Christian Living

Reasons for Capital Punishment

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/09/2013

There's a reason both the Old and the New Testaments promote capital punishment. That reason was applicable then and still applies today.

Apparently, Jesse Jackson made some comments on "Meet the Press" this morning referring to the possibility of capital punishment for Timothy McVeigh. He said, allegedly, that executing McVeigh would just be a trophy that the people of Oklahoma City would like to get in their trophy case to make them feel better.

Jackson should have been ashamed of his comment. To refer the punishment of a man who is a convicted killer of 168 citizens of Oklahoma City by those who are deeply interested in justice as simply a quest for trophies is an insult to every person who lost a loved one in that explosion. It's an absolute insult, and it should be an insult to every clear-thinking American.

Capital punishment is not about getting trophies in any trophy case, any more than life imprisonment is about putting man in a cage as a trophy in a human zoo. It's about justice. What the people in Oklahoma City want—and all Americans who are in favor of capital punishment for a man who violently snuffed out the lives of 168 people—is not a trophy. They want justice.

I'm actually stunned, to be honest with you, that there are so many Christians who oppose capital punishment on biblical grounds. It ought to be clear to anyone familiar with the biblical record that God is not against capital punishment. It was His idea. He started it.

Go back to Genesis 9:6 and you'll find this: "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man."

You see, the crime of murder is not principally based on the idea that you robbed a person of his life. That confuses the Fifth Commandment with the Seventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not steal." It's wrong to take someone else's possessions, including his life.

No, murder is not a crime of theft, but of destruction. We have destroyed the life of one made in the image of God . God says such a crime deserves the most extreme punishment. You take a life, you surrender your own life.

By the way, read through the Old Testament and you'll find 21 different offenses that called for the death penalty. Only three include an actual or potential capital offense by our current definition. Six are for religious offenses, ten are for various moral issues, and two relate to ceremonial issues.

So if you're going to call anybody frivolous about using capital punishment, you can start with God. God instituted it for a wide range of offenses, not just murder. But it included murder, and would certainly be justified, in God's eyes, for someone who murdered 168 people.

I'm not suggesting we reinstate capital punishment for the offenses of the Old Testament or even that capital punishment is obligatory. I am saying that it's a moral alternative that is, at least in principle, totally approved by God.

Some feel that even though capital punishment was approved in the Old Testament, the New Testament has changed all of that. I will tell you why that is not a good way to argue. They say Jesus, or some teaching in the New Testament, has somehow changed that. My response is, "Where?"

Actually, capital punishment is strongly assumed in the New Testament. In Romans 13, Paul argues that governing authorities are set there by God. He says, "If you do what is evil, be afraid, for the government does not bear the sword for nothing, for it is minister of God and avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil." God ordains the governing authorities, and those governing authorities have a God-ordained responsibility to execute justice with the sword.

Peter says in 1 Peter 2:13-14 that these authorities were sent by God for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do right.

People say, "Well capital punishment is just revenge." My response is they're right in a sense. It is revenge. In fact, it's just revenge. It's God's vengeance based on justice, executed through the machinery of government that God ordained.

Paul uses the word "sword" here. I don't think he had in mind paddling people with the broad side of the sword. No, capital punishment is in view here as a proper tool government would use to express the vengeance of God in a just fashion against gratuitous evil. That's the biblical teaching.

What about Jesus? Some say Jesus' ethic of love and forgiveness requires us to end the death penalty. This was the appeal Mother Theresa made when Robert Alton Harris was facing the gas chamber here in California. She appealed to the governor saying Jesus would forgive.

With no disrespect towards Mother Theresa, I think her comments were mistaken because her view simply proves too much. What should be done instead with capital criminals? Should we put them in prison for the rest of their lives? But Jesus would forgive. Should we put them in prison for ten years? But Jesus would forgive. Should we put a murderer in prison for one day? But Jesus would forgive.

You see, if this argument works it becomes justification for the abolishment of any kind of punishment whatsoever. This argument proves too much.

