This article is about the death penalty according to the law of God. What should our perspective on capital punishment be?

Source: Faith in Focus, 1999. 4 pages.

The Death Penalty in God’s Law

Recently it was announced that four Caribbean countries are about to reintro­duce the death penalty. In the Nether­lands more than half the population is also in favour of bringing it back. These are positive developments, especially when it becomes increasingly clear that the death penalty is a Biblical teaching. Still, many people are left with questions. What exactly does the Bible say about this subject?

In Romans 12:19 the apostle Paul says: "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,' says the Lord."

He is quoting from Deuteronomy 32:35. In chapter 13 of this letter to the Romans Paul explains (among other things) how the Lord uses the governing authorities to punish evil­doers. Paul says, "For there is no au­thority except from God, and those which exist are established by God."

He ap­plies this by warning that people in au­thority punish evil on God's behalf, and puts it even stronger when he says that the governing authority is "a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil." (Romans 13:4).

There are two important points to note here.

  1. The Bible indicates that every govern­ing authority serves on God's behalf. Just like in most present day nations, so also in Paul's days, the Romans would not have realised this fact. But even a non-Christian authority is, with­out its knowledge, appointed to the service of God to avenge evil. The crux of the matter is that on the last day God will require an account from every governing authority: Have you fol­lowed my command to withstand evil or have you allowed it to continue? It is clear that the government of many a nation will be dumb-founded. Just consider the drug trade and the pros­titution that continues. Or think of the murder of so many unborn children. Not to mention the promotion of ho­mosexuality as an alternate lifestyle.
  2. The task of our present day govern­ments (and their justice systems) is to avenge evil on God's behalf. God has placed governing authorities in this world, in the first place, to exe­cute His wrath against evil. That is their primary task.

Why? Because in the Bible punish­ment always has to do with restitution or compensation for the harm done by a crime. Whenever an evil deed has been done, someone has been disadvan­taged. This disadvantage must be rec­ompensed by means of the punishment. The punishment must be of equal worth to the deed that caused the injury. This is pictured by the two scales seen in the left hand of Lady Justice. An evil deed brings the scale out of balance. An ap­propriate punishment must return the scale to the balanced position. Appro­priate punishment is not always the re­turn of what, for example, has been sto­len. There was also the disadvantage and concern induced by the act itself, not to mention any other potential consequenc­es. It is for this reason that the Lord commands that a thief repay double of what he has stolen (Exodus 22:7). The return of that which was stolen along with a 100% fine is the vengeance, the com­pensation which the Lord requires for the victim. Such a fine would, then, not be paid to the authorities, but to the victim himself. He is the one injured by the wrong that was done. That is putting things right!

This principle forms the background for the Biblical expression: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Deuteronomy 19:21). In other words, each sinful deed must re­ceive an equally fitting punishment. This is a rule with a judicial context. That's why the Lord Jesus turned so sharply against the Pharisees when they used this rule as an excuse to justify person­al revenge (Matthew 5:38-39).

Now it is true that this demand (an eye for an eye) and the principle of resti­tution does mean that when a victim loos­es a body part, he may demand that the perpetrator's same body part be removed as punishment. If your neighbour plucks out your right eye, then, accord­ing to God's law, you may demand from the judge that his right eye also be re­moved (Leviticus 24:19-20; Exodus 21:23-25). Although this sounds horrible, we should understand that in practice it very sel­dom happened.

Why not? Even though the principle of applying this type of punishment re­mains, the Lord gives the victim the al­ternative of exchanging the literal venge­ance with a fine (cf. Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 4.280). In other words, instead of demanding the right eye of the perpetrator, the victim may demand a financial penalty. Of course, the victim will benefit much more from a fine (which he receives – not the government) than the right eye of the perpetrator – there's not much he can do with that!

