Updated: Nov 26, 2020
A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with some young Christians who said they didn’t believe in the death penalty. “But do you believe God believes in the death penalty?” I asked.
Well, there was some debate on that. They thought God did believe in it, but Jesus didn’t largely because of the story of the woman caught in adultery. “I’m not sure how to take that.” I said, “I always thought Jesus was God, don’t you? Do you think the Son and the Father have a disagreement over this issue?” They weren’t ready to go there, so of course they wanted to know what I thought.
I don’t believe in the death penalty as it’s enforced in the U.S. currently. But, I actually believe in the death penalty, if we applied it with the safeguards God provided. And here’s why; The law God gave to Moses to regulate the nation of Israel made provision for at least sixteen capital crimes. But let’s limit our discussion to two of the most common uses of the death penalty in America.
Under the law of Moses, the death penalty was required in cases of premeditated murder (Exodus 21:12-14,22-23; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16-21). This regulation even included the situation in which two men might be fighting and, in the process, cause the death of an innocent bystander or an unborn infant. It did not include accidental homicide, which we call “manslaughter.”
Kidnapping was also a capital crime under the Old Testament.
“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.” Exodus 21:16
A few years back, there was a true story about the kidnapping of a seven-year-old boy as he was walking home from school. The man who stole him kept him for some seven years, putting the child through emotional and sexual abuse, before the boy, at age fifteen, was finally returned to his parents. He was a different child, and never again would be the same. God would not tolerate such a thing in the Old Testament including slavery, if the slave was kidnapped. And presumably the slave owner was also guilty of the death penalty if they possessed a slave they knew was kidnapped. (This would apply to almost all slaves in the U.S. prior to the Civil War.)
The Innocence Project The Innocence Project is a 25-year-old organization that re-examines the case of certain convicted felons to determine if they might have been wrongly convicted. Since their beginning, they have helped exonerate over 350 prisoners, 20 of whom were on death row. Most often these convictions are overturned by DNA evidence. How is it that so many prisoners end up wrongfully imprisoned or executed?
1. Lack of Eyewitnesses U.S. law does not require that there actually be eyewitnesses to a crime, including murder. Circumstantial evidence is enough to cause some juries to convict people to death. That’s the first reason why I’m against the death penalty.
However, God has a much higher standard.
“On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.” Deuteronomy 17:6
Can you imagine how much more just our system of laws would be if we adopted God’s standard? I have been asked if the presence of a person’s DNA on the victim or at the site of the murder, is the equivalent of a witness. I think it is, but obviously the Bible doesn’t say.
2. The witnesses are not also the executers.
In the U.S. we do not require the witnesses, the jury or judge to actually execute a person. That was not God’s intent. That’s the second reason I’m against the death penalty, as it’s exercised in the U.S.
“The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you.” Deuteronomy 17:7
Why is it God would require those who claim to witness a crime be the actual executers? Because if the witnesses had lied, by stoning the accused, they themselves would be guilty of murder! When we read the story in the gospels of the women caught in adultery and Jesus tells the accusers. “He who is without sin, must cast the first stone,” we think Jesus just shamed all those hypocritical religious leaders into giving up on stoning her. While that’s possible, it’s more likely they did not have enough eyewitnesses, and did not want themselves to be guilty of murder.
But there was one more check and balance God added to make sure justice was done.
3. We don’t make the penalty for perjury stiff enough.
“The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.” Deuteronomy 19:18-20
Can you imagine the impact it would have on witnesses if we imposed the death penalty for perjury?
Thou shall not kill Some will quote, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13) to justify doing away with capital punishment. That verse is widely recognized as a prohibition against taking matters into our own hands and exercising personal vengeance. All punishment in the Old Testament was always to be carried out by the community. (And in the New Testament, by the church – the community of believers.) If the woman caught in adultery was not convicted by the Roman authorities, stoning her would have been carried out by a vigilante group, which was not permitted by God.
New Testament Teaching Moving to the New Testament, which reveals God’s will this side of the cross, the matter of capital punishment is treated virtually the same. The New Testament clearly teaches that capital punishment is God’s will for human civilization. Consider, for example, Romans 13:1-4.
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists that authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
This passage clearly affirms that the state—civil government—has the God-ordained responsibility to keep law and order, and to protect its citizens against evildoers. The word “sword” in this passage refers to capital punishment. God expects duly constituted civil authority to invoke the death penalty upon citizens who commit crimes worthy of death.
It Doesn’t Work I hear often that the death penalty just doesn’t work to reduce crime. That would come as a shock to God. When telling Israel to put to death anyone who violates his laws, he said in Deuteronomy 13:11, “Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.”
It is true that some people are so depraved or mentally ill that the death penalty will likely not be a deterrent. But even if it didn’t, capital punishment still eliminates from society people who’ve proven they do not value human life.
Summary In spite of these arguments, I’m not advocating for the death penalty. What I am advocating for is a much higher burden of proof for death penalty executions to avoid at all costs executing innocent men and women. Life in prison is still an option for murders for whom there aren’t two eyewitnesses. I’d rather send 99 truly guilty murderers to prison than take the life of one innocent person. That truly is an injustice.
How following Jesus works in real life.
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