Do the Scriptures advocate the use of the death penalty?
If the answer was blatantly simple, Christians would not still be debating the topic thousands of years later. It is a topic that requires readers to distinguish between “Descriptive” content (that simply describes, in a historical sense, the state of things in Bible times, without necessarily requiring it of believers today) and “Prescriptive” content (that imparts an authoritative command or guideline for Christians of all eras).
Capital punishment was a significant feature in the justice system of Old Testament Israel. Execution was called for in response to extreme civil crimes like murder and rape, as well as for offenses against God’s holiness, like false prophecy and witchcraft. There were mechanisms in place to avoid the death penalty in some situations, and God sometimes spared the lives of people whose actions, legally speaking, would have otherwise meant the death penalty. The establishment of capital punishment in ancient Israel is often used to argue for the death penalty today.
The death penalty was never applied arbitrarily or frivolously. In fact, observing the use of capital punishment in the Old Testament actually shows us how precious human life is to God. Because human beings are bear the image of God, murder was such a serious affront to both God and man that it had to be answered with the blood of the murderer. Some will conclude Genesis 9:6 proposes that this sense of justice is woven into the moral fabric of Creation. But one must remember that in the verse nothing is said about who has the power and authority to take vengeance for murder. The text simply states that God will demand an accounting of those who shed human blood. And looking at the New Covenant we clearly see the “who” that takes vengeance. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”
The context in Genesis 9:6 is not commanding “us” to execute our fellow man. And most certainly it does not set up civil governments and institutions to do the executing. Moreover, there exists a distinct difficulty in using this text as a means to advocate capital punishment. The verse does not specifically refer to murderers (those with premeditation), but only to shedders of blood; hence, one might view the context as being applied to anyone who has do so accidentally or children that have killed or even to an executioner. Anyone who sheds human blood by this dictum will have his blood shed (the how and when are not indicated). In blood-feud cultures the relatives of the person killed do not care if the death was accidental or not. They just want exact blood for blood. The covenants and their laws are between God and Israel, not the civil law for all societies and for all times.
Christians are well aware of the atoning power of blood, knowing that Christ’s blood, shed at his crucifixion on the cross, spares us from the spiritual “death penalty” that our sins would otherwise merit. However, when applying these past principles to our modern system of justice, we should be aware of the different context we live in. Ancient Israelite society was unique in that it was a true theocracy. God Himself exclusively crafted their laws. In dealing with them, God clearly has the authority to save or condemn human lives, but today we are subjected to the authority of governments which are devised by fallible men and women.
The apostle Paul acknowledges that wielding “the sword” is a legitimate exercise of government authority, but it does not indicate the taking of life as punishment for a heinous crime. Additionally, many of Jesus’ actions and words, such as his foiling of the execution of the adulterous woman, suggest that mercy and humility should stay society’s killing hand. And of course, no Christian is unaware of Jesus’ own experience with capital punishment as he was the ultimate innocent victim of the government’s sword wielded unjustly.
Because the New Covenant’s gospel of grace has fulfilled the Old Covenants, it is ludicrous to assume that we are operating under the same guidelines and requirements imposed under the Old Covenants (there were many) and given specifically to Israel. Moreover, an all-encompassing theme of the New Covenant is the undeserved forgiveness extended to us by a merciful God. As recipients of God’s grace, we are called to extend grace to others as well. How do we reconcile the need for justice via the death penalty with the importance of mercy and forgiveness? Do the requirements of justice trump the opportunity for mercy, or vice versa? Christians must make sure that the Christ like values of justice, humility, and grace are reflected in our actions. If we profess Christ then we must emulate His character, actions and examples.
Many who think the death penalty is justified in one verse (Romans 13:9) have not considered the entire context of the chapter. Starting with the very first verse we must remember that the commands of the most powerful magistrates in the world are of no weight against the paramount authority of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Can anyone imagine that Paul intended to declare that the Roman magistrates, who manifestly usurped and maintained their authority by corrupt means and force of arms, had their commission immediately from God? Magistrates are not persons exalted by Heaven to a height above their neighbors to be arbitrators, at their own pleasures, of the lives and fortunes of their fellow-man, and to receive servile homage, but persons permitted by the providence of God to a task; not to live in ease, but to watch day and night for the good of that society in which they preside.
The human magistracy which promotes the “good” and discourages the “evil” is authorized to enforce obedience, but only in accordance with God’s Holy Word. The magistrate is authorized to punish transgressors, but enforcement has its rules and limitations.
The sword should never be used but from benevolent desires. “The new commandment” is the law of humanity; nothing can justify its violation. Punishment should not be inflicted for the sake of giving pain and gratifying revenge, but for the sake of doing good by fostering obedience. Obviously, it would be impossible to be obedient if you have been summarily executed.
The sword should not be used for the purpose of taking life. The advocates of capital punishment and war insist that the sword is used here as the emblem of destruction; however, it is the emblem of righteous compulsion. Some have wrongly determined that the “sword” in Romans 13:4 is the equivalent to the Latin word for “the right of the sword” or the power of capital punishment that Roman magistrates used to execute Christians; thus, the same sword can be used to execute people. A study of the language reveals the word is actually translates as short sword or dagger and, as such, it would be unsuitable for executing a person. Actually, the word “sword” in Romans 13:4 when written in official contexts of the time did not refer to executions, but to those persons who enforced the laws. Paul is referring to the civil government’s power to force compliance in paying tribute. If one does not pay their tribute (taxes) the civil government will force him to do so. Romans 13:1-9 cannot bear the weight that proponents of the death penalty have placed upon those verses. When we look at the entire context preceding Romans 13:9, we discover that Paul is speaking about a Christian’s duty to pay tribute (taxes).
Moreover you cannot take one verse from the context to support the killing of our fellow man. Paul goes on in Romans 13 to remind us:
(Romans 13:9) For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not KILL, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
(Romans 13:10) Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
If you were to say “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” even the most ardent atheist would know what you were referencing: the fact that Jesus stopped an execution. Conservatives will break with literalism when it comes to this passage and will argue that it does not mean what it seems to mean. But why not just take the teachings of Jesus at face value? The fact that Jesus stopped an execution is completely in line will all of his other prohibitions against the use of violence. When Jesus said “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” he was teaching that while death may seem just, and even at times be just, there is not anyone alive who is worthy to exact the death penalty; therefore, we arrive at the difficult truth that, according to Jesus, no human is perfect enough to serve in the role of executioner.
“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.” ― George R.R. Martin