The Death Penalty - a Defence

Chapter 5 

Page 1 (3) 

THE DEATH PENALTY AND THE BIBLE

Introduction

The capital punishment is a criminal-policy, philosophical,(1) humanistic and social issue. These different aspects have already been dealt with in different ways.

But the death penalty is also a religious issue. It is natural that the death penalty has religious points of attachment since it is dealing with morality, crime (sin), life and death. It touches existential questions.

Two world religions emanate from the Bible. Judaism emanates from the Old Testament, and Christianity emanates from both the Old and the New Testament of the Bible.

However one views the Bible, it makes up an important cultural document that has influenced and still influences a great part of the world. Every time and every culture has had its way to view crime and punishment. During a time the authority may consider theft of small insignificant things such an evil that it deserves death. During another time the authority may feel that a serial murderer that has tortured people to death has to be treated with care and concern.

It is not wise to claim that specifically our culture is the most enlightened, humane and final. In fifty years there may be totally different values ruling and one may blush when thinking of the so called "humane" view held by Western Europe today.

For those who, by faith, embrace a religion built on Holy Scriptures there are other prerequisites. To them the Holy Scriptures come – if respected and followed – to form a foundation that lasts despite the capricious shifts of the age.

Christianity is a religion built on scriptures.(2) It is founded on the Old and New Testament scriptures of the Bible. To the Christians who wish to take the Bible seriously – which is the classical standpoint – it does not become difficult to see the Bible’s message concerning the death penalty.(3) Here is a short exposé of what the Bible has to say concerning this topic.

THE OLD TESTAMENT AND THE DEATH PENALTY

As an introduction it should be mentioned that the Old Testament was the only Holy Scripture for Jesus, the apostles and the first Christians. It was the Old Testament they read, studied, sang from and believed in. The Christian Church has never abandoned the Old Testament.

Much of the Old Testament isn’t relevant for the Christian Church today (Col 2:16-17, Hebr 9-10), but the church has always taught that everywhere in the Old Testament there are divine principles with an eternal relevant character. We will always be able to find God’s being, his thoughts and plans also in the Old Testament. Christ himself has eternally sanctioned the Old Testament by saying "The Scripture cannot be broken" John 10:35.

"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…" (Exodus 21:23-25)

This is one of many Biblical expressions and quotes that are still living today. Since the words are often misused today it is important to know what the words meant in their original context in the Bible. This is not a quote from a personal vendetta. It is not for individuals to do the works of revenge. The quote is found in a legal situation where a judge is at work. (Ex 21).

Sometimes the expression was interpreted literally, Lev 24:20f, but sometimes fines were imposed when somebody had caused bodily injuries, Ex 21:18-19, 27.

The "eye for an eye" principle can be seen as a legal application of "the golden rule" (Matt 7:12): "Do to others what you would have them do to you". Both principles assume that we humans are equal and should treat each other in an equal and fair manner. If we harm another fellow human we at the same time admit that – according to the spirit of these principles – that others (i.e. the state governed by law) can do the same to us. "An eye for an eye" also means a protection for the guilty party, who should not have to worry about suffering more than the suffering he himself has caused. "An eye for an eye" thereby limits the extent of the retribution.

The principle means that the punishing consequence should be equal to what the victim has suffered. It is about that a fair compensation, sanction, should be imposed. In other words, in the days of the Bible one said "an eye for an eye" just as we today say the same thing about justice or retribution.

And retribution is a principle that runs through the Bible as a red thread. We find it in the Old Testament, for instance in the expression "an eye for an eye", in the New Testament (Rom 13:4, Acts 25:11), and in heaven (Rev. 6:10, 19:2).

"For the Lord is a God of retribution; he will repay in full." Jer 51:56

The principle found in the words "an eye for an eye" has always been more or less found in every legal system of every country in the world. The Biblical principle of "eye for eye" lays the foundation for the death penalty. The fundamental rule is that a life has to be paid for with a life. The Biblical expression "life for life" (Ex 21:23) often meant a death penalty, but not always (Numb 35:22-25).

