Read this important article by Scott Johnson about what the Bible says about capital punishment.
Then, see important statements by faith groups about capital punishment HERE
The Bible and the death penalty: Implications for criminal justice education. Journal of Criminal Justice Education Vol. 11(1): 15-33. Spring 2000; by Scott Johnson.
The death penalty remains a controversial issue. Since many practitioners and students base their opinions of capital punishment on their religious beliefs and/or the Bible, knowledge of the Bible's content on these issues is of value for teachers of criminal justice.
The death penalty remains a controversial ideological issue in criminal justice. Teaching the ideological or ethical ideas surrounding the death penalty can be difficult, even for the most experienced of criminal justice educators. Most teachers have heard "an eye for an eye," or "let he who is without sin cast the first stone," quoted as justification for a particular position on capital punishment. Criminal justice professors often downplay or ignore the significance of religion as the source of policy orientations. Whether out of ignorance of the subject matter, personal discomfort, or ideological difference, this choice may be unwise since according to the most recent Gallup survey approximately ninety percent of Americans indicated a religious belief of some kind (Gallup 1998). In addition, sixty-seven percent of people said they were members of a church or synagogue, and sixty-one percent considered religion very important in their lives. Of those indicating a religious belief, eighty-seven percent identified with the major Christian denominations, including: Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, Mormons, Eastern Orthodoxies, and others. The pollsters say that these numbers have been consistent over the past thirty years.
These statistics and the previously described classroom situation demonstrate the relevance of religion to an informed intellectual discussion of the death penalty. Interestingly, both supporters and opponents of capital punishment may derive justification for their position from their religious beliefs. Students will often quote "an eye for an eye" or "ye who is without sin, let him cast the first stone" as justification for his or her position. However, when people use specific verses or passages of the Bible to justify a particular position on capital punishment, the references are frequently acontextual, failing to consider the intent of entire passages or the Bible as a whole document. Moreover, the teacher may not have a complete understanding of these teachings him or herself to allow for the best possible discussion of these complex issues.
Since the Bible provides justification for the ideological beliefs of
many criminal justice practitioners, students, and citizens, understanding
the contents of the entire book when teaching about death penalty issues
is prudent for criminal justice educators. This paper reviews the Christian
Bible on the subject of the death penalty to provide a reference for teachers
of criminal justice. Passages studied for this research are those where
the Bible prescribes death as a legal punishment, or governments execute
individuals for crimes according to their law. This study distinguishes
Bible passages where God uses death as a punishment and when humankind
uses death as a punishment. This distinction is important because, according
to basic Judeo-Christian theology, God has absolute control over life and
death. As such, the end of a human life, whether as administration of justice
or the culmination of the life cycle, is God's to control. Therefore, though
God may end a life as a symbol of justice, it does not give humanity the
right to do the same. The circumstances in which humankind may end life
to administer justice, if it may do so
at all, are unclear; and as such, constitute the core question under investigation in this paper. This inquiry then focuses on instances where the Bible mandates, explicitly acknowledges, or implicitly implies a state-sponsored execution as valid punishment for a violation of the law.
There are two aspects to this analysis of the Bible and capital punishment. First is a content analysis of biblical doctrine. This paper examines the pro-capital punishment and anti-capital punishment statements in the Bible. The goal being a contextual analysis of these statements to overcome the previously mentioned problem of quoting individual Bible verses out of context, which could justify any position on this issue. Since the structure of the Bible allows for its content to be separated into these types of small phrases, acontextual use of individual verses may completely misrepresent the intent of the Scriptures. Moreover, following the
Bible through from beginning to end should reveal whether subsequent points further explain previously articulated statements. Second, this research examines what happens to those individuals who commit murders in the Bible. The actions of persons in the Bible should provide a behavioral context through which the articulated doctrines may be better analyzed and explained.
The passages included in this research were identified by researching several terms representing killing in Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the MacArthur Study Bible, the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, the Interpreter's Bible, the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible, and Roget's Thesaurus of the Bible. These terms, in all of their different linguistic forms, were murder, kill, stone, execute, stab, poison, hang, drown, and smite. Once identified, the verses containing relevant examples of killings or executions were examined in two ways: first, to see when the Bible orders and uses the death penalty; second, to see what happens to the killers in the Bible. This research examined these portions of Scripture in five different translations of the Bible to uncover any significant variation in interpretation from the original books that may explain the differences among believers as well as to better understand the theological intent of the passage. The translations studied were the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New International Version, the Revised Standard Version, and the New American Version. No significant variations in translation were found across these versions. This paper quotes from the New King James Version of the Bible. The paper opens with a discussion of the pro-capital punishment arguments in the Bible. The second section explains the anti-capital punishment statements.
