What About Capital Punishment?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, January 15, 2010 at 12:09pm
QUESTION: Can you provide some information on capital punishment?
ANSWER: I have a chapter on this subject in my book, “Tough Questions, Biblical Answers, Part Two” (first published by Standard Publishing, then College Press, now Wipf & Stock). Here I will summarize the relevant Biblical data.
God established capital punishment in Genesis 9:6 when he set forth the principle, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” That this refers to killing is shown by v. 5, which says that “from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.” That this is an ordinance of God and not just an affirmation of man’s natural thirst for revenge is also seen in v. 5, where GOD is the one who REQUIRES “the life of man.” It is also seen in the rationale given at the end of v. 6, “for in the image of God He made man.” This shows why murder is so heinous and why capital punishment is required: the murderer destroys the life of a creature made in God’s own image. Human life is thus so special that whoever murders another person forfeits his own right to live; this is the just punishment for his awful crime.
The Law of Moses specifies the death penalty not only for murder (Exod. 21:12-14) but also for a large number of other crimes, e.g., kidnapping (Exod. 21:16), adultery (Lev. 20:10), incest (Lev. 20:11-12, 14), homosexual acts (Lev. 20:13), cursing God (Lev. 24:10-16), and striking or cursing a parent (Exod. 21:15, 17). Some find it odd that the Mosaic Law can require the death penalty for such acts while at the same time forbid killing in the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13, KJV). The reason for this confusion is that the sixth commandment does not actually SAY, “You shall not KILL.” This is a bad translation; the Hebrew word actually means “You shall not MURDER,” as most modern translations (even the NKJV) correctly have it. Murder is the deliberate, unlawful taking of innocent human life. Capital punishment is the judicial taking of guilty human life.
The fact that the death penalty is so prominent in the Mosaic Law shows that it cannot be inherently wrong. This is also shown by the statement of the Apostle Paul in Acts 25:11, when he was on trial in Festus’ court: “If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die.” Here the Apostle indicates that there ARE some crimes that are “worthy of death,” and he was willing to accept the death penalty if he were actually guilty of one of them. Of course, he was not; thus he appealed to Caesar.
Some object to the death penalty because they believe that a God of love would never condone such a brutal act. They emphasize that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and that we are commanded not only to love our neighbors (Matt. 22:39) but also our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48) in imitation of our loving God. It is true that God is love, but to think that God is love ONLY is a most serious false doctrine and leads to all kinds of ethical perversions. God is indeed love, but “our God is a consuming fire” as well (Heb. 12:29). This is the fire of God’s wrath, which is how his holy nature responds to sin. There are TWO sides to God’s moral nature, i.e., his love on the one hand and his holiness on the other hand (see my book, “What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer”). We simply cannot ignore His holy nature and the reality of His holy wrath. As Paul says in Romans 11:22, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God.” It is God’s holy nature that requires that sinners be punished.
Some object to the death penalty in this New Covenant Era because they believe (mistakenly) that Jesus instituted a new form of ethics as contrasted with that of the pre-Christian era and the Law of Moses. They appeal to the Sermon on the Mount, especially to Matt. 5:38-48. They assume that the “eye for an eye” principle (vv. 38-39) has been set aside. This is a false understanding of the Sermon on the Mount, however. Here Jesus is NOT contradicting or setting aside portions of the moral law (e.g., Matt. 5:21, 27), but he is pointing out how the Jewish leaders had falsely interpreted and falsely applied these laws and principles. For example, the “eye for an eye” principle, cited three times in the Mosaic Law (Exod. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:19-20; Deut. 19:21), was always a principle of justice that was to be applied in a court of law. The Rabbis, however, cited it as an excuse for personal revenge. When Jesus commands us AS INDIVIDUAL, PRIVATE CITIZENS not to apply this principle (thus taking the law into our own hands), he is NOT forbidding civil government to continue to apply it.
Some think we cannot make this distinction between what individuals can do and what governments can do, especially in this New Covenant age; but the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:17—13:7 shows otherwise. In 12:17ff. Paul echoes what Jesus said in Matt. 5:38ff.: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone…. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MIND, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.” Then immediately (13:1-4) the Apostle explains that God has established civil government as His earthly agent for executing His own wrath and vengeance upon evil-doers in this lifetime: “For it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (13:4). What we cannot do as individuals, God has appointed civil government to do. The reference to the sword includes the government’s right to use the death penalty as needed.
Is the death penalty a deterrent? It SHOULD be: “If you do what is evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword for nothing.” See also the logical response to the application of the death penalty under the Law of Moses: “And all Israel shall hear of it and fear” (Deut. 21:18-21; see also Deut. 17:12-13; 19:15-21.) This happens, though, only when the sentence is applied justly, swiftly, and consistently. See Eccl. 8:11: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.” In the final analysis, however, the death penalty is warranted whether it deters further evil or not. As with the penalty for any crime, the main reason for the punishment is RETRIBUTION, not deterrence and not rehabilitation. The criminal is punished, sometimes with death, because he DESERVES it. In the words of Romans 13:4, it is a matter of wrath and vengeance—the wrath and vengeance of God Himself