Friday, December 28, 2007

Death, the Death Penalty, and Scripture

"I don't believe in the death penalty because there's
something too final about putting someone to death.
Once it happens, there's no going back and there's no opportunity
for repentance, salvation, or basically a second-chance."

The above was spoken to me many years ago by a Christian friend.

A part of me, most certainly, feels for that sentiment. After all, we live in an age of grace, second-chances, and redemption. Christ came to seek and save the lost. As believers we are called to forgive no matter what. God chose to transform lost people rather than simply destroy them.

That being said, does this therefore compel if not obligate a Christian to hold to the above sentiment regarding the death penalty? Does the fact of our living in the new covenant mitigate if not eliminate such strong enforcements of criminal law?

Once again, this boils down to a question of allowing Scripture to speak to us on its terms rather than banking on our well-meaning but often misguided and blurry feelings on the matter, or forwarding well-intended philosophical arguments without basis in Scripture.


The first question that must always be addressed is whether Scripture itself directly addresses this issue. Many issues are not, ranging from abortion to Sunday school. Certainly principles exist to indirectly and sufficiently address these issues. But a direct consideration is foremost in any discussion if such exists.

And in this case it does, so it deserves primary consideration.

1. Old Testament:

It is patently absurd to deny the fact of the death penalty as described and enforced in the OT Mosaic law. No fewer than 45 times in the Law (between Exodus 20 and the end of Deuteronomy) is the phrase "put to death" (NIV) discussed. These texts describe who is and who is not to be punished in this way.

Specific crimes worthy of capital punishment include some of the following: striking and killing someone (Ex 21:12); kidnapping and selling into slavery (Ex 21:16); cursing parents (Ex 21:17); desecrating the Sabbath (Ex 31:14); sacrificing children to Molech (Lev 20:2); adultery (Lev 20:10-13); beastiality (Lev 20:15-16); blaspheming the Lord (Lev 24:16); anyone going near the tabernacle except the priests and Levites (Num 1:51); worshippers of Baal (Num 25:5); false prophets (Deut 13:5).

Now such a list may seem daunting and may give the false impression that the Lord hands down death for just about anything. A complete reading of the Law steers one very clear of this conclusion. Far more offenses are punishable by fines or compensated for by making offerings.

A classic example of the Law being careful to hand down punishments "depending on the situation" is found in Deuteronomy 22:22-30. Here there are 4 situations of sexual contact, each with a punishment based upon the nature of the offense.

First is a clear case of mutual-consent adultery. At least one offender is married. Both are to be put to death (v.22). This sets the basic standard but opens the door to questions about slightly different scenarios.

The second is different than the first only because one of the persons involved, the woman, is betrothed/pledged/engaged but not actually married. In this case, the Law makes it clear that the betrothal is equal enough in the eyes of God to deem that person "married" and therefore both are treated under the first case and are to be put to death (vv. 23-24). So not being "technically" married doesn't give the persons a death penalty "out." But what if there's the situation where the woman (perhaps regretting the consenual act later) falsely claims she was raped (the third scenario) to save her own skin and put all the blame on the man? This is why the text specifies that it applies if it takes place "in a town" (v. 23). Israel had small villages and even its larger towns' housings were crammed together. It was practically impossible for someone to resist rape, kick, scream, run without someone noticing it. As a general rule, the lack of noticeable protest (which would be heard by someone in a town/ village) before, during, or immediately afterward points to mutual consent.

The third scenario involves rape, this time directly. The man who rapes the betrothed woman (evidenced by that she "screamed") is to be put to death but not the woman (vv. 25-27). This law actually contains two principles in one. First, it makes clear that rape is a sexual crime normally punishable by death. Second, it makes allowances for a woman raped not in a town but "in the country" (where there's nobody around). Isolated, there can be no proof of her protestations. Could she have lied? Yes, but then the man could be guilty of rape without proof in her favor either. The Law, it seems, defaults to the woman, favoring her over the man, which is consistent with God's pattern of favoring those in a more helpless position in society.

