Today I begin a four-part series which will build a case for opposing the death penalty. We begin today by looking at the biblical support for the state’s use of Capital Punishment. Next week, I will briefly analyze Scripture’s understanding of justice and injustice. Third, we will investigate the injustice of the American capital punishment system. Finally, I will mount a case for Christian resistance to the American death penalty and offer some concluding remarks.
I hope this is helpful for you as you wrestle through this complex and emotional issue.
In March of 2015, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition released a statement pledging to support a ban on the death penalty. Citing a system that is “plagued by racial and economic disparities” and the risk of “executing an innocent person”, Coalition president Gabriel Salguero pledged that his organization would seek the end of the death penalty. Then, last week, the National Association of Evangelicals updated their 1973 position paper on capital punishment, acknowledging for the first time that Christians can consistently and ethically oppose the death penalty.
So, should Christians take a stand against capital punishment? In order to answer this question, the biblical basis for capital punishment must be explored. Intrinsic to the NLEC’s argument against the ultimate punishment is a claim that the death penalty is unjust, therefore the biblical data regarding the concept of justice must be surveyed. Finally, the case must be made that opposing injustice is a calling for the Christian.
In the end, I will argue:
While the state has been permitted to exercise capital punishment, Christians must oppose such punishment when it violates biblical principles of justice.
The Biblical Basis of Capital Punishment
In order to show that Christians ought oppose the improper implementation of the death penalty, it must be established that the state has grounds for imposing the penalty in the first place. One of the primary texts that must be examined is Genesis 9:5-6. Here it is:
“And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.‘”
Two details are important for the current discussion. First, the phrase “require a reckoning” in verse 5 should not be taken to mean that God requires the death penalty for murder without exception. In fact, this is proven in the book of Genesis itself.
Genesis 4 describes the murder of Abel at the hands of his brother Cain. While Cain is punished for his crime, “he is not simply left without divine concern.”1 In fact, God marks Cain as a sign of both judgment and protection. The mark announces to the world Cain’s bloodguilt, but it is also “to help him survive the violence he himself has unleashed”2 warning away those who would take up violence against Cain. This care for Cain seems to indicate that the “requirement” of Genesis 9:5 is not as exhaustive as it appears on its face.
It may be argued that such a decision on the part of God is due to its pre-flood occurrence. Therefore, the progression of redemptive history lead to God instituting the death penalty in order to restrain evil so that the world would not spiral to the depths that required the violent purge of the flood.
Even if this were the case, God would still be guilty of violating the mandate during the New Testament era. Acts 7 describes the murder of Stephen at the hands of an angry religious mob. It is mentioned that Saul is present, holding the coats of those who are stoning the deacon. Luke continues into Acts 8 to describe Saul as not only being present, but actively approving of the stoning of Stephen. It must be seen, then, that Saul is as guilty of the murder of Stephen as those who actually picked up the stones. The structure of the narrative may even indicate that the murder of Stephen is the first act of Saul’s persecution of the church! Therefore, if God was tied to the mandate of death for the crime of murder, his actions on the road to Damascus would already be decided. Under a mandate for capital punishment, Saul must die. Yet God does not carry out this punishment, instead punishing him through physical discipline (temporary blindness and apparent life-long pain [2 Cor 12:7]). He then graciously and mercifully transforms Saul into Paul, the foremost apostle to the Gentiles!
The salvation of Paul does not indicate that the introduction of the kingdom-age has abrogated the death penalty. God himself carries out such a penalty when confronted by the dishonesty of Ananias and Sapphira. Therefore the right to carry out such a punishment continues into the apostolic age and beyond, normatively given to the state for its implementation (as will be seen in Romans 13:4 and Acts 25:11). Right, however, cannot be transformed into mandate without introducing some very strange theological conundrums into the Doctrine of God.