Crimes that deserved the death in the Old Testament

According to Numb 35:31 there are criminals which "deserves to die". In the Old Testament the following crimes deserved the death penalty:

1. Murder (Gen 9:6, Ex 21:12, Numb 35:16-21).

2. Abuse of father or mother (Ex 21:15).

3. Speaking a curse over parents (Ex 21:17).

4. Stubborn, rebellious and disobedient children (Deut 21:18-21).

5. Blasphemy against God (Lev 24:14-16,23).

6. Breaking the Sabbath (Ex 31:14, Numb 15:32-36).

7. Practicing magic (Ex 22:18).

8. Fortune telling and practicing sorcery (Lev 20:27).

9. Religious people who mislead others to fall away (Deut 13:1-5, 18:20).

10. Adultery and fornication (Lev 20:10-12, Deut 22:22).

11. If a woman has intercourse before marriage (Deut 22:20-21).

12. If two people have intercourse when one of them is engaged. (Deut 22:23-24).

13. The daughter of a priest practicing prostitution (Lev 21:9).

14. Rape of someone who is engaged (Deut 22:25).

15. Having intercourse with animals (Ex 22:19).

16. Worshipping idols (Ex 22:20, Lev 20:1-5, Deut 17:2-7).

17. Incest (Lev 20:11-12, 14, 19-21).

18. Homosex (Lev 20:13).

19. Kidnapping (Ex 21:16).

20. To bear false testimony at a trial (Deut 19:16, 19).

21. Contempt of court (Deut 17:8-13).

The manner of execution in the Old Testament could be stoning, burning, using a sword, spear or arrow (Lev 20:27, 21:9, Ex 19:13, 32:27, Numb 25:7-8).

Of course there is no one who claims that every age and every country has to introduce the death penalty for exactly the crimes that are described in these Biblical books written more than 3000 years ago.

The most important and conclusive fact is that the Bible as a principle accepts the capital punishment as a legitimate form of punishment. The Bible gives "the divine sanctification" to the death penalty.

Common notes to these edicts

That God commands the death penalty is an expression of God’s holiness and righteousness. God has set certain orders. When the created man breaks these, God imposes punishment. That God uses the death penalty for crimes such as murder, assault, cursing and sexual sins, shows, not that God is mean and vicious, but that God values mankind and the eternal moral principles very highly. When a person violates or hurts a fellow man by words or acts this is something very serious to the Creator. Such things must sometimes be punished by death.

These divine orders therefore give safety and dignity to mankind. It shows us that God cares for us ordinary people, that He wants to protect us and that He wants us all well. Without order and without punishment we would only be creatures lacking responsibility that could do whatever we wanted to each other without being held responsible for anything. We would then live in a world that did not have any morals or ethics. Our value and our dignity would be nonexistent. We would be like animals.

It is the order of things and the punishments that proves to us that God highly value us humans. If we were nothing God would not have to care for us. But now God so cared about mankind and therefore the capital punishment for murderers exists as a defence, as a confirmation, as recognition of the high dignity and value of mankind. The death penalty, more than anything else, confirms that we are moral beings and as a consequence of that we can be held responsible for our actions.

Cain

Cain is somewhat of an exception in the Bible (Gen 4:1-16). Cain is not sentenced to death even though he murdered his brother Abel.

But there are several circumstances, which makes this event unsuitable as a basis for the subject of the death penalty. 1) The situation at the time of the murder is unclear. Was Cain provoked or threatened? Was it manslaughter or murder? 2) In the Bible we can not find if there was anything written that forbade murder at this time. And then the word's in Romans 5:13 must be applied. 3) The first spoken ban against murder came after ‘the flood’ (Gen 9:6), after the time of Cain and Abel. 4) We can not read in the Bible if there was any authority at this time that had the right to impose death sentences. 5) Cain was "cursed" by God for his act (v.11). This probably indicates that if there had been a direct decree against murder and a legal authority, Cain would have been executed.

We can also see that Cain is afraid that "whoever finds me will kill me." This shows that Cain seems to understand that he deserves death. But God gives Cain a "mark" so that no one who found Cain would kill him. God so wished to protect Cain from people who wished to take the law into their own hands. God did not want to see the "law of the jungle" rule, and therefore Cain was allowed to live even though "cursed" by God.(4)

Cities of refuge

We should mention that during the Old Testament times there was a legal practice using "refuge cities". These were cities where one who unintentionally had killed someone could run. By running to such a city one could avoid the death penalty (Numb 35:6, 22-25, Deut 19:1-10).

