Capital Punishment: A Biblical Perspective

Capital punishment is the sentence of death upon a person by a court order and carried out by the government as a punishment for a criminal offence. Crimes that can result in a death penalty are known as capital crimes or capital offences.

Whenever an execution is imminent, many questions are often raised Should capital punishment be acceptable in a civilized society? Is it morally right for a government to administer capital punishment? What is the purpose behind capital punishment, and is it accomplished? How do we find the answers to such questions? For Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy and infallibility, we must look to the Holy Bible (the Word of God) for answers.

In the Book of Genesis, we have an account of the first murder in history. Cain killed his brother Abel in a fit of anger and jealousy after God was pleased with Abel’s offering and displeased with the offering made by Cain. The punishment that Cain received from God for killing his brother was not death. Cain received exile from being in the presence of God and was sentenced to be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth. God then protected Cain from receiving harm or death at the hands of any man.

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
(Genesis 4:3-16 ESV)

Lamech was a descendent of Cain and the father of Noah. The scriptures tell us that Lamech killed a young man at one point for hitting him (Genesis 4:23) Throughout the generations wickedness continued to flourish and increase on the earth until every intention of the thoughts of mankind’s his heart was only evil continually. This made God sorry that he had made man, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them (Genesis 6:7).”

Noah found favor in the eyes of God. Noah and his wife, their three sons, and their son’s three wives were spared from the flood that destroyed the rest of mankind. Only eight people were selected for salvation. That is the problem with a society without just punishment for criminals. Lawlessness abounds and spreads like a disease until all of society is corrupted.

Immediately after the flood, God blessed Noah and his family saying to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood (Genesis 9:1-4).”

But they were also given a new and awesome responsibility. God told Noah and his family, “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. (Genesis 9:5-6).”

God now is requiring mankind to account for their actions. He requires murderers to be put to death by mankind. This new requirement is based on one fact, the fact that God had made mankind in His image. To murder someone who is created in the image of God is a serious offense that is punishable by the death of the offender. Also, because mankind was created in the image of God, he possesses the ability and responsibility to exercise justice and righteousness. Mankind is capable of administering the sentence prescribed by God.

It would appear that before the flood people may have taken God’s protection of Cain as a license to murder without any consequences. With the flood, God administered a form of capital punishment upon a violent and corrupt society. After the flood, God gave mankind the obligation and responsibility to take the life of those who committed the crime of murder.

The Torah, or Laws of Moses, prescribed the administration of capital punishment for many additional offenses. These laws were both civil and religious laws and they have served as the basis for criminal justice in many other civilizations since first given by God. The Torah prescribes capital punishment for premeditated murder, kidnapping, striking an expecting mother which causes the child to be born prematurely and die, failure to keep a killer animal from killing, killing a thief in revenge, sorcery or witchcraft, bestiality, adultery, incest, homosexuality, being a medium or spiritualist, and even breaking the Sabbath among many other offenses.

Were the laws of the Torah good laws? The Apostle Paul said that they were “holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). While the religious aspects of these laws were temporary (Galatians 2:23-25), the civil laws served their purpose well to govern and preserve a nation. Who would be so presumptuous to say that they could improve upon such a civil code of ethics? Many have arrogantly presumed they could do better, and crime has gotten worse, not better. In conclusion, capital punishment was ordained by God in the laws of the Torah.

Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament is not designed to govern or regulate civil governments. It is designed for those in Messiah Yeshua’s kingdom, which is spiritual in nature (John 18:36). The purpose of the New Testament is to help mankind achieve and maintain a relationship with God through Yeshua,  His only begotten Son. So for the most part, it does not concern itself with telling mankind how to righteously regulate their civil affairs as these commandments had already been given to mankind in the Tanakh. However, in defining our relationship to civil authorities while subject to a higher law, there are references which reveal God’s attitude toward capital punishment

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. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
(Romans 13:1-7 ESV)

The Apostle Paul tells us that governmental authorities are established and instituted by God and that they serve as ministers of God, as “an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” When a government fulfills its responsibility upon those who are evil, it “does not bear the sword in vain.” This is a clear allusion to the administration of capital punishment. Therefore, the New Testament supports the government’s right to exercise the death penalty on those who commit capital offenses.

