“Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death.”
Exodus 21 v 12
It is an undisputed fact that God commanded the Israelites to carry out the death penalty for murder (and 15 other offenses). In doing so he was merely repeating his previous command to Noah:
“And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
Genesis 9 v 6
Yet many people argue that since Jesus’ death on the cross and the establishing of a New Covenant that the death penalty can no longer be applied to the present day. This is a bold claim that goes against the last 1900 years of church thinking (Calvin, Luther and Spurgeon all supported the death penalty to name just three). Therefore it deserves close inspection.
So let us examine the logical basis for this claim and the New Testament teaching on the death penalty.
Did Jesus’ death make murder no longer a sin?
No! I seriously doubt anyone reading this would even dare to suggest that. The New Covenant did not change one iota of God’s moral law. The Ten Commandments still stand. God’s commands for righteous living still stand. The two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself still stand.
Murder then is still a sin. Agreed? Excellent.
Should murder be punished?
We know that murder is a sin but is it a crime that deserves to be punished by human authorities? At first glance the answer would appear to be no, murder shouldn’t be punished. After all, did Jesus not say:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”
Matthew 7 v 1
“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
John 8 v 7
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.”
Romans 12 v 19
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Romans 12 v 21
Initially these verses seem to imply that we cannot punish any crime at all! If these commands apply to everyone (individuals and rulers) who could condemn anyone else? Who could be a judge and follow the above commandments?
Yet if the Bible really was saying such a thing it would be ridiculous! A society without a justice system – how would that reflect a God of Justice? A society without a justice system would have no way to restrain crime. How then can we explain these verses? Well, if we turn to the next chapter in Romans:
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God….For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.”
Romans 13 v 1 & 3
And if we look at 1 Peter:
“Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.”
1 Peter 2 v 13 - 14
In other words God establishes rulers and authorities in this world and then uses them to ‘punish those that do wrong’ and ‘commend those who do right’. Here we have the Biblical basis for supporting a strong justice system that punishes crimes.
How do we reconcile Romans 13 to Romans 12?
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath”
Romans 12 v 19
“He [the ruler] is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
Romans 13 v 4
Simple – the commands of Romans 12 were commands to people as individuals. The commands in Romans 13 were to authorities. In the same way Jesus’ commands not to judge one another are not contradicted by 1 Peter 2’s “who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong.” Again, Jesus was talking about our individual lives.
Therefore, Christians can still support a strong justice system. In fact, we must support a strong justice system for Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 show that it is God’s will. Murder then can be punished and it is punished by a justice system not by individual action. The Bible forbids ‘honour’ or ‘revenge’ killings but fully supports a judge passing sentence on a murderer.
If the commands of Jesus not to judge were applied to authorities along with the other ones (let him who is without sin cast the first stone) then we couldn’t have a justice system and that is clearly not what Jesus is saying!
So we’re established that the New Covenant has not changed the fact that murder is a sin and it is also a crime that has to be punished by the authorities. Agreed? Good. Now we move onto the interesting question:
How should murder be punished?
To understand how murder should, no, must, be punished then we need to look again at the verse from Genesis 9:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
This command was given to Noah as the representative of mankind after the flood and so the entire future human race. It contains three things:
The Crime: “Whoever sheds the blood of man” – Murder
The Punishment: “by man shall his blood be shed” – The Death Penalty
The Reason: “for in the image of God has God made man”
Why did God originally command his people to have the death penalty? Because man is made in the image of God. Now we see just how terrible the crime of murder is: to take the life of a man, a man made in the image of God, a life lost to eternity, a soul sent to either heaven or hell. Murder is a crime most vile because man is made in the image of God. And therefore a man’s life has infinite moral worth reflecting, as it does, an infinite being. Only God has the right to take a life! So, because of this, God commands that when a man commits murder then ‘by man shall his blood be shed’. The crime of murder is so terrible that God commands that man should carry out his judgement! God grants man the right to take a life as punishment against someone who has scorned God’s right over all life.
Now, let us ask the following questions: does man still shed the blood of man? Yes. Is man still made in the image of God? Yes. Therefore, if the crime and the reason remain the same on what logical basis can anyone suggest that the punishment should change? On what Biblical basis can anyone suggest such a thing? Surely this verse would require another direct Biblical verse telling us otherwise.
There is such a verse: “Do not judge”, “Do not take revenge”, etc, etc
Yet as we discussed earlier these commands apply only to individuals and to the justice system which God puts into place. Murder must be punished. These verses do not contradict Genesis 9. The State still has a god given right to pass the sentence of death.
Mosaic law was overthrown
Granted (kind of) – that is why I’m not suggesting that all 15 offenses punished by the death penalty in the time of Israel should be punished the same way today. But Genesis 9 v 6 stands outside of Mosaic law so was not overthrown and therefore must still stand today.
Jesus would never have supported the death penalty
Er, yes he would for he did. Jesus is God remember? So when God gave Noah (and hence the entire future human race) the command in Genesis 9 then Jesus was part of that and in full agreement. To suggest otherwise contradicts the Bible’s teaching on the Trinity and unity of one God in three persons.
Do you have a New Covenant verse that supports the death penalty
Yes, Paul expresses the truth that rulers and authorities must take the life of murderers:
“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.”
Romans 13 v 4
Notice the use of the word sword – a direct allusion to the power of life and death God has granted authorities and the justice system.
To suggest that we should no longer use the death penalty is to suggest that man is no longer made in the image of God! It is that serious - it is heresy! For God is unchanging! The inherent logical position of the command in Genesis 9 remains unchanged.
Murder is still the vile crime it was when God commanded Noah to use the death penalty on murderers. Man is still made in the image of God! To take a life is still a crime of infinite wickedness. Such a crime deserves a just and good punishment: the death penalty.
Then I urge you to humble yourself before the Bible! God’s word is clear on the subject – murder must be punished with death for man is made in the image of God. Old or New Covenant doesn’t matter for the moral value of a man’s life remains unchanged. To suggest that the death penalty should no longer be used to suggest one of two things:
1) Man’s moral worth has changed (heresy)
2) God is illogical in his commands (also heresy) – it would be strange for God to suddenly decide that murder wasn’t so serious after all and demand a ‘lighter’ punishment.
And I’m sure you don’t want to suggest either. So then, the death penalty is Biblical, logical and a command for God. For ""Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man"
I’ve discussed other issues relating to the death penalty here and here.