Short summary of important scriptures in the Old Testament:

Genesis 9:6 "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man."

These words are spoken by God. The verse does not only express an permission, but it is a command. It is the first commandment of the Bible that has a common legal character. We find in this verse a "law" draped in a poetic costume that is the basis for all coming laws concerning the capital punishment.

It is a foundational principle. And it is interesting to see that the first edict of a legal character is concerning the death penalty. God wants the death penalty for murderers and the reason is clearly declared: "for in the image of God has God made man."(5) One who murders destroys the "image of God" in a fellow man and thereby commits an indirect attack on God himself.

The historical context of the verse is that humankind has been filled with violence. "I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them." (Gen 6:11-13). God therefore punishes the world with a global death sentence, that which we call the Flood. Violence is thereby punished with "violence". Unjust violence is met by a just "violence". When the water had dried up, Noah and his sons are given this edict in Genesis 9:6 concerning death penalty for one who sheds blood. This means that God now somewhat delegates his punishing authority to people, so that they themselves can be judges and meet the evil violence with the sword of righteousness.

Gen 9:6 therefore makes up the embryo to the coming state that is given a divine authority to practice the role of the punisher. These verses can be seen as the foundational explaining why the Bible sets forth the capital punishment as an edict, namely that man is unique and has a value that surpasses everything else in creation.

To the Christian faith the death penalty is first and foremost a concern for the human value. God has commanded the death penalty for murderers as a sign, a proof, of the high and divine value of mankind (the victim of crimes), and that value is based on God’s care for mankind.

According to the Christian faith there are many commandments in the Old Testament that are invalid today, for instance different commandments concerning sacrifice, food, days, times of celebration and the circumcision. These commandments were meant for Israel and were for a specific timeframe.

But the commandment found in Gen 9:6 is generally applicable to its character, in the same way as the Ten Commandments are. It is an eternal principle that is brought forth. It is not that God during a certain time thought man to be "in the image of God" but then no longer had that thought. God will always consider murder a horrible act, and God’s attitude towards this will not be changed over the course of time.

This commandment made by God which is found in Gen 9:6 can only lose its validity if God’s attitude towards murder changes and if man no longer is "in the image of God". In other words the commandment has an eternal character.

But are not the violent criminal and the murderer also "in the image of God"? - In one sense, yes, but at the same time God’s image in such a person was distorted and darkened when the crime was committed that he more came to reflect the "image of the devil". According to Col 3:9-10 Christians have to strive for the good in order for them to become an "image of its Creator."

It is in other words our lives, our deeds, that show how much of the image of God that we reflect. A violent criminal or murderer does not reflect God in their deeds.

That man is "created in the image of God" also means that we have part of the same reaction as God concerning violent criminal acts. God is angry when murder is committed. We are too. God desires to punish the murderer. We do too. This reaction is sound, healthy and normal, a reflection of the divine spark that is placed in mankind.

In other words, the natural sense of right that we people have finds its source in Gen 9:6. If we paraphrased and brought Gen 9:6 into our secularized society it could look something like this: "One who takes another person’s life, has forfeit his own right to life, because man has an inviolable value."

The previous verse, Gen 9:5, says: "And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man."

Here God gives another reason for the death penalty, namely "accounting", in this context it means retribution. God "demands" death for one who sheds blood and, according to the following verse "mankind" is supposed to fulfil this demand. It is the high value of mankind, created in the image of God, which motivated the retribution. To be created in the image of God means that mankind is the object of God’s concern.

Accounting and retribution from the one who has killed has its source in God’s beating heart that cares for the victims of crime. A society without the capital punishment denies this goodness.

Numbers 35:31

"Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death."

In other words, no one should be able to buy himself free from the death penalty. Money should not be able to save the life of a murderer. An important principle is grounded here. The principle means that everyone is equal before the law. There is no difference between the poor and the rich. No matter the wealth – a murderer shall be punished by death. Also notice the word "deserves". God says here that people who commit heinous acts "deserves" the death penalty.

Numbers 35:33

"Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it."

Every bloody violent crime that takes place shakes the heavens and the universe. It is not cold and quiet out there in the universe at that time.