The fourth scenario switches to a woman who is not married ("a virgin") but who is raped. Now the third scenario makes it clear that rape is normally punishable by death. But what changes the punishment is that the woman is unmarried. The married woman who is raped will be taken care of (presumably) by her husband (as the Law would require). But the unmarried woman, though innocent, would be generally considered unclean by the culture and her victimization would unfairly relegate her to a life of destitution which was the result of many women who did not get married. This is why the punishment is a fine plus the requirement to marry her without a divorce option.

(By western American standards this seems like adding insult to injury- to require the victim to marry the offender. But in 1st century Jewish culture, it would be a greater insult to NOT require this as she wouldn't have the victim-acceptance as we do today and she will all but likely live a life alone, outcast, and die destitute. Every woman in that society would whole-heartily agree that this Law is not only good but highly preferrable. "Force that man to make up for his crime by devoting his whole life to supporting me! And I can even berate him all my life and he can't divorce me!")

All this to say that the Law makes provision for capital punishment yet doesn't do so lightly. Also God makes it clear that no act of such punishment happens out-of-his-hands as if He were not sovereign. The claim that death is "too final" makes it seem like it is an act that can circumvent the sovereignty of God, that someone could be put to death who "should have" had the chance to repent or return but was not given the chance. As if God snaps his fingers and says, "Aw, too bad! If only..." This is not the biblical picture.

Note how God affirms his absolute sovereignty at the conclusion of the Law and in specific regard to the death penalty:

"See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand." (Deuteronomy 32:39).

This is an affirmation that NOTHING happens beyond the bounds of a sovereign God. Not even those put to death. Death is not final. God is final.

2. New Testament

At this point, one can assert, "Well, that's the OLD Testament! That was well and good then, but we live in the NEW Covenant that has changed the rules. It's forgiveness not punishment, salvation not condemnation, grace not Law."

Unquestionably, we do live in that era and there has been a fundamental paradigm shift (while the content and standard of the Law is upheld if not the bar raised). But is there evidence that any of this mitigates or eliminates the need for capital punishment as evidenced by the Mosaic Law? When Jesus Christ "fulfilled" the Law, did he end the practical necessity of the civil laws?

Again, we go to where capital punishment is discussed in the NT.

Matthew 15:3-9 (esp. v. 4): Here Jesus discusses the Pharisees' traditions which have altered the reading of the Law. One such Law is the capital crime of cursing one's parents. No where does Jesus speak of undoing, mitigating, or softening the Law as a result of his death or the New Covenant. Quite the opposite, he scolds the Pharisees for softening the strength of Laws like these: "Thus, you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition." (v. 6). Jesus always upheld the Law and often raised it back up to the original standard if not a bit higher.

John 8:1-11: Some have used this encounter with the adulterous woman to demonstrate that Jesus was soft on the Law, especially capital punishment, all in favor of grace and forgiveness. Again, a close reading of the text betrays no such thing. When the Pharisees confront Jesus with the adulteress and correctly state that the Law requires her condemnation (though the adulterous man is oddly missing!), far from denying the Law or washing it away in favor of forgivenses, Jesus states the "cast the first stone" principle. Again, a closer look at that shows that Jesus IS calling upon the people to stone her under the Law. But by saying, "If any of you is without sin, let him cast the first stone" Jesus is not requiring sinlessness by the ones casting stones (for this was not required by the Law, yea, it was impossible).

Instead, Jesus is saying, "If you stone this woman, then don't just end with her, go all the way! Remember what the Law requires! Blasphemy requires death. Cursing parents requires death. Anyone here guilty of adultery or who has relatives guilty of that are punishable by death. Are you prepare to drag them out, too? Are you willing to be scrutinized as well? Go ahead and stone her but only if you're willing to go all the way with the Law like you're supposed to! Don't just make her an object lesson and walk away!"

So Jesus actually strongly affirms the Law: Go ahead and stone her, but if you do go all the way with the Law. His point was that Israel as a whole was hypocritical. Stoning a stranger, a known offender is easy. Applying that Law to yourself and your loved ones is another story. Jesus upheld the Law, even capital punishment. By redirecting it them, Jesus showed their unwillingness to uphold the Law not his. And when they all walk away (Pharisees included), Jesus has the choice to continue the stoning himself or, as the mediator of the New covenant and the Lord God himself, offer forgiveness. He does the latter but, not being easy on sin, commands her to go and sin no more. This is not an overturning of capital punishment. It is revelatory that this people was too weak to uphold the Law and live it, which is why they needed a savior and a newer covenant and someone to fulfull the Law for them.