The review of murders and murderers in the Bible follows the content
PRO-CAPITAL PUNISHMENT STATEMENTS
The majority of biblical statements that support capital punishment are found in the Old Testament, more specifically, the first five books of the Old Testament. Biblical scholars label these books the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch includes the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Pentateuch, God dictates law to the Nation of Israel. This law is not just the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:1-17). The law grows in the subsequent three books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Leviticus explains the consequences for committing different acts. Numbers and Deuteronomy repeat and further develop the law through the telling of stories. In accomplishing these theological and sociolegal goals, these five books of the Bible provide the most detailed discussion of when the death penalty was used.
The Pentateuch clearly mandates the use of the death penalty for premeditated
homicide. The first statement endorsing execution for murder is Genesis
9:6 "Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in
the image of God He made man." This is part of the passage where God establishes
a new covenant with Noah after the Great Flood. In this covenant, God reasserts
the importance of humanity in creation. Since God made humanity in the
image of God and God gave humanity dominion over the creation, the taking
of human life, even by animals, warrants a reckoning from God. "Surely
for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning;
from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man's brother, I will require the life of man" (Genesis 9:5). The priority God places on human life is to be recognized by all life in the creation. As such, the penalty for taking human life is most severe.
The Ten Commandments contain the divine order "thou shah not murder"(Exodus 20:13). The wording of this commandment is critical to this debate and understanding the position of the Bible on this issue. According to biblical scholarship, the word used in this commandment is specific, having significant implications for understanding the crime (MacArthur 1997; Mercer Dictionary of the Bible 1991; Interpreter's Bible 1952; Anchor Bible Dictionary 1992). It is one of seven Hebrew words for killing, but it specifically represents killing under law. More precisely, it represents the most egregious type of homicide, similar to contemporary understandings of capital murder. This type of homicide represents the wanton killing of the innocent for prurient or sadistic reasons. Similar to contemporary American culture, the penalty of death is reserved for homicides of this malevolent character. The above sources also state that this commandment did not prohibit the use of death by the state in administering justice. If this is true, the use of the Sixth Commandment as prohibition against state killing is incorrect because the language used in the commandment allows it. It also did not apply to killing in war, most cases of manslaughter, or suicide. Hence, the case for the Bible favoring the death penalty is stronger because the meaning of this term in the Ten Commandments distinguishes among different types of killing and accepts the use of capital punishment.
Though the twentieth chapter of Exodus articulates God's prohibition against murder, it prescribes no punishment at that point. In Exodus 21:1214, God reiterates his order for the penalty of death for murder. He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die.
These statements speak clearly and authoritatively about the consequences of premeditated homicide. Again, these verses reassert the distinction between murder and manslaughter concerning the Biblical use of capital punishment. At this point the Scriptures demonstrate that God expects the imposition of certain penalties for violations of divine law, and the expressed punishment for murder is to be death. As discussed above, these verses show that God differentiates between premeditated murders and other homicides. The Scriptures clearly say that these lesser forms of homicide are not capital crimes. Hence, premeditation and malicious intent are key elements in the requirements for capital punishment, which reflects the language used in the Sixth Commandment. When these elements are present in a homicide, these verses authoritatively demand execution.
It is later in this chapter of Exodus that the "eye for an eye" quote
appears for the first time. This is labeled the lex talionis, the law of
equitable retribution. This phrase first appears in Exodus 21:24, which
reads, "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." Death
penalty supporters often quote "an eye for an eye" as justification of
their position. Consistent with most retributivist theory, the lex asserts
that if a person takes the life of a human being, the victim or the state
as his or her representative has the moral right to take the life of the
killer. Despite the seemingly simple clarity of this statement, the use
of this quotation to justify capital
punishment raises important theological and ideological concerns because of its acontextual use. Neither the quote nor the verse are complete sentences, nor do they directly mention the death penalty. The story containing the verse may carry a different meaning than the popular understanding. The whole passage should be examined.
