The Death Penalty- A Truth Seeker Speaks

I have a friend named Matt Erwin. Weíve been trying out this idea where we send each other a topic to write a Sermon or article about, and give each other a time-frame to complete it.

Well, Matt gave me a topic this time that has been one of the hardest topics to find Biblical evidence yet: the death penalty, otherwise known as capital punishment.

Before I begin, I want to define what the debate actually is, and give you an idea of how complex the problems are that deal with the death penalty.

We have historical and even Biblical evidence of the death penalty in action almost as far back as we can trace recorded history. In Genesis 9:6 "Whoso sheddeth manís blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." Here we see the first Biblical example, spoken to Noah from God, of the "life for a life" ethos. This, in essence, is the death penalty. The taking of a manís life in retribution for his sin.

If we had only the Old Testament to base our way of life upon, we would not have a debate. Time and time again this point of justice and the life of a man is confirmed.

However, (thankfully!) we do not have only one Testament of our God. The New Testament, in stark contrast, is oddly silent and seems to lean toward forgiveness and mercy. Jesus said in Matthew 5:38"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also."

Jesus was not a man of simple words. He actually demonstrated his faith in such amazing acts as forgiving a woman caught in adultery who, under the law of Moses, should be stoned.

This is the core of the debate among Christians. Who do we believe? The Old Testament is clear. Yet it appears that Jesus disregards the Old Testament completely. With so many voices shouting so many opinions on both sides of the debate, it is amazing that there isnít more clarity on either side.

It is commonly accepted that "fundamentalist" Christians are "life for a life" while less "fundamental" (note I use the term in quotes, who can define a conservitive Christian with such terms? I see myself as a fundamentalist, but disagree sharply with many common fundamentalist claims) Christians are more lenient, tending to agree with even bleeding-heart secular liberals. Nevertheless, the lives of both sides seem to live, at times, at odds with their beliefs. To the pro-death penalty, are you also pro-life in other arenas? To the anti-capital punishment supporters, what do you say to the families of those affected by Osama Bin Laden?

The death penalty is found in both Testaments of the Bible, although granted the emphasis is in the Old Testament, and the New Testament has a different reason than the old. The following are instances and methods of using the death penalty found in the Bible, according to New Naveís Topical Bible.

Death Penalty: Shall not be remitted, Num. 35:31. In the Mosaic law the death penalty was inflicted for murder, Gen. 9:5,6; Num. 35:16-21,30-33; Deut. 17:6; adultery, Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:24; incest, Lev. 20:11,12,14; bestiality, Ex. 22:19; Lev. 20:15,16; sodomy, Lev. 18:22; 20:13; incontinence, Deut. 22:21-24; rape of a betrothed virgin, Deut. 22:25; perjury, Zech. 5:4; kidnapping, Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7; upon a priestís daughter, who committed fornication, Lev. 21:9; for witchcraft, Ex. 22:18; offering human sacrifice, Lev. 20:2-5; for striking or cursing father or mother, Ex. 21:15,17; Lev. 20:9; disobedience to parents, Deut. 21:18-21; theft, Zech. 5:3,4; blasphemy, Lev. 24:11-14,16,23; for Sabbath desecration, Ex. 35:2; Num. 15:32-36; for prophesying falsely, or propagating false doctrines, Deut. 13:1-10; sacrificing to false gods, Ex. 22:20; refusing to abide by the decision of court, Deut. 17:12; for treason, 1 Kin. 2:25; Esth. 2:23; sedition, Acts 5:36,37.

Modes of Execution of Death Penalty: Burning, Gen. 38:24; Lev. 20:14; 21:9; Jer. 29:22; Ezek. 23:25; Dan. 3:19-23; stoning, Lev. 20:2,27; 24:14; Num. 14:10; 15:33-36; Deut. 13:10; 17:5; 22:21,24; Josh. 7:25; 1 Kin. 21:10; Ezek. 16:40; hanging, Gen. 40:22; Deut. 21:22,23; Josh. 8:29; beheading, Matt. 14:10; Mark 6:16,27,28; crucifixion, Matt. 27:35,38; Mark 15:24,27; Luke 23:33; the sword, Ex. 32:27,28; 1 Kin. 2:25,34,46; Acts 12:2.Executed by the witnesses, Deut. 13:9; 17:7; Acts 7:58; by the congregation, Num. 15:35,36; Deut. 13:9.Not inflicted on testimony of less than two witnesses, Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15.Swanson, James, Editor, New Naveís Topical Bible, (Oak Harbor, Washington: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1994.

This debate, in dealing with the conflicting realms of justice and mercy, brings up a variety of questions that I can only describe as, "grey." For example, most fundamentalist Christians are pro-capital punishment and pro-life. So I find myself wondering how a viewpoint such as this feels about those that commit abortions. Are they worthy of death as well? My guess is that many would say yes, many no. And what about killers that are mentally retarded? For those who are opposed to the death penalty, what should have been done with Hitler if he had not died in Germany? It seems to me that this is an ideal opportunity to present the good news of Jesus, in a way that also shows His mercy and even better, His absolutely revolutionary work on the cross.

After literally agonizing over this dilemma I have come to the conclusion that the New Testament support of the death penalty is limited. Most proponents of the death penalty like to point out Paulís submission to the government and to "explain away" Jesusí actions of forgiveness. They also like to explain that Jesus came to "fulfill the law, not abolish it." Itís funny how these same people donít believe they should be put to death for working on Sunday. The logic is very shaky, but more importantly, I believe it represents an incredible, worldwide state of ignorance concerning Christís work and purpose on the cross.

According to the Bible, EVERY sin is worthy of death. (Romans 3:23). Yes, that means even lying. Now, Jesus came for many reasons, but the main purpose behind his death and resurrection was to deal with the issue of sin. You see, we no longer need to be put to death for working on Sunday. We just need Jesus. Homosexuals no longer are killed, nor should they be, but they do need Jesus. This is the paradigm shift of eternity, folks. We need to start recognizing this as a church and teaching it to the world.

Having said that, it is easy to see why I do not commonly believe in exacting a "life for a life." I am personally willing to pay tax money in the hope that a person may come to know Jesus in prison. No life is expendable to God, and he who is forgiven much loves much, and it seems to me that I, for one, am a lot more useful to God since I have been forgiven and am living for Him than I would be dead.

Now, I am not a pacifist. And I am still struggling with the conflicting issues of "thou shalt not murder" while wondering if God would have had us assassinate Hitler rather than have 6-9 million Jews killed. And what about Osama Bin Laden? And if there is never a place to kill another human, why have a military, and how do we defend ourself? Do we need to? Will God do it for us, or will he allow us to be eradicated because of our lack of wisdom or foolishness? It is upon these questions that I openly admit that I do not have the answers, and humbly ask guidance from my Almighty Friend. Help me, Father. I need to know your words. In the mean time I will trust in the actions of the government that God has placed over me.

I want to end this essay leaving us to ponder the depth of God and His love. It seems to me that a good way to do that is to mention that the only example of God-ordained capital punishment found in the New Testament in my studies was actually taken out on Jesus.

"And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, 50Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. 51And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation." -John 11:50