialogue with Cain (see especially verses 10 and 14).  What God did with the Mosaic law was broaden the responsibility to include many other offenses: murder (Exodus 21:12; Numbers 35:16-31; working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2); cursing father and mother (Leviticus 20:9); adultery (Leviticus 20:10); incest (Leviticus 20:11-12); sodomy (Leviticus 20:13, 15-16); false prophesying (Deuteronomy 13:1-10, 18:20); idolatry (Deuteronomy 21:18-21); rape (Deuteronomy 22:25); keeping an ox that has killed a human being (Exodus 21:29); kidnapping (Exodus 21:16); and intrusion of an alien into a sacred place (Numbers 1:51, 3:10, 38, 17:7).  The form of execution was normally stoning or burning.

 

  • Romans 13:1-7. Verse 4 is the key verse in this critical section on the authority of the state.  It gives the state the authority to wield the “sword” in its role as the punisher of evil: “he [the civil ruler] bears not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”  The word used for sword here is machaira, which refers not only to a sword used in battle, but also to a sword used in execution, as when Herod killed James, the brother of John, in Acts 12:1-2.  Paul’s use of this word gives strong support to the state receiving from God the authority to execute.  It gives no help in deciding which crimes are punishable by capital punishment.

In summary, the principle of talionic justice, implied in Genesis 4:10, 16, and clearly instituted in Genesis 9:6, was reaffirmed quite broadly in the Mosaic Law.  It is likewise a power delegated to the state according to Romans 13:4.  The New Testament did not negate the Old Testament standard of capital punishment.  The continuity of the Testaments is affirmed.

Concerning the power of the state to “punish those who do evil” (1 Peter 2:13-14), theologian Wayne Grudem comments that “such authority to punish wrongdoing also implies that human governments will have to decide (1) what wrongdoing is worthy of punishment, (2) what punishment is appropriate for each wrongdoing, and (3) whether or not an individual is guilty of that wrongdoing.”  In other words, this is a stewardship responsibility God dispenses to the state.  How all of this is administered involves accountability to God.

Is Capital Punishment a Deterrent?  Both the criminal justice system and theologians are divided as to whether capital punishment deters criminal behavior.  When comparing crime rates in states that use capital punishment with those that do not, it is impossible to argue that capital punishment is a deterrent.  It seems that one can make criminal justice statistics say whatever you want them to say.  But, from the perspective of Scripture, this is beside the point.  The view of capital punishment defended here gives focus to the fundamental biblical reason for capital punishment, namely that killing an image bearer of God demands the taking of the murderer’s life based on the principle of talionic justice.  Whether this form of justice deters further murders is almost irrelevant to the issue.  Justice demands payment and the universal and binding principle that God instituted in Genesis 9:6 is as applicable today as it was in Noah’s day.

A final issue on the ethic of capital punishment is Wayne Grudem’s comment about the American judicial system:  “The current legal system in the United States allows appeals of murder convictions to drag on for a decade or more, so we have not been able to see in recent years a reliable evaluation of the deterrent effect of the death penalty.  If the death penalty were carried out more quickly when someone has clearly been determined to be guilty and reasonable appeals have been exhausted, the deterrent effect would no doubt be much greater than it is today.  The Bible says, ‘Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil’ (Ecclesiastes 8:11).”

The ethic of capital punishment is rooted in the image of God concept, the bedrock for the infinite worth and value of human life.  To wantonly kill a human being with premeditation is an offense to God and an attack on Him as the Creator and sustainer of life.  It demands accountability and justice.  The ethic of capital punishment satisfies this demand and establishes a reasonable duty of the state before God.

See James P. Eckman, Christian Ethics, pp. 81-83; Charles Ryrie, You Mean the Bible Teaches That?, pp. 26-27, and Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, pp. 505-522.

 

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