If men fight and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly, as the woman's husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22-25)
Many people interpret these verses as mandating the taking of life for life; however, closer examination of these verses shows that they intend to keep people from exceeding their rights for justice and ensuring equity across offenders, rather than defining the substantive form of the punishment. Note that this expression of justice, "an eye for an eye" or "a life for a life," does not appear in the earlier verse of the chapter that outlaws and condemns murder. Furthermore, in its literary context, the lex does not serve as the rationale for the punishment. In other words, "an eye for an eye" and its companion verses are not included to explain why an eye is due as the just compensation for the loss. These verses dictate that an eye is as much that society may take as penalty if the greatest harm that the victim suffers is the loss of an eye. The passage reveals a situation that could easily provoke people to terrible rage. A fight, in which she has not taken part, injures a pregnant woman so that she miscarries or gives birth prematurely. These verses control the administration of justice following the accident, because the husband could only inflict those injuries suffered by the woman or the child upon the offender. Furthermore, people were free to accept lesser forms of redress if they so desired (Catholic Study Bible 1990:85). The eye for an eye phrase is more correctly interpreted as a limitation on punishment, rather than an order to vengeance. However, this broader understanding of the lex talionis does not change the fact that at this point in the Scriptures, death remains the divinely ordained punishment for certain types of homicide and various other crimes.
Leviticus 24:10-22 further reveals the Bible's apparent endorsement of the death penalty for murder. In this passage the Israelites bring Moses a man who blasphemes against God during a fight in the camp. Moses prays and waits until God instructs him about what to say and do. Then you shall speak to the children of Israel saying: Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death. Whoever kills a man shall surely be put to death. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal. If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him - fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him. And whoever kills an animal shall restore it; but whoever kills a man shall be put to death. You shall have the same law for the stranger and for the one from your own country; for I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 24:15-22).
Though the crime under consideration here is blasphemy, Moses reiterates God's desire to punish murder with death. The lex talionis reappears here also, and in this context serves more as rationale for the punishment as well as a limitation on the punishment. The key to understanding this passage may be the last verse, in which Moses explains these laws to the increasingly diverse population under his leadership. Following its emancipation the nation of Israel acquired people from many diverse backgrounds in its travels through the desert. Not all people traveling with the nation understood its law or shared its traditions. At this point, Moses reasserts God's basic position on these issues, emphasizing the point of the same law for the stranger and the Israelite in these matters: those who commit murder should be punished by death.
The book of Numbers repeats the command to execute murderers in further detail. After crossing into the Promised Land, the Israelites were to establish six cities as cities of refuge for those people who had committed manslaughter. At this point Moses is elaborating on the definition of murder, presumably to explain who has the right to flee to the cities of refuge as opposed to those who must die. His discussion of the conditions for allowing someone to go to these cities reveals a clear mandate to execute murderers.
These six cities shall be for refuge for the children of Israel, for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills a person accidentally may flee there. But if he strikes a man with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he strikes him with a wooden hand weapon, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer, the murderer shall surely be put to death. The avenger of blood himself shall put the murderer to death; when
he meets him, he shall put him to death. If he pushes him out of hatred, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies, or in enmity he strikes him with his hand so that he dies, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him. (Numbers 35:15-21)
A later passage in Numbers further clarifies this divine mandate for retribution and atonement through execution. And these things shall be a statute of judgment to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty. Moreover, you shall take no ransom for the lie of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And you shall take no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the priest. So you shall not pollute the land where you are; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it. (Numbers 35:29-33)
In this passage God is saying that the only way to restore the purity or natural balance to the land is the shedding of the blood of the one who has defiled the land. God is saying that people who commit murder cannot escape punishment. The person who sheds blood, intentionally or accidentally, has violated God's covenant with Noah expressed in Genesis 9. Allowing people who break this covenant to escape punishment defiles and devalues the covenant. Deuteronomy repeats this admonition.
Now, it the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as He swore to your fathers, and gives you the land which He promised to give to your fathers, and if you keep all these commandments and do them which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and to walk always in his ways, then you shall add three more cities for yourself besides these three, lest innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and thus guilt of bloodshed be upon you. But if anyone hates his neighbor, lies in wait for him, rises against him, and strikes him mortally, and he flees to one of these cities, the elders of the town shall send and bring him from there, and deliver him over to the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with you. (Deuteronomy 19:8-13)
This passage explains the need for three more of these cities of refuge. When the Israelites had acquired all of the territory promised in the Abrahamic covenant, they would need to set aside three more cities of refuge for those people guilty of lesser forms of homicide. According to verse ten, this would be because without them, people not worthy of death would be executed, thus making the nation of Israel guilty of shedding innocent blood. For those individuals guilty of shedding innocent blood, however, the punishment of death is clearly ordered by the remainder of the passage. Moreover, failure to execute murderers may result in the loss of God's favor.
