Q. With the ugly happening at Virginia Tech recently, I see capital punishment being attacked with new vigor in the newspapers and on TV and by politicians. Please tell me how to answer the argument that the Bible condemns the “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” mentality. Also, how does one refute the claim that capital punishment does not deter crime anyway?
A. The problem at Virginia Tech, as well as with any calamity in life, is due to the depravity of the human heart and the curse of sin upon earth. When people fail to understand the Biblical proportions of mankind’s fall into sin, they to tend to blame all kinds of by-products of the human state: one’s upbringing, guns, bad experiences in school, parents, and so forth. These influences may be factors in an individual’s actions, but ultimately an individual is responsible for his or her own actions.
You’re right in observing that opponents of capital punishment often use Matthew 5:38–42 to defend their position. This passage doesn’t, however, refer to capital punishment. Rather, it refers to the method used in the Old Testament to end feuds, known as the Law of Retaliation (see Exodus 21:24). The context shows that this method of “an eye for an eye” was not as good as Christ’s way to end feuds (see Matthew 5:39–44). “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was the old way to settle things; Christ came with a better way—love (v. 44).
Opponents of capital punishment, as you point out, also argue that capital punishment doesn’t deter crime. Of course it doesn’t when laws calling for the death penalty are not enforced or when, if they are enforced, it takes years to carry them out. If capital punishment were enforced and carried out promptly, it would certainly help deter crime. But whether or not capital punishment deters crime is not the real issue.
God did not decree capital punishment merely to be a deterrent to crime. He commanded it because human life is sacred, and capital punishment teaches, and is compatible with, this truth. Life is the unique property of God. Taking life is His right alone. When a person takes the life of another, that person is, in effect, presuming to be God. Justice can be meted out only when the murderer is then deprived of his or her own life. People who fail to understand this principle are standing in the way of Biblical justice on behalf of the victims and society in general, and people will answer for this hindrance in the Judgment.
When people oppose capital punishment on “humanitarian grounds,” they are actually minimizing God and His commands and are subjecting Him and His commands to human reasoning. They become the ones who actually degrade life simply because they don’t see life’s sacredness as God does. They think capital punishment is cruel, but they conspicuously show their disregard for the victims. They don’t see, as God does, that murder is so bad that He would have the murderer’s life taken because of what he or she has done. Murder is the worst form of lawlessness.
Capital punishment is Biblical, and Bible-believing Christians must uphold it in prayer and let their voices be heard in opposition to attacks on it. God decreed capital punishment immediately after the worldwide flood of Noah’s day. Genesis 9:6 records this decree: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.” One can search diligently, but there is no record whatsoever that God withdrew or abrogated His decree. This decree is to be carried out through the agency of human government, which has the God-given authority to try the accused, to determine guilt, and to punish the guilty (Acts 25:11; 1 Peter 2:13, 14). The “sword” in Romans 13:4 is synonymous with capital punishment; the government can use the maximum extent of the law for those who would take the life of another.
It is significant that God gave this decree right after the Flood. Before the Flood, people were so wicked that God found it necessary to destroy all of them except Noah and his family. With a new start after the Flood, God wanted law and order in society. Therefore, He introduced capital punishment as the standard.