The term ‘capital punishment’ refers to the legal execution of a person by the government or state. Most western countries have abolished capital punishment on what they term as humanitarian grounds and have replaced it with sentences such as life imprisonment; Britain abolished the death penalty in 1969. The United States of America and other countries around the world still practise capital punishment for certain crimes such as first degree murder. The question we need to face is whether capital punishment is morally acceptable or not, and, as believers, we should base our decision on what the word of God says. The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ should properly read ‘Thou shalt not murder’. There are certain instances where killing is permitted by God; murder, or unlawful killing, however, is never permitted by God. Does capital punishment fall under the heading of unlawful killing? Is it therefore legalized murder, as some say?
At the outset we need to remind ourselves of the value of human life. Because of the special place that mankind has in terms of dignity as God’s representatives on earth, ‘made in the image of God’, and because of the eternity of the human soul, which will never die, God has enshrined human life with sanctity. Killing animals is one thing; killing a human being is another!
It was after the flood that ‘God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of these a; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Who so sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man’, Gen. 9. 1-6. Notice that the killing of animals for food is here permitted by God, but the killing of human beings is not. God also gives Noah (and others in authority) the right to execute a murderer when He says, ‘Who so sheddeth man’s blood by man shall his blood be shed’. In fact, God does more than give rulers the right to execute; He insists upon it. The unlawful killing of a human being requires justice at the hands of God, and that justice is ‘capital’.
That God gave this command to Noah before He gave the law to Moses indicates that the responsibility of the state or government to put a murderer to death legally applies to all mankind. It is not something that is binding upon God’s earthly people, the Jews, alone. Yet God goes on to reinforce this command to His earthly people, for He expects it of them as much as He does of the heathen nations around. ‘He that smiteth a man that he die shall be surely put to death’, is the command recorded in Exodus chapter 21 and verse 12. The Lord goes on in this passage to instruct that where manslaughter is deemed to have occurred(second degree murder in America, accidental or unintentional death in the UK) the killer may find a place of refuge. God does, therefore, see a difference between murder and manslaughter and there is no capital punishment for manslaughter. Where,however, murder was intentional and devious, the murderer could even betaken from God’s altar, traditionally a place of refuge, and executed, Exod.21. 14. This instruction was given to the people of God in their wilderness journeys. But it was so important it was repeated before they entered the promised land. God was, in this way, telling them that even in the land which was to be theirs for ever, murder could not go unpunished, and the punishment was capital. ‘The murderer shall surely be put to death’, He said in Numbers 35and verses 16, 17, 18, and 21. For someone guilty of manslaughter there were cities of refuge to flee to; for someone guilty of murder there was nowhere. In fact, ‘Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction (compensation)for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. And ye shall take no satisfaction for him that is fled to the city of his refuge, that he should come again to dwell in the land, until the death of the priest. So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel’, Num. 35. 30-34.
This idea of compensation for a life i soften used as an excuse to abolish the death penalty. It is Old Testament law, we are told, that pleads ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. It does so, it is true, but that only reinforces what God is teaching here. The law of lextalionis allows for compensation to a certain value. If you injure a man’s eye, you cannot be punished for more. A monetary valuation was put upon an eye, or an ear, and compensation was to that value alone. So, too, if a man killed an animal compensation had to be paid. But when it came to the murder o fa human being no compensation was fixed. The value was, a life for a life. ‘He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast. And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death’, Lev. 24. 17-21.
Once again, it has been argued, this is Old Testament law, but in the dispensation of grace, where forgiveness is demanded and expected, we should not be so harsh. Yet the New Testament endorses capital punishment and the right and might of the state is upheld. The apostle Paul stresses, ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Who so ever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: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: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil’, Rom. 13. 1-4. The state has the right to ‘bear the sword’ in the pursuit of justice,according to the apostle Paul. I may, as an individual, have the right to forgive those that harm me, or even kill my family, my friends, my neighbours. The state has no right to forgive. It has the duty to protect human life. So heavy was this duty that God insisted that un-witnessed murders had to be thoroughly investigated. If the dead body of a man or woman was found in a field, the government or state (in this case the elders of the community) had to investigate the cause of death and do its utmost to bring the killer to justice. If they failed to do so, however, they could not just ignore the case. Shed blood had to be accounted for. God therefore insisted that the elders then had to sacrifice an animal to Him, and ‘they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, O Lord unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them’, Deut. 21. 7-8. After all, it is not Abel’s blood alone that cries out unto God.
In Britain today the death penalty has been abolished. The government recognizes that its continued abolition or its re-introduction is a matter of conscience and in all debates about it, MPs are given a free vote to vote as their conscience demands. There has been a growing lobby that has argued for a modified re-introduction of the death penalty. They have argued that it should be re-introduced where a policeman or policewoman has been killed. In other words, where are presentative of the state is unlawfully killed, the state should execute the murderer. Whilst this may be biblical, it falls short of the ideal which is that all human life is sacred to God, not just that of a policeman.G od sees mankind, made in His image, as of such great value that whoever unlawfully kills a man should be legally executed by the state, and all such executions are morally right in His eyes. Bob Warner has also argued, ‘There may be one class of murderer who could reasonably and appropriately be subject to the death penalty and that is the mass murderer who is found guilty beyond all reasonable doubt of a whole series of unlawful killings. Many are unable to see any good reason to keep such a person alive and incarcerated for several decades’, The Ten Commandments and the Decline of the West, published by Kingsway, 1997, p114. But have we the right to decide who is most worthy of the death penalty, and whose life is more valuable than anothers?
There were many other sins which could lead to the death penalty in the Old Testament and that we no longer would consider today; abuse of parents by children, kidnapping, witchcraft, various sex offences, blasphemy, false prophesying and criminal negligence, are some examples. Have we the right to insist on the death penalty for murder, but not for any of these other sins? Brian Edwards has argued that, whilst it cannot be wrong to abolish the death penalty in these instances as the law was often softened by mercy, even in our Lord’s day, yet it is ‘the value of life argument that leads many to conclude that, whilst capital punishment may be dropped for many crimes, it should be retained for murder’, The Ten Commandments for Today, Day One Publications, 1996, p185.
There are some that may feel the force of the argument from the biblical point of view, yet still be hesitant to endorse capital punishment on practical grounds. ‘What if the state executes an innocent person?’ it is argued. ‘Isn’t that worse? We may not always be sure that every conviction is safe’. ‘Any abuse or mistaken imposition of the death penalty is surely nothing more than yet another unlawful killing’, writes Rob Warner, ibid, p112. He goes on to say, ‘Faced with these dilemmas, many have come to the conclusion that, while in principle the death penalty is the ultimate sanction of the state in enforcing the rule of law, in practice the risks of a mistaken conviction, however small, mean that the actual use of the death penalty should be avoided,’ ibid, p114. That innocent people have been wrongly convicted cannot be denied. But that is surely an argument for higher levels of justice and investigation, not an argument for the abolition of the death penalty. If God insists upon it, are we not wrong to wriggle out of it?