Romans 13:1-5: Perhaps the best direct case for ongoing capital punishment emerges from Paul's statement in Romans 13:1-5. Here Paul addresses the broader issue of how believers are to relate to governments. Remember that Rome on the one hand was more civilized than many neighboring lands and on the other hand was full of its own corruptions and oppressiveness. It was hardly a perfect government. Yet this did not allow for an excuse to dishonor, rebel, or disobey that government. Paul argues that ALL governments, even corrupt ones, are instituted by God. That doesn't mean all the leaders are godly or certain ones shouldn't be overthrown. It is the institution that is sacred not its constituents.

Paul specifically outlines what about the institution that is important, none of which is apparently affected by the reality of the New covenant. Verses 3-5 make the primary reason for submitting to governments that their principal God-given purpose is to maintain order by creating "terror" for "those who do wrong" (v. 3). Paul goes so far as to call the government leader "God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer" (v. 4). Paul is not naive to the reality of evil laws and unjust punishments. But none of these isolated situations overthrows the more permanent reality that even the most corrupt governments maintain law and order and maintain the "fear factor" of doing wrong. Simply put, governments punish crimes and therefore keep the concept of a "crime" alive and well, as they should. Having some law, even if full of unjust ones, is preferrable to no law at all.

Most importantly, in verse 4, Paul uses the phrase "bear the sword" to describe the government's enforcement of the law and their bringing of fear and terror to the wrongdoer. This is an indisputable reference to capital punishment. This is concurrent and consistent with the following statement about being an agent of God's wrath. God's wrath always results in death and destruction. Paul upholds the government's right, yea, need to bring fear to society in general. The sword of capital punishment is one such tool, one alive and well under the New covenant, and under Paul, arguably the New covenant's greatest articulator.

Therefore, Paul generally upholds the government's right and divine purpose as enforcing laws punishable by that government in order to restrain sin in the world. He specifically mentions capital punishment ("the sword") as one such means governments can and ought to use to enforce the fear of wrongdoing.

* The conclusion it seems is that both Old and New Testaments uphold the need for sin to be restrained. One such important means is the death penalty, that which holds the greatest "terror" for wrongdoers. It is precisely the finality of death that restrains the sin. And since God is in control, He even has his purposes for seeing "innocent" people (innocent of that particular crime) wrongfully put to death under that nation's laws or seeing people put to death under unjust laws.


This topic is far too broad to cover adequately so I will make a few comments only, those most pertinent to the discussion at hand.

First, it must be observed that as the Creator of Life, God retains the right to remove that life according to his will and timing. While there is a definite dignity and value to all human life, this has never deterred God from enacting disasters, judgments, and plagues that destroy that life en masse. Take the very first act of judgment: the universal Flood. However many people existed on the earth at that time, all were killed except for 8 people. Since then, God has shown no hesitation to have large quantities of people put to death for any number of reasons. While he never does it randomly, carelessly, or unrighteously, he does it still. He is the potter and has the right to crush whatever clay figurines he fashions. This is no less true in the New Testament. Even in the covenant of grace, the New Testament offers the most sweeping picture of death on earth: Revelation. Noah's generation may have been wiped out, but the sheer numbers of people now overshadow those then. In the numbers game, death swallows up its most victims in Revelation.

Second, because of universal sin in the Fall, humanity has forfeited the right to cry, "Foul!" for judgment and death. Romans 5 makes it clear that death spread through our sin. Though God enacts and allows death, sin is the principal cause that created and warranted every and all deaths that have subsequently occurred. Even so called accidents have their ultimate roots in sin: natural disasters come from a fallen world poisoned by sin (Genesis 3- even the ground is cursed, perhaps entropy?); car accidents result from carelessness, or faulty mechanics, or poor judgment, or imperfect car designs, etc. Our bodies are weakened because of sin and are susceptible to things a glorified body would not (diseases, injuries, etc.). Death results from sin. Capital punishment exists to enact death in order to prevent further spread of death (e.g., putting to death a serial killer) or the ruin of a life.

