Q&A: Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment

Question

What is the biblical view of capital punishment? The Old Testament seems to allow it for murderers. In the New Testament I don't seem to find as much, except that Romans 13:4 talks of the sword, which is commonly associated with death as an instrument of execution.

Answer

The Bible regularly supports capital punishment; it nowhere suggests that capital punishment is inappropriate. In the Old Testament, there are many mentions of valid capital punishment (Gen. 9:6; Exod. 21:12-17,29; 22:19; 31:14-15; 35:2; Lev. 20:2,9-16,27; 24:16,17,21; 27:29; Num. 1:51; 3:10,38; 15:35-36; 18:7; 35:9-34; Deut. 13:5,9; 17:2-12; 18:20; 19:11-21; 21:22; 22:22,25; 24:7,16; Josh. 1:18 to name just a few), though many crimes other than murder are also liable to this punishment. It is worth noting, however, that generally the legal language in the Bible does not speak in terms of mandatory sentencing, but rather in terms of maximum sentencing (but not always; cf. Deut. 19:11-21).

In the New Testament, the Old Testament Law is still the standard (Matt. 5:17-19). No further law is given regarding this issue in the New Testament because no further clarification was necessary beyond what the Old Testament had already said. Also, as you mention, Paul indicated that the obligation and delegated authority to inflict capital punishment was not limited to Israel. Rather, God delegates authority to all civil governments to uphold this aspect of the Law (e.g. Rom. 13:4, which mentions not only the "sword," but also "avenger" and "wrath"). In fact, this aspect was already present in the Old Testament as well: the instruction regarding capital punishment in Genesis 9:6 was given to all mankind, not just to Israel.

It is also worth saying that God himself employs capital punishment both in this world and in the next. Examples from the Old Testament abound (e.g. Exod. 4:24; 13:15; and let's not forget the Flood of Gen. 6-8!), but even in the New Testament God executes those who anger him (e.g. Acts 12:23; 1 Cor. 11:30). This should not surprise us, though, for it was God himself who gave the law regarding capital punishment in the first place, and it is his law and authority that he delegates to modern governments to exercise the death penalty. In the world to come, God will execute eternal capital punishment against sinners in hell (e.g. Matt. 10:28).

I'm aware that some Christian schools of thought oppose the death penalty as unbiblical, appealing to such things as the image of God in man, or to the fact that only God has the right to take a life. These arguments go against clear biblical mandate. God specifically instructed that certain criminals and sinners were to be put to death, or could be put to death. He did not impose a standard of absolute certainty regarding their crimes, nor did he say that to put such people to death was an affront against the image of God in man. In fact, in Genesis 9:6 it is precisely because the murderer has struck out against the image of God in another man that the murderer is to be put to death. The death penalty respects and protects the image of God; it does not attack it.

Does all this mean that we ought to be putting people to death right and left? No. The biblical examples given to us do not support that idea. Liability unto death (maximum sentencing) does not imply the appropriateness of execution in every case. For example, David was a murderer, but the Bible makes no sounds about putting him to death for his crimes (2 Sam. 12:9ff.). Forgiveness and mercy are almost always options, as is lighter sentencing when the circumstances merit it. Moreover, we have to consider the many differences between the situations addressed directly by the biblical texts, and those in which we find ourselves. We need to determine what lasting principles the laws attempted to display and enforce, and, based on that information, figure out how to apply the laws in our own day. Sometimes this will mean that we do not argue that all criminals liable unto death in the Old Testament ought to be executed in our modern cultures. Nevertheless, the propriety of capital punishment in principle cannot be denied.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.