The gospel is also based on these same principles. All of what I have said to this point touches the core of the message of the Bible. God is perfectly right­eous and con­cerns Himself with setting evil right. An appro­priate punish­ment must follow wrongdoing. That also applies to the gospel. On the last day when God will appear as judge of this world He will not be able to excuse sin. He, too, must avenge all sin against His holi­ness. The only way to avoid His punishment is to ask Jesus Christ to accept that punishment on our behalf. And that's what He has done in His crucifixion. By placing faith in Him we may exchange our guilt with His innocence. He pays for our sins. He carries the burden of God's vengeance against our sins.

The principles that God has instituted for dealing with social evils are pre­cisely the same as those in effect with the message of the gospel. When we loose sight of the one, eventually we will not be able to see other either.

How we view restitution in society will have a direct impact on how we view the gospel.

Substitution for the death penalty in God's Law🔗

Although the Bible contains only a few instances where it speaks directly about substitution of a fine for the literal pun­ishment meted out, there are many indi­rect references concerning this. (We shouldn't forget that the Pentateuch only contains a selection of the laws which God revealed to Moses.)

The possibility of converting a punish­ment into a fine also exists for certain capital crimes in God's law. In Exodus 21:29ff we read that if the owner of an ox that is known to be dangerous does not guard it properly, and the ox kills someone, then the ox must be put to death and the owner also receives the death sentence. But then, in verse 30 we read: If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemp­tion of his life whatever is demand­ed of him.

The defendant (the nearest of kin to the victim) may demand, instead of the death penalty, a monetary fine.

From the book of Proverbs we learn that the same possibility of substitution exists for adultery. The prescribed pun­ishment for adultery is the death penal­ty (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Proverbs 6:32-­35 (cf. 13:7-8) warns us that the plain­tiff (the injured marriage partner) in an adultery charge could become so angry that he would not even be prepared to consider a fine in place of the death penalty. We see that the right to insist on having the official sentence execut­ed remains with the plaintiff.1

The one who commits adultery with a woman is lacking sense; He who would destroy himself does it... For jealousy enrages a man, and he will not spare in the day of vengeance (i.e. at court). He will not accept any ransom, nor will he be content though you give many gifts (i.e., even if you offer him a fortune as redemption).

Still, there are also some crimes for which the Lord says no redemption-mon­ey may be accepted. We read in Num­bers 35:31ff:

Moreover, you shall not take ran­som for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall sure­ly be put to death. And you shall not take ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to live in the land be­fore the death of the priest. So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.

It is important to note the context here. God's law makes a distinction be­tween premeditated murder and acciden­tal manslaughter. Numbers 35:22ff indicates that when a murder occurs by accident the perpetrator may flee to a designat­ed city of refuge and remain there until the death of the High Priest. Premeditat­ed murder must be punished with the death penalty.

The question comes to mind why the punishment here may not be substitut­ed for a fine. Could it have something to do with the fact that man is created in the image of God? The honour of God Himself is assaulted by the act of mur­der. His image is destroyed. This consideration is particularly clear at the in­stitution of the death penalty for murder in Genesis 9:6. Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.

Were there also other crimes for which the death penalty was compulsory? Con­sidering that it was left to the accuser (or plaintiff) to choose for a substitution­ary fine or not, we may conclude that where there is no direct plaintiff the pre­scribed punishment must be executed. This would certainly be the case for crimes in which God Himself is the plaintiff, i.e. crimes which are many commit­ted against God such as idolatry (Deuteronomy 13; Leviticus 20:2); public blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10ff; cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 100); witchcraft (Leviticus 20:6, 27; Exodus 22:18) and working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15).

Consideration of such deeds as crimes will, of course, only take place where society is clearly Christian.

The question may also be asked whether it is wise to promote the death penalty in a non-Christian society. Wouldn't that incur risks? A non-Chris­tian justice system could easily misuse such a punishment. The simple answer of the apostle Paul is that such an argu­ment did not hold enough weight over against the principle of restitution that the Lord Himself has given, a principle that necessarily includes the execution of the death penalty. In Romans 13:4, af­ter Paul has explained that all authori­ties are instituted by God to execute His wrath, His vengeance over evil, he says... But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.

