Over the last few days, both houses of Virginia’s legislature have passed bills that would end the practice of capital punishment in the Commonwealth. Sen. Scott Surovell (D) of Fairfax as well as Sen. Bill Stanley (R) of Franklin sponsored this bipartisan bill. For me, this is a sign of hope on many levels.
There is a love/hate relationship with the death penalty in the United States, and it falls largely upon red and blue party lines. However, I think it would surprise many people to know that there are those who vote blue that strongly believe in capital punishment while there are those of us who vote red that abhor it, myself included. Both sides of the aisle make compelling arguments in support of their position. Proponents suggest some crimes are so heinous that the ultimate form of punishment is the only acceptable recourse to the state. However, during the presentation of the Bill, Surovell pointed out that 1 in 10 people put to death nationally have been wrongly convicted. Furthermore, historically, the death penalty has been “disproportionally applied to racial minorities and people with diminished mental capacity.” These too, are compelling arguments.
What about the Church? What about Christians? What should our feelings be since we are the ambassadors of Christ on earth? Well, would it surprise you that the church is about as divided as politics are? It is! In recent years during my message on the Right to Life Sunday in January, I have also included other examples of persecuted life, including death row inmates. When I started doing it, I also started catching flack from fellow Christians. While it has not caused anyone to leave the church, I have members, including leadership, cite Bible verses to me that supported the use of the death penalty. I know they exist, so let’s take a brief look at places in Scripture that support the use of the death penalty.
-First, let us look at Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.” On the surface, it seems as though this says whoever kills must be killed. However, when we make adjustments for language variations, it is better to say “whoever murders…” This is a solid example of how God has permitted the death penalty, Furthermore, this is not a part of the Mosaic law but instead predates Moses.
-Moses’ law has the death penalty for many offenses, some of our laws agree with today and some we scratch our heads and think, “Why?”.
-Many Christian supporters of capital punishment cite Romans 13, particularly verses 4 and 5: “For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience.” Therefore, if our government has the death penalty and chooses to use it, then we as Christians must submit to that authority and accept the use of the death penalty since the government is “God’s servant for good.”
The problem is, these are not sound arguments for the American Judicial System. It isn’t that they do not apply to us, but we must look at them through the context of Scripture as well as the lens of Jesus Christ. Obviously mankind took God’s mandate from Genesis 9 wrong as later, in the Mosaic law, God clarifies that those guilty of manslaughter or accidental killings were not necessarily susceptible to the death penalty. Furthermore, many famous people from the Bible who should have been put to death for murder were not, including Cain, Moses, and David. Each was guilty of murder or conspiracy to murder, each should have been killed according to both the preMosaic laws and the Mosaic law, and each was pardoned. As to Romans 13, Paul was writing about the Roman government. The Empire was beyond the control of the people. We live in a democratic Republic, a completely different style of government. We elect our officials and we have influence over law. Therefore, if we wish to abolish the death penalty, it is in the purview of our power. So why should we abolish the death penalty?
First, most of the death penalty supporting Scripture of the Old Testament applied specifically to Israel as a nation. According to Dan Van Ness, “executing false teachers and those who sacrificed to false gods are examples of provisions that sprang from Israel’s unique position as a nation of God called to be holy. When Israel ceased to exist as a nation, its Law was nullified.” Even the death penalty was an extension of Israel’s unique relationship with God. However, when Israel ceased to exist, so did the laws governing Israel. Second, as stated in the observation of Romans 13, Paul’s words are not meant as a validation of the death penalty. Rather, Paul’s words remind us that the government is a servant of God (13:4). We should be obedient to the government so long as the government does not circumvent God’s authority, who is also the master of the government. In the New Testament era, this was observed by Christians obediently paying taxes and following the rules of the Empire. However, when the Empire infringed upon God’s authority (worshipping pagan images, bowing before the statue of Emperor, etc.), Christians would not only refuse but they would willingly die. We should be obedient to the government, but if we can change the government to more rightly reflect God’s righteous standards, we should do that too!
I strongly believe that Christians should be opposed to the death penalty and do whatever we can to fight to see it abolished. While I see Scripture that seems to support its use, I also serve a Savior who I feel would be horrified by the fact that His children have an opportunity to change it and instead advocate for it. Without quoting dozens of Scripture references, the core of Jesus’ teaching is on the concept of forgiveness: God’s forgiveness to us and our forgiveness of others. In Jesus’ model prayer, we read: “forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6:12). Jesus specifically talked about forgiving one another. In Luke 17, He told His followers that if you rebuke a brother or sister for sinning against you, and they repent, you must forgive. In Matt.18, Jesus told Peter that we must forgive until it becomes our nature (70×7). Forgiveness and the death penalty are not compatible. Lest we forget, Jesus also forgave those who condemned and crucified Him, even as He hung from the cross.
