I've been meaning to write this since I received comments on this post (from last June)
suggesting that there is no legitimate Scriptural case against capital punishment; I'm just now getting around to it. But now that Governor Bredesen has declared a moratorium on state killing
(one that extends only to May), I'm ready to argue that the Christian Scriptures justify and support my opposition to state killing. Moratoriums, after all, are meant to be times of reflection, research, and soul searching.
God in the Old Testament is often labeled a God of wrath—a jealous God with a short temper. But early in the biblical narrative we see revealed God's incredible (some would say "amazing") grace. Genesis 4:12-15
[The Lord said to Cain,] "When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth." Cain said to the Lord, "My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me." Then the Lord said to him, "Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance." And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.
Not only does God refrain from killing Cain, but God also vows to protect Adam's jealous son so that no one else takes his life. God punishes Cain for sure, but not by death.
The story tells us nothing about Cain's later life except that he has children and grandchildren and so forth. We know more about the post-homicidal lives of other biblical murderers. Moses, for example, killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew (Exodus 2:11-12
). The text gives no indication of whether Moses could have intervened without resorting to killing; it does tell us that Moses' fellow Hebrews were not impressed with his vigilantism (Exodus 2:13-14
). Fearing for his life, Moses fled to Midian. Nonetheless, God chose this fugitive murderer to return to Egypt and free God's people from bondage in Egypt.
King David was involved in a conspiracy to kill Uriah
, a romantic rival and a soldier in the army that David ultimately commands. God punished the king by taking the life of David's next-born child
(the first born to Uriah's widow, Bathsheba). We could debate the moral and theological implications of killing a perpetrator's baby as a form of punishment, but at issue is whether persons guilty of murder should be put to death. Here, God not only spares David's life, but also equips him to become Israel's greatest king. (Granted, I should note, some of David's greatest acts as king happened before Uriah's death.)
Saul, better known as Paul, was for all intents and purposes an accomplice to murder
, and he didn't even do time. (Acts 9:1 also says that Saul was "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.") When the risen Christ accosted Saul on the road to Damascus
, he did not threaten the notorious persecutor with punishment but instead offered grace. Christ did not strike down Saul for his egregious sins; he invited Saul to be his evangelist. (To be fair, earlier in Acts God executes Ananias and Sapphira for their crime
. Of course, they are not guilty of murder but of refusing to fully participate in the church's redistribution of wealth.)
In Moses, David, and Saul/Paul, we have three very prominent biblical personalities who were guilty of murder, conspiracy to murder, and being an accomplice to murder, respectively. David was the only one of the three substantially punished for his wrongdoing, and all three were blessed and equipped by God long after the murders they were involved in. Their stories, in my opinion, demonstrate that, though God holds us accountable for our actions, God doesn't give up on people. And while Scripture certainly testifies to God's wrath, it also demonstrates that God's grace is much greater.
On the other hand, God in the Old Testament clearly mandates capital punishment for certain crimes. The law set forth in Exodus
says, "If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." Leviticus 20
says that "mediums and wizards," homosexuals, and men who have sexual relations with their daughters-in-law should be put to death. Obviously, as a culture, we do not and could not obey these Old Testament sentencing guidelines. One could argue that these laws were created for a specific people facing specific challenges at a specific time in history. But those who hold the Bible in high esteem must acknowledge that Jesus flatly rejected this philosophy toward punishment. Jesus says in Matthew 5:38-41
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
One could argue that Jesus is setting an ethical standard for individuals that doesn't necessarily apply to governments. Yet Jesus refers explicitly to Exodus 21:24
, which clearly addresses how the ancient Israelites were to govern themselves. Furthermore, when confronted with a woman sentenced to death for adultery in John 8:2-11
, Jesus tells her would-be executioners, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Paul echoes this sentiment in Romans 12:17-21
While Scripture does not clearly say, "The death penalty is bad, m'kay," and while certain Scriptures favor capital punishment, I think that the biblical witness when taken as a whole does not support execution as a means of punishment.