In olden days (as well as today) the sword was the symbol for the execution of justice, up to and including the most severe punishment, the death penalty (for which the sword was needed). For this reason Lady Justice does not only carry the scales in her left hand but also a sword in her right hand.

As with everything, so also with the death penalty, misuse can still occur. On the last day judges will also have to give account for this to the Lord. But that does not prevent Paul from stating that hea­then rulers also carry the responsibility of making proper use of the death pen­alty. Don't forget that, in the end, Paul was also (unjustly) sentenced to death by the Roman authorities.

The death penalty and forgiveness🔗

As a Christian judge, how would you have to deal with a criminal who not only confesses to murder but also asks for forgiveness? This argument is often used, not only to oppose the death pen­alty, but actually – when you think about it – to oppose all social punishment in cases of penitence and request for for­giveness. The problem becomes critical in the case of the death penalty because the life of the penitent criminal will be taken; while, if his sorrow is real, the danger to society has disappeared.

The chink in the armour of this argu­ment lies in that last sentence. Biblical punishment is not primarily focused on removing danger from society. That is, indeed, the fundamental idea behind our modern day system of imprisonment. We throw the criminals behind bars. It makes us feel safer. But, as we have seen above, the Bible is interested in restitu­tion. Crime is punished in order to recompense the victim for his damag­es. That is Biblical retribution.

The Lord expects that along with true sorrow for sin, the desire will arise to set things right. Restitution belongs with the request for forgiveness. The one can not exist without the other. For this rea­son the Lord commanded that restitu­tion had to be made before someone could bring a guilt offering in the temple in order to receive forgiveness for a sin committed against someone's property (Leviticus 6:1-7). Only after restitution was made (in this case with an additional 20% fine for perjury) was the wrongdoer permitted to go to the temple to ask for forgiveness (Leviticus 6:5). Payment of the lawfully demanded restitution is a pre­requisite for forgiveness from the Lord.

That principle remains valid for us today. Before we dare to approach our Lord for forgiveness we must have gone to our neighbour to restore the breach our sin has caused. This general principle must also be applied in specific cases where the judge has issued a particular sentence. We may not just go to the Lord and ask for forgiveness without setting the matter right by accepting our pun­ishment. It is true that we no longer need an intermediary priest or sacrificial ani­mal. When we seek forgiveness we pray to God directly by way of our mediator and high priest, Jesus Christ. He is, at the same time, our sacrificial lamb. He has died for our sins, being sacrificed on the cross. But the principle remains in force: First restore the relationship with our neighbour that our sin has spoiled, only then pray for forgiveness.

This principle must also be applied when the restoration for our sin demands the death penalty. That's why Paul could declare to the judge: If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die. (Acts 25:11a)

If the death penalty is correctly de­manded against us then we shall (as difficult as it might be) accept this pun­ishment as God's required restitution for our sin. We will be able to do that because we know that in Jesus Christ there is also forgiveness. In such a case we will receive that forgiveness by handing over our earthly life in accordance with God's law. And that forgiveness means that our Lord will receive our soul and assure us of the promise of everlasting life with Him in glory.

These principles also mean that if we were ever to fall into sin by committing a capital crime (according to God's law), we would, in faith, be prepared to ac­cept the consequences. If our society demands a different (lighter) sentence, then we will still realise that God has demanded something more severe. In faith there should arise within us a deep awareness of the seriousness of our crime in God's eyes, and the willingness, should we be in different circumstanc­es, to accept His punishment. At the same time we may thank Him abundant­ly that He, in the given circumstances, has set us free from the punishment required in His law. That should lead to an even more humble attitude toward Him, and a zealous desire to henceforth serve Him with all our heart and soul.

Endnotes🔗

  1. ^ This also helps us to understand Joseph's initial reaction to the pregnancy of Mary. He was well within his rights to choose not to press for the death pen­alty, but to quietly arrange for a divorce instead, Matthew 1:19.

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