The Apostle Paul also said he was willing to die if he committed anything for which he deserved to die (Acts 25:11). This is a clear implication that in Paul’s opinion some crimes were worthy of the death penalty.Although the New Testament focuses on the responsibilities of the followers of Yeshua in His spiritual kingdom, there is certainly no indication that it is wrong for government to administer capital punishment when deemed appropriate. The principle established in Genesis 9:5-6, given to all of mankind before the saving grace that is provided by Yeshua’s atonement for our sins remains a responsibility placed upon the governments of mankind.

Some opponents of capital punishment will tell you that the Holy Bible says “Thou shalt not kill.” This is actually a mistranslation of the Hebrew word ‘ratsach.’ Ratsach is literally translated to murder. This commandment forbids killing with malice and premeditation (Exodus 20:13). Throughout the following two chapters of Exodus, God prescribes the death penalty for nine different crimes. The commandment not to murder is directed toward individuals; one must ignore the context and twist the Scriptures to apply this verse to the issue of capital punishment.

Ezekiel wrote that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:32). However, one must consider the context of this passage of Scripture which states that the soul that sins shall die and no one else will bear the iniquity of any other person (Ezekiel 18:4). It also states that certain sins make one worthy of death (Ezekiel 18:10-13). God encourages the wicked to repent and do what is right (Ezekiel 18:21-23), but states that even the righteous person who begins to do wickedness shall die if they do not repent (Ezekiel 18:24). The entire contextual discourse of the passage is that mankind should repent before it is too late because God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that will not prevent Him from carrying out capital punishment when appropriate.

Some opponents of capital punishment claim that it does not work as it does absolutely nothing to deter crime. That is only true when the sentence is not carried out quickly. King Solomon said, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil (Ecclesiastes 8:11 ESV).” Capital punishment does keep an offender from killing again, escaping from a life sentence in prison, or possibly being paroled or pardoned in the future. The ineffectiveness of capital punishment in deterring crime by others is an argument against our system of administering capital punishment. It is not an effective argument against capital punishment itself.

Capital punishment is not just a deterrent. There is also the issue of justice, and justice always demands that the punishment fits the crime. This is what is meant by “an eye for an eye.” It is a reference to equal and just punishment, not the actual plucking out of another person’s eye. Some crimes are so heinous that any punishment other than the death penalty is an injustice.

Other capital punishment opponents argue that innocent people are executed occasionally. Unfortunately, this is a fact of life. But as before, this is an argument that pertains to a system in which capital punishment is administered. It is not an argument against the idea of capital punishment itself. The Holy Bible states that capital punishment could not be applied unless the crime was seen by two or more witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6). If a single witness made an accusation that proved false, the penalty for the crime could be applied to the false witness (Deuteronomy 19:15-21).

Capital punishment should be applied to criminals that are convicted in cases in which there are two or more eyewitnesses, and there is no doubt about the guilt of the defendant. When the conviction is dependent upon laboratory evidence and there are no eyewitnesses, then the maximum penalty should be life in prison. Sometimes laboratory evidence is later proved faulty as it did in the case of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito who were convicted of murdering Meredith Kercher on the witness of Rudy Guede (who had already admitted to the crime and was brokering a deal with prosecutors) and tainted forensic evidence. In these type of criminal proceedings that rely almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, a convicted person can later be released from prison if the laboratory evidence is later proved faulty.

Does God approve of capital punishment? I have demonstrated that God gave mankind the responsibility of carrying it out after the flood, God’s own illustration of justice in the government He gave to Israel, how believers today are to acknowledge the right and responsibility given by God to governments to be His ministers in avenging wrath on wrongdoers. Obviously, any civilized nation detests violence and bloodshed. However, civilization cannot exist with violence and corruption running rampant. or when government fails to administer justice with punishment that fits the crime.

How does God view governments that fail to carry out their responsibility to execute wrath upon the wrongdoer? As with anything that takes away justice, with sorrow and distress (Isaiah 5:20-23), and as with anyone who fails to fulfill their responsibility, they are cursed (Jeremiah 48:10).

Many people may refuse to accept what the Holy Bible has to say about capital punishment, but let those who profess to be believers and accept the Holy Bible as the inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God acknowledge that capital punishment is ordained by God.