With last month’s execution of terrorist Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 bombing that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City, USA, once again the debate over the death penalty has become a major point of discussion in the United States and beyond (even Pope John Paul II had urged President George W. Bush to stop the execution; and Russian President Putin recently argued against the death penalty, stating that only “the Almighty” has the right to take life1). It is also an emotional debate, even among Christians. But because the Book of Genesis teaches on this subject, we submit this commentary to shed light (and we trust no heat) on what the Bible teaches.
Indeed, it is a question that many Christians are currently asking themselves: is the death penalty still applicable today as the Biblical punishment for murder? Unfortunately, many Christians don’t go to the Bible first to see what God’s Word says on this issue.
Of those who do, some say that the commandment in Genesis 9:6 (“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man”) is from the time of the “law,” and therefore does not have any bearing in our so-called “New Testament Age.” (More about that objection below.)
There are other objections to the death penalty expressed by some believers. For example, one Christian on American national television said that he was against the execution of Timothy McVeigh because he believes that Jesus would also be against it, applying the now-famous phrase “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)?”2 As if he could “read the Lord’s mind” on this issue, he declared that the Lord would say “don’t execute McVeigh.”
Both of the objections cited above by some Christians to the death penalty are symptomatic of a disturbing lack of Biblical understanding among believers in the United States (and probably the world as well). If the man interviewed on television had carefully read his Bible, he would know that his answer to the question “What Would Jesus Do?” was wrong. In fact, asking this question without first asking “What did Jesus BELIEVE?” (WDJB) is bound to give wrong answers. Christ accepted the historicity of the book of Genesis (e.g. John 5:47 “But if ye believe not his [Moses’s] writings, how shall ye believe my words?”) and did not rescind the Genesis 9:6 penalty for murder during His earthly ministry. It therefore seems to follow that He accepted (and still accepts) the death penalty.
Man was created by Christ Himself (Colossians 1:16) and made in His (Christ’s) image. Thus according to Genesis 9:6, if a murder was committed, permission has been given to man to take the life of the murderer, one who dared violate the Creator’s command not to kill His special creation, made in His image.
Some Christians claim that the death penalty was voided by New Testament teaching. They point out that Christ came to make us free from the law of Moses (usually citing John 1:17, Galatians 5:14, and others). While the issue of law and grace is beyond the scope of this brief article, the point they miss in this debate is that Genesis 9:6 came well before the Mosaic law, and was a part of the universal Noahic covenant God made with all mankind.
Therefore, there is nothing in the Bible that has rescinded Genesis 9:6: a person who has unquestionably (the Biblical standard of proof required eyewitness testimony) committed premeditated murder can be punished by execution.
To cement this issue, in Romans 13:1-4 Paul, the “Apostle of Grace,” refers to the ruling authorities having been ordained of God to carry out just acts to restrain evil. He points out that they are entitled to “bear the sword” to apply the just penalty to evildoers. In other words, in a fallen world, God has instituted human government, however imperfect, as an instrument to restrain evil to some extent. The state, of course, cannot be said to “bear the sword” to punish evil if in fact it could not legitimately remove life under any circumstances. Also, it should be stated that there is no contradiction between Paul’s teaching here and the Biblical commandment “thou shalt not kill” because the commandment actually uses the Hebrew word for “murder’-- the unjust, unsanctioned taking of a human life--not the word “kill.”
Furthermore, if it were always wrong to take life, there would be no point in police wearing guns, as it would be clear to criminals that they could never use them, even when defending themselves against a life-threatening attack. It would also have been immoral, wrong, and evil for Allied troops to use weapons and deadly force to wrest Europe from Hitler’s thugs and liberate people from the death camps.
Of course, if convicted murderers on Death Row were to repent and become truly converted, their sins (all of them) would be forgiven on the basis of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and they would not have to face the ultimate penalty, what the Bible calls “the second death.” But the state would still have the right, if not the duty, to carry out the just penalty for their murderous actions.
There are difficult questions to face in the whole death penalty debate, not the least being the degree to which the state applies Biblical standards of proof, and whether it does so impartially and justly. The fact is that in western jurisprudence, using complex arguments about circumstantial evidence, some people are going to be wrongly convicted, and thus a great evil will have been done. And, of course, bloodthirsty calls for revenge should have no part in a Christian approach to such matters.
Arguments rage over whether the death penalty is a deterrent or not. But such human opinions are ultimately not the issue–what counts are the Maker’s standards. The simple, stark comment in Genesis has nothing to do with deterrence, but with right and wrong.
Our point here is not to join in any lobbying or politics, but simply to state that any argument that appeals to Christianity to oppose the death penalty must also take into account the clear teaching of the Bible on the matter. The death penalty, if fairly and justly implied, was
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