It seems to me that there are two fundamental questions that we must answer to know God’s position on Capital Punishment. First, did God give any instructions or approval regarding Capital Punishment in the Old Testament? Second, did God change his instructions or teachings to man in the New Testament, with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?
Capital Punishment and the Old Testament
The first scripture that came to my mind was the commandment “Thou shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). However, only the King James Version translated the original text in this manner. The New King James clarifies this commandment as “Thou shall not murder”. This distinction is important, as “to kill” means to cause someone’s death (with or without reason or justification), whereas “to murder” means to cause someone’s death in a selfish, wanton, or frivolous fashion, and implying that there was no valid reason or justification. The New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the Contemporary English Version, and the New Century Version all use the word “murder”, rather than kill. So, the Ten Commandments themselves don’t prohibit Capital Punishment, because it is not a murder, a death caused in a selfish, frivolous, or wanton fashion.
This crucial distinction between “to kill” and “to murder” is made quite clear in Exodus 21:12-14 (CEV).
The Lord said: 12 Death is the punishment for murder. 13 But if you did not intend to kill someone, and I, the Lord, let it happen anyway, you may run for safety to a place that I have set aside. 14 If you plan in advance to murder someone, there’s no escape, not even by holding on to my altar. You will be dragged off and killed.”
In fact, we can be sure that murder is the correct translation of what God forbids, because in Genesis 9:6, God commands Noah
“And if a person takes the life of another, that person must be put to death”.
In Exodus 21:12-32; 22:18-21; 35:2; Leviticus 20:1-7, 10, 27; 24:15-21; Deuteronomy 17:6-7, 12; 19:11-13, 20-21; 21:18-21; 22:22-24, there are listed 18 different offenses punishable by death.
In the Old Testament, God tells us that we were created in his image, and that we are so unique and precious to him, that for a mere man to decide to snuff out one of His created beings is an offense that demands the ultimate penalty, the death of the offender. In Ezekiel 33:11 God says
“Tell them that as surely as I am the living Lord God, I don’t like to see wicked people die. I enjoy seeing them turn from their sins and live.”
God certainly doesn’t enjoy the death of the offender, but his righteousness and justice demand it. To not extract the ultimate price from a murderer would be to devalue what God created in “His own image”.
As a brief aside, these texts would seem to support a soldier killing an enemy in combat (when you also take into consideration New Testament scriptures regarding our duty to serve our Government). To confirm this, there are numerous examples of wars, and the ensuing killing, that God ordained. We even read scriptures of God punishing the leaders for not being as vigorous in eliminating the opposing soldiers as he ordered. Also, we can only imagine God’s horror at our Country’s embrace of abortion, which is “to murder” not just “to kill”. With 1,900,000 babies being murdered in the US last year, I have to wonder if we have not become as evil as the people God destroyed in Noah’s day.
Capital Punishment and the New Testament
It is quite easy to imagine that basically “Jesus changed everything”, including the rules and practices of the Old Testament. I always think of Luke 6:27 (CEV):
“27 This is what I say to all who will listen to me: Love your enemies, and be good to everyone who hates you. 28 Ask God to bless anyone who curses you, and pray for everyone who is cruel to you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, don’t stop that person from slapping you on the other cheek. If someone wants to take your coat, don’t try to keep back your shirt.”
Certainly this scripture provides us with a model for Christian behavior, as difficult as it is for us to attain!
However, earlier in Jesus' teachings, at the Sermon on the Mount, he specifically addressed the Law of Moses, the “Ten Commandments”, in Matthew 5:17-19 (CEV):
“17 Don’t suppose that I came to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I did not come to do away with them, but to give them their full meaning. 18 Heaven and earth may disappear. But I promise you that not even a period or comma will ever disappear from the Law. Everything written in it must happen. 19 If you reject even the least important command in the Law and teach others to do the same, you will be the least important person in the kingdom of heaven. But if you obey and teach others its commands, you will have an important place in the kingdom.”
On the surface, this seems pretty clear-cut and straight-forward. God’s earlier teachings on Capital Punishment were not changed in any way by Jesus in the New Testament.
This is borne out by other New Testament scriptures and direct teachings of Jesus. In Galatians 1:7-9 (CEV), Paul says
“7 ...But some people are causing you trouble and want to make you turn away from the good news about Christ. 8 I pray that God will punish anyone who preaches anything different from our message to you! It doesn’t matter if that person is one of us or an angel from heaven. 9 I have said it before, and I will say it again. I hope God will punish anyone who preaches anything different from what you have already believed.”
Later in Galatians 3:6-9, Paul says this Gospel message in the New Testament is the same message that Abraham received in the Old Testament, further affirmation of the consistency of Divine teachings in the Old and New Testaments.
In Acts 5:1-9 (CEV), Peter imposes Capital Punishment on Ananias and Sapphira.
1Ananias and his wife Sapphira also sold a piece of property. 2 But they agreed to cheat and keep some of the money for themselves. So when Ananias took the rest of the money to the apostles, 3 Peter said, “Why has Satan made you keep back some of the money from the sale of the property? Why have you lied to the Holy Spirit? 4 The property was yours before you sold it, and even after you sold it, the money was still yours. What made you do such a thing? You didn’t lie to people. You lied to God!” 5 As soon as Ananias heard this, he dropped dead, and everyone who heard about it was frightened. 6 Some young men came in and wrapped up his body. Then they took it out and buried it. 7 Three hours later Sapphira came in, but she did not know what had happened to her husband. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, did you sell the property for this amount?” “Yes,” she answered, “that’s the amount.” 9 Then Peter said, “Why did the two of you agree to test the Lord’s Spirit? The men who buried Ananias are by the door, and they will carry you out!” 10 At once she fell at Peter’s feet and died.”
