Question. Does the Bible teach capital punishment?
Scripture. Genesis 9:6; Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 19:21; Matthew 5:38-39, 44; Luke 22:36; John 5:30; Acts 25:11; Romans 12:17; 13:4; 2 Cor 10:4-5; 1 John 4:8
Overview. Justice and not rehabilitation is the issue in capital punishment. The sanctity and dignity of life issue argued by those against capital punishment are equally an argument for capital punishment. The goal of capital punishment is the restraint of the sin nature man.
Explanation. There is a worldwide trend to outlaw the practice of capital punishment today. Yet capital punishment is clearly taught in the Old Testament Mosaic Law where there are eighteen different occasions for its practice. It is also implied in the New Testament in Romans 13:4. In one sense, Jesus’ death on the cross is a clear example of the Roman practice of capital punishment. It is through the capital punishment of the cross that mankind has salvation from sin. It was clearly practiced many times within the Mosaic Law.
There are a number of key issues used by those who argue against capital punishment today. A common argument is that some statistics show that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime. Surveys have been conducted that show that crime continues to flourish even where capital punishment is practiced. But one can debate for the abstinence of capital punishment because of statistical surveys. Which group of people is being surveyed? How are the questions worded? Which area of the country did the survey take place? Statistics is not a fail-safe argument against capital punishment.
Additional rationale is that life imprisonment without parole is a better deterrent. People who are mentally retarded or act irrationally cannot be held responsible for their crimes. But others may say that confinement in a prison without chance of parole is not necessarily a humane act.
Those against capital punishment also assert that it is not a Christian act. Forgiveness is a Christian act. But forgiveness for a capital act is not the same as exercising due process of the law. Forgiveness does not mean we should no longer exercise penalties for breaking the law. If we should only forgive crimes needing capital punishment, why not include forgiveness for kidnapping, theft, embezzlement income tax invasion etc. Is this not setting up a double standard for social justice. We will forgive someone who has murdered someone but we will put one who has kidnapped, stolen money or did not pay their taxes?
The capital punishment practiced in the Old Testament was for a different stage in the development of mankind that is not acceptable to our modern age of enlightenment. For example, we do not put people to death for adultery, rape or striking one’s parents as they did under the Mosaic Law. It is more logical and humane to seek rehabilitation and restitution from the guilty than to put them to death. But it was God who ordained these laws not Israel. Evidently God has reason to suspect that the 18 different examples for capital punishment were such as demanded the death of the offender.
Those who argue for capital punishment say that its practice is a deterrent to further capital crimes in that it removes one guilty criminal from society who could possibly continue a life of capital crime in the future.
Capital punishment is a severe penalty and as such teaches that taking another life in premeditative murder upholds the dignity of taking a life in the first place (Gen. 9:6). It also provides a fear that helps restrain future capital crimes. It is true that Jesus taught the importance of forgiveness (Matt. 5:39). But He said nothing about removing the penalties from breaking all civil law. As has been said, why stop with removing capital punishment as a penalty? Why not remove all penalties for any law and remove all consequence from any crime? Then we could use a non-defined love equally in all society. But the Bible clearly asserts that God is both a God of love (1 John 4:8) and justice (John 5:30). Justice is not removed from society and replaced by love.
Those who claim that man has evolved into a higher level of enlightenment should pay attention to the news reports and crime statistic of today. Man is still the same as he was in the Old Testament. The many laws for capital punishment in the Mosaic Law provided ample evidence of the true condition of the nature of man.
In summary, justice and not rehabilitation is the real issue behind the use of capital punishment. The sanctity and dignity of life issue argued by those against capital punishment are equally an argument for capital punishment. Capital punishment is a clear commentary on the sinful nature of man. He has an incurable nature that must be restrained.
There are several passages in the Bible that need to be clarified regarding this debate. Matthew 26:52 records Jesus’ commanded that His disciples to put away the sword. But the context was an attempt by some Apostles to defend the Lord at the time of His arrest. The passage is not teaching the removal of all forms of capital punishment. In addition, Jesus did not resist or speak against capital punishment when He was put on the cross. In Luke 22:36 He commanded His disciples to buy a sword.
2 Cor 10:4-5 implies that we are to fight spiritual battles with spiritual weapons, not physical or literal weapons. But the context of the passage concerns the spiritual warfare of the believer. Obviously, the believer can only be effective against Satan using God’s spiritual weapons to reach for the souls of men. The question of maintaining civil law and order is not discussed in this passage.
As has been noted, the Sermon on the Mount presents a wholly different standard of life for the child of God as a private citizen. The believer is to set aside the law of “an eye for an eye” (Matt. 5:38; Exo. 21:24; Lev. 19:21). He is to love his enemies (Matt. 5:44). He is not to return evil for evil (Rom. 12:17). However, Jesus’ sermon does not change the duty of the state to maintain civil law. It is inconsistent to say that Jesus is removing the laws of capital punishment while not at the same time to remove all penalties from all laws against society.
In Romans 13:4, the word “sword” was not simply a symbol to maintain order in the Roman Empire. People living during the Roman period took the sword quite literally. In fact in Acts 25:11, Paul recognized that the state had the power to take his life and did not speak against this right. There is nothing in the New Testament that sets aside the practice of capital punishment. In addition, the Old Testament clearly prescribed the use of this punishment in the numerous crimes requiring capital punishment within the Mosaic Law.
The issue against capital punishment is most strongly debated by those advocating secular humanism. Those who are for capital punishment argue for justice and the rights of the victim. Perhaps the most important Old Testament passage that summarizes the argument from the Bible is Genesis 9:6, which states that whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood shall be shed.