Thinking Cap # 17 - The Question: Is Capital Punishment Biblical?

Death Penalty. I had a conversation with some good Christian friends from three different churches recently. I was surprised to hear the differing views regarding the concept of capital punishment. Ironically, only one of them was able to give Scriptural credence to their view. What is your view? Is capital punishment Biblical or is it cruel and inhumane? Your thots, should you decide to jump in are due Friday, August 25 at midnight.

I have been gone a lot this month on vacation, and on ministry trips. Thus, I have not had the time to develop the answer to this Thinking Cap that I would like. In addition, I receive such a thorough response from Ed Komoswzevski, that I didn't feel that I could add much to it. Thus, the answer to this thinking cap comes straight from Ed's computer in St. Paul, MN.

I have tried to be as brief and concise as possble in my response. As a result, I have assumed common thinking on biblical authority and the definition of capital punishment. I have also limited my discussion to whether or not the principle of capital punishment is biblical, choosing not to discuss crimes deserving of this action or methods in which this action is to be employed.

The first understanding one must have in approaching this topic is the difference in biblical theology between killing and murder. Any biblical linguist worth his salt will discover that Exodus 20:13 forbids murder, and should not be translated, "Thou shalt not kill." Of the forty-nine times his Hebrew verb (rasach) is used, it indicates murder and implies the idea of premeditation. The Septuagint and New Testament also support this interpretation, by translating the word for murder as "phoneuein," which again, is only used to describe murder. It need not be demonstrated here that the Old Testament supports killing that is often commanded by God (i.e., the conquest of Canaan). In such instances, the word rasach is not used (usually harag or sachat is used), and because God cannot act contrary to His own Word, such action is not considered murder and thus is not a violation of Exodus 20:13. In summary, murder is never condoned by Scripture, but killing often is.

There is no debating the fact that killing as a means of capital punishment is found in Genesis 9:6. No more need be mentioned in connection with this passage than the fact that God views murder of a human being as an outrage against Him, and leaves the punishment of taking the guilty person's life in the hands of men.

The Old Testament continues its support of capital punishment within the Mosaic Law, broadening the list of punishable crimes (See Ex. 21:12, 16, 29; Lev. 20:9, 10, 11-12; Num. 1:51; 3:10, 38; 17:7; Deut. 13:1-10; 17:2-7; 18:20; 21:18-21; 22:25).

The pertinent question at this point is, does a dispensational approach to the Scriptures exclude the usage of the above mentioned passages? Can they be used to support the death penalty beyond the age of law? Such passages may be exluded from our discussion only if progressive revelation gives indication that a New Testament ethic has replaced the Old Testament ethic. Two specific dispensations must be considered here, namely the conditions obtaining during the earthly ministry of Chirst, and the conditions obtaining in the church age which followed. In simple terms, do the Gospels and church epistles support capital punishment? Furthermore, did they make any attempt to abolish capital punishment?

John 8:1-11 has been use by pacifists in an attempt to abolish the death penalty, basing their argument on the fact that Christ did not allow the religious leaders to stone the adulterous woman. Christ's crafty retort not only prevented Him from breaking the contrasting Roman and Mosaic laws, but He raised the issue of the competency of the witnesses. Did they have sufficient evidence? His words did not exclude capital punishment as a prinicple, though they did engender the need for justice within capital punishment. Furthermore, He did offer the leaders opportunity to throw a stone (v.7)!

Christ gave the impression that the death penalty could be administered when administered in a just fashion, and He in no way reversed the Old Testament teaching on this matter.

Romans 13:1-7 establishes the fact that human government is ordained by God and further delineates the rights the government has in imposing justice. One of these rights is designated as the "right to bear sword" (v. 4). What is the right to bear sword?

Throughout ancient literature and in the Scriptures, the sword is indicative of the government's right to punish (see Godet, "Romans," T&T Clark, 1882, vol. 2, p. 311).

The right to punish represented by the sword cannot be divorced from the kind of punishment represented by the sword. If the sword is only representative, then are not taxes only representative of authority as well (see vv. 6-7)? Or are taxes only a symbol of authority to tax? Is the citizen bound to the literal representation of taxes, i.e., is the citizen literally required to pay taxes? The obvious answer is yes, and if we are to be consistent in our interpretation of this context, then the sword must be taken in its literal representation as well, and not serve as a mere symbol of authority. This passage clearly suggests that the government possesses the right to impose death as an expression of its authority.

In conclusion, the Old Testament clearly promotes the idea of capital punishment, a replacement ethic was not introduced by Christ or the apostles, and the New Testament clearly supports such action. The only way to avoid such implications is to adopt a vague philosophical system that proposes that the taking of life is wrong in every instance, and that fails to distinguish between killing and murder.

Pleasant Thinking
Kent Haralson


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