The Bible's Teaching on Capital Punishment
Pastor David L. Brown, Ph.D.
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Capital Punishment -- Part 1
Capital Punishment -- Part 1
Do you recognize these names...
All of these are noted serial murderers. The first and the last, Ed Gein & Jeffery Dahmer are well known to Wisconsin residents for obvious reasons.
Why am I talking about serial murderers? Horrific multiple murders like the ones just cited spark talk about capital punishment. The recent conviction of Jeffery Dahmer is no exception. I heard discussion in the press room during the trial. It was the topic of discussion around supper tables. People gave their opinions at work and Wisconsin legislators were urged to reconsider bringing the death penalty back.
What about capital punishment. Should it be reinstituted? I am sure there is a variety of opinions among you folks. As with other topics, Christians need to know if the Bible sheds any light on the topic. For in reality, when the Bible speaks on a topic, it speaks authoritatively. So, in this study, I do not intend to address the diversity of opinions about the death penalty. My purpose is to spell out the Bible's teaching on capital punishment.
What is Capital Punishment?
The logical place to begin is by defining capital punishment. The 1983 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines capital punishment as the death penalty. Certainly this is a concise definition but I prefer the definition from my 1899 edition of Websters International Dictionary. It says that "capital punishment" is having reference to or involving the head or life hence punishable by death.
This definition gives us an idea of the origin "capital punishment? The word capital means head. Historically, a common means carrying out the death penalty was to sever the head from the body. John the Baptist life was ended in this way.
Capital Punishment and the Ten Commandments
One of the first things that anti-capital punishment supporters appeal to is the sixth commandment. The commandment says, "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13). What does that mean? To answer that we have to look at the word "kill." The Hebrew word translated "kill" (Strong's #7523) in this verse is used 49 times in the Old Testament and in every relevant used means "to murder" especially with premeditation, according to biblical scholar Charles Ryrie. Further, when the sixth commandment is repeated in the New Testament a word is used that never means anything else than to murder (Strongs #5407).
The Sixth Commandment clearly is a prohibition against murder; not an injunction against capital punishment, the death penalty.
What is the Biblical Penalty for Murder?
That brings me to my next question -- What is the biblical penalty for murder? Let's look at Genesis 9:5-6. God says to Noah and his family,
These verses are simply saying, murder is forbidden. Man-killing animals are to be killed and any person who murders another is to be killed. Killing a man is an offense against almighty God for man is made in God's image.
The verses makes it clear. Capital punishment, the taking of the perpetrators life, is what God demands for the murder of a human being by man or beast. There are some other specifics that the Lord laid out relating to capital punishment.
A Further Explanation of Murder
Naturally, the individual(s) who carries out the capital punishment for the lawful authority was not considered a murdered. Likewise, the killing of enemies in war is not considered murder. Additionally, killings judged accidental were not considered murder, though there may be other lesser penalties.
Capital Punishment and the Law Given to Moses
It should be noted that from Noah until the institution of the Law, the Bible only sanctioned capital punishment for murder. When God gave the law to Moses, additional things were considered capital crimes worthy of death. These include...
Their can be no doubt that the Old Testament teaches capital punishment. It began by demanding it for murder and expanded its application under the Law given to Moses. Therefore, the principle of capital punishment is well established.
Capital Punishment -- Part 2
In our last message we looked at the Old Testament scriptures relating to capital punishment. There can be no doubt that the Old Testament clearly teaches capital punishment. But what about the New Testament? Lets take a look.
Christ and Capital Punishment
First, Christ never condemned capital punishment. In fact capital punishment was unjustly carried out against him. If capital punishment were looked upon with disdain by Christ, he had ample opportunity to speak out on the topic. In Luke 23:41 the repentant thief said he and the other offender had justly receiving the death sentence but Christ was guiltless. "And we indeed [justly]; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." Christ could have said to the repentant thief, "It does not matter what you have done, capital punishment is wrong. It should be done away with." But, he did not say that when he had a golden opportunity to say it.
That brings us to the second incident that can shed some light of Jesus Christs' view of capital punishment. We find this in John 8:1-11. This passage deals with the Pharisee's sting operation relating to the adulterous woman. It was designed to trap Christ and make him reject the Law God had given to Moses or the Roman Law of the day. Christ did neither, but in fact invited those without sin to throw the first stone. John 8:7 says, "So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." This is hardly a rejection of capital punishment. Christ did recognize a set-up when he saw one though.
Paul and Capital Punishment
Human government is ordained by God. If you have any doubt about that just look at Romans 13:1-7. But what powers does God sanction for government?
Note 1 Peter 2:13 before you look at Romans 13:4.
The sword is a symbol of the Governments power to use capital punishment. Dr Charles Ryrie says "it may be said that Romans 13:4 does teach the right of the government to take the life of a criminal, although what cases is not specified."
If Romans 13:4 is not clear enough for you, there is another incident that involves the apostle Paul that should make it clearer yet. Turn to Acts 25:1-12. The key verse in this section is Acts 25:11,
What Paul is saying certainly is clear enough is it not? He says, "if I have committed a crime deserving of the death penalty then I will not fight it. But I have not and so I appeal to Caesar."
The prerogative of capital punishment is established in Genesis 9:6, developed in the Mosaic law and reaffirmed in the New Testament. Capital punishment IS Biblical. It is for today.
Some claim that capital punishment does not deter crime. If that is true it is because the sentence is not carried out speedily. Ecclesiastes 8:11 warns,
Justice is to be swift. With the cumbersome court process we have today it can take up to ten years before a sentence is carried out.
J. Edger Hoover said, "The professional law enforcement officer is convinced from experience that the hardened criminal has been and is deterred from killing based on the prospect of the death penalty."
His words ring true in Great Britain. In the June 6, 1972 issue of The Wall Street Journal Felix Kessler said, "There has been a sharp rise in armed robberies and violent crime throughout Britain since 1965, when the death penalty was dropped, and more criminals seem to carry guns now."
I can tell you this. The criminal who receives capital punishment will commit no more crimes in the future. At the very least we should return to capital punishment for murder.