The Pentateuch also orders the death penalty for a variety of acts that would not qualify as capital crimes today. For example, the Mosaic Code vigorously demands execution for worshiping other gods. If your very own brother, or son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you saying, `let us go and worship other gods' (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other) do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again. (Deuteronomy 13:6-11)
Profaning the Sabbath is a capital offense (Exodus 35:2, Exodus 31:14-15;
Numbers 15:32-36). Blasphemy and sacrifice to false gods also warrant execution
(Leviticus 24:11-14; Exodus 22:20). Dishonoring parents meats death, as
does disrespecting priests or elders (Exodus 21:15; Leviticus 20:9; Deuteronomy
17:12; Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Proverbs 2020). Several improper worship procedures
also warrant the penalty of death, including human sacrifice (Leviticus
20:2) and assorted temple violations (Numbers 1:51; 3:10; 18:7). Divination
and sorcery are also capital crimes (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27). The
twentieth chapter of
Leviticus mandates death for a variety of familial and sexual violations, including adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality.
For everyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother. His blood shall be upon him. The man who commits adultery with another man's wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death. The man who lies with his father's wife has uncovered his father's nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death. They have committed perversion. Their blood shall be upon them. If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. If a man marries a woman and her mother, it is wickedness. They shall be burned with fire, both he and they, that there may be no wickedness among you. If a man mates with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal. If a woman approaches any animal and mates with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood is upon them. (Leviticus 20:9-16)
The Pentateuch also condemns several acts that remain crimes in contemporary culture, but not capital offenses. For instance, biblical law condemns kidnapping and the rape of betrothed virgins (Exodus 21:16;Deuteronomy 22:23-27). Other types of homicide may be punishable by death. For example, an owner could be executed if his farm animal killed another person, and the owner had been previously warned of the animal's dangerousness (Exodus 21:28-29; Leviticus 20:27). This would be a reckless or neglignet homicide, which is not a capital crime under modern law.
In summary, the Pentateuch recognizes a divine order for the death penalty. The tone of these Biblical passages also leaves no debate about God's feeling on the issue. These statements are very commanding in form, and allow litle room for misinterpretation. The remainder of the Old Testament provides no other passages for doctrinal analysis similar to the Pentateuch. Many stories involving murders and executions occur in the remainder of the Old Testament, but the third section of the paper, which descusses murderers and their dispositions, is a more appropriate place for analysis of these biblical stories.
While the Old Testament openly mandates the use of the death penalty,
the New Testament provides no overt statement in which Jesus or New Testament
authors endorse the use of death as a punishment for crimes. However, an
examination of the entire New Testament also fails to reveal any overt
rejection of capital punishment. It is clear from historical record and
anthropological evidence that death was used regularly as a state sanctioned
punishment. Furthermore, as Jews in Roman-occupied Israel, Jesus, the disciples,
and other New Testament authors were aware of the strict mandates of the
Pentateuch and the regular use of the death
penalty by the Romans. Jesus could speak directly to the incorrectness of the death penalty at any time. The nature of his mission provided him many opportunities, as did specific occurrences. For instance, during the crucifixion, a thief crucified with Jesus says, "Do you not even fear God seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward for our deeds" (Luke 23;40-41). This circumstance gave Jesus the chance to speak to the issue; however, he did not. Jesus either chose not to speak directly to the issue of capital punishment or the record of his teachings is lost.
Some statement in the New Testament have been interpreted as endorsing
capital punishment. However these passages do not speak directly to the
issue of the
death penalty which weakens their applicability. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands2" He answered and said unto them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites as it is written, " `This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men-the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do." He said to them, `All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said `Honor your father and mother;' and `he who curses his father or mother, let him be put to death.' But you say, `If a man says to his father or mother, `whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban'-(that is a gift to God) then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.' (Mark 7:5-13; see also Matthew 15:1-20)
The primary aim of this story is the correction or revelation of the wrongness of insertion of the tradition of the elders over the commands of God. However, death penalty proponents argue that Jesus quotes the law of God and its proper punishment, which is death. Since Jesus asserts the primacy of the law and the punishment without any indication that the punishment should change, this constitutes an implicit endorsement of capital punishment by Jesus.
Perhaps the closest thing to a New Testament endorsement of the death penalty is found in Acts (25:10-11). Jews are seeking Paul to bring him back to Jerusalem for trial. In his response to their charges, Paul speaks to validity of punishments. . . . I stand at Caesar's judgment seat where I ought to be judged. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you very well know. For if I am an offender or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying; but if there is nothing in these things of which these men accuse me, no one can deliver to them. I appeal to Caesar.
This statement from Paul presumes the validity of capital punishment because the statement assumes that there are offenses worthy of the penalty of death. Moreover, Paul asserts his willingness to suffer such a consequence if he commits such an offense. Again, this is interpreted as an endorsement of the death penalty in the New Testament.
