Capital Punishment: What Does The Bible Say?
Capital punishment is a controversial subject. And although a Harris Survey indicates that 68% of the American public favor the death penalty, nevertheless, it is still the kind of subject that tends to polarize people. Either one is for it or against it; there just does not seem to be much middle ground on the subject. Back when I first penned this article, there were 1,289 individuals on death rows in thirty-four states. At that time, the last man to have been executed was sixty-six year-old Anthony Antone, who was electrocuted in Florida. Antone, an Organized Crime figure, was convicted of the contract murder of Richard Cloud, a former working associate of mine. While Dick was a detective with the Tampa Police Department and I was a detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, we worked on several cases together. I remember, fondly, a commendation I received from the Los Angeles Police Department that was the direct result of Dick's invaluable assistance on a very important investigation. (Incidentally, this was back when the LAPD was known as the finest police department in the country.)
Richard Cloud was the kind of policeman of which stories are written and movies are made. He was tenacious, unorthodox, implacable, and, unfortunately, very, very tough. (He was fired from the TPD for using “excessive force.”) When Det. Cloud was assigned a case, he did not let up until the perpetrator was arrested, convicted, and serving time. Needless to say, Det. Cloud was the kind of man who made enemies. In fact, it seems he was always receiving death threats, and on several occasions it had even been rumored that certain individuals had put a contract out on him. Unfortunately, when Cloud was fired from the police department, he was no longer “protected.” In other words, it is a well-known fact that gangsters do not usually kill police officers, because they do not want the entire law enforcement community breathing down their necks. But Anthony Antone, evidently thinking that Cloud was “safe,” put a contract out on Cloud and he was murdered as he answered a knock at the front door of his home. He was shot several times by a hit-man who posed as a door-to-door salesman. He left a wife and young son.
I find it extremely ironic that when Anthony Antone became the twelfth person to be executed since 1976, his final statement to the press was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Furthermore, Willie Jasper Darden, an individual I arrested for murder back in the Seventies, has subsequently been put to death in the Florida electric chair. Before finally dying, Darden's case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Why? The prosecutor at his trial had called him an “animal” and, therefore, he (Darden) did not feel he had received a fair trial. The Supreme Court ruled that he did, in fact, receive a fair trial in spite of the prosecutor's “error.”
Although Darden was only charged and convicted for one murder, I am convinced, along with others, beyond any reasonable doubt, that he raped and murdered many women in the Tampa Bay area. Incidentally, when I arrested Darden he was actually serving time for rape! Yes, you read correctly. You see, the prison system was allowing this convicted felon to take weekend furloughs, and the findings of my investigation were that each time he was furloughed he raped and murdered someone else. Does this seem incredible to you? Well, wake up and take a real good look at the American Criminal Justice System, a system you erroneously thought was protecting you and your loved ones. Although our current subject matter does not allow me to do so, I could further relate real events about the Criminal Justice System that would send cold chills up and down your spine. Permit me to just say this: I can assure you that after hearing these stories you would never again feel safe under our current system of criminal justice.
This all, of course, creates strong emotional feelings for me, and I know that I have a great deal of passion concerning this issue. In fact, some of you may even think my personal involvement disqualifies me from dealing with the issue of capital punishment objectively. I sincerely and prayerfully hope that this is not the case. The only reason I have mentioned my personal involvement is to let you know that I have had to give this subject my serious attention over the years. If I have misunderstood what God has had to say on this subject, then I am wrong; and if I am wrong, then I need to repent. For me, the arguments for or against capital punishment are not part of some academic exercise to be conducted in an “ivory tower” somewhere. On the contrary, it is a serious question that affects me where I live.
It is my sincere belief that capital punishment is commanded, ordained, sanctified, and authorized by God's Word. It will be my responsibility in this chapter to demonstrate from the Bible the truth of this position. If I am unable to do so, then my thesis must be rejected by every lover of the truth. But, on the other hand, if my thesis is substantiated, then it must be received by all who would respect the Bible.
Although many seem to think this issue is purely political, it is clear to me that even when its political ramifications are understood, it must be seen, first and foremost, as a religious question, namely: Is capital punishment moral or immoral? In fact, much of the most excited, passionate, and vehement objections to the death penalty come from religious individuals who believe it to be contrary to God's will. It should be clear, then, that this is not some trivial issue. If as some are saying, God is against capital punishment, then the state has no right to exact the death penalty. Conversely, if capital punishment has been ordained by the Creator, then there can be no legitimate argument against it, so long as it is carried out under conditions consistent with justice and righteousness.
Having set the stage for this study, let us now turn our attention to the Word of God.
The Old Testament
It is only fitting that we begin this study at the beginning. In Genesis 9:6, God said, “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man.” Although there are some who look upon this statement as utterly barbaric, most have recognized this principle as the foundation of civilized society. Man is unique in that he is made in the image of the Creator, and his “right to life” must not be interfered with by any other creature. If this principle or law is broken, and a man is murdered, then the murderer must be put to death (Genesis 9:5,6). This moral law stands apart from the Law of Moses given at Sinai, and has no more been rescinded than the fact that man is made in the image of God. (About this, we will have more to say later in this chapter.)
