No Reason for the Death Penalty
Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 9:38AM
Jeff Smith

Capital punishment is a controversial issue in this age. It probably has always been so to some degree, but until the twentieth century, the execution of properly convicted criminals was carried out with far less consternation. Capital punishment is certainly a policy issue, as it is commonly administered today only by duly appointed ministers of civil governments. Capital punishment, is, however, also an issue for Bible students, and, as always, our faith ought to inform our politics rather than the other way around. We ought to be Christians first, in submission to the will of God, not reading his will in a way that will merely support political positions we want to take as supporters of a party or a candidate.

I. Biblical Development of the Death Penalty

    A. The Genesis of Society

        1. God threatened Adam and Eve with a death penalty of sorts while they toiled in Paradise as keepers of the Garden of Eden, promising that if they dared to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die

        2. he did not, however, have in mind a trip to the gas chamber or a last smoke before the firing squad; rather he anticipated that they would lose access to the tree of life and begin to age uncontrollably, finally suffering physical death and returning to the soil from when he made them

        3. once they were banished from Eden, sin spread to all of their offspring as each person eventually went astray in some way, including their son, Cain, who slew his brother, Abel

            a. interestingly, Cain was not condemned to die for his murder (Genesis 4:9-16)

            b. instead, sevenfold vengeance was decreed against anyone who tried to execute Cain for his crime

        4. it is not until after the deluge that capital punishment is finally instituted for this new society (Genesis 9:5-6)

            a. the Hebrew in the text makes it clear that capital punishment is not just another murder (xcr, Ratsach, pronounced raw-tsakh'), but is a divinely-sanctioned putting to death (grh, Harag, pronounced haw-rag')

            b. moreover, in that age before the Law of Moses, capital punishment as a response to a murder conviction was not merely possible, but required


    B. The Law of Moses

        1. the law of God became much more codified and formalized when Israel began to settle down and become a landed nation

        2. the Law of Moses, beginning with the ten commandments, was established to govern Israel with civil and moral laws, including a prohibition against murder in the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13)

        3. besides premeditated murder, the Hebrew also covered causing human death through negligence or carelessness

        4. it is that broader definition of the term that we see used in the Old Testament, even as the number of capital offenses also expanded

            a. acts of violence, including murder and kidnapping (see Numbers 35:16-21, Exodus 21:16)

            b. dishonoring one’s parents (see Exodus 21:15-17, Leviticus 20:9)

            c. sexual immorality (see Leviticus 20:10-30)

            d. worshiping idols (see Exodus 22:20, Leviticus 20:1-5, Deuteronomy 17:2-7)


    C. Eye for an Eye

        1. a policy of measured punishment was established with the adoption of “an eye for an eye” (Leviticus 24:19-20)

        2. the point of this was not intensify the thirst for personal vengeance, but to control it and to make certain that people were not being killed for minor offenses

        3. there are many examples of capital punishment in the Old Testament, although no records of certain sins ever meeting with the highest price


II. Separation of Church and State

    A. New Testament Church

        1. at the death of Christ, the Law of Moses became obsolete and ready to vanish; its authority as a combined civil and moral law was nullified (Ephesians 2:14-15)

        2. church and state were separate, as the church would exist all over the world and not just alongside the Mediterranean Sea, ignoring the imaginary lines on maps that divide state from state

        3. civil governments would have their distinct laws and the church of Christ would have its, and certain policies that once blurred the lines between moral and civil would be altered

        4. the church of Christ would have no involvement in the punishment of wrongdoers, save in the sense of disciplining wayward members (see First Corinthians 5:1-13)

        5. indeed, anyone who persists impenitently in sin is deserving of death, but not simply capital punishment at the hands of a human government (Romans 1:28-32, 6:23)


    B. Sanhedrin and Caesar

        1. capital punishment was a power that the Jewish Sanhedrin forfeited very reluctantly, but as it was subjected to Caesar in the first century, it had to request permission to execute a falsely convicted blasphemer like Christ (see Luke 23:1-16)

        2. when the Jews wanted to kill Stephen, however, they did not wait for approval, but dragged him out of the city and stoned him to death (see Acts 7:54-60)

        3. Jesus had been challenged to ignore Roman authority by calling for the execution of a woman caught in the act of adultery, but he demurred, preferring to invite her instead to repentance, and showing the transition he had in mind as church and state separated (see John 8:1-11)


    C. The Apostle Paul

        1. the apostle Paul found himself at once an enemy of the Sanhedrin and a nuisance to the Roman government; to save his life on one occasion, he was compelled to exercise his right as a Roman citizen to appeal directly to Caesar for adjudication of his case (Acts 25:8-12)

        2. later, after he was shipwrecked en route to that tribunal, he explained what was going on to some Roman Jews (Acts 28:17-22)

            a. Paul argues that, in his case, nothing had been done that merited the death penalty – no blasphemy against God, no desecration of the temple; he had only preached Jesus, a subject that irked a community of leaders who once gladly accepted the savior’s blood on their heads, but now wished to have it forgotten

            b. Paul did not object to capital punishment, if it was deserved, but there was no justification in his case

        3. moreover, he wrote a letter to the Romans before his forced visit, that outlined the Holy Spirit’s position on state-sponsored executions (Romans 13:1-4)



There are many problems with capital punishment throughout the world today as it is sometimes used against political foes or the weak rather than true criminals. Science has enabled us to become more certain today that someone facing execution is truly guilty, and we ought to support the use of every instrument available to us. Capital punishment by civil authority is permitted by God.


Questions For Review

  1. What was Cain’s sentence and protection?
  2. When did capital punishment begin?
  3. What is the difference between murder and capital punishment?
  4. What were capital crimes under the Law of Moses?
  5. Explain whether those laws are still in effect today?
  6. What did Jesus prefer to executing sinners on the spot?
  7. What did Paul teach regarding capital punishment?
Update on Monday, May 14, 2012 at 8:43AM by Registered CommenterJeff Smith

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