Paul also comes close to endorsing the death penalty when, in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, he discusses God's wrath against unrighteousness perpetrated by humanity. More specifically, Paul discusses the immoral behaviors of many pagan cultures from which many new believers in the faith came. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evilmindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent proud boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful, who knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)
The use of the term "God's righteous judgment" is the source of confusion in this passage. The New International Version and the Revised Standard Version use the term "decree," rather than judgment, which would support the idea that Paul is referring to the Mosaic Law. If so, The Pentateuch condemns several offenses listed in this passage, and Paul would be referring to the legal executions of these offenders, endorsing the death penalty. Broader contextual analysis of this passage implies God's response to these acts, not a human response. For instance, the opening verse of this section of Scripture, (Romans 1:18), speaks of God's wrath revealed from heaven against unrighteousness, and outlines God's behavior against these cultures. The next chapter speaks of God visiting punishment on the people who engage in these behaviors through the revelation of secrets in God's final day of judgment. Hence, the "death" Paul mentions in this passage may be eternal spiritual condemnation inflicted by God, rather than human execution.
Other examples of New Testament doctrine that may be interpreted as
supporting the death penalty are the provisions that call Christians to
good citizenship. These passages require Christians to submit to lawful
governmental authority. By default, if the law of the state endorses capital
punishment, then believers should follow it. Let every soul be subject
to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God,
and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore, whoever
resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist
will bring judgement on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good
works, but to
evil. Do you want to be afraid of the authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. (Romans 13:1-4; see also 1 Peter 2:13-14 and Matthew 21:17-21)
These statements assert that God grants authority and power to governments, and an aspect of that power is the duty to punish evildoers. However, these passages do not explicitly endorse the use of the death penalty, nor do they justify capital punishment as a necessary component of governmental law enforcement. Though these verses imply that government has the right to use physical force to ensure compliance with the law and administer justice, these passages do not state that the government has the right or obligation to take life as a punishment for violations of the law.
In summary, the Bible contains several overt endorsements of capital
punishment. Most of these explicit endorsements occur in the Old Testament.
The Mosaic law, articulated in the Pentateuch, prescribes death as the
punishment for several offenses against God and humanity. The New Testament
contains no similar, overt endorsements, perhaps because the authors of
the New Testament accepted the Old Testament doctrine that asserted the
necessity and validity of the death penalty. However, most New Testament
statements used to justify the penalty of death do not speak directly to
the punishment itself.
ANTI-CAPITAL PUNISHMENT STATEMENTS
Though the Bible contains many statements that mandate capital punishment, it also contains many passages that seem to refute the death penalty. As was previously stated, there is no direct refutation of the death penalty in the Bible, but many passages that outline ethics and proper behavior toward other people could have significant implications for capital punishment.
For instance, the Bible contains many orders to refrain from vengeance.
For example, Leviticus 19:18 says, "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear
any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your
neighbor as yourself." Scripture reiterates this point in Proverbs 24:29,
"Do not say, "I will do to him just as he has done to me; I will render
according to the man according to his work." It is possible to interpret
these verses as saying that the unthoughtful application of the lex talionis
does not satisfy God. In other words, the intentional infliction of suffering
in response to suffering may not accomplish God's purposes. Punishment
does not exist so that humanity may indulge its vanity or cruelty. It is a means to the higher ends of discipline and justice. Those who use the sins of others as an excuse to inflict pain or satisfy a bloodlust pervert the desire for justice that should motivate an act of criminal punishment.
The Bible not only argues against taking revenge, it advocates forgiveness.
In other words, the Scriptures go beyond repayment of injury for injury,
they teach the doing of good despite injury. For instance, "For if you
forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father
forgive you your trespasses," (Matthew 6:14-15). The New Testament repeats
this mandate to forgive several times (Matthew 18:21-35; Luke 6:37-38;
Luke 17:3-4). Jesus expresses it most directly when He speaks directly
to the lex talionis. An examination of His teaching here shows that
Jesus seeks to correct a misinterpretation of the lex talionis, similar to the one discussed previously in this paper.
You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whosoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:38-45)
As was previously stated, the lex talionis serves as a guarantee of fairness, not a call to vengeance. Apparently, people misunderstood this even in Jesus' time. The passage implies that people should not inflate their sense of self worth by overemphasizing the mistakes of others through an opportunity to inflict punishment on those who do wrong.