As Genesis 9:6 tells us, God has universally legislated against murder; therefore, it should not surprise us to see this principle incorporated into the Law of Moses. In Exodus 20:13, the Decalogue says, “Thou shall not kill.” Consequently, it is, I think, a bit ironic that on those rare occasions when the death penalty is being administered today, we see protesters outside the prisons carrying signs that say, “THOU SHALL NOT KILL.” I would to God that these misguided, sign-carrying, religious zealots, along with the liberal media, really did understand the meaning of God's prohibition against murder.
Exodus 20:13 was never written to be a prohibition of capital punishment, as the anti-capital punishment protesters imply. Instead, it was written as a prohibition against murder. This is made quite clear when one reads Exodus 21:12, which says, “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” Incidentally, under the Law of Moses, no substitute or alternative was accepted for the execution of a murderer. If the murderer was not executed, the land was defiled (Numbers 35:30-33). Clearly, then, the God of the Old Testament not only believed in capital punishment, He demanded it!
The New Testament
Although God's attitude about capital punishment in the Old Testament cannot be misunderstood, some are convinced He changed His mind in the New Testament. According to some, capital punishment seems much too cruel a penalty to be condoned by the meek and humble Jesus. According to others, the God of the Old Testament was the product of a primitive people; therefore, He was represented as a vengeful and barbaric Deity. As we have become more “civilized,” a more loving, caring, and forgiving Deity has been produced. According to these theologians, the God of the New Testament is the “mellowed-out” God of the Old Testament. (I mention this not because I think any sincere Bible student would believe it, but to emphasize how easy it is for men to profane the Almighty God and turn to idols. We must be content to let God be God. We must always be very careful that we are seeing Him as He has really revealed Himself. Otherwise, we just may be dabbling in idolatry.) The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are the same God. He has not changed in any of His characteristics or attributes (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). Keeping this truth in mind will prevent us from making some serious mistakes about God's attitude about capital punishment today.
In the New Testament, Jesus, who was God incarnate (John 1:1-17), said, “Thou shall do no murder” (Matthew 19:18). This, of course, proved what we should already intuitively know; namely, God's moral prohibition against murder has not changed. Murder has been, is, and always will be wrong, and the Bible accurately portrays it as such. As long as man is made in the image of God, murder will be wrong. Everyone, and especially those who claim to be following Jesus, should know that God's moral code forbids murder (Romans 13:9; I Peter 4:15; I John 3:15). On this truth there should be no disagreement. Where disagreement does occur, however, is on the subject of whether or not the penalty for murder remains the same.
The Case Of The Adulterous Woman
John 8:1-11 has often been used to teach that under Christ the death penalty must no longer be enforced. Therefore, it would certainly be to our advantage to spend a little time studying the details of this case. Under the Law of Moses, adultery was a capital offense (Deuteronomy 22:22). Those Scribes and Pharisees who brought the alleged adulterous woman to Jesus that day in the Jerusalem Temple understood this teaching, for they said, “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (verse 5). But, and this has some bearing on the case, they were not the least bit interested in seeing justice done that day. If they were, where was the man she had been involved with? Under the Law of Moses, both the adulterer and the adulteress were to be stoned, and it must be remembered that this alleged adulteress has been caught “in the very act” (verse 4). No, we can be sure that these men were not concerned with justice being done. Instead, they were hoping for some reason to accuse the Lord (verse 6).
When Jesus finally answered, He said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” It ought to be obvious that when He made this statement He was not saying that the only way capital punishment could be meted out would be by those who had never sinned. Otherwise, how could anyone have ever carried out the commandment to execute murderers under the Law of Moses? It has been said, “That which proved too much, proved nothing.” Staying within the context, then, it is apparent Jesus was addressing Himself to the evil motives of these men, who were actually much more perverse than the woman they were accusing. Remember, this was mob action, and if Jesus would have given His consent to that mob, they were ready to stone the woman to death, which would have been contrary to Roman law, and then lay the whole blame at His feet. If, on the other hand, He said “No” to their intent to stone the woman, then they stood ready to accuse Him before the people as one who taught against the Law of Moses. These were vile men indeed!
Moreover, and much more importantly, it must not be forgotten that this whole episode was actually taking place contrary to the Law of Moses. Under the Law of Moses, the accused had the right to a fair trial. But, as we have already pointed out, the men in this case were not really interested in justice. Nevertheless, Jesus conducted Himself wonderfully. Under the weight of their own sins, these men withdrew themselves and their charges against the accused. As a result, some have mistakenly thought that the Lord then had the right to stone her Himself, and because He did not do so proves that capital punishment, under the Law of Christ, is no longer right for adultery, as well as murder, rape, or any other offense specified in the Law of Moses. This is a serious mistake!
