The Truth about Capital Punishment
The subject of capital punishment or the death penalty is often an emotionally charged subject. Much of the religious opposition to the death penalty is based on the argument that capital punishment is not pleasing to God and is itself murder. The burden of this material is to establish the truth of the Bible on this controversial subject.
The nature of God. It is contended by the opposers of the right of civil government to take the life of one convicted of capital offence that God is love. God does love man, all men (Jn. 3: 16). In fact, not only does God love man, but God himself is love (I Jn. 4: 8). However, does love preclude God from being strict and just? Man seems to forget or deny the harmonious duality of the nature of God: "Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God " (Rom. 11: 22). The writer of Hebrews is motivating those to whom he wrote (by implication, Christians today) to not forsake the assembling of themselves together (Heb. 10: 25). He warns of the "fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries (those who disobey God, vs. 27). He then cites those who despised Moses' Law, "died without mercy under two or three witnesses" (vs. 28). Arguing from the lesser to the greater, he then shows how those who disobey Christ shall have "sorer punishment" (vss. 29). He concludes by enunciating, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (vs. 31). The God of the New Testament is the same God of the Hebrew scriptures who himself on many occasions exercised capital punishment (Numb. 25: 1-9, I Cor. 10: 8).
The origin of capital punishment. To hear many today talk about how horrible and inhumane the death penalty is you would think it surely originated with some barbaric, savage people or tyrant. "Whosoever shedeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed," God says, "for in the image of God made he man" (Gen. 9: 6). God is the author of capital punishment. Any man who commits murder ("sheddeth man's blood"), man is authorized to take his life. The New Testament makes it plain regarding civil government's right to take the life of the offender (Rom. 13: 1 ff., more later).
Capital punishment viewed under the three dispensations. There are three dispensations generally recognized in the Bible: Patriarchal (Gen. 3 - Ex. 20), Mosaic (Ex. 20 - Acts 2), and the age of the gospel (Acts 2 - judgment). We have already seen that God instituted the death penalty under or during the Patriarchal Age (Gen. 9: 6). Notice why the murderer's life is to be taken: " for in the image of God made he man." Hence, the reason for the introduction of the death penalty was not dispensational.
The Mosaic Age is explicit in its teaching regarding the death penalty. Commandment number six (of the Ten Commandments) was, "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20: 13). The "kill" is murder (see New King James Version). The punishment for murder was, "He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death" (Ex. 21: 12). There were about eight capital offences under the Mosaic system which demanded the death penalty (see Ex. 21: 15, 16, 17, 22: 18, 19, 20). Of course, the Mosaic system was a theocracy, a combination of the spiritual and state.
The death penalty is also taught in the final age, the New Testament. Paul plainly teaches the right of civil government to exist and to demand subjection (Rom. 13: 1-7, see Acts 5: 29 as to exceptions). Regarding the executioner for the state he wrote, "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 " (vs. 4). The sword is emblematic of capital punishment. Paul himself was freely willing to subject himself to the death penalty, were he guilty of capital offence (Acts 25: 11).
In conclusion, this material does not address due process of law, what evidence should be recognized, and what should today constitute capital offences. However, the Bible incontrovertibly teaches the death penalty. "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily," the Bible says, "therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil" (Eccl. 8:11). Alas, we are seeing the truth stated in Ecclesiastes 8: 11 illustrated on every hand today.