The implication of this argument in terms of the death penalty would seem to be that even if someone has committed murder, the response of the believer is to be loving and conciliatory. Jesus asserts that God wants people to go beyond the usual impulses of human nature and respond to harmful behavior with love inspired and exemplified by God. This challenge fails to address the issue of absolution, however. For even if love motivates the social response to a crime, it does not require or justify the offender's release from the punishment for the crime. Still, Jesus' teaching here seems to eliminate the death penalty as a social response to crime for practical reasons. Although the Bible frequently speaks of loving correction and discipline, the permanence of the death penalty destroys its ability to serve as loving discipline. Since the death penalty cannot serve the higher end of discipline, producing change in future behavior, it seems that this response does not accurately represent the physical manifestation of love expressed and desired by Jesus.
Other passages of Scripture raise questions about whether the deaths of sinners please God. Throughout the Bible, God stresses repentance and attempts to maximize people's chances to know Him. God also stresses abstention from sin, obedience to His law, and condemnation of sinners. However, severe justice without mercy or the opportunity for rehabilitation does not allow for this possibility. The following passage from Ezekiel epitomizes this problem:
"[t]herefore you, O son of man, say to the house of Israel: "Thus you say, `If our transgressions and our sins lie upon us, and we pine away in them, how can we then live? Say to them: "As I live," says the Lord God, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:10,11 )
This speaks to a person's potential for redemption. In this passage of Scripture, God speaks to the nation of Israel, which is lamenting its sins against God. The people feel as though they have so offended God that they cannot escape condemnation. The nation apparently expected the most severe sanction. The reply reveals God's desire when sin occurs. It implies that death is not God's preferred outcome. God wants people to abandon evil and live properly, rather than die for sin. This point again raises the issue of absolution. Though God would prefer that the wicked turn from their evil ways, does that mean that they may escape just punishment for their of Tense if they do? Moreover, even if the wicked still must face punishment, was God speaking in terms of divine or human intervention? This statement has strong implications for the administration of justice, because if it is more pleasing to God to have the wicked turn from their evil, then providing an environment in which this is possible would appear to be more pleasing to God than thoughtless applications of penalties.
All of these themes are present in what is, perhaps, the most significant anti-capital punishment passage of the Bible. The most widely known incident involving Jesus and the death penalty, other than His own execution, is the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. It is crucial for the issue at hand to note that, at no point in this story, does Jesus state that the law is incorrect or that the death penalty is invalid; though this episode provided him the perfect opportunity. Still, this story seems to reject the use of capital punishment by humankind.
Now early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him; and he sat down and taught them. Then the Scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman caught in adultery. And when they sat her in the midst, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do you say?" This they said, testing him, that they might have something of which to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger, as though he did not hear. So when they continued asking him, he raised himself up and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." And again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even unto the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing alone in the midst. When Jesus has raised himself up and saw no one but the woman, he said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one Lord." And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more." (John 8:1-11)
In this story, Jesus implies that only those who are without sin can justifiably condemn others for theirs. He does not change or reject the previously stated law, but he implies that humans do not exist in a physical, emotional, or spiritual state where they are worthy to execute it. Perhaps this story is contextual, in that Jesus knew this to be true of the crowd surrounding the adulteress. However, his behavior here reiterates a message present throughout his teaching of being more concerned with one's own sin than with the sins of others.
Another significant point concerning the death penalty and this story is that Jesus does not stop the execution because of anything special on the part of the adulteress. Any discussion of the worthiness of the adulteress for this outcome is not present in the narrative. She does not repent her sin, nor does she even ask for mercy. The implication being that properties or perceptions of offenders should not govern human mercy or clemency. According to the context of the story, given the sinful nature of most human hearts, harsh judgment against others for their sin is misplaced.
In summary, the Bible contains many passages that implicitly reject
the use of the death penalty. The key point being the implicit nature of
these rejections. Though the Bible contains many verses that overtly mandate
the use of capital punishment, the ethics of love and forgiveness, as well
as the insight into the mind of God expressed in the Bible, imply that
the opportunity for repentance and rehabilitation would eliminate the use
of the death penalty because it would not allow the offender the opportunity
to change his or her behavior.
MURDER AND JUSTICE IN THE BIBLE
Given the complexity of the aforementioned issues, as well as their indefinite character, this research also documented the crime of murder and the outcome for those who perpetrated this crime according to the Bible. The hypothesis being stories in the Bible that explain what happens to murderers could provide a behavioral context through which to answer some of the previous questions. It is important to note that there was not a criminal justice system similar to the ones currently in operation in the United States in effect during biblical times. However, murder was a social offense for which the state could legitimately impose the penalty of death.
