Consider, if you will, the act of murder – is there a more wretched act? On human terms you are depriving someone of their most precious possession: their life. Never again will that person laugh, love, smile or cry. Then consider the effect of family and friends of having to cope with the loss of a loved one and then consider more the effect on society of another act of brutality – the frowns upon hearing the news, the grief at such a tragedy. And as Christians we know that the act of murder is even worse than that. It is a deliberate act of rebellion against the fact that life is one of God’s greatest gifts to all mankind. And worse still, we know that murder sends an immortal soul into eternity. Murder then is the vilest of acts, but has the Bible to say about it?
We all know that in the Old Testament, God commands that murderers were put to death (Exodus Chapter 21). But that was 3000 odd years ago, what should a ‘modern’ Christian’s view be on murder in relation to himself as an individual and through the process of law and order?
When you read about a murder in the paper how do you feel? Pity, I imagine, pity for the relatives left behind who have to pick up the pieces. And, if you’re like me, you might also feel angry at the low life scumbags who could carry out such a horrific act. What is that anger? Nothing more than the righteous anger God feels against all sin. We are, after all, made in the image of God. What God can feel, we can feel, to a limited extent. So then, this righteous anger is not an act of sin but rather a blessing, a sign that our wills are closely aligned with God and that the act of murder is a terrible crime.
However, this anger should never lead to a desire for vengeance, vigilante killing or revenge of any sort. We have Jesus’ commands in the New Testament that I’m sure you can quote better than me:
“You have heard it said: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you do not resist an evil person.”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5 v 44).”
“Do not judge or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7 v 1)
You probably also remember the story about Jesus and the adulteress where Jesus says:
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8 v 7)
So, we see that as individual Christians we are called to forgive the sins of others: even murder. Therefore if one of our loved ones is murdered we must try and forgive the murder. Difficult, yes, but necessary as Christians.
With you so far, but what about the government and the law?
The biggest mistake Christians make is applying the commands Jesus gave to us as individuals to the course of law and order as well. Take the command: love your neighbour as yourself. If you apply this to the law who then would ever be punished? Obviously this can’t stand. Or the one: “do not judge or you too will be judged”. Again if you apply this to the government then the law cannot do anything and that can’t be what Jesus is commanding. We must make the distinction between commands for individuals and commands for authority (governments). The two are completely different! I cannot stress this enough. Therefore the law can take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth because the commands for the individual do not apply to the justice system.
What then are the New Testaments commands concerning the punishment of murder?
The same as the Old Testament. As Paul says in Romans 13 v 3 -4:
“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Emphasis added)
There is a lot of teaching in here. First is that God appoints all rulers and authorities and gives them power to uphold justice. This is good; justice needs to be upheld for society to function. Secondly rulers are commanded to bear the sword against evil. Sword of course meaning the power of death. Thirdly the ruler is God’s servant! “An agent of wrath” – God’s righteous anger burns against all sin and he commands governments to carry out his wrath for certain sins. Murder is definitely one. Christians as individuals have to rely on the authorities to punish murder. Governments have been granted the power of justice and vengeance.
Vengeance is wrong.
“Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord”
Romans 12 v 19
Vengeance is right for God but wrong for us – individually! And God carries out his vengeance using governments as his instruments.
But Jesus would never have supported the death penalty!
Well, Jesus says in Matthew 15 v 3 - 4 (or Mark 7 v 8 – 11)
“Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said: “Honour your father and your mother” and “Anyone who curses his father and mother must be put to death.”
So you see Jesus had no problem with the death penalty and by saying the above shows that the death penalty is God’s command. And let’s go to Paul – Paul followed Christ – if Christ opposed the Death Penalty so would Paul. Yet in Act 25 v 11 Paul says:
“If however I am guilty of doing anything deserving of death, I do not refuse to die.”
Paul would have accepted the death penalty if he had deserved it.
Still not with you…
When Jesus was on the cross did he say anything about the wrongness of the death penalty? Nope. And the thief that repents says:
“We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.”
Luke 23 v 41
And Jesus does not contradict him as I’m sure he would have had Jesus been against the death penalty. It should be mentioned that the thief would be guilty of far more than just stealing to merit crucifixion.