And even though from a human point of view, someone wrongfully convicted of a crime and put the death for it was "innocent," this innocence is only in the eyes of human law. In God's eyes, that person was a sinnner worthy of death and every day without death was simply his grace and mercy. And if God wanted to spare the person or give that person another chance, either he could have found a way to postpone execution, grant escape, resurrect the person, unearth evidence to the contrary, provide witnesses to prove innocence, or help that person evade getting caught in the first place. God is sovereign and is not without means of postponing death.

Third, especially for Christians death ought to be a non-issue. We've died twice. First, sin killed us. Second, we died with Christ. This is why Paul insists we see our lives as forfeit. Romans 8 speaks of us as lambs led to the slaughter. 1 Peter 4 calls us to "arm" ourselves with death, namely, to make death useful to us by not fearing it and seeing ourselves as already dead and every moment not-dead as a blessing and an opportunity to witness for Christ. Paul speaks of death as gain in Philippians 1. So far from fearing death, we embrace it, yea, arm ourselves with it.

Fourth, the totality of this is reflected in the complete absence of treating death with kid-gloves in the NT. Christians who are anti-capital punishment can speak about mercy, grace, and forgiveness all they want. But these are not inherently anti-capital punishment anymore than they are anti-holiness, anti-righteousness, and anti-law (though some have argued these things). The plain fact is that with all of the emphasis on grace, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, and grace, there is no indication at all on now treating the death-issue differently on a societal level. The New covenant changed many things. It changed how one views clean and unclean foods. It changed how we seek to be lights to the world. It changed our application of the Law. It changed our fundamental relationship toward people. In regard to death, it defeated death on the cross through Christ. But it did not instruct Christians to back off the death-penality issue. Nowhere do we see Paul or Peter advocating that Rome ought to relax its punishment laws so that they could have more chances to evangelize to people. If anything, the fear and reality of death helped them....

Fifth, the reality is that in the 1st century death was commonplace. We moan and groan about it today because we live in a society that's engineered to forestall death, make it painless, and minimize it at virtually all costs. We've become hypersensitive to its reality and even more fearful, as Christians, of it than our 1st century predecessors. This doesn't mean that Jesus and Paul took death lightly. They took it as reality, as something enacted by God and caused by sin. They didn't see the solution as trying to keep as many people alive as possible. They saw the solution as the gospel.

The imminent reality of death is what makes the gospel both attractive and imperative. It is precisely the lie of the expectation of being able to live long that makes 21st century westerners abandon their fear of the Lord. They trust too much in the healthcare system or their own cleverness or the government to protect them. I'm not suggesting that death is a fear-drug that manipulates someone to Christ. Instead, it's the medicinal tonic that wakes up a sleeper and a self-deceived fool who thinks that he can cheat death forever and put off the question of what happens after death. Believers who seek to feed the keep-away-death-at-all-costs mentality are only following the course of western society and in fact may be taking away a powerful and needful element for gospel preaching. This is not a call to treat death glibly or lightly. To the contrary, gospel preaching treats death with the utmost seriousness. Its reality is what makes salvation necessary. Christ came mainly to defeat death: that's the center of the gospel message. It is mistaken to treat death as the enemy of the gospel when it is one of its most powerful allies.

For myself personally, I do believe in the death penalty because there is NOT something too final about death. Finality belongs to God. And he uses death: (1) to teach us about life, (2) to unmask the reality of our weaknesses and need for a savior, (3) to rid the world of evil, (4) to restrain evildoers from fully living out the sin of their hearts, and even (5) to remind us of the unfairness of this world, this life . Governments exist primarily for this fourth purpose and to attempt to remove it from their hands is about as close to disobeying God's command to honor government authorities in Romans 13 as it gets.

Certainly grace and forgiveness are primary in the new covenant. But sin is still a stark reality and needs to be restrained in the world. The answer isn't to remove the sword from the hand of the government or make every effort to put off death as long as possible. This doesn't mean either that we forego medical treatment, medical research, or CPR. Death is real, unavoidable, and whose only solution is Christ.

The answer is to face people with the question and reality of death and present the gospel as their only answer. For it is. Christians who advocate to the contrary have forgotten that God is Final, not death.