Governments pass laws. Ideally, the purpose of these laws should be for society to have greater peace, protection, and order. Some of these laws concern non-Biblical issues (example: traffic laws). Such laws, when passed, do become laws which God expects us to follow (Romans 13:1-2; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-17). Other laws concern matters on which the Bible also directly speaks (example: murder).
Governments are authorized by God to punish those who violate their laws (Romans 13:1-ff; 1 Peter 2:13-14). Thomas Hobbes has listed five categories of punishment used by man: (1) Corporal—that is, bodily punishment. This includes capital punishment. The word capital has to do with the head being removed. It has been more generally used for the death penalty, no mater the method of death. (2) Pecuniary—that is, the deprivation of a sum of money, or property. (3) Ignominy—that is, the removal of badges, titles, offices and the like. (4) Imprisonment—that is, deprivation of freedom of movement, the restriction of movement. (5) Exile—that is, forced departure out of the land, or a portion of it. (Leviathan, chapter 28). Governments have historically used all of these methods to punish lawbreakers. Capital punishment has been used to punish violators of the most serious of crimes.
Many governments no longer use capital punishment. Wikipedia indicates that: “58 countries maintain the death penalty in both law and practice; 95 have abolished it; 9 retain it for crimes committed in exceptional circumstances (such as in time of war); 35 permit its use for ordinary crimes, but have not used it for at least 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions or is under a moratorium.” Thirteen states/territories in the U.S.A. are without the death penalty option: Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia is also without this option (www.clarkprosecutor.org. This list is as of April 1, 2008).
What should the Christian think about the death penalty? What does the Bible say on this subject, and particularly, what does the New Covenant say?
1. The Old Covenant prescribed the death penalty for 23 offenses. Let’s divide these offenses into the following broad categories: [A.] Serious crimes against others—(1) murder (Exodus 21:12-14; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16-21); (2) rape (Deuteronomy 22:25-27). (3) kidnapping (Exodus 21:16; Deuteronomy 24:7); (4) False testimony that could result in the death of another (Deuteronomy 19:16-19); (5) Striking or cursing parents (Exodus 21:15; Leviticus 20:9). [B.] Reckless or negligent behavior resulting in death—(1) home owners negligence (Deuteronomy 20:8); (2) animal owners negligence (Exodus 21:29); (3) causing miscarriage (Exodus 21:22-25). [C.] Sexual sins—(1) adultery (Leviticus 20:10-21; Deuteronomy 22:22). (2) pre-marital sex (Deuteronomy 22:14-21; Lev. 21:9); (3) incest (Leviticus 18:16-17; 20:11-12); (4) homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). (5) bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Lev. 20:15-16). [D.] Religious Sins—(1) human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2); (2) sacrifice unto false gods (Exodus 22:26). (3) false prophesy (Deuteronomy 13:1-8; 18:20); (4) divination/witchcraft (Exodus 22:18: Leviticus 19:20, 31; 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:9-14); (5) violating the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36); (6) unauthorized individuals touching the holy furnishings of the temple (Numbers 4:15); (7) drunkenness of a priest (Leviticus 10:8-9); (8) blasphemy of God (Leviticus 24:10-16, 23). [E.] Presumptuous rebellion against authority—(1) against priest (Deuteronomy 17:12); (2) against parents accompanied with living as a glutton and drunkard (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
Moreover, it was not just the nation of Israel. Jesus recognized the authority of Rome to execute (Jn. 19:10-11).
There are some things we can learn, and some things we cannot learn from the first point. We can learn that God is not intrinsically opposed to the death penalty. We cannot, however, learn whether or not governments are so authorized under the New Covenant.
2. The New Covenant authorizes governments to use the death penalty. Consider the following passages: [A.] Acts 25:13-19. (1) Paul recognized the authority of Roman officials to judge saying, “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged” (25:10a). (2) He implied that there were things worthy of the death penalty, and that the government had such authority to execute. He said, “If I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying” (25:11a). (3) He again recognized Rome’s authority by saying “but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me … I appeal to Caesar” (25:11b). [B.] Romans 13:1-5. We’re instructed to be subject to governing authorities. Paul explained, “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” (13:4). Swords are not mere switches or rulers which smart. Swords kill!
1. Doesn’t the Bible say that we are not to kill? Yes, it does (Exodus 20:13; Matthew 5:21-22; Galatians 5:19-21; 1 John 3:15). Brother Kerry Duke has written, “The Decalogue warned, “You shall not murder (Exodus 20:13), yet the law required the death penalty (Exodus 21:12-17; Leviticus 20:1-21). In fact, divine authorization for capital punishment was given before Moses … (Genesis 9:6)… A common approach to reconciling these passages emphasizes the distinction between the English words ‘kill’ and ‘murder’ … An examination of Hebrew words and phrases denoting the taking of life, however, reveals the weakness of this argument… At least four categories of taking human life emerge from the Old Testament teaching: (1) the intentional, malicious taking of human life (Numbers 35:20-21); (2) the unpremeditated taking of human life, perhaps from a fight (Numbers 35:22-23); (3) the accidental causing of death (Deuteronomy 19:4-6). (4) The intentional infliction of death as a deserved form of punishment… (Deuteronomy 21:22). The killing involved in the first type is the act prohibited in the Decalogue. The other three types qualify the application of this prohibition. Also, the second and third type qualifies the application of the death penalty, since this punishment was not ordered in cases of unpremeditated or accidental killing” (ox in the Ditch, p. 26-28). This same qualifying principle must be in place in the New Covenant.
2. Does the death penalty really deter? (a) God indicates that it does (Deuteronomy 13:11; 17:13; 21:21). (b) American statistics do not seem to indicate that it does. However, this may be due to the fact that very few criminals, even murderers are actually executed, and of those who are the process is very slow (Eccl. 8:11). Numbers: in 2004 there were 16,137 murders/non-negligent manslaughters in the U.S.A. 62.6% of these cases were cleared, or 10,102 (askyahoo.com). That same year there were only 59 executions (www.deathinfo.org). Only 2% of those on death row are executed each year (Freakonomics). (c) It should also be remembered that retribution is also a goal not just deterrence (Romans 13:4).
3. Isn’t life in prison a worse punishment than the death penalty? Ann Coulter has written, “Evidently not to the murderers on death row who regularly fight their executions tooth and nail” (Godless, p.27).
4. What if the wrong man were convicted? It no doubt has happened. Example: Charles Hudspeth was executed in 1892 for killing George Watkins. Watkins had disappeared. Watkin’s wife, Rebecca, was romantically involved with Hudspeth and testified that Hudspeth had murdered her husband to clear the way for them. Nearly a year after Hudspeth was executed, Watkin’s reappeared (www.bogley.com). The story reminds us that a high standard of proof needs to be required before using the death penalty. It does not mean that it should never be used.