I wanted to start off with this topic for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it’s an easy target, so to speak. The Biblical case for lower taxes, for example, is a lot shakier than this one.
Here’s the plan: I’m going to make the case today, then deal with the arguments against tomorrow.
I feel the urge to make this disclaimer, but I’m not sure how often I’m going to make it: I’m not the Judge of anyone’s heart. I’m going to assume that the people on the other side of this—who try to persuade me that capital punishment is forbidden or at least frowned upon by the Bible—are doing this out of a sincere love for the Lord and a desire to be faithful to the Scriptures. I’m going to assume that they still have compassion for those whose lives are destroyed by murder, although to be brutally frank I don’t see them having the guts to tell a person whose wife/daughter/son/husband got murdered that that person needs to support that murderer for the rest of their natural lives. To the degree that abolitionists (those who completely oppose the death penalty) actually talk to the leftover victims of crimes who want to see the murderer put to death, I haven’t seen it.
But all that’s entirely beside the point. What’s the Biblical case for the death penalty? First, let’s clarify what I’m claiming. I believe that the Bible unambiguously supports the death penalty for some murders. I don’t claim that the Lord wants us to expand the death penalty for other crimes such as cursing one’s parents or breaking the Sabbath. That was God’s law for Israel under the Old Covenant. I’m talking today, under the New Covenant.
When Noah left the Ark, here’s what the Lord told him,
“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.”
This is not a descriptive verse, just predicting what will happen when one man kills another. If it did, that would cause the last part of the verse to make absolutely no sense. And please note here--This is extremely important!!—the reason why God instituted capital punishment as the standard penalty for shedding the blood of another person is because humanity is made in God’s image. We do not devalue human life with the death penalty. We demonstrate its high value.
Every person is made in God’s image, bearing his “stamp.” We can debate about what exactly that image means, but this verse is pretty clear. Because every person is made in God’s “likeness (the parallel word in Genesis 1:26-27),” the general principle is that shedding the blood of another human being must invoke the death penalty. Please note, I said general principle. That means that God will clarify later what he means. Obviously not all homicide is intrinsically wrong; otherwise the entire book of Joshua makes no sense. But we have here the general principle that taking a human life (implying unjustified taking) will carry the ultimate punishment. The simplest definition of murder is intentional and unjustified homicide.
What does God’s image on mankind have to do with the death penalty for murder? Think of a portrait of a person. One person might hang it in place of honor on the mantle and care for it like a prized possession. Or another person might spit on the picture (the image) and light it on fire. How you treat the image of something is an indication of how much you value what the image is a copy of. It’s the same principle here.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the value of something stolen also affects the punishment meted out for it. We have “petty theft” versus “grand theft” which is entirely based on the monetary value of the stolen item. So what does it say about a country that abolishes capital punishment? If the most you can get for murder is life imprisonment (which usually works out to considerably less time than that), what does that say about the value that society places on human life?
Oh, but that’s the Old Testament. We’re under the New Covenant, which is grace instead of law. What’s the case that I can make from the New Testament?
Well, most of the New Testament is written to churches and believers, not to governments. During the 1st century, the Roman government’s attitude towards Christianity ranged from ignorant indifference to open hostility. Some Christians (such as Paul) were Roman citizens and thus sometimes had some type of voice in their government, but they certainly didn’t have anything like a huge influence on Roman law. So we shouldn’t expect a lot of specifics to come out of the New Testament on how to run a government.
Having said that, we do have some indications. Here’s what Paul said in Romans:
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
I really haven’t heard an abolitionist really explain these verses. If they have an interpretation other than the one I’m about to present, I’d love to hear it.
Paul here says that the governing authorities have been put in place by God. They are his servants. This doesn’t mean that everything they do is approved by him—far from it. But it does mean that he has placed them on earth and has given them something. He’s placed a sword in their hand. This is not referring to prison or fines, although you can make a case that they're included here. No, a sword is there to kill people, or at least threaten to kill people. They're there to commend what’s right and to punish and terrorize wrongdoers. Now, we can (and likely will) discuss later the proper boundaries of what the state can and cannot do in regards to commending doers of good and punishing wrongdoers. But the point about capital punishment’s pretty clear to me.
On a side note, please notice that the job of the government according to this passage is NOT rehabilitation. In a court of law, the judge’s job is not to consider all the motives or to be compassionate towards the perpetrator. It’s not a cop’s job to be compassionate towards lawbreakers. It’s their job to enforce the law. If you're guilty, then you get punished. If you're not, you don’t.
This is the clearest NT argument I've found, but that’s not all. When Paul announced before the authorities that he was appealing to Caesar, this is what he said: “If. . . I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” In other words, he affirmed the general principle that there are crimes “deserving death,” and if he had committed one of them, he acknowledged the state’s right to put him to death.
Quite frankly, as I’ve mentioned, abolitionists tend not to grapple too much with these passages. Instead, they like to point to passages that seem to bolster their case. But I can explain their passages, and to my knowledge they haven’t explained mine. We’ll deal with the passages they present for their case in the next post.
For your edification, here's a five minute case for capital punishment made by the inimitable Dennis Prager: