The Biblical Mandate for Capital Punishment | A Reply to: (Not) Off With Their Heads

Joshua, I must disagree with your Christian ethical assessment of the death penalty.  You’ve argued first that the Bible does not require it and furthermore that God hates the idea, and secondly that it does not work.  The first point is demonstrably incorrect—the Bible in fact commands capital punishment, and thus the second point—it’s efficacy—is somewhat irrelevant; here, however, I also believe your argument suffers from a series of incorrect assumptions.

A Clear Command

Application of the Mosaic Law

The Mosaic Covenant, which includes the bulk of the Old Testament Law, including many provisions for the death penalty, was, as you say, fulfilled by Christ—but it was not abrogated (Mt 5.17ff.). In its specifics, we are taught instead the necessity of grace by the New Testament, but in its intent God’s law is unchanged: be holy (1 Pt 1.15-16, notably quoting Leviticus).  The New Testament teaches us that external conformity to the Law is not good enough; in fact, God’s Law is even more serious than we thought—returning to Matthew 5, Christ says that to keep God’s Law, it is not enough not to murder the person you hate, but that you ought not to hate in the first place.

As it is the heart that matters—a principle which is developed fully, but not originally in the New Testament (1 Sam 16.7)—many of the Old Testament’s external symbols of obedience, such as dietary restrictions and circumcision, have been replaced or superseded in some way by the New Testament.  But these examples of fulfilment are specifically addressed in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 10.9ff. & Rom 2.25ff.).  We must view the Old & New Testaments as complementary, not contradictory.  The underlying principles of Christian ethics are unchanged.

A Command for All Peoples

Moreover, as you yourself noted, the most specific Biblical statement on capital punishment, Genesis 9.6, far pre-dates the Mosaic Law; and whereas the Mosaic Law was given specifically to the Jews, the Noahic Covenant was given to all mankind: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed…”

This cannot be dismissed as “a statement of reality, not necessarily a command.”  Please read the immediate context:

God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them… “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.”

This is a clear command.  And for emphasis, God restates it four times.

It is interesting to note the importance God places on this in light of the need to repopulate the earth after the Flood, commanded by God a few short verses away.  The current population of all humanity could have been counted on one’s fingers, yet God says death for death is appropriate. Why? “For God made man in his own image.”  What could be more heinous that to take the precious gift of life from one who bears God’s own image?  The life that God himself breathed in to mankind?

This command is given in the middle of God’s covenant, sandwiched between 8.22’s “while the earth remains” and the “you and your offspring after you…never again…never again…for all future generations…everlasting covenant…all flesh” of 9.8-16.  It does not “reasonably follow” that there is any “higher ethic” that would “supersede” this.

The New Testament

Your treatment of Romans 13 is likewise too dismissive:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?  Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 

Is Paul’s talk of “the sword” representative?  Yes, surely there are lesser included punishments contemplated by that statement, but there is no indication that we should take the text at anything other than its normal, literal face value.  It is not metaphoric. The passage says that the governmental authority is instituted by God as his appointed avenger—this is no mere “statement of reality about the Roman justice system”; this is validation.

And while the New Testament has a lot to say about forgiveness and repentance, as your parade of verses attests, it nowhere equates that with the absence of consequence. God, indeed, is not willing that any should perish—but many will choose that path nonetheless.  Remember, it was in the New Testament the God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for something our society regards as not just not a crime, but even morally acceptable—they told a ‘white’ lie (Acts 5, a story my mother made me read—to great deterrent effect—when I was a child).  It is absurd to suggest that God finds the idea of physical death as punishment unacceptable.

The Goal of Punishment

As I said earlier, that God has commanded capital punishment renders any discussion of its efficacy somewhat academic.  But as I’m sure you agree, God’s commands are never whimsical, capricious, or arbitrary—any failure to understand their logic is human, not divine.  There must be a good reason why God commands capital punishment.

Deterrence

You seem to have assumed that deterrence is the only valid reason for punishment, and that absent a substantive deterrent effect, the punishment is pointless.  Here, I believe you have made two errors—that capital punishment is an ineffective deterrent per se, and that deterrence is the only goal.

Whether capital punishment is an effective deterrent is not so simple a question as you have let on.  There is simply no way to directly quantify how many murders were not committed.  The FBI Uniform Crime Reports, for example, can count “murders committed”, but not “murders that would have been committed but were decided against by would-be perpetrator, reason cited: fear of death penalty”.  The statistic you do allude to is a well-known, nation-wide downward trend in the number of violent crimes (not just murder) in the 90s (rates began a precipitous drop around 1991 which largely levelled off around 2001).  The reasons for this trend are still debated among criminologists; there are simply too many variables to form a definitive conclusion as to why crime rates dropped during that period.  During that time, there were no major changes to death penalty laws in the United States (Massachusetts and Rhode Island abolished their death penalties in 1984, after that there were no changes until New York’s law was declared partially unconstitutional in 2004), and there is no reason to assume that an overall reduction in violent crime would not affect death penalty and non-death penalty states in similar fashion.

Even if you could statistically demonstrate that the death penalty was not deterring crime in the United States (and at best I think you can say the statistics are inconclusive), you have to consider that might simply be a problem in the way we apply the death penalty, not a problem intrinsic to the concept of capital punishment.  In fact, many advocates for the death penalty would agree with you that it is of limited deterrent effect due to the length of time that passes between crime, conviction, and execution.  Consider also that states that have a death penalty statute may vary considerable in its scope and application (further complicating attempts at statistical analysis).  For example some states only allow for the death penalty if the murder was of a police officer or if the murder had  aggravating circumstances, such as rape and torture, or only in cases of multiple murders.  (And contrary to what you stated in one of the comments on your original post, I am aware of no jurisdiction in this country where an unpremeditated ‘crime of passion’ would be eligible for the death penalty.)

Restoration

But biblically speaking, deterrence is not the only purpose of punishment.  I don’t even think it is the primary goal—after all, when the time comes to talk about punishment, the crime has already occurred.  Deterrence, at least for the current criminal, is no longer applicable.  To the Christian, an important reason for God’s chastisement is to bring about restoration after wrong has been done.  Much of the Old Testament law speaks about restoring the victim economically, and your discussion of forgiveness touches on the importance of relational restoration.  And for any other wrong that one does, there can be restoration with the aggrieved party.  But for murder, there simply can be no restoration in this life.  The murderer cannot give back the life he took, and he (or anyone else, for that matter) can never have a proper relationship with his victim—the victim is dead.

Justice

Having passed the point of no return for restoration, the goal of the punishment must take a different turn, because, finally, to some degree, punishment is about simple justice.  Wrongdoing must be appropriately penalised.  The human heart cries out for justice to be done—it is part of the image of God in all of us.  You seem to dismiss capital punishment as inherently vengeful.  It is not in the sense you have used the word, because vengeance itself is not inherently wrong—it’s just God’s place rather than ours (as stated in the above passage from Romans 13 and in the previous chapter at 12.19—both passages cited by you).  Vengeance exacted at the hand of God’s appointed servant and at God’s direction is thoroughly appropriate and morally necessary.  Deterrence and restoration have their place, but when it comes to murder, God has reserved that place firmly in his own hands.  Our job is simply to arrange the meeting, as the saying goes.

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