Is Capital Punishment Biblical?
Capital punishment has always been an arguable issue and for good reason. The Old Testament clearly calls for the death penalty on many occasions, whereas; many of the teachings of Jesus and others in the New testament readily denounce it. Therefore, both advocates ands opponents of capital punishment have Biblical references to support their beliefs.
Opponents use the creation story to show that all are created in God's image. Genesis 1:27a states that "God created man in his image."1 God, thus, has the power to give and take away life as he chooses. All men are to preserve life to the best of their ability. M. Margaret Falls says that we cannot treat people as mere instruments to personal survival, success or fulfillment.2
Advocates will also utilize Genesis 1:27 to prove that because man is created in God's image, man must preserve as many lives as possible, Therefore, the death of one, who has murdered many, will spare the useless and countless deaths of others. God's command to preserve life seems much more important here than the preservation of criminals.
Capital punishment is never used legitimately in the New Testament. Jesus' constant preaching of love and forgiveness shows his contempt for the harming of others. One example of love is found in John 15:17 "This is my command: Love each other." An example of forgiveness is Matthew 6:14 "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you."
Jesus practiced what he preached by not condemning guilty persons. In John 8:1-11, Jesus did not let the people stone a woman that is caught in adultery. Jesus is known for giving people second chances. Opponents of the death penalty think that everyone should learn from Jesus and give others a second chance, because the execution of a criminal cannot be justified by the good which their death may do for the rest of society.
As stated before, capital punishment was commanded by God of the people in the Old Testament. Exodus 21:14 states that "if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death." Levitical 24:17 and 24b essentially say the same thing to the effect that "whoever kills a man must be put to death." And lastly, Exodus 21:23 commands that "if there is a serious injury, you are to take life for life."
Genesis 9:5b-6 is the simplest statement mandating society to punish their fellow beings for murder3: "And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed for in the image of God has God made man." Advocates stress that these verses are not a suggestion, but instead a command that is not to be questioned - God demands, therfore, one should obey. The murderer must suffer for his actions because murder is denying the image of God in the harmed individual. To murder a man is equivalent to murdering God since man is created by him and in his image. The murderer, thus, did violence to God himself.
Jesus, in a sense, rewrites the Old Testament by his lesson found in Matthew 5:38-44:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye,
and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an
Evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek,
turn him the other also. And if someone wants to sue
you and take you tunic, let him have you cloak as well.
If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two
miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn
away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your
neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love
your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
These are commands, set forth by Jesus, to be taken literally and obeyed.
Again, M. Margaret Falls argues against capital punishment. She believes that man must value in each individual his distinctively human capacity for moral understanding - the ability to assess situations rationally, to make judgments. She thinks that by isolating the criminal from the community, society makes it clear that the person's behavior will not be tolerated and insists that the wrong doer assess his action. Punishment of this kind demonstrates a respect for the individual.4 Incarceration and rehabilitation are also two effective ways of protecting the innocent against convicted murderers.
It is sometimes argued that capital punishment is unjustified because those guilty of crimes cannot help acting as they do: the environment, possibly interacting with inherited characteristics, causes some people to commit crimes. If this were valid, all punishment would be unjustified. Those who break the law, it is said, are ill, suffering either from psychological malfunction or from treat them, to cure them of their illness so that they become able to function in socially acceptable ways. Death, obviously, cannot reform anyone.5
But, most people who break the law are not mentally ill and do know what they are doing. The state may not force them to go through treatment in place of the legal penalty for their offenses. To confine the victim to a mental institution until they are seen as cured is far more cruel than to imprison them.6
Advocates for the death penalty argue that criminals do not deserve respect, and that rehabilitation does not always work. Many times the criminal does not want to change. Some criminals do not seem to have a conscience and do not think that the crime they have committed is wrong and therefore do not usually rehabilitate. Also, with the prisons being more equipped than the average home, criminals will sometimes commit crimes just to get off the street. The death penalty must be installed in order to deter potential criminals and to spare the lives of potential victims.7
Even as far back as when Numbers was written, when a man was proved to be a murderer, he was to be executed with no opportunity for appeal.8 Capital punishment becomes the means of retribution for individual crimes. The most overlooked issues in the capital punishment debate is that persons condemned to death are compelled to accept total responsibility for their crimes.9 Gelatins 6:7 warns that "A man reaps what he sows."
The commandment to not kill, found in Exodus 20:13 has made many opponents of capital punishment. "The Hebrew word for 'kill' really means a violent, unauthorized death; the killing in a violent passionate way."10 The man who commits murder has lost the right to be a member of society and to move freely among men. A murderer must be removed by force or be incarcerated, so that he is not permitted to bring sorrow, heartache, and disaster into other homes.
Those who advocate the death penalty argue that when Jesus spoke of love and forgiveness, he meant that personally, all men should treat their neighbors as themselves; but, the government still was instructed by God to protect the society. Those against the death penalty believe that just as with sacrificing, which is commanded in the Old Testament, capital punishment is no longer needed to accommodate for individual's sin. Jesus paid the price for all sins, by dying. Everyone needs to repent, but nothing as drastic as death is expected.
Falls, M. Margaret, The Christian Century, "Against the Death Penalty:
A Christian Stance in a Secular World, The Christian Century
Foundation, Cicero, IL, 1986.
Finlay, Terence J., The Ten Commandments, Charles Scribner's Sons,
NY, NY, 1961.
Harrison, R. K., Numbers An Exegetical Commentary, Baker Book
House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1992.
Hoekema, David, The Christian Century, "Capital Punishment: The
Question of Justification, The Christian Century Foundation,
Chicago, IL, 1979.
Holy Bible, New International Version, Zondervan Publishing House,
Grand Rapids, MI, 1973.
Kaiser, Walter C. Jr., Hard Sayings of the Old Testament,
InerVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1988.
Steffen, Lloyd, Christianity and Crisis, "Casting the First Stone,"
Christianity and Crisis, Inc., Syracuse, NY, 1990.
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