The Bible tells of several killings. For this research, those homicides that involve premeditation or prurient satisfaction for the killer qualify as murder, reflecting the previously discussed language of the Sixth Commandment. Although the Bible documents executions for other offenses, this paper examines only the dispositions for murders because murder is the only crime for which people receive the death penalty in the United States. Furthermore, murder is generally considered the most serious offense; therefore, if executions do not regularly occur throughout the Bible for the most serious of offenses, it suggests that the Bible does not endorse capital punishment.
Table 1 shows that of the twenty-two murders identified in the Bible,
only four result in what could be considered executions by the state. Rechab
and Baanah stab Ish-Bosheth, a son of King Saul, as he lay in his bed.
They then present his head to King David, hoping to win his favor for killing
the son of his enemy. However, David is angry that these men killed the
son of God's anointed king, and he is especially enraged at the manner
in which they killed him. As such, he orders their deaths. The second execution
occurs for the death of Abner, commander of King Saul's army. Ashael pursues
Abner after a battle between the houses of Saul and David. According to
the Scriptures (2 Samuel 2:18-23), Ashael pursues Abner even after the
defeat of Abner's forces in battle, apparently with the malicious intent
to kill him despite Abner's pleas for leniency. When Ashael refuses to
relent, Abner kills him in combat. Ashael's brother, Joab, David's highest
military commander, ends the pursuit and allows Abner to escape. Later,
after discovering that Abner and David have made peace, Joab kills Abner
to avenge his brother. King Solomon has Joab executed. Athaliah is the
victim of the third official Biblical execution for murder. To rule the
kingdom of Judah after the death of her son, Ahaziah, Athaliah kills her
grandchildren. One of her daughters-in-law hides an heir to the throne,
however. After six years, the High Priest, Jehodiah, crowns the rightful
king in a royal coup. When Athaliah hears the noise of the coronation,
she accuses the participants of treason, but Jehodiah orders her execution
for her past actions. The last execution for murder occurs against the
palace servants for the murder of King Amon of Judah. The people of Judah
execute these killers, presumably to install
Amon's son to the throne rather than the desired leader of the conspirators (MacArthur 1997).
Table 1 reveals that murder in the Bible does not regularly receive
punishment by execution. The Bible shows that God frequently punishes murders
intervention such as the dispositions of David, Baasha, and Jehoram. Other murderers get killed, but their deaths are the products of another person's greed and cruelty, not the administration of justice by the state. It is also possible to interpret these outcomes as divine retribution for their crime. The Bible omits the outcomes for other killers such as Herodias or Jozachar. Still others seem to escape punishment completely. For instance, Gideon and Jehu die in old age, apparently with God's favor ( Judges 8:32; 2 Kings 10:35). Ishmael escapes to another nation after his offense. Perhaps he receives some punishment later in life; however, the Bible does not say. It seems difficult to suggest that the Bible sincerely endorses state sponsored capital punishment, when so few murderers in the Scriptures receive the death penalty.
Name Verse of Crime Outcome
Cain Genesis 4:8 Marked by God
Ehud Judges 3:21 Liberates Israel from Moabites
Gideon Judges 8:22 Nothing
Abimelech Judges 9:5 Killed in military defeat
Rechab & Baanah 2 Samuel 4:6 Executed by King David
David 2 Samuel 11:15 Cursed by God to always have strife
Absalom 2 Samuel 13:29 Killed by Joab
Joab 2 Samuel 3:27 Executed by King Solomon
Baasha 1 Kings 15:28 Cursed by God
Zimri 1 Kings 16:10 Commits suicide
Jezebel 1 Kings 21:8-10 Killed by her eunuchs
Hazael 2 Kings 8:12-15 Becomes King of Aram
Jehu 2 Kings 9:24 Nothing
Athaliah 2 Kings 11:2 Executed by Jehoiada, High Priest
Jozachar & Jehozabad 2 Kings 12:20-21 No further mention
Shallum 2 Kings 15:10 Killed by Menahem
Menahem 2 Kings 15:14 Serves as King of Israel
Pekah 2 Kings 15:25 Killed by Hoshea
Hoshea 2 Kings 15:30 Imprisoned by King of Assyria for later crime
Amon's servants 2 Kings 21:23 Executed by leaders of Judah
Jehoram 2 Chronicles 21:4 Cursed by God
Ishmael Jeremiah 41:2 Escapes to Ammonites
Herodias Matthew 14:8-11 No further mention
In summary, the Bible contains several
overt endorsements of capital punishment. Most of these explicit endorsements
occur in the Old Testament. The Mosaic law articulated in the Pentateuch
prescribes death as the punishment for several offenses against God and
humanity. The New Testament contains no similar overt endorsements. This
may be because the authors of the New Testament accept the legitimacy of
the teachings of the Old Testament, rendering any repetition or elaboration
unnecessary. Some New Testament statements appear to support capital punishment;
however, these passages do not speak directly to the issue of the death
penalty. These statements either mention the death penalty and presume
its correctness, or these statements demand good citizenship from believers,
meaning that believers should accept the death penalty provided it is the
policy of a legitimate government. The Bible contains many passages that
implicitly reject the use of the death penalty. Several passages that implore
believers to refrain from vengeance, abstain from violence, love all of
humankind, or forgive personal trespass would preclude the use of the capital
punishment. Further complicating this discussion is the fact that this
research discovers that murder in the Bible does not regularly
receive punishment by execution, which weakens the contention that the Bible endorses the death penalty because so few murderers in the Scriptures receive capital punishment for homicide.