The second observation to be made from Genesis 9:5-6 is the reason such a heavy punishment is meted out for murder: the image of God. This image that was fixed on humanity at creation remains on every person regardless of sin. This image gives intrinsic worth to every human being and when considered in light of the crime of murder, it becomes clear that “no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself.”3 Therefore, capital punishment is not established because of a low value of life, but because life is held in such high regard. Yet human life is not valuable on its own merits; it is of special value because of its image-bearing status.
Also important is the use of capital punishment in the Mosaic economy. In the codifying of God’s law, the death penalty is declared the appropriate punishment for murder (Ex. 21:12), cursing parents (Ex. 21:17), child sacrifice (Lev 20:2), sexual immorality (Lev 20:10) and profaning the Sabbath (Ex 31:14) to name only a few. These laws continue the trend set by Genesis 9:5-6, but cannot be used to establish such extreme use of the death penalty in modern society. The theocracy of Israel was a unique situation where “the civil and the spiritual were intertwined,”4 a situation that does not exist in the western world today. Therefore the Mosaic use of the death penalty only shows that the principle set in Genesis 9 carried throughout Israel’s existence.
It has been argued by some that capital punishment is no longer acceptable for the New Testament church and that Christians should oppose the penalty on principle.5 Such appeals demand a selective reading of Scripture that focuses solely on the teachings of Jesus found within the four Gospels. This stance, however, does not fit with the wider narrative of the New Testament. Acts 25:11 describes the apostle Paul standing in the court of Festus. “(Paul) is perfectly willing to be judged by Roman law and to die if he has committed some crime worthy of death”.6 Yet this willingness to undergo a punishment is far from a tacit approval of the punishment unmoored from the confines of justice. Many have been willing to suffer unjust punishment for their beliefs, but this does not validate the suffering as good. Here Paul only states that if he has committed a crime worthy of death, he would gladly surrender to the punishment. While this shouldn’t be seen as an approval of Rome’s capital punishment policies, it does show that Paul understood Rome’s right to wield the sword.
He describes this right in more detail in his letter to the Romans when he describes the state as an agent of God tasked to “carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-7). The state in view here, then, is one that is good, recognizing its duty before God as an institution dedicated to justice, approving the good and deterring the actions of the wicked. This text cannot be used to uphold despotic regimes. This passage “envisages only a civil government properly fulfilling its functions.”7 Paul does not touch on the question, “What happens when the ‘persecutors’ (12:14) are the same people as ‘the governing authorities,’ and are using their God-given power for that purpose?”8 Such questions must be answered using other principles found in Scripture.
A justly functioning government is an act of common grace upon creation, God establishing just societies for all people regardless of their covenant status. Therefore the government is an agent of common grace acting on God’s behalf, whether or not they recognize this as true.
For the sake of this article it has been sufficiently shown that civil governments, on the authority of divine right, may use capital punishment. “To plead pacifism or non-resistance…is to annul the New Testament teaching that the civil magistrate is sent by the Lord to punish and suppress evildoing and to maintain the order of justice, well-doing, and peace.”9 What then is the governing concept that drives forward the right of capital punishment? Justice. The government carries out the death penalty as an instrument of divine justice against the wrongdoer.
1 Joel N. Lohr, “Righteous Abel, Wicked Cain: Genesis 4:1-16 in the Masoretic Text, the Septuagint, and the New Testament”, The Catholic Bible Quarterly, Vol 71, (2009): 495, accessed April 29, 2015, OmniFile Full Text Select (H.W. Wilson).
2 Alan J. Hauser, “Linguistic and Thematic Links between Genesis 4:1-16 and Genesis 2-3”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol 23 No 4, (December 1980): 304, Accessed April 29, 2015, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials.
3 John Calvin, Genesis, Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. Rev. John King, Vol 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprint 2009), 296.
4 J. Douma, The Ten Commandments; Manual for the Christian Life, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1996), 238.
5 For an example of such an argument, see Tony Campolo, Red Letter Christians: A Citizen’s Guide to Faith and Politics, (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2008), particularly page 140.
6 Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 722.
7 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, Vol 33, (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 668.
8 N.T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans: Introduction, Comentary, and Reflections, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), 719.
9 John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), 115.