One must not lose sight of the fact that this whole scenario occurred under the Law of Moses. Under Moses' Law it took two or more witnesses before one could be sentenced to death (Deuteronomy 17:5-7). Jesus, who was, in fact, God in the flesh, was under obligation to keep the Law of Moses perfectly; therefore, He could not have stoned the woman Himself, or instructed anyone else to do so, without at least the two witnesses the Law required. Consequently, the woman in this case did not die because capital punishment was not justified for the offense of which she had been accused, as some are teaching, but because there was no one to accuse her. (Incidentally, if the prima facie case presented to Jesus had ever been officially heard before the Sanhedrin, she most assuredly would have been acquitted.) To read into this passage an anti-capital punishment position on the part of Jesus is to do violence to God's Word, and leads one to miss the whole point of this passage: It was the accusers, not the alleged adulterous woman, on trial that day. In other words, the lesson the Lord taught that day in the Temple concerned itself with the perversity of a religious people who had become worse than those they condemned. This, of course, is a lesson for all of us to take to heart.
The Apostle Paul's Position
When Paul was on trial before Festus, he stated, “For if I be an offender, or have committed anything 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” (Acts 25:11). Paul's argument is that capital punishment is appropriate for certain offenses (“I refuse not to die”), but if no one could convict him of any of these offenses, then he should not be turned over to the Jews, who planned to kill him. Those who insist the death penalty is prohibited by the teachings of the New Testament, find themselves arguing against the apostle Paul, who, it must not be forgotten, was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Christianity was not designed as a blueprint for theocratic government. The Everlasting Kingdom knows no city, county, state, or national boundaries. Therefore, God ordained civil government to carry out punishment against evildoers (Romans 13:1-7; I Peter 2:13,14). The Kingdom of God (the church) and the kingdom of men (the civil government as recognized by its citizens and foreign powers) are clearly not the same, but each co-exists on this earthly plane with the other. This is not, as some have erroneously supposed, with one kingdom being good and the other evil; but, both are good, existing for different purposes: one spiritual, the other temporal. Civil government, as identified in Romans 13:1-7, is ordained by God as a mechanical remedy against evil, so as to make life in this physical world somewhat more tolerable.
In Romans 13:4, Paul says that civil rulers “beareth not the sword in vain.” Most of the expositors agree that this phrase does not mean only the “symbol of authority, but the actual sword in the hands of the executioner who inflicts the death penalty on criminals” (Lenski, St. Paul's Epistle To The Romans, p. 792).
Romans 13:1-7 clearly teaches that capital punishment is still ordained of God, is a terror, and, as such, should be feared. Of course, capital punishment must always be carried out by the state in a way consistent with righteousness and justice (cf. II Samuel 23:3; Ezekiel 45:9; Daniel 4:25b-27). The death penalty must always be carried out in keeping with due process in conjunction with competent, lawfully constituted authority. If civil government administers capital punishment in such a way as to become a terror to law-abiding citizens, then it would need to be condemned.
The Murderer Is A Despiser Of
Both God And Man
In his highly informative book, Christian Ethics in Secular Society, Philip E. Hughes wrote: “The preciousness of human life is evident in the requirement not only that an animal which causes a man's death (and thereby overturns the proper order of creation) should be deprived of life, but also that the man who murders his brother is to be put to death, because in doing so he has despised the image of God with which his being is imprinted and has treated his fellow man as though he were a brute beast whose life can be taken without compunction.” This, I believe, is an accurate exposition of Genesis 9:5,6. When the death penalty is not imposed for murder, the unique and inviolable character of man is, in effect, denied; murder is, then, equivalent to lesser crimes, and the life of man is cheapened; but, even more importantly, the Creator is despised and profaned. Governments, then, in order to be pleasing to God, must view the life of every human being as sacrosanct, and protect it with the ultimate penalty a temporal tribunal may inflict: capital punishment.
All who honestly consider the question of capital punishment must move beyond the purely emotional into the realm of the ideological. This question really has to do with how we perceive ourselves. Humanism, which purports to exalt man, denies the existence of the Creator, along with the idea that man is made in His image, and proclaims man to be merely a product of evolution, and, therefore, takes a very indulgent view of murder. It has brought us to the point where we, as a nation, have indiscriminately killed millions of unborn babies since Roe v. Wade in 1973, while, as the same time, failing to rightfully execute those found guilty of committing monstrous crimes against their fellow human beings.
It should be clear that those who would follow Jesus have a responsibility to support government authorities in their God-given responsibilities to maintain law and order by punishing the evildoers. It should be just as clear that capital punishment is a part of the government's repertoire in dealing with these evildoers. Instead of making the government's work even harder by attempting to prohibit the death penalty, we should uphold the righteous hand of justice (I Peter 2:14; Titus 3:1; Romans 13:1-7).
We conclude with a statement by Professor Ernest van den Haag, which he made in his interesting book, Punishing Criminals: “A failure to terminate a murderer's life is not a celebration of human life, but exactly the opposite. Those who believe in the sacred right of an individual to live his life span uninterrupted by murder cannot affirm their devotion to that principle by dealing frivolously with those who violate it.” He went on to write: “The proposition is best understood by stretching it out on a graph in a demonstration of an [argument] reductio ad absurdum. A society that punishes a murderer by giving him a jail sentence of one week is a society that sets little store by human life. A society that holds human life so sacred that it is prepared to execute anyone who takes another human life, is a society that believes deeply in human life.”