Last week was a sobering one here in the United States. In an unusual (and uncomfortable) convergence of timelines, the last week witnessed the executions of three death-row prisoners: Troy Davis, whose murder conviction has been the subject of controversy for years; Lawrence Brewer, an avowed racist who participated in the horrifying murder of James Byrd; and Derrick Mason, who brutally killed a store clerk in 1994.
Although capital punishment is a perennial subject of moral and political debate in the U.S., the timing of these three executions gives the topic an added sense of urgency. The Davis and Brewer executions in particular stand as troubling counterpoints: Davis’ execution was haunted by nagging questions about whether the American system of justice had acted fairly, while Brewer’s crime and unrepentant attitude are so morally revolting that they seem to make a compelling case for harsh justice.
You can be sure that the debate over capital punishment in the U.S. will be reinvigorated by these high-profile executions—and judging by the number of death-penalty-related articles and blog posts in my RSS reader, it already has been.
So what does the Bible say about capital punishment?
The answer is “it’s complicated.” (If it weren’t, Christians wouldn’t still be debating the topic thousands of year later.) It’s a topic that requires modern readers to distinguish between descriptive Bible content (that simply describes, in a historical sense, the state of things in Bible times, without necessarily requiring it of believers today) and prescriptive Bible content (that imparts an authoritative command or guideline for Christians of all eras). There’s no easy answer to the question, but here are some Bible verses and questions to help you consider the issue.
Capital punishment was a significant feature in the justice system of Old Testament Israel. Execution was called for in response to extreme civil crimes like murder and rape, as well as for offenses against God’s holiness, like false prophecy and witchcraft. There were mechanisms in place to avert the death penalty in some situations, and God sometimes spared the lives of people whose actions, legally speaking, would have otherwise meant the death penalty. The establishment of capital punishment in ancient Israel is often used to argue for the death penalty in modern times—and it seems reasonable to conclude that since God incorporated it into Israelite society, capital punishment is not antithetical to His nature.
The death penalty was never employed arbitrarily or frivolously. In fact, observing the use of capital punishment in the Old Testament actually shows us how precious human life is to God. Because human beings are image-bearers of God, murder was such a serious affront to both God and man that it had to be answered with the blood of the murderer. Genesis 9:6 suggests that this sense of justice is woven into the moral fabric of Creation:
Whoever sheds man’s blood,
his blood will be shed by man,
for God made man
in His image. – Genesis 9:6 (HCSB)
Christians are well aware of the atoning power of blood, believing that Christ’s blood—shed at his execution on the cross—spares us from the spiritual “death penalty” that our sins would otherwise merit.
When applying these principles to our modern system of justice, however, we should be aware of the different context we live in. Ancient Israelite society was unique in that it was a true theocracy—God Himself crafted its laws. God clearly has the authority to save or condemn human lives, but does that authority still exist in a democratic government devised by fallible men and women?
The New Testament adds important context to the topic but doesn’t clearly instruct us one way or the other regarding the death penalty. The apostle Paul acknowledges that wielding “the sword” is a legitimate exercise of government authority—presumably he is referring to its duty to punish criminals, with violence if necessary. On the other hand, many of Jesus’ actions and words, such as his foiling of the execution of the adulterous woman, suggest that mercy and humility should stay society’s killing hand. And of course, no Christian is unaware of Jesus’ own experience with capital punishment: he was the ultimate innocent victim of the government’s sword wielded unjustly.
Because the New Testament’s gospel of grace is held to have fulfilled the Old Testament law, it is worth questioning whether Old Testament capital punishment—a powerful enforcer of that law—is a tool we should use today or whether it was appropriate only within the context of the Old Testament covenant. An over-arching theme of the New Testament is the undeserved forgiveness extended to us by a merciful God. As recipients of God’s grace, we are called to extend grace to others as well. How do we reconcile the need for justice with the importance of mercy and forgiveness? Do the requirements of justice trump the opportunity for mercy, or vice versa?
It would be much easier if God had chosen to clearly state one way or the other whether capital punishment is a moral responsibility for modern representative governments. But for His own reasons, He has not done so—which means we must continue to wrestle with Scripture, prayerfully try to discern the best course of action, and respect other Christians doing the same. Regardless of our conclusions, Christians must make sure that Christlike values—justice, humility, and grace—motivate us, rather than vengeance or hate; and whether Christians choose to support or oppose capital punishment, we are all called to make sure that it is carried out justly and does not target innocent people.
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