The absence of a simple biblical mandate on this issue may disappoint or confuse some believers. Biblical statements around the use of the death penalty are complicated and somewhat contradictory. The contradiction resuits from an overt mandate from God for payment in blood for homicide, yet a repeated desire for mercy and repentance. Literal interpretation of the Bible would support the death penalty, but literal interpretation of the Bible would also support the death penalty for acts contemporary society no longer considers crimes. Application of the Bible to modern life should not be literal when convenient (an eye for an eye) and broad when literalism is inconvenient (well, we don't execute adulterers or we don't execute children). The Bible fails to provide a meaningful ethical framework for behavior if applied so inconsistently. Death penalty opponents also have issues to resolve concerning their position. While the primary point of the story of Jesus and the adulteress is an admonition to be merciful and focused on one's own sin, even the most liberal interpretation of the story does not absolve society of its responsibility for the administration of justice. The Bible repeats a need and a desire for justice, requiring criminals to suffer some penalty. However, the suggestion that all members of society would have to be sinless before they could impose such penalties is impossible from a theological perspective and impractical from a legal one.
This research concludes that the Old Testament clearly establishes both the right to exact death as a punishment and the responsibility to do so. The question becomes does the New Testament change these Old Testament doctrines? Several things that would facilitate answering this question are not present in the Scriptures. For example, it would be clearer if Jesus had openly forgiven someone accused of murder and stopped an execution. He did not condemn the adulteress as she faced execution, and he made no comment about the execution of the thief on the cross next to him as the thief asserted that his execution was justified. Jesus' and Paul's call to be more loving and forgiving would suggest that the New testament does modify the Old Testament doctrine. Although the right to exact punishment remains by virtue of the offense, the duty changes. Jesus tells us to rebuke the sinful and forgive the repentant; however, automatic and unthoughtful application of the lex talionis does not allow this. Research shows that most modern Christian denominations have rejected the idea of capital punishment or have failed to take a definitive position on the issue (Melton 1989). These churches adopt a position which suggests that Jesus left the decision about true justice to God.
"Jesus was not casual about iniquity nor `soft on crime.' What he did was to shift the locus of judgment in these matters to a higher court: a court where this is absolute knowledge of the evidence, of good deeds and of evil, of faith and the works of faith, of things private and things public- a court in which there is both wrath and tenderness, both law and grace." (Melton 1989:61)
This position mirrors the above theme that
since humans administer imperfect justice and God prefers repentance to
death, allowing people the opportunity to repent by allowing them to live
provides the best maximization of these goals. Given the continuing controversy
over the use of the death penalty, Christian criminal justice practitioners
and criminal justice students will draw on their faith for guidance on
issues that are relevant to the discipline. Others who seek answers on
these issues may turn to this source also. Not knowing the number or conflicting
nature of scriptural passages on the issue of capital punishment, they
may not reach the most fully informed decision. Therefore, those who teach
these issues may have to provide missing information for their students.
It is the conclusion of this research that while the Bible explicitly mandates
the death penalty, the Scriptures also teach an ethic that would preclude
its use. Still, no definitive resolution of the issue of the Christian
Bible and capital punishment may be possible in classrooms because of the
seemingly paradoxical nature of Biblical doctrine and the inconsistent
use of the death penalty in the Bible. However, this may serve the higher
purpose of any sacred text in an individual faith journey, which is to
provide the beginning of understanding rather than the end.
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Bedau, H. 1982. The Death Penalty in America Third Edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Day, A. (ed.) 1992. Roget's Thesaurus of the Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers.
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Important statements by faith groups against capital punishment