Is Capital Punishment Supported by the Bible?

by David Walker

Recently, my wife and I rented a movie, the theme of which was capital punishment for convicted murderers. In one scene, two of the characters were discussing the issue. One used the Bible to defend his support for capital punishment. The other stated that there were many other sins in the Bible which called for the death penalty also, and yet we don't enforce them. Up until then I had been in favor of capital punishment for the same reasons the first character had stated, and I had heard the same arguments against capital punishment used by the second character, but they never seemed to make an impression on me until that night. This time, for some reason, what the second character had said stuck in my mind, and I felt compelled to search the scriptures to see just exactly what the Bible (especially the New Testament and Jesus) might have to say on the subject. As the second character said, there are many sins in the Old Testament which call for the death penalty. The following is a partial list.

Sins which are punishable by death:

O.K. that covers murder, but what about some of the others?

Well, with the last three we've covered much of the youth of today! Going on . . .

As you can see, there were many instances in the Old Testament where the death penalty was called for, and this isn't even a complete list! As I said, I used to be pro-capital punishment, especially since all of these are listed after the Ten Commandments. To me, that clearly meant that "Thou shalt not kill" didn't refute the death penalty, as some people try to argue. I wasn't thinking about the rest of the list, or how we could use the Bible to defend capital punishment for murderers but not for the other instances listed above. Many who use the Bible to support capital punishment for murder, either conveniently forget about the other circumstances where the penalty is death (like myself), or when asked about them have no answer.

That night, lying in bed, I felt like the Holy Spirit was guiding my thoughts, and, like pieces to a puzzle, in my mind I saw seemingly unrelated parables and verses coming together in a way they never had before. So, what do I believe the New Testament and Jesus Christ have to say on the matter? Read on.

The most clear-cut instance where the death penalty is brought up is in the 8th chapter of John. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman before Jesus who had been caught in the act of adultery. According to the Law (see number 8 above), death was clearly and irrefutably called for, but they wanted to see what Jesus would say. Now Jesus knew the Law better than anyone, so did He say, "You're right. According to God's Law this woman should be put to death"? No. Jesus paused a moment, then looked at them and said, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." After a few seconds of stunned silence, the crowd of Pharisees and scribes slowly broke up and walked away, one by one.

What Jesus had said to them, as clearly as if He had shouted it, was that each of them was guilty of sin in one way or another, and therefore, none of them had the right to judge the woman. Jesus Himself didn't even judge her, and He was (and is) the only person in the history of the world who had (and has) the right to pass judgement! Instead, He looked at her and said, "Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more." (Notice: He didn't say that He didn't condemn what she did, just that He didn't condemn her! There is a difference between judging someone's actions and judging the person themselves.)

What Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees applies equally well to us today. We all have sin in our lives. Romans 3:10 says, "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:" Verse 23 of the same chapter states, "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;" All have sinned, none are righteous. Just like the scribes and Pharisees, we don't have the right to pass judgement on anyone else. Remember the example of the mote in our brother's eye? Jesus says in Matthew chapter 7, "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or wilt thou say to thy brother, "Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye;" and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye."

The mote and the beam are faults and sins. Many times we are quick to point out someone else's faults and sins, and yet we sometimes fail to see our own. Now, some will say, "Well, I may gossip a little (or lie, or entertain lustful thoughts, or work on the Sabbath) but at least I'm not as bad as a murderer or thief!" James, however, tells a different story. James 2:10 says, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." Don't kid yourself, in God's eyes sin is sin. No individual sin (with one exception, the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit) is any better or worse than another. So if we gossip, or tell lies (both bearing false witness), or entertain lustful thoughts (adultery), or work on the Sabbath, we are no more righteous in the eyes of God than Bonnie and Clyde, or the worst murderers in history. And when we start to think that we aren't as bad as the people we condemn to death, that makes it even worse; we become the Pharisee in Luke, chapter 18. There, a Pharisee and a publican went to the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanked God that he was "not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican." With that attitude, he became guilty of self-righteousness and passing judgement on the publican. We become guilty of the same things whenever we think that we're any better than someone else.

