In light of the importance of trials taking place across America for a number of serious slayings, is capital punishment Biblically wrong if the person who committed the crime is insane, was unhappy, or abused as a child, or has been influenced by some similar factor?
First we need to establish whether or not the Bible teaches capital punishment. Some people point to the system of Old Testament law and its “eye for an eye” provisions. They argue that we are no longer under the law. Although the law provided for capital punishment, we must realize (and point out to others) that God gave the decree concerning the death penalty long before He gave the law to the Israelites. God’s decree came to Noah and his family immediately after the universal Flood. Genesis 9:6 states, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” God has never abrogated this command!
Opponents of capital punishment sometimes use Matthew 5:38 and 39 to defend their position. This passage, however, does not refer to capital punishment. Rather it refers to the method used in the law to end feuds, the law of retaliation (see Exod. 21:24), and it shows that this method was not as good as Christ’s way to end feuds (see Matt. 5:39–44). An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was the old way to settle things. Christ had a better way; He championed love. But, again, this passage refers to settling feuds; it does not deal with the matter of capital punishment.
Those who oppose capital punishment also use one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13), to defend their view. But the word “kill” here means “murder.” Note the difference. It is always wrong to murder another person, but the Bible teaches that killing a person is justified at times. Capital punishment is one of those times, according to Genesis 9:6. Other times are in warfare and in the defense of oneself or his family (see Josh. 6:2 1; 8:24; Rom. 13:1–7). God gave the decree of capital punishment to man; therefore, man logically has the authority to carry it out through the agency of human government. Man has the authority to try cases, to determine guilt and to punish the guilty (see 1 Pet. 2:13, 14 and Acts 25:11).
Is there a New Testament basis for capital punishment? Yes. Romans 13:4 states, “For he [governmental agency] 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.” Here the Word of God teaches the principle that the government can use the maximum extent of the law (“be afraid”) to ensure the good of the people it watches over. This extent is capital punishment (“the sword”) for those who would take the life of another.
Theological and political liberalism, unfortunately, has muddled our society and its thinking so thoroughly that justice seems to be out of the question in many of the trials you mentioned. Liberalism has not only questioned the matter of capital punishment, but it has also conditioned us to find an excuse for murder; that is, we find some circumstance, person, or persons at fault apart from the actual perpetrator of a crime. Consequently, justice in American courts seems beyond reach, as the arguments and judicial devices working against giving a person his due have in many cases attained the ridiculous. Thus the person God says should die is let off the hook. Often the person gets parole after an unbelievably low number of years behind bars.
To answer your specific question, note again the decree of capital punishment carefully. This decree is serious, and if God had intended exceptions such as the ones you have mentioned, surely He would have let us know about them. We can safely hold that there were none. If a person is capable of murder, then that person must face God’s prescribed consequences. The Bible stresses man’s individual responsibility for his actions. We all will stand before God someday. Unbelievers will stand before the Great White Throne Judgment. Believers will stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. We will not be able to blame others for our actions or blame others for our responses to the actions of others.
Does death for murder do any good in society? Does it really deter crime? We often hear the argument that it does not. One answer to the argument is to ask, How can it do any good if it is not enforced? Capital punishment, where legal, is still rare due to all the hassles and loopholes. Yet some studies indicate that capital punishment does deter crime. Furthermore, the argument about deterring crime is not the real issue. The real issue is that God decreed capital punishment; therefore, we must practice it.
Apparently God did not issue His decree just to deter crime. He commanded it because life is sacred to Him (He made life) and because capital punishment is an object lesson concerning this fact. Life is the unique property of God. Taking life is His right and only His. When a person takes the life of another human being, he is in essence presuming to be God! When people oppose capital punishment for their supposed humanitarian reasons, they are minimizing God and His commands and subjecting Him and them to human reasoning. (Many of those people do the same with the Bible itself.) They are really the ones who degrade life because they don’t see it as God-created and therefore so sacred that the one taking the life of another should be destroyed. Often these people will protest the supposed cruelty of the death penalty. They fail to see the victim of the crime, the suffering of the victim’s loved ones and the lifelong consequences of the deed. They forget the number of murderers who have been released from prison and have committed murder again. They forget that murder ends the victim’s chance ever to function again as a living human being. The victim will never have another thought, have the opportunity to do anything of a spiritual nature or have another chance to exercise his volition in a way that might count for eternity. These thoughts are sobering indeed.
Capital punishment is Biblical. Carrying it out means handling the issue in the way God has decreed. Unfortunately, it is seldom carried out in America—even though according to polls the majority of Americans favor it, whether for Biblical reasons or out of just plain fear of increasing murder rates and lawlessness in general.
Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.