Should Christians Support the Death Penalty for Murder? – Part 2
One area of controversy among Christians concerns the death penalty, also known as capital punishment.
Part 1 of this article can be found here.
Another relevant passage for our purposes, albeit a less important one than the texts we have already looked at, is Acts 25:11. In this verse Paul says to the Roman procurator Festus:
“If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.”
Three alternative interpretations
There are three alternative ways in which we could interpret what Paul says in this verse.
Interpretation (1): Paul is saying that if he has done anything for which he deserves to die according to Roman law, then he isn’t seeking to escape death.
Under this interpretation, Paul’s focus is not on whether or not God says that he deserves to die. Instead, he is simply looking at things from the perspective of Roman law.
Interpretation (2): Paul is saying that if he has done anything for which he deserves to die according to God, then he isn’t seeking to escape death.
Under this interpretation, Paul’s focus is not on whether or not Roman law says that he deserves to die. Instead, he is looking at things from God’s perspective.
Interpretation (3): Paul is saying that if he has done anything for which he deserves to die according to Roman law and according to God, then he isn’t seeking to escape death.
Under this interpretation, Paul is looking at things both from the perspective of Roman law and from God’s perspective.
Any of these interpretations could be the correct one, although (3) is probably the most natural, followed by (1) and then (2).
If (2) or (3) is correct, then Paul is saying that if God’s standpoint is that he deserves to die, he is not seeking to escape death. This strongly implies that capital punishment is sometimes acceptable in God’s sight. And it probably implies too that there are times when it is not just acceptable but should happen.
If (1) is correct, and Paul is just talking about whether or not he deserves to die according to Roman law, things are less clear. Nevertheless, the fact that he says “I do not seek to escape death” most naturally suggests that he believes that there were times when Roman executions were in line with the will of God.
There are admittedly uncertainties about how we should interpret Paul’s words in this verse. But we can say two things.
First, on balance, what he says here counts against the view that capital punishment is always wrong.
And second, what he says also fits a bit better with the view that capital punishment should happen at times than with the view that it is just an optional punishment.
DOING GOOD TO THOSE WHO TREAT US BADLY
So far we have looked at biblical passages that support capital punishment.
However, we also need to look at some passages that are often said to show that this punishment is not God’s will today.
One common argument appeals to the teaching of Jesus on doing good to those who treat us badly.
For example, in Matt 5:38-41 He says:
“38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
The argument goes along these lines:
The big ethical principle in the teaching of Jesus is love, radical love that is expressed even by doing good to those who treat us badly. To inflict the death penalty is a severe way of responding to those who do wrong, and it is not possible to reconcile this kind of punishment with a desire to love wrongdoers.
This is actually a weak argument, and there are a number of points to make in reply:
(1) To use Jesus’ teaching about doing good to those who treat us badly as an argument against capital punishment is to compare apples with oranges. A personal response to a wrong we have suffered is a very different thing from the nation state’s response when a citizen commits a serious crime.
When Jesus tells us not to retaliate against those who treat us badly and to do good to them, He means this quite literally. It is true that there are exceptional situations when acting to bless people who mistreat us will actually cause more harm than good. But as a general rule, if someone treats us badly we should aim to act in ways that bless them in return.
However, it should be obvious that it would be wrong for the state to follow this sort of principle. The state is hardly supposed to go out of its way to bless and benefit criminals! Instead, there is a consensus – rightly, of course – that the state needs to inflict punishment of some sort on those who commit serious crimes.
So it should be clear that Jesus’ teaching about doing good to those who treat us badly is not a comment on how the state should treat criminals. And this should make us cautious about using what He says in passages like this one to draw conclusions about capital punishment.
(2) We need to take account of all biblical revelation on the nature of God.
Scripture reveals God to be not only a God of great love but also a God of severe judgment. For example, Jesus Himself teaches repeatedly on the horror and reality of hell (e.g., in Matt 5:22, 29-30; 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-48).
So it simply won’t do to build a picture of the nature and will of God from a select group of biblical texts. Instead, we need to take account of the whole Bible. And if we do this, we find that it is often His will to inflict severe punishments.
(3) We need to take especial account of what Paul writes in Romans.
In Rom 12:19-20 he teaches about non-retaliation and doing good to those who treat us badly:
“19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ 20 To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’”
What Paul says here closely mirrors what Jesus says in passages like Matt 5:38-41.
