When Jesus told the religious leaders, “he who is without sin cast the first stone,” was He referring to capital punishment? Jesus Himself was a victim of capital punishment. In God’s eyes, do we sinners have the right to kill criminals?
Your Scripture reference comes from the account of the woman taken in adultery whom the scribes and Pharisees took to Jesus. I must reverently point out that a great number of the earliest manuscripts and versions of Scripture do not contain this passage, John 7:53—8:11. An acknowledgment of this fact does not in any way cast a bad reflection upon the Word of God. In contrast, others have argued that the passage must appear in the Scriptures, for to omit it makes for an awkward transition from verse 52 of chapter 7 to verse 12 of chapter 8. Still others point out that later manuscripts do contain the passage; therefore, it should be included. For the sake of answering your question, let’s suppose it should be included. Certainly the account is consistent with the character of Christ, and certainly the incident could have happened.
I do not believe this passage could in any way negate capital punishment because the violation the accusers took to Jesus had to do with the Mosaic law. God’s command to observe the death penalty came long before the Mosaic law. Centuries before—right after the Noahic flood—God stated,
Whoever sheds a person’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; because God made man in His likeness (Gen. 9:6, Berkeley).
Never let anyone tell you capital punishment is invalid today because we are not under the Mosaic law. The decree of capital punishment came long before the Mosaic law system. Capital punishment as a basic God-given rule of society had to do with murder, the taking of another person’s life. In this instance, the scribes and Pharisees were dealing with a woman who had committed adultery, not murder.
This is not the only passage used wrongly to oppose capital punishment. Some have used Matthew 5:38 and 39 to argue that “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is capital punishment and that Jesus did away with that kind of thinking. But this passage refers not to capital punishment but to the Mosaic law of retaliation, the method used in the Law to end feuds (Exod. 21:24). The New Testament shows this method was not as good as Christ’s way to end feuds (Matt. 5:38–44). An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth was the old way. Christ had a better way—love.
Still others use the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod. 20:13). But the word “kill” here means “murder.” Note the distinct difference between the words “kill” and “murder.” Murdering another human being is always wrong, but sometimes killing another person is justified. Capital punishment is one of these times. Other times are in war or to defend one’s self or family (Josh. 6:21; 8:24; Rom. 13:1–7). God gave this decree of punishment to man, and man has the authority to carry this command out through the agency of human government. Man has the God-given authority to try cases, to determine guilt and to punish the guilty. We do not get the idea that only God can do these things directly (1 Pet. 2:13, 14; Acts 25:11).
Does the New Testament provide a basis for capital punishment? Yes. Romans 13:4 states,
For he [the governing 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.
The government can use the maximum extent of the law (“be afraid”) to ensure the good of the people it watches over. This includes capital punishment (“the sword”) for those who would go so far as to take the life of another wantonly.
Murder represents the most extreme form of lawlessness. When someone takes the life of another, he ends all life in that person. The victim will never again function as God would otherwise have intended him to function. He will never have another thought, another exercise of the will, another opportunity to make a spiritual decision or do anything of a spiritual nature.
Murder is also an accurate measurement of society. A maximum amount of murder and a seeming inability to do anything about it characterize crumbling civilizations. For that reason, our country needs to wake up and see the meaning behind all of the murder in our society.
Some people argue that capital punishment does not deter crime, but God says it does. In Leviticus 20 God decreed the death penalty among the Israelites, “That there be no wickedness among you.” Also, from a human standpoint, how many persons have been kept from murdering someone because they feared the consequences? J. Edgar Hoover stated,
A judge once said, “The death penalty is a warning, just like a lighthouse throwing its beams out to sea. We hear about shipwrecks, but we do not hear about the ships that the lighthouse guides safely on their way. We do not have proof of the number of ships it saves, but we do not tear the lighthouse down.”
Genesis 9:4 tells us that after the Flood, God permitted man to eat meat, but prohibited him from eating the blood of the animal. God taught Noah and his sons that life is in the blood and that life is sacred. When man sheds the blood of another, he tramples underfoot what is sacred and precious in God’s sight.
Some people oppose capital punishment on humanitarian grounds, when in effect they are minimizing God and His commands. They are subjecting Him and His commands to human reasoning the same way they subject the Bible to human reasoning. They degrade life because they don’t see its sacredness as God sees it. Many times people remark about the cruelty of capital punishment, but they seem to forget the victim of the crime, the loved ones left behind and the lifelong consequences of the deed. Or they feebly argue that one wrong doesn’t justify another wrong. Again, they overlook God’s decrees.
What about the argument that innocent people are sometimes unfairly put to death? Our laws make it difficult for this mistake to happen. Further, this argument is no reason to skirt God’s all-time command to mankind. Your comment that Jesus was an innocent victim of capital punishment is true; but His death perfectly illustrates how God uses sinful man to accomplish His divine purposes. It is not another argument for abolishing capital punishment.
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.