During the modern era, the application of capital punishment, for even the most heinous of crimes, has become very controversial in the industrialized nations of the world. It has been called “barbaric”, “inhumane”, “cruel”, and an antiquated relic of a less civilized era. There are those who object to the use of it under any circumstances: thinking of themselves as enlightened and sophisticated, while the proponents of the “death penalty” are vengeful and bloodthirsty.
Since even some sincere Christians are whole-heartedly opposed to the implementation of capital punishment, it is worthwhile to consider what the Word of God has to say on the matter. In the “Noahic Covenant”, God lays out some fundamental changes in how man is permitted and instructed to behave with regards to the taking of life. As we considered last time, man was now afforded the liberty to consume meat and , thus, take the lives of animals for food consumption. Additionally, man was also issued the responsibility of acting on behalf of the Lord Himself by executing capital punishment on those guilty of capital crimes: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”
In order to determine how this command applies to those living today or if it is even still valid at all, let us examine a few points of consideration in relation to it:
Since This Is Given In The Old Testament, Doesn’t The New Testament Override Or Even Revoke Its Implementation?
Many people either discount entirely or else severely “water-down” any and all commandments and instructions that appear in the Bible before Matthew 1:1. Obviously, a great many of the commandments that appear in the Law of Moses (contained in Exodus through Deuteronomy) were given specifically to the nation of Israel and are not in force for the believer today. Laws concerning the Tabernacle, Temple Sacrifice, Dietary Laws, the Ark of the Covenant, etc. have all been superseded by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. But we must remember that the words which the Lord spoke to Noah and his sons occurred before the Law of Moses was given. These edicts were not issued within the context of the Theocratic government of the nation of Israel, but were universally given to every living person on the Earth at the time. Although that was only eight people, verse 9 of Genesis 9 clarifies that God is speaking to them and to all of their seed after them. This would include everyone who would ever live after them.
Does The New Testament Give Any Support For Carrying On Capital Punishment?
“For [government authorities are] a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [they do] not bear the sword for nothing; for [they are] a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. (Romans 13:4)
There is never a time in the New Testament when any apostle or even the Lord Jesus Christ Himself would decry the “injustice” or “barbarism” of capital punishment. They never set about to enact social reform, they never preached about the evils of the criminal justice system. If anyone ever had a valid reason to object to the unfairness and injustice of criminal execution, the apostles Paul and Peter certainly did as they languished away in Roman prisons – awaiting their cruel fates. But they never protested the use of capital punishment itself, even though they were innocent men, guiltless of any crime worthy of death (as, of course, our Lord was too). In fact, Paul even tells the Roman governor Festus, as he lays out his defense against the charges made against him:
“If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die…” (Acts 25:11a)
No, Paul preached and lived the words that he penned in Romans 13:4. God is the One Who puts governmental authorities in power for the carrying out of justice. This includes capital punishment.
But What About The Teachings Of Jesus?
Many believers object to seemingly harsh penalties like capital punishment because of the Lord’s teachings about “turning the other cheek” or “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But the Lord was referring to personal behavior between individuals with these teachings. We are in no way supposed to enact a sort of “vigilante justice” and take matters into our own hands. Retribution and punishment belongs to God (Romans 12:19), not to the individual. But He has delegated some of this authority to governmental powers for the carrying out of justice. Capital punishment is to be employed by a society, as represented by their leaders, not by private lynchings.
It is the opinion of some that we demonstrate an enlightenment and civility as a society when we forgo the use of capital punishment. Modern sensibilities dictate, they say, that we must behave in a morally superior fashion than our ancestors. The Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” But is it morally acceptable to allow the most violent members in a society to kill without fear of reprisal? Without a very real fear of severe retribution, what would deter those without conscience from following their most base passions? Sadly, we are witnessing this very thing in many modern societies.
I am not writing this article as a political argument in favor of capital punishment. My interest, as always, is to share what the Word of God teaches. But if I may be at liberty to express my own opinion, I believe that it is abundantly evident that swift and appropriate punishment for crime serves as the greatest deterrent. This is not based on a sort of primal “bloodlust” or an extreme sense of vengeance, it is simply the realization that if a would-be murderer knows for a fact that he is going to forfeit his own life by taking another, he is going to think twice before doing it. It is terrible that the death penalty is ever necessary to be carried out, but as long as there are those who so degrade human life to the point that they believe they possess the right to terminate it at will, then it is a society’s God-given responsibility to act appropriately and protect the rest of its citizens from such wanton brutality. This is what I believe to be true and it is what the Word of God teaches here in Genesis 9.
To Jesus Christ goes all glory. In service to Him,
[This post was originally published November 4, 2009]
**Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation and are used by permission.
[If you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ or you are not certain where you are headed when this life ends, I invite you to read the article “Am I Going To Heaven?“]