The Bible and Capital Punishment

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/11/2013
    1. Capital punishment was commanded by God in the Old Testament.
      1. It preceded the Mosaic Law.
        Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man (Gen 9:6).
      2. It was based on the dignity of man, i.e. man’s transcendent value.
        Gen 9:6 Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.
      3. It was commanded in the Mosaic Law.
        1. Twenty-one different offenses called for the death penalty in the Old Testament.
        2. Only three include an actual or potential capital offense, by our standards.
        3. Six are for religious offenses.
        4. Ten are for various moral issues.
        5. Two relate to ceremonial issues.
      4. “But King David wasn’t put to death for his capital crimes.”
        1. David understood what justice demanded in this case: “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die” (2 Sam 12:5).
        2. If God chose to set aside punishment, that doesn’t mean the punishment is unjust when it is executed. God was the one who required capital punishment in many instances.
    2. Capital punishment was assumed in the New Testament.
      1. God ordains governing authorities:
        1. Jn 19:11 Jesus answered [to Pilate], “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.”
        2. Rom 13:1–2 Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore, he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
        3. 1 Pet 2:13–14 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.
      2. Those governments may practice capital punishment.
        1. Rom 13:3–4 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.
        2. Acts 25:11 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.
    3. Jesus’ ethic of love and forgiveness doesn’t disallow capital punishment.
      1. “But Jesus would forgive.”
        1. This argument proves too much.
          1. It becomes an argument against any punishment what-so-ever.
          2. What should we do with the criminal we’ve forgiven?
            1. Life in prison instead of capital punishment?
            2. But Jesus would forgive.
        2. Jesus never challenged the validity of the death penalty.
          1. In Jn 8:3–11, for example, there were no witnesses left to testify against the woman caught in adultery (the Law required at least two witnesses).
          2. Jesus actually upheld the Law here, He didn’t abrogate it, but He did so in a way that wouldn’t allow the evil designs of the Scribes and Pharisees to be accomplished.
        3. Jesus asked God to forgive, not Caesar; He didn’t suggest civil punishment or capital punishment was inappropriate.
        4. We must argue for the coherence and consistency of both Testaments.
          1. The question is not, “Was Jesus right or was Moses right?”
          2. We must also factor in Paul and Peter.
      2. “Jesus was crucified.”
        1. I’m not sure what the point is here? Yes, Jesus was the victim of capital punishment, but what follows from that?
        2. The real issue regarding Jesus was not capital punishment, but His innocence.
          1. Peter assails the act of handing over an innocent man to godless executioners.
          2. Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death (Acts 2:22–23).
      3. But what about forgiveness?
        1. God’s mercy is always available in His court.
        2. Man’s court is another matter, governed by different biblical responsibilities.
    4. One simply can’t say that capital punishment is patently immoral on biblical grounds.
      1. Jesus did not “abolish the Law,” He fulfilled it, but not in the sense that all laws are wiped from the books. Then we would have no punishment for any biblical crimes.
      2. Matt 5:17–19

        Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

    1. Each position is based on a particular view of man.
      1. Rehabilitationism
        1. Man is man sick, needing healing.
        2. Man is a machine needing fixing.
      2. Retributionism
        1. Man is a free moral agent who makes choices for which he can be held responsible for.
        2. Man is worthy of praise, resulting in reward, or blame, deserving punishment.
    2. The case for retributionism
      1. Man a free moral agent.
        1. He is capable of choosing good or bad behavior.
        2. He may be influenced by his environment, but not ultimately controlled by it.
        3. We have an immediate awareness of our moral natures, that we freely make moral choices.
        4. It seems to make sense to praise and reward good behavior. If we’re not responsible for our choices neither blame nor praise make any sense.
        5. If we are not free agents, then we are determined and therefore not responsible for our behavior, either good or bad. B.F. Skinner was right; we’ve got to bite the bullet and realize that we’re “beyond freedom and dignity.”
      2. Crime is not pathological, deserving rehabilitation, but moral, deserving punishment.
        1. The goal of justice is penal, not remedial, moral, not therapeutic.
        2. Two purposes of capital punishment:
          1. Justice demands punishment of the guilty.
          2. Goodness demands protecting the innocent in society.
            1. “Capital punishment is to the whole society what self-defense is to the individual.” The Ethics of Life and Death J.P. Moreland, p. 115.
            2. Dennis Prager: “We have a war going on here between murderers and society, but only one side is allowed to kill.”
      3. The punishment should fit the crime (lex talionis).
      4. Capital punishment fits capital crimes (crimes that involve the loss of life).
    3. Objections to retributionism
      1. Arguments that prove too much.
        1. Many arguments against capital punishment prove too much because they apply with equal force against any punishment at all.
        2. “Capital punishment is applied unfairly.”
          1. Even if this were true, the injustice here applies to those that got away, not to those that got punished. It’s never unjust to punish a guilty man if the punishment itself fits the crime (lex talionis). The injustice is remedied by applying it more often, not less.
          2. Better unequal justice than no justice at all.
          3. If one man is paid for a job (he gets what he deserves) and another isn’t, how do you rectify the inequity? You don’t take away what the first man deserves, withholding his pay because the second man didn’t get paid. That would double the injustice.
        3. “Innocent people get condemned.”
          1. This is a criticism of any system of justice, not a particular type of punishment. Life is flawed, not capital punishment.
          2. Why must we accept a philosophy that says it’s better for 100 guilty people to go free than for one innocent person to be condemned?
          3. Guilty people repeat crimes that injure and even kill other innocent people.
          4. “But death can’t be undone.” No punishment can be undone.
          5. Our attempts at improving justice here must be at the level of the process of adjudication making any determination of guilt more trustworthy.
      2. Other objections:
        1. “How can you be for capital punishment but against abortion” (the “seamless garment” argument)?
          1. The term “Pro-life” is actually a misnomer. Our case is not for every one’s life or every form of life. Pro-lifer’s are against the unjust taking of innocent human life, particularly the life of the unborn child.
          2. The right to life is not an absolute; it can be forfeited. This moral right is only prima facie; it stands only until challenged by some greater law, like justice or protecting the lives of the innocent.
          3. We also have a right to freedom, but it can be properly overridden with incarceration when certain conditions are met.
          4. An unborn child has committed no crime that forfeits its life.
        2. “Capital punishment is cruel and unusual.”
          1. It’s not cruel and unusual, but rather the exact punishment that fits the crime.
          2. This is an appeal to the language of the Bill of Rights, but the ones who wrote those words believed in capital punishment. If one wants to redefine the term for modern times, then he cannot argue from the Bill of Rights itself, because that has the old definition.
        3. “Capital punishment doesn’t work; it doesn’t deter crime.”
          1. It always deters the offender. Dead people don’t commit more crimes.
          2. If it lacks in deterrence, it might be because it is not widely exercised or not done speedily enough to be a threat.
          3. The principal goal of capital punishment is not deterrence, but punishment. In that way it works every time.
        4. “Why not a life sentence?”
          1. Confuses a life sentence with a death sentence.
          2. It’s unjust (doesn’t fit the crime) because the criminal only loses liberty, not life.
        5. “This kind of death is undignified.”
          1. In one sense, all death is undignified.
          2. Argues only against certain aggravated forms of capital punishment and not capital punishment itself.
          3. In the final analysis, the question is not the dignity of death, but its equity or justice.
        6. “There’s no opportunity of to reform the criminal.” Justice is the goal of punishment, not reform.
        7. “Capital punishment violates human dignity.”
          1. It is specifically because of man’s value and dignity that we punish his moral wrongdoing. We don’t punish animals for stealing or killing (we don’t punish them, we remove them for our safety).
          2. We hold men morally responsible because of dignity.
          3. “It is based on the assumption that normal adult beings are rational and moral beings who knew better, who could have done otherwise, but yet who chose to do evil anyway, and who therefore deserve to be punished.” JPM p. 118
          4. Arguably it is undignified to force rehabilitation on free moral agents who don’t want it.
        8. Roman Catholic objections
          1. The Catholic position against capital punishment is somewhat ironic given their position on purgatory, in which even when God forgives a sinner, still he must suffer for his own sins.
          2. What of the practice of penance?

Study questions:

  1. Where is capital punishment first mentioned in the Bible ?
  2. What is the biblical rationale for capital punishment ?
  3. Show how capital punishment was assumed in the New Testament.
  4. Does Jesus’ ethic of love and forgiveness disallow capital punishment? Give reasons for your answer
  5. What is the basic view of man behind rehabilitationism? Retributionism ?
  6. How are the notions of praise and blame related?
  7. Reply to the arguments that capital punishment should be abolished because it is applied unfairly and innocent people may be condemned.
  8. Refute the “seamless garment” argument.