Let's take it a step further. We've already seen that all of us are guilty of sin in one way or another. And the Bible says if we are guilty of one sin, we are guilty of all. So, with one sin, we become guilty of adultery, blasphemy, defiling the Sabbath, and murder, as well as all the rest. Each of these sins demands the death penalty according to God's Law. Well, we obviously aren't about to execute ourselves, even though the Bible clearly shows that we are guilty and deserve to die. Now, murder is the only one on that list that calls for the death penalty in man's law. So why do we choose to enforce man's law and not God's? Anyone who defends capital punishment for murderers because "it's part of God's Law," and ignores the other circumstances where death is the punishment, should be careful that they are not picking and choosing which parts of God's Law they wish to follow.

Which brings up the question of why Christ did not uphold the death penalty for the adulteress, even though the Law clearly called for it. Did something change? Well, in Isaiah, chapter 42, we find a prophecy foretelling the coming of Jesus Christ. Verse 9 says, "Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them." What "new things?" First of all, that Christ would come, but second, and most importantly, that through Jesus Christ we would have the chance to be redeemed to God and to receive salvation. Before Christ came and died on the cross, mankind had no hope of salvation or reconciliation to God. We were a sinful race that could, at best, only hope to fulfill God's Law in order to be redeemed. And we know that, with the exception of one Man, living a sinless life according to God's Law is impossible.

But that all changed at the cross. Now there is a way to be saved. If we confess and repent of our sins, ask for forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ, and ask Him into our lives as our Lord and Saviour, we will be forgiven. This applies to the worst criminal that ever lived as well as the person in church every Sunday. Unfortunately, some people think that once they become saved this somehow makes them better than someone who has not yet come to Christ. They don't realize that they are not saved through any virtue or goodness of their own, but through the free gift of grace provided by the shedding of Christ's blood at Calvary. Nothing we can do will ever make us worthy of this precious gift, and yet it is freely given to anyone who will ask.

God wants to give this gift to the murderer just as much as He wants to give it to anyone else. 2Peter 3:9 states, "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." Besides displaying the self-righteousness of the Pharisees (remember, we are no better than the person we've sentenced to death), when we execute someone for a crime, we are taking away that person's God-given gift of life, and, if they have not come to Christ, irrevocably denying them any chance to receive salvation. We may believe that they would never have accepted Christ, but the only person who truly knows that is the Lord. (Even the apostles would never have thought Saul would come to the Lord, but he did, and ended up writing most of our New Testament!) And although the murderer may have done the same thing (denying someone the chance to receive salvation), Romans 12:19 tells us, "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,' saith the Lord." Instead of executing a convicted person, we should be praying for them and ministering to them in the hopes of bringing them to the knowledge of Christ. James 5:20 says, "Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins," (even murder.)

Another argument that is sometimes used to prove the Bible supports capital punishment uses the following verses:

The people who use this argument say (and rightly so) that the Bible tells us to obey and not resist our government(s), because the officials in power have been placed there by God to accomplish His ends. This is correct. But in order for that to mean the Bible supports the death penalty, the logic has to go something like this:

It's an interesting argument, until you start putting other things the government supports in place of the words "capital punishment." For instance, using this logic, we can also claim that the Bible supports abortion, since the government supports abortion. And we can claim that the Bible supports welfare for people who won't even try to find work, because the government the Bible tells us to obey has done this very thing for decades. Do you see the flaw in the logic? These verses tell us to support our government, and we do that by paying our taxes, obeying the laws, and not demonstrating against our elected officials. They don't say that we have to believe in everything the government supports, just to obey, and be subject to, our government. I can support my government and still be against the death penalty.

There may be someone reading this who has had a loved one killed, and you probably disagree with my position. All I can say is that I'm sorry, and I can only try to imagine what you must be going through. If you support capital punishment, that is your right, but I feel I must say this: Even if you support the death penalty, please, for the sake of your own soul, try to find it in your heart to forgive the person who has done this terrible thing. I know it's difficult, and I know you're probably thinking, "Forgive them?!? Sure, it's easy for you to say that! You don't know how it feels!" And you are right. I don't know how it feels. But I do know that the Bible tells us that we must forgive others if we expect to be forgiven ourselves. In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus says, "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Again, in Mark 11:25-26, "And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses." Before the Lord will forgive us for our sins, we have to forgive others who haved sinned against us. If you are still harboring anger or hatred toward the person who has done this, pray that the Lord will touch your heart and give you the compassion, and especially the strength, to forgive them. You may have heard this before, but I will say it again: The Lord will never give you any burden too great for you to bear with His help. All you have to do is acknowledge your weakness, and ask Him for strength, and He will be there for you.

"Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."

Questions, comments, criticisms, critiques?

Let me know!

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