Capital punishment: serious questions

If we use the Old Testament as support for capital punishment—shouldn’t we support execution for all offenses it lists as capital?

The Bible isn’t a belief buffet from which we can pick and choose what we want to believe or apply.

Under the Old Testament law, murder (Numbers 35:16) and rape (Deuteronomy 22:25) were in fact grounds for execution. But if we are to consistently apply Old Testament Law—and not simply pick and choose—we would need to apply capital punishment for all offenses it lists as capital, such as . . .

      adultery (Leviticus 20:10)

      homosexual behavior (Leviticus 20:13)

      kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)

      occult practices (Exodus 22:18)

      premarital sex (Leviticus 21:9)

      not observing the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36) and

      striking or slandering a parent (Exodus 21:15, 17)

Who would be left to pull the switch?!

Under New Testament grace, didn’t Christ take our “capital punishment” required under the Law?

      When we were utterly helpless with no way of escape, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners who had no use for him. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since by his blood he did all this for us as sinners, how much more will he do for us now that he has declared us not guilty? Now he will save us from all of God’s wrath to come (Romans 5:6, 8-9).

      Well then, are God laws and God’s promises against each other? Of course not! If we could be saved by the laws, then God would not have had to give us a different way to get out of the grip of sin—for the Scriptures insist we are all its prisoners. The only way out is through faith in Jesus Christ; the way of escape is open to all who believe in him (Galatians 3:21-22).

If the death penalty is a universal, timeless punishment commanded by God for those Old Testament sins viewed capital offenses (see above), shouldn’t the following offenders have been executed?

      Cain, the first murderer, was actually protected by God (Genesis 4:8-15)

      Moses murdered an Egyptian (Exodus 2:11-15)

      King David committed adultery, then had the woman’s husband killed (2 Samuel 11)

      The woman at the well (John 4:1-42) who was guilty of adultery.

      The woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11)

      The Christians in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NIV) who were formerly “sexually immoral,” “idolators,” “adulterers,” “male prostitutes,” and “homosexual offenders”—all of which were capital offenses in the Old Testament

And don’t forget, to include everyone of us in that list!

      Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious ideal (Romans 3:23 TLB).

      For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23 TLB).

I’ve searched the New Testament for justification for humanly-imposed capital punishment. God’s punishment of unbelievers at Judgment Day is certainly capital! (Revelation 20:11-15)

What I do find, however, are many passages that warn against judging others, not showing mercy, and mistreating prisoners (Matthew 5:7, 44; 7:2; 25:39-40, 44-45).

Admittedly, it is a controversial issue. (And I could be wrong!)

So, on those issues where there is such disagreement, shouldn’t we err on the side of life rather than death?

Adapted from Death & Beyond Copyright © 1992 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

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What does the Bible really say?

6 Responses

  • Dolores Walker says:

    Thank you for the best thoughts on capital punishment I have ever heard! Unfortunately “kill and pay by being killed” is the natural instinct of many of us, and Christians no less than others. If laws were changed to make life sentences actually last for life, I think that would be a better solution, especially considering that so many death sentences are now overturned because the convicted person is later proved to be innocent.

    Although I sometimes disagree with your theology (I’m a liberal United Methodist), I always look forward to these posts, and often forward them. God sure packed you with talent!

    • Yes, the numerous death sentences that have been overturned when new evidence proves innocence is one of the best arguments against the death penalty. It got so bad in Illinois, the state has put a moratorium on capital punishment.

      And thank you for your kind comment. I tend to be liberal on social issues and conservative on theological issues, which makes me a bit of an enigma!

  • SG Robinson says:

    In an era when confusion seems to be normal, I really like to find articles that lay out the truth–Biblical truth, that is–in a simple, easy-to-understand style. Thank you for doing what you do.

  • Mary Hickey says:

    This article focuses on justifications for capital punishment from the Old Testament, and I’m in agreement that we can’t use them for this purpose anymore. All things are new in Christ, or we still couldn’t eat jambalaya! And further, some of the stories are frequently misinterpreted.

    One of the examples here is Numbers 15:32-36, the story of the Sabbath-breaker. Atheists sling this one around as evidence of our God being petty and heartless, but the context suggests there’s a lot more here than just Sabbath breaking. Firewood was a scarce commodity when you didn’t have chain saws to cut the wood, and trucks to carry it. This guy took advantage of his fellow Israelites by scarfing up any wood that fell overnight while the others were constrained from doing so. At the least, it made his life easier the following week, and at worst he could have intended to profiteer by selling firewood collected illegally to others after the Sabbath was over. Would the people have brought him to Moses and Aaron if they’d only caught him mending his robe or repairing a broken sandal strap on the Sabbath? I seriously doubt it.

    St. Paul doesn’t discuss the death penalty except for a brief note in Romans 13:4 about how the ruler can use the sword to execute justice. It was a moot issue for the Christian community in his time, since they lived under the Roman Empire’s rule. That meant they weren’t allowed to execute anyone themselves, regardless of their reasons. They’d have to convince Rome to do it, as the chief priests did with Jesus. But they could banish someone immoral or adulterous from their community, and Paul tells them they should do that in 1 Corinthians 5.

    Back to the main question: I favor keeping capital punishment available for perpetrators of the most egregious and heinous crimes. Putting the worst of these killers in prison isn’t enough, because a future administration can decide to let them go out to kill again. Even if they are sentenced to life without parole, a future administration might issue an executive order nullifying life without parole, or a future judiciary might declare it cruel and unusual. Too many slips!

    To deter prosecutors from misconduct, I’d also like to see the price made higher for those who are later shown to have intentionally caused or allowed innocent people to be convicted of any crime whatever. Jail time seems appropriate, along with permanent disbarment.

    I also recognize, as Jim notes above, that this issue is controversial. People of good will can differ on it while having the same objective of desiring justice on earth. If anyone reading this disagrees with me, I hope you can do so while recognizing that we may very well be on the same side overall regarding the larger issue of justice.

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