Jesus saved an adulterous woman from being stoned. Therefore he is against the death penalty.
Well no, because firstly there were not two witnesses as called for in Mosaic Law. Secondly the man should have been stoned as well but he wasn’t there. Thirdly the “he who is without sin” line does not apply to governments. Also the death penalty should have been given by a court of law not a mob. So Jesus followed the protocol of the law and let the woman go.
Only God can take a life!
Yet in the Old Testament case law He delegated this power to the justice system. In the New Testament Paul makes it clear that this delegation of power still stands. It is perfectly permissible for the justice system to take a life in the right situation.
But the Old Testament civil law was overthrown!
“Whoever sheds the blood of man
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
Has God made man.”
Genesis 9 v 5
Here we have a command from God that murder must be punished through the death penalty. Notice that this is outside of Old Testament case law and therefore not ‘undone’ by Jesus’ death on the cross. The death penalty was so important as to be given before the civil law; before the Israelites even existed! Never has this command been overthrown. Never. This command also overrides the one God laid down after Cain killed Able about not shedding Cain’s blood.
Second, was the moral and civil law of the Old Testament really overthrown? (The ceremonial law definitely was).
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5 v 17-19
God’s law still stands. Murder requires the death penalty. And again in Romans:
“Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God...”
“Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.”
Romans 3 v 19, 31
The Death Penalty is first spoken of in Genesis, re-affirmed in Mosaic Law, re-affirmed again by Jesus, re-affirmed again again by Paul on several occasions and finally re-affirmed last of all in the book of Revelation. The Bible is of one accord: the punishment for murder is death.
But isn’t the death penalty just like murder?
Then putting someone in prison would be just like kidnap. Also God says in the Ten Commandments:
“You shall not kill.”
Exodus 20 v 13
And then in the next chapter God commands:
"He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.”
Exodus 21 v12
So there is no contradiction in God’s eyes between the command not to kill and the death penalty.
What if mistakes are made?
The world we live in is imperfect, mistakes will always be made. We must trust in God, who is in control of everything. We must trust that if an innocent life is taken then God let that happen. The possibility of mistakes should not stop us carrying out God’s commands.
It doesn’t work, in the USA…
The US government should heed the wisdom of Solemn:
“When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong.”
Ecclesiastes 8 v 11
This is why the death penalty doesn’t work as a deterrent in the United States. Swiftness of execution has to also be established.
How can you say what you’re saying? We live in a civilised society!
No, we live in a society full of unrepentant sinners with no desire to see any of God’s laws carried out in this life. That is why so many people are against the death penalty: sheer bloody minded rebellion against God’s law.
And the last time I checked our so called ‘civilised’ society is in the habit of letting murderers free after 8 years and then acting surprised as they re-offend.
The Death Penalty is so cruel!
No, murder is cruel. The Death Penalty is justice.
I’m having problems here…
If you can find fault in my Biblical argument by all means disagree. If not then you have to submit to God’s word. It might not be nice or happy but it is in the Bible. Remember commands to the individual Christian do not apply to the government and the course of law and order. Also remember how terrible murder is, how holy God is and how unrepentant man is. Then you might see that the death penalty is justified.
But…but…why do so many people disagree with this
As I have said before because mankind is living in rebellion against God and all God stands for. The world hates the death penalty because the world hates God. But as Christians we are called to submit to the will of God and recognise that the only Biblical punishment for murder is death. And we need to thank God that he has delegated his justice to the governments of today and pray that they would keep his law rather than break it.
The Bible is of one accord. Murder needs to be punished by death. Therefore we should support any government who carries out God’s command and is a terror to evil doers. We must always realise that the government should institute the death penalty as God’s chosen punishment for sin. We should submit to the Bible’s overwhelming agreement on this issue. And above all focus on the pain and damage murder causes to the victims not to the criminals.
There is always a choice. If the Death Penalty is implemented then everyone has the choice: murder and risk death yourself. If someone chooses to make that choice then the consequences of their actions are on their own heads.
Very useful, better than this blog post:
Any points I haven't covered whack an email off to me.