In Acts 12:1-2, King Herod orders the Death Penalty for James.
“1At that time King Herod caused terrible suffering for some members of the church. 2 He ordered soldiers to cut off the head of James, the brother of John.”
It is easy to see that Herod’s Capital Punishment was an incorrect application of Capital Punishment, however the New testament teachings acknowledge that he had the right to do so. In Romans 13:1, 4 Paul states
“1Obey the rulers who have authority over you. Only God can give authority to anyone, and he puts these rulers in their places of power...4If you do something wrong, you ought to be afraid, because these rulers have the right to punish you. They are God’s servants who punish criminals to show how angry God is.”
When Paul was arrested, in Acts 25:9-11, he again gives a New Testament affirmation of the Death Penalty / Capital Punishment.
9 Festus wanted to please the leaders. So he asked Paul, “Are you willing to go to Jerusalem and be tried by me on these charges?” 10 Paul replied, “I am on trial in the Emperor’s court, and that’s where I should be tried. You know very well that I have not done anything to harm the Jewish nation. 11 If I had done something deserving death, I would not ask to escape the death penalty. But I am not guilty of any of these crimes, and no one has the right to hand me over to these people. I now ask to be tried by the Emperor himself.”
The New Testament holds one more affirmation of Capital Punishment, and it come from the mouth of Jesus at his trial before Pilate.
10 “Why won’t you answer my question?” Pilate asked. “Don’t you know that I have the power to let you go free or to nail you to a cross?” 11 Jesus replied, “If God had not given you the power, you couldn’t do anything at all to me.”
So even at his trial before Pilate, Jesus, contrary to what we would have wanted him to say, acknowledges that Pilate, or the Government, has the authority to put Jesus to death, and that the Government’s authority was granted by God.
Thus the Capital Punishment of the Old Testament is acknowledged consistently in the New Testament - even to the awful conclusion of putting Jesus to death.
Since Capital Punishment is such a final punishment, it obviously must be wielded with the utmost care and discretion. In fact, Jesus teaches us that with a scripture passage which could cause someone to think that he had abolished Capital Punishment, if he took it out of context.
In John 8:3-11 (CEV): 3 The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses brought in a woman who had been caught in bed with a man who wasn’t her husband. They made her stand in the middle of the crowd. 4 Then they said, “Teacher, this woman was caught sleeping with a man who isn’t her husband. 5 The Law of Moses teaches that a woman like this should be stoned to death! What do you say?” 6 They asked Jesus this question, because they wanted to test him and bring some charge against him. But Jesus simply bent over and started writing on the ground with his finger. 7 They kept on asking Jesus about the woman. Finally, he stood up and said, “If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and throw the first stone at her!” 8 Once again he bent over and began writing on the ground. 9 The people left one by one, beginning with the oldest. Finally, Jesus and the woman were there alone. 10 Jesus stood up and asked her, “Where is everyone? Isn’t there anyone left to accuse you?” 11 “No sir,” the woman answered. Then Jesus told her, “I am not going to accuse you either. You may go now, but don’t sin anymore.”
Jesus wasn’t over-turning the Law of Moses regarding Capital Punishment, he was waiting for it to be properly applied. That law called for two or three first-hand witnesses of the Capital crime to personally testify, before any punishment could be pronounced. Since no witnesses were forth-coming, the burden of proof was not met. So the woman could not be sentenced to death under God’s law.
Another potentially confusing scripture passage, that could cause someone to question the New Testament’s position on Capital Punishment can be found in Matthew 18:21-22 (CEV):
21 Peter came up to the Lord and asked, “How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?” 22 Jesus answered: Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!”
How can we reconcile Capital Punishment with forgiving someone seventy-seven times? Jesus was teaching individual people rules to apply in their individual lives: e.g. love, forgiveness, trust, faith, etc. However, all of the teachings of the New Testament from Jesus and His Disciples assume the presence of Government authorized by God, which would (ideally) apply the principles of Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments. Any Government wielding the powers granted to them by God would provide an environment that was orderly, safe, and conducive to enjoying God’s blessings and praising and worshipping Him. While Jesus teaches us that as individuals, we should have forgiveness in our hearts, the God-authorized Government must enforce rules and deliver justice, because He loves us so much, He wants to free us from the chaos that results where Mosaic laws are not enforced. Just try to imagine living in Africa, Afghanistan, or any of the many other countries where the central government has broken down!
So where I end up after all of my reading and prayerful deliberation is that:
1. God loves us, and knows we need the security of rules for living,
2. God gave us those rules in the Ten Commandments, and amplified them in other Old Testament scriptures,
3. Jesus, Paul, and Peter all affirm Capital Punishment, and the Government’s God-endowed right to impose it,
4. Extreme care must be taken in imposing this ultimate sanction, and
5. Capital Punishment affirms the sanctity of life. It elevates it, not cheapens it. It is a reminder that God Himself created us in His own image, and was pleased with what He saw, and that no man has the right to murder one of God’s creations.