We continue our critique of the Christian Action document Biblical principles for Using Your Vote on http://www.savotersguide.com. The author’s fifth point concerns the death penalty for murderers.
Is this principle Biblical?
It is beyond the scope of this short critique to attempt to settle the NT stance on the death penalty. The author quotes a very important verse, Genesis 9:6, which says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Similarly, in the OT, many of God’s laws for his people are backed by the death penalty for disobedience.
What I suspect is in view in Genesis 9, and what is certainly in view in the ‘eye for an eye’ passage, is the deep concern that the punishment should fit the crime, that justice should be meted out in only the right measure.
In the later NT, it is assumed that Christians will be scattered among the nations, and so order of government is not much on the agenda. The threat in Romans 13 that governors carry the sword to execute justice would seem to suggest that the death penalty is assumed.
Having said that, in the NT, the death penalties that adhere to the Jewish Law are not carried over into the church. When it comes to dealing with wickedness in the church, Paul’s command is to ‘expel the wicked brother from among you’ (1Cor 5). Excommunication ensures that the holy church is kept pure. The OT sentence of death is a reminder that we need to regard sin in the church with the utmost seriousness. I’m unconvinced, therefore, that the OT death penalty is a precedent for Christian politics (and we certainly would never argue that it ought to be applied to all the crimes with which it is attached in the OT).
Another puzzle is Jesus himself. When a woman is brought before him to be stoned for adultery (John 8), Jesus diverts attention away from the letter of the Law, and demands that those without sin should cast the first stone. Of course, no one does.
On the occasion of Jesus’ own execution, God’s plan sees to it that a man is given a pardon in Jesus’ place. That man is Barabbas, a murderer. Perhaps one should only say that this is a picture of those who justly deserve death being given life that they don’t deserve. It surely is that. However, it is interesting that Jesus’ death averts a death penalty for someone else. There is mercy even for the murderer.
I am convinced that scripture requires of us a love for justice, but I am not convinced that scripture is unequivocal about making the death penalty a part of that.
Is it essential?
When it comes to the administration of a country that is not The Holy Land, I think that Christians are justified in supporting the death penalty, but I am cautious about insisting that they do.
Firstly, our primary concern must be for true justice, and the death penalty forms only a small part of a justice system. Given that the death penalty was horrifically abused under Apartheid, and that it is similarly abused in some Islamic states in the name of religion, we should perhaps be cautious about making out as though the death penalty represents justice. In can in fact represent (and be) the opposite. While we sort through the aftermath of Apartheid, perhaps it’s right for Christians to support a moratorium on capital punishment.
Secondly, the death penalty must be used to execute justice, not revenge. Too much of what people in this country say about the death penalty is closer to blood lust than to a concern for doing what is right. Whether or not the death penalty is right, it might not be right to give the wrong people the power to take life.
Thirdly, the death penalty is not something to take lightly. It was often used in the OT as a graphic reminder of the seriousness with which God regards the holiness of his name, one that would inspire fear of God. It would be a most grave injustice if we called for such a terrifying penalty to become the norm in a justice system that we know to be prone to error and corruption.
So, while it is a key part of Biblical justice, it presupposes that just men will administer such an awesome responsibility. In plural society, Christians may decide that conditions would make capital punishment unwise. My advice is for Christians to prayerfully examine their own hearts, to get informed, and to follow conscience.