WHAT GOD SAYS ABOUT CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Every execution in our nation which has occurred over the past several years has been accompanied by vigils of protests outside the prison walls. I do have some sympathy for some of the objections made by the protesters. It is true that sometimes there are inequities in our justice system. It does not seem right that only the rich can afford the best lawyers. There ought to be no difference in the treatment of any adult due to their race, religion, sex or economic background. These are legitimate complaints and need to be addressed and corrected.
However, another objection made is that capital punishment itself is inherently evil, barbaric and immoral. Some of the signs held in protest quote the well known Bible command "Thou shalt not kill" and suggest that the death penalty is a violation of that command. As Christians, our chief concern is to take our stand based on God's Word so some investigation is in order.
THE DEATH PENALTY AND GOD'S EARLIEST PEOPLE
"Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man" (GENESIS 9:6). This is God's statement on the subject which was made following the flood to Noah and all his descendants who would follow him. It is a serious matter to murder another human being because we are all created in the image of God. The death penalty prescribed here does not cheapen human life, but rather shows how important life is. Capital punishment is not necessarily barbaric (though it could be), but rather is the recourse of societies that respect human life to the extent that they should. It is interesting to note the exception God made in the case of the very first murderer, Cain, who had killed his brother, Abel. Even Cain recognized that he deserved to die at the hands of his fellow man and expected such to occur. The Lord appointed a sign for Cain to warn others to allow Cain to live (GENESIS 4:14,15).
THE DEATH PENALTY AND GOD'S PEOPLE ISRAEL
"He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death" (EXODUS 21:12). The nation of Israel was a theocracy. This simply means that their laws, both civil and religious, were given to them by God. God Himself gave them a list of capital offenses which included murder, kidnaping, idolatry, blasphemy, witchcraft, incest, homosexuality, rape, adultery, giving false testimony, harlotry and rebellion against parents. This ought to settle once and for all whether the death penalty is immoral. If God commanded its use, then it simply cannot be immoral, for God is the supreme authority and the final word on what is moral or immoral. Its a prideful thing for a human being to think of him or herself as more holy than God by suggesting that God's way is not as moral as their way! When the Law said, "Thou shalt not kill" (EXODUS 20:13), it referred to murder, not to the carrying out of the death penalty. In fact, most of the more recent translations translate the Hebrew into "You shall not commit murder" so as to distinguish it from other forms of taking human life such as execution, warfare or accidents. God recognizes the difference and so should we.
THE DEATH PENALTY AND THE LAW OF CHRIST
"Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God...For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil...for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil" (ROMANS 13:1-4). One God-given purpose of government is to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. This includes bearing the sword as a means of punishment. But what about wicked rulers who use their power in an evil way? They will answer to God for shirking their responsibility. He will deal with them. When Pilate reminded Jesus that he had the power to crucify Him, Jesus agreed that he did, but that it had been given to him "from above". Jesus did not deny that the government had the right to use capital punishment (JOHN 19:10). At one hearing after Paul's arrest and imprisonment, he stated that he could think of no objection to his receiving the death sentence if he had done something worthy of death. If such would have been immoral, then why did this inspired apostle not so state? What better opportunity could there be to teach against the death penalty (ACTS 25:11)? The fact is that human government, not any particular system of government but the concept of government itself, is ordained of God. The Bible says, "Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether to a king as one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right" (I PETER 2:13,14). As we have seen, this "punishment of evil doers" sometimes includes the use of capital punishment.
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE TEACHING OF CHRIST
"Then Jesus said to him, 'Put your sword back into its place; for all those who live by the sword shall die by the sword" (MATTHEW 26:52). Jesus taught His disciples to love their enemies and to "turn the other cheek". Doesn't this have some bearing on whether the Christian ought to oppose the death penalty? It is important that we understand that Jesus on these and other occasions was telling His disciples how to deal with others on an individual level. He was not telling us how to run a nation or to set up a civil judicial system. That was just not His purpose. We are told not to take our own revenge as Jesus' disciples but that vengeance belongs to God. (ROMANS 12:17-19). It is in the next chapter (13:4) that we learn that government becomes God's avenger in such matters. It has the right and responsibility to "bear the sword". Disciples do not.
By Jon Quinn
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