Yet Rom 12:19-20 is followed almost immediately by Rom 13:1-5, that we looked at above, which teaches about the state being God’s instrument of punishment. And, as we saw too, v. 4 of this passage seems quite strongly to imply that the state has the right to inflict capital punishment at times.
Given that Paul’s teaching on non-retaliation and blessing enemies doesn’t contradict the state’s right to inflict capital punishment, there is no need to think that Jesus’ teaching on non-retaliation and blessing enemies contradicts this either.
What Jesus says about the importance of loving enemies should therefore not lead us to think that it is wrong for the state to execute murderers.
THE WOMAN CAUGHT IN ADULTERY
Another argument used by those who say that capital punishment for murder is wrong today appeals to the account of the woman caught in adultery that is found in what is commonly referred to as John 7:53-8:11.
The argument goes along these lines:
In this biblical passage we find Jesus superseding the instruction to put adulterers to death as found in the Law of Moses. Because He did this, it makes sense to think that He would have had the same attitude to those who were guilty of murder. Even though the OT prescribed a death sentence for murderers, Jesus brought a new principle that abolished capital punishment of any kind.
This is another weak argument, and there are a couple of points to make in reply.
(1) To begin with, it is questionable how much authority this story actually has.
Although the story is commonly regarded as one of the best known Bible passages today, it was almost certainly not originally a part of John’s Gospel:
First, the vocabulary and style of this passage show some differences from the rest of this Gospel.
Second, if we remove it, the transition from 7:52 to 8:12 is a good one.
Third, it is not in our earliest surviving copies of John.
And fourth, it is not even in our earliest surviving commentaries on this Gospel. In the extensive commentaries on John by Origen (lived late 2nd through mid 3rd century) and by John Chrysostom (lived mid 4th through early 5th century) the commentators show no knowledge of this passage at all!
New Testament textual analysts today – including very conservative scholars – are therefore widely agreed that this passage was not in the original text.
If this story wasn’t originally part of the Gospel, that doesn’t prove that it shouldn’t be regarded as Scripture. Potentially God could have inspired the story as Scripture and later caused Christians to include it in the Bible.
This does seem rather doubtful, however. It just seems strange for God to create an add-on in this way. If He wanted it to be part of Scripture, why would He not have made it part of the original text?
We do better, then, to think that this story should not be regarded as a part of the Bible.
On the other hand, however, it is very difficult to believe that what this story teaches is misleading or even that it has no positive value. Throughout church history probably a majority of Christians have, in good faith, had copies of John’s Gospel that included this passage. Surely God wouldn’t have let that happen if this passage was harmful. Besides, countless Christians have testified that He has spoken to them through the passage.
To cut a long story short, we do best to conclude that this passage stems from a historical event in Jesus’ ministry and that it contains very good Christian teaching.
Nevertheless, it should probably not be regarded as a genuine part of the Bible, so its value for deciding on matters of capital punishment today is limited.
(2) Even more importantly, it is essential to recognize that this story specifically concerns Jesus’ attitude to the death penalty for adultery. So, regardless of how we interpret the story, it is unwarranted to conclude from it that Jesus would have been against the death penalty for murder.
Old Testament teaching that adulterers should be put to death originates in the Law of Moses, which the NT tells us was temporary (Gal 3:23-25). By contrast, OT teaching that murderers should be put to death originates, as we have seen, in Gen 9:5-6, a passage that apparently gives principles that will last as long as this earth does.
The story of the woman caught in adultery should therefore not lead us to think that it is wrong today for the state to execute murderers.
Another common argument against capital punishment today appeals to Ezek 33:11, where God tells the prophet Ezekiel to say to the people of Judah:
“Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
The argument goes along these lines:
In this verse God says that He gains no pleasure from the death of those who do evil, and that He wants them to turn from their evil and live. Here God is giving a principle that goes deeper than the earlier OT commands to inflict capital punishment. He is saying that in fact His higher purpose is that wrongdoers should not be put to death but that they should be given a chance to repent. And this surely includes murderers. So Christians today should follow this principle by rejecting capital punishment in all circumstances.