There is no reason to limit this Bible verse to Israel during a certain, limited time. God is the God of all the earth, and what ever happens in a country arouses God’s reaction. In every country where murder is committed the land is "polluted"; in other words it becomes defiled before God.

The text says that "atonement" can only be brought through the death penalty. In the Biblical use of language this means that God’s wrath can only be quenched and turned away when the authority of a country does its duty and executes the one who has shed blood. The perpetrator then becomes a sort of "sacrifice" whose blood pays for the evil deed.

If the authority refused to use the capital punishment the wrath of God will not only be aimed at the murderer but also at the State and indirectly towards the people as a whole.

Someone may object and say that the atonement of Christ included the crimes of the violent criminals and murderers, and there is therefore no reason to have the death penalty. It is in part correct. The atonement of Christ includes the murderer.

But the "atonement" of the death penalty is of another kind. When, for instance, a thief or a rapist is sentenced to prison this is a form of "atonement" for the victim of the crime and for the society, and the Christian may include – to God. The meaning is that the victim, the society and God once again have a good attitude towards the perpetrator after the punishment – an "atonement" has taken place; first there is hostility and anger towards the criminal, then the punishment, and thereafter everything is harmonious again. This is also a sort of "atonement." And – from a Christian perspective – this "atonement" is possible because of the atonement of Christ.

The one who still wishes to claim that the atonement of Christ excludes the death penalty must then also be consistent and deny all sorts of punishment, including such things as prison and fines. If Christ has taken the place of every criminal there is no longer, in a legal sense, the need to "atone" their crimes, and then no one can be sentenced to any sort of punishment since it would deny the atonement of Christ. But there is nothing in the Bible that indicates that the atonement of Christ would invalidate the laws of punishment that exist in every judicial system in the world today and that have been seen as obvious throughout history. Not even Jesus suggested such a thing.

Exodus 20:13

"You shall not murder."

Laymen and those not initiated sometimes get ahead of themselves and carelessly believe that the Bible forbids the death penalty because of this commandment. But this is a great mistake.(6) It is patently absurd that God who himself often in the Bible commands death penalty and who gave Moses the commandments in such a drastic way would contradict himself.

Throughout Christian history the fifth commandment has never been considered as aimed at the judicial system or the defensive forces. This commandment, like the others, is aimed at man as a regular citizen of the society. And the simple meaning of the fifth commandment is that no man is allowed to take the life of another man. Other verses of the Bible say that if this happens, the man who has taken the life of another must be punished by death.

Because of the existence of the fifth commandment we are, only a few verses down, met by the following commandment: "Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death." Ex 21:12 The conclusion is that he who breaks the fifth commandment and kills; he "shall surely be put to death." (See also below, the comments on Mathew 5:21-22, where Jesus quotes the fifth commandment.)

Ezekiel 18:23, 32

Well-meaning priests sometimes try to refer to these verses in order to try to squeeze something out of the Old Testament that could be understood as a dissociation of the death penalty. But this must be rejected when examining the text.

The following words are often quoted, grasped from their context,: "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? … I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord." What do these words mean?

Chapter 18 of Ezekiel is about the personal responsibility: One who lives godlessly will die because of sin. One who lives righteously will live. God wants everyone to live righteously and in that way escape death – this is God’s highest desire.

At the same time God wants death for the one who lives godlessly: "Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood … Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these detestable things, he will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head." Ez 18:10-13.

So we see that even in this context there is the threat of the death penalty.

It is true that God does not wish anyone’s death. Therefore God encourages to repentance in chapter 18. For those who do not repent but become violent criminals and murderers God demands death.

In Ez 33:11 the meaning is approximately the same. Ezekiel brings a message to the exiled people of Israel concerning personal responsibility. The sin and apostasy of the people of Judah was so great that God allowed his people to be sent into captivity in Babylon. There the people realized their apostasy and confessed their sins at the same time as they despaired and only saw death ahead. (v. 10) At that time God brought the message that he did not "take pleasure in the death of the wicked", meaning the death and destruction of his people in their exile. God therefore encourages each and everyone to turn back to God in order to live. Many did this. After about 70 years in Babylon a number of Jews returned to Jerusalem. They had chosen life. It is thus only a lack of elementary Bible knowledge that causes some religious abolitionists to use these Bible verses negatively concerning the capital punishment.

