Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment

James T Naismith

In this issue Dr. James T. Naismith of Scarborough, Ontario, continues his series on current controversial subjects, and at the same time he concludes his series of studies on the overall theme of “Encouragement.”

Capital punishment is the term applied to the death penalty for crime. Crimes meriting the death penalty are called “capital crimes.” The list of such crimes has been diminishing through the years until only murder remained. In many countries, the death penalty for murder has been withdrawn, but, where this has happened, there has been considerable agitation and support for its reinstatment. Christians and non-Christians differ in their attitude to capital punishment.

What does the Bible say? In this, as in all matters, our attitude should be based, not on our opinion, however strongly held, nor on the views of men, however great or good, nor on philosophical arguments, be they ever so clever, but on the Scriptures.

In Old Testament times, under the Mosaic law, the death penalty was prescribed for a wide variety of offences, for example: homicide (Lev. 24:17); adultery (Lev. 20:10); spiritism (Lev. 20:27); blasphemy against God (Lev. 24:16); cursing parents (Lev. 20:9), etc. Apart from homicide, none of these would appear to be binding today, and they are certainly not repeated in the New Testament.

However, long before the law was given through Moses, God gave to Noah a principle, emphasizing the sanctity of human life, and establishing the penalty for the taking of human life: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man” (Gen. 9:6). The basis of this principle is an undeniable and unaltered fact: since man is made in the image of God and represents Him, here, it is an act of utmost contempt of the Creator to take human life; murder is an outrage against God. The one who takes another’s life forfeits the right to his own; he has no right to live. H. C. Leupold (Exposition of Genesis, page 334) comments: “He that kills a man destroys God’s image and lays profane hands on that which is divine.” He points out that the imperfect, “be shed,” is not “merely permissive or suggestive; it must be rendered as a strict imperative. Consequently, capital punishment is divinely ordained. For the proper safeguarding of the human race this basic ordinance is laid down.” The responsibility for executing the murderer is not given to the family or friends of the victim, but to the constituted ruler or government.

This command of God was given after the flood — at the beginning of a new era in human life — to Noah, the new head of the human race, since all are descended from him. It has never been repealed. The New Testament, while not definitely repeating it verbatim appears to confirm it. In his instructions regarding the Christian’s responsibilities to governments and rulers, Paul states: “He (the ruler) 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; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4). “The sword,” while including other penalties that can be imposed by government, would seem clearly to include —and, indeed, to directly signify — the authority to execute the death penalty. R. Haldane (Exposition of Romans, page 583) comments: “The sword is put for the punishment by death of any kind. This refutes the opinion of those who think that it is sinful, nay, that it is murder, to put criminals to death. God here sanctions the practice.”

Christian Objections to Capital Punishment: Not all Christians agree with the death penalty for murder. Among the arguments usually used against capital punishment are the following:

1. God is a God of mercy and love, “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3:9). He showed His kindness to the “chief” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Surely we should too!

Answer: God is also a God of justice; He must and will punish sin. The same argument about God’s mercy could equally well be used against the Biblical revelation of eternal punishment.

2. Capital punishment deprives the murderer of the opportunity to be converted.

Answer: Normally, those sentenced to death have adequate time and opportunity to repent before the sentence is carried out. Why should it be thought that, with more time, they would ultimately repent and be saved?

3. There is no evidence that the death penalty for murder is a deterrent.

Answer: The Biblical basis for capital punishment is not dependent on any deterrent effect it may have. In any case, evidence that the death penalty is or is not a deterrent is conflicting. The former solicitor general of the United States, Robert Bork, has said: “The assertion that punishment does not deter runs counter to the common sense of the community” (quoted by C. Donald Cole, in “Christian Perspectives on Controversial Issues,” page 111).

4. Jesus Christ clearly taught that we should love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44). Surely this does not mean we should put them to death but rather we should seek their welfare, including pardon for crime.

Answer: The Lord Jesus also taught just as clearly the seriousness of sin and the certainty and solemnity of judgment. True, He was infinitely loving; He was also absolutely righteous and just. In the same sermon (“on the mount”) in which he commanded His hearers to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44), He spoke, in the most solemn terms, of the certainty of judgment, here and hereafter (Matt. 5:21-30).

5. Modern penology emphasizes rehabilitation rather than retribution.

Answer: The Word of God emphasizes retribution for sin.

6. The Bible commands: “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13).

Answer: The verb “kill” in this verse really means “murder” (see NIV, NASB, NEB). “The verb used in this verse occurs forty-nine times in the Old Testament and in every relevant use means ‘to murder,’ especially with premeditation. It is never used of animals, God, angels, or enemies in battle” (C. C. Ryrie: You Mean the Bible Teaches That, page 30).

7. There is always the possibility of the innocent being given the verdict, “guilty,” and condemned to death. This has certainly happened in the past.

Answer: No one should be sentenced to death without clear, unmistakable evidence of guilt.