I present the argument to all Christians that the death penalty is antithetical to the work of Christ. First, Christ came to save and redeem. By condemning someone to death and then carrying out the sentence, you harden their hearts to the possibility of God’s forgiveness as well as limit the time you have to reach the person for Christ. Second, the death penalty is directly opposed to the concept of forgiveness. The core concept of salvation rests on forgiveness, both God’s forgiveness to us and our forgiveness of one another. Condemning someone to death, even by a government, represents the opposite of forgiveness. The final point I would make is on the New Testament’s advocation, acceptance, or prohibition of the death penalty. As already observed, both those in favor of and opposed to the death penalty can cite Romans 13. However, there are no other Scriptures in the New Testament that seem to directly advocate and support the death penalty. Yet, there seems to be a passage of Scripture in the Gospel of John where Jesus directly condemns the use of the death penalty. In John 8, a woman is accused of adultery. In Leviticus 20, the punishment for adultery is death. So in Jesus’ story, the woman accused should justifiably be put to death. As a test against Him from the Pharisees, the decision was put into Jesus’ hands. A woman, caught in the act of adultery, deserving death, stood before the Son of God. Jesus, in His way, lingered on the question. When pressured, He said, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” They all dropped their stones and left. Jesus, as the sinless Son of God, was the only one who was qualified to carry out the punishment. Jesus nullified her death sentence with His mercy. Who amongst us are qualified to condemn and carry out such a punishment? Is there anyone alive today who has never been guilty of sin?
In order to make a true, Biblically justified argument on why Christians should oppose the death penalty, I am going to use a technique called The Interpretive Journey from Scott Duvall and Daniel Hays book, Grasping God’s Word. To learn more about the steps in the process, visit the Zondervan Academic website here. Genesis 9:6 is one of the strongest Biblical sources in support of the death penalty. “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.” So let us first ask, what did this mean to the original audience. Whether we are thinking about those who Noah passed this down to or more likely Israel in the wilderness after Moses wrote Genesis, the message is clear. If you kill, it is not only permissible but possibly even divinely mandated that you be killed. Now we must ask ourselves what are the differences between those readers and ourselves. They are vast. First, we live under a completely different concept of government and law. They were, at best, a tribal confederation under the leadership of a divinely appointed representative from God. We live in a Democratic Republic with duly elected representatives that can be easily removed from office as well. Our law code is vastly different. Spiritually, we are not a chosen people or nation divinely picked from all the people of the earth. These are only a few of the many differences between us and them. The third question to consider is the theological meaning in the text. Again, that seems to be clear. If you take human life, you can expect humans to take your life. It is a theological mandate for the death penalty. Here is where we throw a monkey wrench into the pro-death penalty argument. How does this theological concept match up to other Scripture, particularly the New Testament? Now, look back up at the end of the last paragraph. Jesus, the Son of God, stands in direct opposition to the death penalty. In scientific terms, our hypothesis did not work out. We must rethink the question. Our spiritual answer, or Duvall and Hays point number five, the death penalty is not theologically compatible to the Christian life. So how can Christians continue to fight to put people to death?
When I was young, WWJD was once again becoming a popular phrase, especially among true Christians. “What Would Jesus Do?” In our Youth Group, we were often told to ask ourselves that question when faced with a situation that presented a moral dilemma. Whether sex or drugs, when presented with the opportunity to engage, what would Jesus do? The point was that if the answer was no, Jesus wouldn’t do something, then we shouldn’t do it either. So here is a simple question: What would Jesus do if presented with the question, “Should we have the death penalty?” The only Biblically sound answer is no. He would say, “Let Him who is without sin throw the switch.” Who amongst us is sinless in this life? If any of you answered, “I believe Jesus would support it,” I think you need to go back and reread the Gospels again…and again and again until you see a different answer.
To the Virginia Assembly, I commend you for taking this giant step in securing life. When the day comes that your governor, Ralph Northam, signs this into law, then I will commend him too.
And then, without missing a beat, I will ask “And now, when will you extend the same courtesy to the unborn.”
For the full, unabridged version, visit www.berkeleybaptistchurch.com.
Joseph “Joey” Giles is pastor of Berkeley Baptist Church in Berkeley Springs, WV.