Capital Punishment – Man’s Brutality or God’s Commandment?

During the last year or two, especially since the execution of Gary Gilmore, the first murderer to be executed in the United States in a decade, one state after another has given renewed attention to the subject of capital punishment. After the Supreme Court saw fit to outlaw most of the laws prescribing a death penalty for murder a number of years ago, such crimes have continued to increase. Now many states have passed laws seeking to restore that penalty.

A number of religious leaders and civil rights promoters across the country have deplored the return to the death penalty as a return to barbarism. To go back to such “cruel and unusual punishment” has been called a long step backward from the enlightened humanitarianism that was supposed to characterize our “progressive” times. It has been argued that such punishment is futile because it does not deter others from the same crime and that it is unfair because it is enforced only upon a few of the poor who cannot afford the expensive lawyers which the rich can hire to get them off. Perhaps most plausible has been the argument of many religious people that to kill a man by law cannot possibly be harmonized with Christ’s commands: “Love your enemies,” and “Resist not evil . . . whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, tum to him the other also . . .” (Matt. 5:44, 39).

When there is so much confusion about this matter in the churches as well as in the world outside of the churches it is well to question what the Bible really teaches us about it.

Its Origin in God‘s Command

We find an early and clear teaching about this subject in certain orders which God gave in the world that survived the great flood. The old world had been destroyed by that judgment of God after men who had fallen into sin filled it with violence (Gen. 6:11–13). One of the important provisions God made for the family of men that He had saved through that flood was the rule: “Whoso sheddeth man‘s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man” (Gen. 9:6). This Bible text clears up a number of points that are completely misunderstood and misrepresented, even by supposedly Christian people in much of present day discussion.

The death penalty for murder did not begin as a human expedient but as a command of God. It was not the expression of man‘s “primitive” and “inhuman” brutality against his fellow men, but something exactly opposite, a commandment which God gave to punish and restrain such violence. It was not a demonstration of contempt for human life, as its present-day critics claim, but a recognition of its sacredness. Tn this connection we may also observe that getting rid of the death penalty for murder has, as a matter of fact, not been the result of the “Christianizing” of our society, but it has come in with the general rejec· tion of Christianity and of God’s laws in particular. And right along with the disappearance of that death penalty there has come the spectacular increase in the violence which the Lord originally gave it to prevent.

Is the Principle Still Valid?

But is this commandment, given so early in Bible history, still to be regarded as a law for us? Perusing that history we observe that that command of God does not stand alone. It was restated in the laws which God gave to Moses (Ex. 21:12, 14; Lev. 24:17): “He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.” In this latter passage it is significant that the penalty for killing a man (who was made in the image of God) is exactly the same as that for showing ones contempt for God more directly by blasphemy.

But doesnt the coming of Christ change and cancel all of this Old Testament structure of law and harsh penalties? No, it does not I He corrected the mistake of those who might get that impression, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17, 18). Christ’s whole work of saving us was not done by the way of destroying the law (as many right down to the present would like to portray it) but by the way of fulfilling it! Therefore He, far from condemning the laws and their enforcement even by imperfect human governments, acknowledged the divine authority of those governments and even willingly submitted Himself to the death penalty in order to become our Savior. He told Pilate, the governor, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me except it were given thee from above . . .” John 19:11). Behind the earthly governors and governments there was the decree of God, “The wages of sin is death!(Rom. 6:23; Gen. 2:17). Christ, by dying as our Substitute under the condemnation of the law, “redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:23). We ought to observe that the current trend, promoted especially by religious leaders, to get rid of the whole idea of law with stern penalties, including the death penalty, as old superstitions and relics of barbarism, really shows a complete lack of appreciation for what Christ came to be and do as our Savior. That the liberals who have always hated the idea of sin and atonement endorse this movement is not surprising. Can an orthodox Christian who sees what is really happening support this kind of “humanitarianism”?

Must We Not Love Our Enemies?

But does Christ’s recognition of the government’s God-given authority and even submitting Himself to the death penalty mean that His followers must continue to recognize the legitimacy of both in today’s world? Do not the Lord’s commands to us to love our enemies and not to resist evil contradict this recognizing of a government‘s right find even duty to punish some crimes with death? Although it might seem so, they do notl To see our way through the confusion that exists regarding this question we need to listen more closely to what the Lord teaches us in the New Testament. He teaches us to distinguish between what He has told us to do as individual Christians and what He has commanded governments and their officials to do. We see the difference between these hvo most clearly when we compare Romans 12:17–21, which outlines our personal responsibilities, with the verses which follow, 13:1–4, which describe the duties of government. Personally we are told to “Recompense no man evil for evil . . . . Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves . . . for it is written, Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink. . . . Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is not the Lord‘s command to governments, however, not even to the Christian judge. Does the Lord command him as judge, for example, to “recompense no man for evil”? Of course not. If He did the judge would have to turn every criminal loose! The Lord’s command to the government and to the judge is stated in the verses that follow: “the powers that be are ordained of God . . . he is a 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.” In other words, the same Gospel which teaches us to love our enemies and forbids private vengeance, commands governments to enforce laws including penalties which may go as far as death. The Lord teaches us the same thing in the first letter of the Apostle Peter (2:13, 14), “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well.” Thus we find that the New Testament, far from abolishing these duties of governments to enforce laws by means of appropriate punishments, commands Christians to acknowledge and support them.

Our Christian Duty

The Bible from beginning to end teaches us that the Lord ordained human governments to control and suppress violence and eviL When a government fails to do that He holds that government and people accountable as accomplices in the crimes they have failed to suppress and punish. We see that principle plainly stated in the judgment of captivity which Cod pronounced upon the nation of Judah for the “innocent blood” shed in Manasseh‘s reign (II Kings 24:3, 4) ,and in the way in which Solomon had to inflict due punishment upon the atrocities of a famous general in order to save his realm from bearing further responsibility for them (I Kings 2:5, 6, 31-33). Our massive and rising crime rate, accompanied by the virtual disappearance of the idea of punishment from the procedures of many courts and from the thinking of many judges, are asking for and getting God’s judgments upon our country in the form of ever-increasing violence. To what extent are Christian people, by encouraging this leniency of the law because some mistakenly call it “Christian charity,” making matters worse instead of better?

Didn’t Christ come to save sinners instead of punishing them? Indeed He did. But He did not do that by abolishing laws and their enforcement. The notion that He did is not His gospel but the devil’s perversion of it. As the Apostle said, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law” (Rom. 3:31). We are saved by faith in Christ, our Substitute, “that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us” (Rom. 8:4). We must in love call all men to this way of salvation. With respect to our relationship to human governments this gospel instructs us to acknowledge and support them as “servants of God” ordered by God to curb violence and evil. That vision of the government’s God-given purpose, we need to regain and promote. The return of capital punishment, seen and enforced in this way, is not a surrender to violence but a return to God‘s commandment.