Further, that Jesus would forgive is a different issue from whether the government should forgive. God can forgive evil. That doesn't mean the government should forgive it in terms of its exercise of justice.

In fact, Jesus never challenged the validity of the death penalty when He had perfect opportunity to do so. Even in John 8, with the woman caught in adultery, he never challenged the death penalty itself. He didn't enforce it under what seemed to be an unjust situation because all the witnesses fled. Remember, Jesus said, "Is there no one here to condemn you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." The Law required witnesses to convict someone.

Jesus did not speak against the death penalty here. It was required by law. Jesus upheld the law. He just realized there was a nasty situation of injustice that was going on and so He found some other way to get around it.

And when Jesus was on the cross He asked God to forgive, not Caesar. He never suggested that capital punishment was inappropriate.

I think that we have to argue for the coherence and consistency of both Testaments on this issue. The question is not, "Was Jesus right or was Moses right?" The question is trying to find a way to bring them all together. Clearly, there was no abrogation of capital punishment in the New Testament.

In fact, if you recall Paul in the book of Acts (25:11) made this appeal for his life: "If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar." Paul didn't take exception with capital punishment, even for himself. His point was that he wasn't guilty, not that capital punishment was wrong.

Which, by the way, brings us to another point that Mr. Jackson raised this morning on TV. He said Jesus was crucified. Jesus died at capital punishment. To which I respond, "So? What follows from that is...what? The significance of that is...what?" The answer is: nothing. The issue regarding Jesus was not capital punishment, but his innocence. In Acts 2, Peter condemns the act of handing over the innocent Jesus to godless executioners.

Now, God's mercy is always available in God's court. But man's court is another matter, ladies and gentlemen. It is governed by different biblical responsibilities. So one can't say that capital punishment is patently immoral on biblical grounds. It just isn't. There's a good reason why. It has to do with something I explained very carefully to the man who interviewed me for US News and World Report on this very issue.

Capital punishment is important. The Bible—Old and New Testament—is for it, not against it. There is nothing in the New Testament that would give us any reason to think otherwise. In fact, it presumes capital punishment in many places.

I was listening a couple of years ago to KABC and talk show host Michael Jackson. He was making the point that capital punishment never works. And of course, he's thinking of it as a deterrent.

My response is, capital punishment works every time. Every time it's used, the prisoner dies.

You see, the reason for capital punishment is obviously not to rehabilitate somebody. The deterrent may be a secondary factor. But that isn't why we use capital punishment. We use capital punishment to punish someone (pardon me for stating the obvious).

You see, all of this relates to your view of what human beings are. If human beings are machines determined either by genetics or by environment, then what do you do when a machine goes bad? You fix it. And if you can't fix it, you throw it away. That's the basis behind the rehabilitation idea. And of course, the throwaway mentality we see in a lot of other ethical areas.

However, if you think that human beings are personal creatures capable of choosing and, therefore, have moral responsibilities—when they do good we praise them, (which everybody wants), and when they do bad we punish them—then punishment makes sense. Punishment of all kinds. Even capital punishment.

Human beings are moral creatures who either deserve praise or blame depending on the circumstances—when they choose well, we praise them and when they violate a serious moral mandate, we punish them. (When we praise and blame, by the way, in both cases we're expressing respect for the dignity of man in virtue of the fact that human beings are made in the image of God and have the capability of choosing.)

Punishment may range from a parking ticket to death. What determines which punishment? An ancient principle called lex taliones , "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth"—the point being that the punishment must fit the crime. If somebody steals a loaf of bread, we don't whack their arm off.

By the same token, if somebody kills 168 people, we don't just put him in a cage for the rest of his life. He took 168 human lives! He should be punished in a way that fits his crime. He should sacrifice his own life.

That's the basic question: What is a human being? I think he's a free moral agent. If he is, then we should praise him when he does well. But if he doesn't, then he deserves to be punished, and the punishment should fit the crime.