This is another weak argument, and there are a few points to make in reply:
(1) To begin with, there is a minor point. The death in view in this verse is not the death penalty administered by people but a death that God himself will inflict. And it probably refers both to physical death and also punishment after physical death.
These differences mean that we should be cautious about using what this verse says to draw firm conclusions about capital punishment today.
(2) Next, there is another relatively minor point. In this verse God isn’t saying that He prefers the wicked not dying to the wicked dying. Instead, He assumes that being wicked and dying naturally go hand in hand, and He is saying that He prefers people not being wicked to the wicked dying. We could paraphrase God’s words in this verse as: “I would much rather that you are not wicked than that you are wicked and die.”
(3) Third, we must take care not to read too much out of what this verse tells us.
It is true that in the verse God says that He wants those who are already wicked to turn from their wickedness and so avoid His punishment. So at first sight this might seem to suggest that it is not His will for murderers (who are obviously already wicked) to be put to death, but instead that He wants them to repent and so avoid His punishment.
It is quite right to say that in this verse God is giving a general principle that He wants wrongdoers to repent and so avoid His punishment. However, crucially, it is unwarranted to claim that this principle is the whole story on the issue of sin and punishment. There could potentially be other relevant factors as well, even some that are in tension with this principle.
As it happens, we know that there is at least one other factor in tension with this principle. We know that the time came shortly after Ezekiel prophesied, when God’s patience with Judah ran out and He destroyed Jerusalem by the hands of the Babylonians. So, even though God’s will expressed in this verse is for people to repent and avoid His judgment, we know that this isn’t the whole story, since He later acted to stop people having the opportunity to repent.
In other words, we know that a time came later when God decided that inflicting punishment was more important than allowing people the opportunity to repent, which was a situation that was an exception to the principle of Ezek 33:11.
Therefore, given that we have this exceptional example of where God chose punishment over mercy, it is not difficult to think that there could be yet another exceptional circumstance in which He, at least usually, chooses punishment over mercy, i.e., the death penalty for murder. So we could potentially say that the general principle in this verse is that God wants people to repent and avoid punishment, but that in cases of murder something else takes precedence, which is that murderers should suffer the death penalty.
In short, it is reading too much out of this verse to claim that it shows that the death penalty for murder is wrong. The verse gives a general principle that God wants wrongdoers to repent and avoid punishment, but we know that this principle isn’t the whole story on the issue of sin and punishment.
Ezekiel 33:11 is therefore not strong support for the view that capital punishment for murder today is wrong.
Let’s now draw together what we have found.
We have seen that Gen 9:5-6 gives an instruction that people who commit premeditated murder (and possibly some lesser degrees of killing too) should be executed by human beings. However, we have also seen that there seem to be exceptions to this principle in the Bible itself.
We have found that Rom 13:1-5 quite strongly implies that the nation state has a God-given authority to use capital punishment at times. And we also saw that this passage most naturally suggests that the state should use capital punishment rather than just may use this punishment if it wishes.
We have found that Acts 25:11 provides some weaker support for capital punishment.
Finally, we have seen that Jesus’ teaching on doing good to those who mistreat us, the story of the woman caught in adultery, and Ezek 33:11 provide no convincing reason to oppose the death penalty for murder today.
HOW DO WE SEEK TO APPLY GEN 9:5-6 TODAY?
Of the passages we have looked at, Gen 9:5-6 is by far the most important, because it specifically says that murderers should be executed. On the other hand, however, we mustn’t forget about the exceptional examples of Cain, Moses, David and Saul.
So what should we do today? Is it more important to follow what Gen 9:5-6 says? Or should we be more influenced by these exceptions?
We should surely follow Gen 9:5-6. This passage contains a specific instruction given by God, something that He actually tells human beings of all following centuries to do. We should therefore support the death penalty for premeditated murder, and possibly for some lesser degrees of killing too.
Of course, in many parts of the world the death penalty is not used. Where this is the case, Christians should speak out in support of this punishment for murder.
However, we should also speak out just as strongly against bias in enforcing the death penalty. In some places where capital punishment is used, people’s ethnic group or financial status can increase or decrease their likelihood of being executed. This is an appalling injustice.
Finally, as we saw in Rom 13:1-5, it is the state that has been given the task by God of inflicting capital punishment. Christians must never take matters into their own hands to try to enforce this punishment when the state fails to execute as it should.
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