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Footnote 1. Among others the philosophers Hugo Grotius [1583-1645], Thomas Hobbes [1588-1679], John Locke [1632-1704], Jean Jacques Rousseau [1712-78], Denis Diderot [1713-84], Montesquieu [1689-1755], Friedrich Hegel [1770-1831], John Stuart Mill [1806-1873], and Immanuel Kant [1724-1804] argued in the support of the death penalty. Click here to read a defence of the death penalty by Immanuel Kant. Norberto Bobbio (abolitionist), professor of Political Philosophy and Jurisprudence: "Along the whole course of philosophical history, the general opinion among philosophers was favourable to the death penalty, starting with Plato ... If we were to base our argument on the great authorities, the abolitionists would be defeated." From the book The Age of Rights (1996), page 144.

Footnote 2. Islam is also a religion based on Scriptures; it proceeds from the Koran. Here we do not describe the Islamic view of the capital punishment, but one should know what Roger Hood writes: "Nearly all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, for example, are adamant that the retention of the death penalty is the clear commandment of Islam." The Death Penalty, 1996, page 213.

Footnote 3. When the classic attitude towards the Bible is abandoned it is much easier to abandon the defence of the death penalty, "Only when biblical literalism has been modified by modern critical methods does a different reading result, one that can bring new insights and understanding … The recent change of stance in Catholic evaluation of the death penalty may reasonably be seen as merely one of the many benefits stemming from the advent and acceptance of modern historical-critical studies." The Death Penalty – A Historical and Theological Survey, Megivern, 1997, page 14. And Harry Potter writes: "In the United States, as in England, the fact that the majority of the champions of abolition were also biblical liberals…and some were atheists such as Bentham and Shelley, put them in bad odor with the more orthodox Calvinist and Anglican clergy … Between the two sides a great gulf was fixed. Their respective approaches were irreconcilable, and their understanding of the ways of God as revealed in the Bible were unintelligible to each other." Hanging in Judgment, 1993, page 62-63.

Footnote 4. Lemek had also killed, Numb 4:23, but the poetic words in this verse can be interpreted to mean that it was not out of hate but self-defence. Moses killed the Egyptian, Ex 2:11-14, but it was from self-defence when he came to the rescue of a fellow countryman. Ehud killed, Judges 3, but it was in a war situation. It was also at war when Jael killed someone, Judges 4. David did not kill Uriah himself, 2 Sam 11:15 but he planned Uriah’s death. Thereby we have examples of Israelites killing without being sentenced to death. Sometimes there are legitimate explanations to why this isn’t the case. But sometimes not. But those cases only show that not even Israel always used the legal practices as the laws and God’s commandments commanded.

Footnote 5. Some try to avoid this commandment by claiming that the verse only gives a tragic foretelling of how man will act, and thereby deny that it would be a divine commandment. This is naturally untenable since the sentence "for in the image of God has God made man" then becomes impossible to explain. The word "for" means that an explanation of the commandment is coming.

Footnote 6. Bible scholars are united in interpretation that the commandment has nothing to do with the capital punishment. To give two examples: The catholic commentary The New Jerome Biblical Commentary 1993, writes as a comment on this verse: "Only illegal killing is prohibited; Israel had the death penalty." (See also the commentary’s interpretation of Deut 5:17) The protestant Study Bible New Geneva Study Bible, 1995, writes: "The verb here is never applied to Israel at war, and capital punishment was already authorized. (Gen. 9:6, Lev. 24:17, Num. 35:30-34)."

When Norberto Bobbio (abolitionist), professor of Political Philosophy and Jurisprudence, once were given a lecture for Amnesty International about the death penalty and went through a number of more or less defective arguments against the death penalty he said at the end: "Let us try to give a reason for our repugnance for the death penalty. There is just one reason: the commandment not to kill. I can see no other reason. Apart from this last reason, all the other reasons are worth little or nothing, and can be rebutted with other arguments which have more or less the same persuasive force." From the book The Age of Rights (1996), page 141. And as we have seen above, not even this commandment can help Bobbio. On the contrary, precisely this commandment constitute a sort of a foundation for the death penalty to be proclaim in the Bible.