A subject has been asked of me: Capital Punishment. So I am calling upon your Scripture expertise for help. Do you have any advice or recommendations according to Scripture on this subject?
Regarding capital punishment, I find my human nature reacting to the matter. For example, when I hear what the ‘sentenced to death‘ person was convicted of I want to see him or her receive similar treatment. And then I stop short—what would God do? What would be His judgment? and I have second thoughts. I must set my thoughts (or judgments) aside and approach the subject in a Christian manner. Any help here will certainly be appreciated.
There is no question of whether Scripture upholds the death penalty. It is God’s means of eliminating evil and Scripture has a great deal to say about it. God gives life and can take it away. He has the infinite knowledge to know who is worthy and who is not, who will reform and who will not. When God sent water upon the ungodly of Noah’s time, and when God sent fire upon the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, it was punishment by death—and when Christ returns with judgment upon the nations, all who refuse to submit will be punished by death. It is often argued that the death penalty does not restrain serious offenses; however God must have deemed it of some value, because He incorporated it in His laws, has used it in the past, and will use it again in the future.
However, the crux of the issue is: is it right for human governments to administer the death penalty? What does God expect of His human creation when it comes to justice and retribution?
The Mosaic law, the earliest defined in Scripture, was a law with a death penalty. The apostle Paul called it a “ministration of death” (2 Cor. 3:7). The law listed 18 crimes for which the offender could be put to death, and provided direction as to how the law was to be executed. However, a number of conditions had to be met before the death penalty could be invoked:
No one could be held accountable for the offenses of another and no one who had offended unintentionally could suffer the death penalty. The accused had a right to trial in which all stood equal before the law and punishment was limited in proportion to the offense; “you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” (Ex. 21:23-35). For the human instinct to retaliate is strong and the fact it is necessary for our survival in a broken world, does not make it right in the eyes of God. The death penalty was to be issued only with great restraint, for God has always preferred his people repent and turn from evil. Unlike God, we cannot read heart or mind, so before an accused murderer could be executed, two eyewitnesses had to confirm his guilt, a higher standard of proof than for other criminal cases. Additionally, these eyewitnesses were required to participate in the execution to underscore the seriousness of their charge and encourage truthful testimony for lacking Holy Spirit power, there is no surety. These requirements were established to avoid convicting an innocent person, but there is no guarantee that will not happen.
What does this mean for us today? Should we or shouldn’t we support a death penalty in our government’s system of justice?
Paul answers this question, saying: “We neither oppose nor condemn our states in their attitude toward capital punishment because our civil government leaders are not accountable to the same law of God as we are.” Due to our commitment to God, it is not our place or obligation to advise, direct or be concerned with our government’s decisions. We are to leave matters of state to the state and concern ourselves with our relationship to God. God has set up the governments of earth to free us from civil obligations, so that we can devote our minds and our lives to higher pursuits. The governments of this world are designed by God to keep law and order. Our duty is to obey God and to live by His laws, and let the officials of our government make whatever decision they deem proper, all the while recognizing that God “rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses” (Dan. 4:25).
Furthermore, we are forbidden to take life and forbidden to be “entangled in the affairs of this life.” We are grateful we have a government that provides political security and freedom from harm; for in this we can serve God undisturbed. We thank God for our present judicial system, especially in that it protects our religious freedom. The safest position regarding the death penalty is to leave it to the governments in power, and leave all ultimate justice in the hands of God to administer, who says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12:19).