Q: #82. Should the death penalty be allowed?
A: This is a hotly debated topic… If I was to guess, I would say Christians are about evenly split on this issue. I believe the Bible favors the death penalty, so I am on that side of the issue. Let me share why I hold this view Biblically.
First off, I believe we can all agree that God established the death penalty. He first established it in (Gen 9:5-6), saying in verse 6, “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed…” He later gave many other offences which required the death of a person:
False prophets (Deut 18:20)
Blasphemers of God (Lev 24:16)
Those who served another God (Deut 17:2-5)
Adulterers (Lev 20:10)(Deut 22:22)
Homosexuals (Lev 20:13)
One who cursed at his parents (Lev 20:9)(Ex 21:17).
One who struck his parents (Ex 21:15)
There are other examples as well.
Usually two questions arise from this.
First, isn’t this the Old Testament, and it no longer applies today because Jesus told us to forgive people?
Second, why aren’t we doing this today if God REALLY meant it?
To answer the first question, we must first understand that when Jesus came, He said He did not come to replace or change any of the law (Mt 5:17-18)(Lk 16:17). What was meant by this is that He did not come to replace any of the “moral laws” that were laid down by the Lord. However, ceremonial laws (those that were given to make us clean from sin) passed away because they were fulfilled in Jesus. For more on this see Q: #17 . In other words, the things that were morally wrong and sinful in the Old Testament were still wrong and sinful in the New Testament.
This also included the penalties for moral sins. Jesus reaffirmed that these were still in effect several times.
(Mt 15:3-5) But he (Jesus) answered and said unto them (the scribes and Pharisees), Why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? (4) For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, he that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. (5) But ye say…
Jesus was telling the scribes and Pharisees that God had commanded death in this situation, but THEY had “made the commandment of God of none effect by your (their) tradition” (Mt 15:6). Notice that Jesus didn’t say that the Old Testament punishment was no longer in effect.
Here are some other examples: (Mk 7:9-11)(Lk 19:27)(Lk 20:14-16)(Mt 22:6-7).
When I first became a Christian, I had a question that plagued me. Why did the scribes and Pharisees want to stone Jesus for blasphemy when He forgave people’s sins? Aren’t we SUPPOSED to forgive people’s sins? Well, one night a wise man explained it to me. In the Old Testament, there was never a command to forgive people for their sins. It was always an “eye for an eye” (Ex 21:24-25) or restitution (Ex 21,22). Punishment or restitution was required. Only ONE person could forgive sins, and that was God. When Jesus forgave sins, He was proclaiming His deity by doing something only God could do to that point.
I mention this because when Jesus came, He taught that instead of an “eye for an eye,” we were now to forgive people for their sins. It was no longer just God who forgave, but we must all forgive. However, there is a CRUCIAL point to keep in mind regarding forgiveness. Jesus taught that we “forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt 6:12)(The Lord’s Prayer). When a person sins against, us, and they repent, we are to forgive (Lk 17:3-4). And, we are to forgive an unlimited amount of times (Mt 18:20-21). However, this forgiveness is for those who sin against us PERSONALLY.
I make this distinction, because we also need to understand that Jesus NEVER commanded forgiveness from the government or ruling bodies. These institutions are created by God to carry out justice. Both Paul and Peter speak clearly about the God given right of government to carry out justice.
(Rom 13:1-4) Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. (2) Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. (3) For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then no be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: (4) for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; FOR HE BEARETH NOT THE SWORD IN VAIN (the right to take life): for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (caps emphasis mine).
(1 Pet 2:13-14) Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; (14) or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
Jesus Himself recognized that government had God given authority over Him in (Jn 19:10-11) saying, “Then saith Pilate unto him, speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? (11) Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given from above…” In addition, He also voluntarily gave up His life by the chosen method of capital punishment in those days (the cross).
We also have an example of Paul recognizing that the government had the God given power to take his life in (Acts 25:11) saying, “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.”
Let’s now respond to the second question from above, about why we aren’t actually still killing the adulterer, homosexual, the child who curses at his parents, etc… if God REALLY meant this literally? This also has to do with obeying the government. Just as Jesus and Paul obeyed the governing authorities, we are also to do so. Our government today is responsible for punishing those who commit crimes. What God saw as evil and sin, many governments do not view as such. We must recognize the laws of government and obey them. We must also recognize that if we break those laws, we are responsible for paying the penalty. The government does not choose to punish many things that God said to punish, and we must accept that. However, they DO choose to punish some murderers with the death penalty, and God has given them this authority. In fact, as we have already discussed above, God Himself first instituted it. The Bible also tells us that the punishment for a crime should be carried out “speedily, because it if isn’t, people’s hearts are given to do evil (Eccl 8:11). This is probably one reason why our crime rate just keeps getting worse…
I think it is also important for me to quickly note that there is a Biblical difference between killing and murder. Please see my study killing vs murder for an explanation of this difference.
In short, three things primarily define “murder:” (1) unlawfully taking a life, (2) done with premeditated malice, (3) taking innocent life. However, “killing” is simply defined as “to deprive of life.” When God took a life, or lives, in the Bible, the people were evil, had broken God’s laws (God is the law-giver), and were not innocent. In addition, He did not take a life out of malice, but justice (God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked: Ezek 33:11, Ezek 18:23,32). We see examples of this with the flood (Gen ch. 6-8), Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen ch. 18-19), a plague (Num 16:41-50), and more. God “killed” the guilty, but never murdered anyone. God has given government the same right to take the lives of those found guilty (even if they may be wrong about the guilt, as they were with Jesus).
We must recognize that God is EQUALLY love AND justice. While God does indeed love all people, He also judges the sin of those He loves. Just as He took the lives of many guilty in the Bible (especially in the Old Testament), I personally believe He does so today as well… He is the same God as He was in the Bible. God never changes (Mal 3:6)(Jas 1:17)(Ps 102:26-27). He also has appointed government to carry out justice and punishment on those He loves. They have the right to incarcerate, and to carry out the death penalty. They are able to “execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom 13:4). However, for any of those whom the government has sentenced to death, there is forgiveness through Jesus Christ. If any man is willing to confess Jesus as Lord, believe He arose from the dead, and are willing to confess their sins, and repent, Jesus is waiting with forgiveness, to come into their life. While they may have to face consequences for their actions, they can be assured of eternal life when life is over on this planet.