The question of the morality of capital punishment will always be debated, partly because men and women will always be stirred by the prospect of a human being¹s death at the hand of an executioner. We ought to shrink from any delight at seeing another person’s death or punishment, for it should never be something that is desired. It ought to be a dreadful thing to see a person put to death. Why? Because man is created in the image of God, and because life itself is from God. But the fact that human life is a gift from God is precisely the reason the death penalty must be an option of a benevolent state that seeks to protect innocent people from those who have no respect for that gift. The source for such a belief is the Word of God itself. If life is God’s gift, and it is, then man has the right to take a life only when God gives that authority. Such is given in both Old and New Testaments. After the Noahic flood, God declared, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man,” Genesis 9:6. Human life is so valued by Jehovah that He has decreed that those who would deliberately and unlawfully take that life must forfeit their own. It should be noted that this statement, while found in the book of Genesis, is not a part of the Mosaic code that was abolished when Jesus shed His blood on the cross, Ephesians 2:15. However, it is a principle that is as binding today as the day it was given. See also Acts 25:11 and 1 Peter 2:13-15.
OLD TESTAMENT PRINCIPLES
In addition to Genesis 9:6, at least twenty other Bible passages declare capital punishment as a valid means of crime prevention, including, “The murderer shall surely be put to death,” Numbers 35:16. This verse includes the accidental killing of another person, but clearly states that murder is a capital crime: “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you,” Deuteronomy 17:6-7. Note here that a fair trial is presumed, and that such punishment, properly ordered, can be a deterrent to crime.
NEW TESTAMENT PRINCIPLES
No, man is no longer under the law of Moses as outlined in Exodus and Deuteronomy. But we are obligated to the New Testament of Jesus Christ, and that law gives similar authority for such punishment. “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men,” 1 Peter 2:13-15. While man is responsible primarily to God¹s laws, he is also obligated to abide by the laws of man insofar as they do not violate the laws of God. And when civil laws are broken, divine authority has been delegated to law enforcement persons for the implementation of those laws.
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil,” Romans 13:1-4.
Paul, recognizing the validity of civil law and authority, later told a Roman official, “If I have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die,” Acts 25:11.
NOT PERSONAL VENGEANCE
Both Jesus and Paul declare that personal vengeance is forbidden:
“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord,” Romans 12:19.
Man¹s law is God’s avenue of justice against law-breakers. Speaking of personal vengeance, Jesus said, “I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Matthew 5:39.
OBJECTIONS TO THE DEATH PENALTY
Opponents often point to Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill,” in rebuttal, but this forbade murder, not legal execution, Matthew 19:18. The charge that capital punishment is administered unfairly may often be correct, but that does not negate the validity of the principle. All forms of punishment are subject to that charge. Neither is a nation barbaric that practices capital punishment. It is murder and rape that are barbaric, not the execution of the murderer or the rapist. Punishment must always fit the crime, Leviticus 24:19-20, and governments should administer fair and reasonable punishment for every criminal act.
We should be sad when a person is executed, and when the families of both the victim and the executed grieve. But blame the crime, not the punishment. God authorized it, and it will work, but if it is to work, it must be swift, just and certain.