Capital Punishment and the Bible

Capital punishment: Is it right or wrong? Is it necessary? The issue is tied into a number of contexts, and we will discuss those only briefly; our main concern, as always, is the Bible's take on the matter and whether a case can be made either pro or con.

We'll also be able to look at certain social factors and how they might apply today. All con-arguments below are from J. Gordon Melton's The Churches Speak on Capital Punishment, a helpful compiliation of various church's statements on this subject.

  • Does the Bible support capital punishment? Few would answer this one in the negative and fewer can cite any Scripture that works against it. It is patently obvious that capital punishment (hereafter CP) was practiced in ancient Israel and was not repudiated in the NT at all.

    Some have tried to find an implicit Scriptural reason to reject CP, but we will see below that such efforts take their cites out of context. On the other hand, one must carefully distinguish between saying that the Bible mandates CP and saying that it merely permits CP. This relates to an important sub-issue:

  • Examples of CP appear overwhelmingly in the OT law and it is prescribed for such things as adultery and witchcraft. So should we be enforcing it likewise today?

    No, not on that basis. On this point let's repeat something we offered in another essay on the role of the law today.

    Deuteronomy is laid out in the form of an ancient treaty between a king and his vassals. It is in essence a contract between God and Israel. They "signed on" and agreed to enforce the penalties.

    What's the equivalent now? We now have a new covenant or contract between Christ and the individual and the believer. The sins are paid for by Christ's blood, and he takes on the punishment for the transgression of those who break God's law and accept his payment.

    The old covenant and our enmity with it is now abolished (Eph. 2:15). The non-believer, the witch, et al. Aren't covered by this, but nor does our new contract contain specifications of enforcement -- that is now God's domain, with regard to each individual, on the basis of the new covenant terms.

    On the other hand, when a superior writes a contract, even if you are not a party to it, the contract will still give you an idea what values the superior holds to. We no longer enforce the penalties, but we still know what actions displease God, and the NT does say that God has given authority to human governments. So, it is now up to those bodies to decide whether CP is necessary.

    So what is the role of the law here? It does tell us that God does approve CP as a means of justice, but should we use it today, and in what contexts? This moves us to our next key point:

  • Why did these laws demand the death penalty? Many Skeptical arguments about the Bible and CP focus on this point, but such objections are out of order. As shown in Crenshaw's Education in Ancient Israel, obeying such laws was a matter of survival, of ensuring that what there was of civilization did not slip over that fine line from order into chaos. CP was a necessary element to social order and survival.

    This naturally leads to a predominant point in the CP debate today. A primary pro-CP argument is that CP serves as a deterrent to crime. Anti-CP responses claim there is no evidence of a deterrent effect. The issue seems actually to miss a point.

    The lack of deterrent effect may have something to do with that we don't see the death penalty as real in our minds. Executions are far removed from all but a few witnesses, and only one person pulls the switch or administers the drug. In contrast, CP by the OT law was enforced by the community picking up stones and taking part after the condemnation of guilt. One might suggest that the deterrent effect would be greater (and that we might be more cautious in other areas) were CP more in our face and personal, as it was for the Israelites.

    It is not our place here to speak to deterrence as a reason for CP, in the modern world. There are too many societal differences (survival needs, and particularly the difference in our culture as individualistic versus collectivist) to make an easy comparison. Even one cited example by the con-side of pickpockets plying their trade at a hanging of one of their fellows for the same crime is too simple: In such cases there were balances of risk, matters of survival and chances that were taken in that light.

    It is clear, however, that our theoretical level of deterrence has never approached that of the ancients -- and that there is a general principle that any behavior that threatens society as a whole may be considered worthy of the ultimate penalty.

  • So what now threatens society? In our present state, many of the OT crimes are not threats to society in a broader sense. Things like adultery mainly weaken a family unit, not society as a whole; however, if enough people become adulterous that may change things in society as a whole. If a behavior like adultery became a threat to such an extent, one might argue that CP should be instituted for it at some point, but because our society is individualistic rather than collectivist, it is unlikely that that will ever happen, and we would naturally expect to try lesser measures first.

    A thoughtful determination would therefore have to be made in terms of what behaviors might threaten society to the level that CP is needed as a deterrent -- though again, this ties in to our point above that CP as it now stands is not much of a deterrent at all.

  • Are there any cites in the Bible against capital punishment? To be sure, some efforts have been made to find Biblical support for this position, but these have tended to commit "hermeneutical homicide" in the process:
    • John 8:3-11, Jesus does not endorse stoning of the adulterous woman.

      A good point, but invalid in context. Because the Romans held the rule of life and death and the right to implement CP, this was a challenge to Jesus to commit sedition. If he had said, "Go ahead," he would have been arrested. By itself this offers no injunction against CP, since it was not really an option; moreover, Jesus' reply indicates, "If we are to enforce it this time, some of you are next."

      The constraints of Roman power were acknowledged -- though CP itself was not thereby repudiated.

    • Matt. 5:38-9, Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

      This is one of several passages cited of a type which encourage not resisting evil, not taking revenge, and so on. But they are all in the context of personal relationships and have nothing to do with the judicial functions of the state.

      Certainly persons should forgive others who commit criminal acts against them, but this does not oblige the state to "forgive". If it did, then we could not even imprison a person or so much as exact a fine for a parking ticket.

    • Gen. 1:26, we are made in the image and likeness of God.

      The reasoning here is that being made in the image of God, we possess a certain dignity and CP is a violation of that. But as I have shown in Chapter 1 of The Mormon Defenders, the "image and likeness" has nothing to do with dignity; it has to do with our authority to represent God on earth and exercise the authority He has given us.

      Thus Gen. 9:6: "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." The value of the victim as the representative of God on earth is just cause for penal execution. Although, as a proverbial statement, it by no means requires execution.

    • Gen. 4:15, God spared Cain and did not execute him.

      True enough: Yet what little indication we have here is that this was a crime of passion (Gen. 4:8). Such crimes do not earn the death penalty in the Bible, and this only suggests that they should not earn CP today either.

    • Ex. 20:13, Thou shalt not kill.

      This one has no application to judicial execution; see here.

  • Well, how about other arguments? As this gets beyond our main question -- "What does the Bible say about CP?" -- we offer only a few observations and comments, based in part on my personal experience working for my state's prison system.
    • CP is unfairly enacted overwhelmingly on the poor and minorities.

      To whatever extent this may be true, it is an argument against applying CP unfairly, but hardly constitutes an argument against CP itself. I ask those who ply such an argument: if this were rectified, would you still have an argument against CP?

    • CP has the potential to kill someone who is actually innocent.

      To what extent this is true (and I may affirm that there are a few now in prison who probably should not have been convicted, at least not of the crimes they were), it is again an argument only against unfair application, not CP itself. One might suggest that the answer is to increase the standards of evidence before CP can be imposed, not to simply delete CP from consideration.

    • CP generates unhealthy publicity.

      And once again: To whatever extent this may be true, it is an argument against abusive media coverage of CP, but hardly constitutes an argument against CP itself.

    • CP is not a solution. Providing answers to root social causes of crime is the solution.

      One can hardly disagree that the root causes need to be addressed, but this is still not an argument against CP itself.

    • It would be more humane to keep someone in prison for life than to kill them.

      If one of the reasons for CP is to deter the person from committing the same crime again -- and even opponents acknowledge this as a valid point, while saying they would prefer life imprisonment -- this won't do much good unless you lock them in solitary, which in other contexts is admitted to be cruel and unusual punishment. Those on the "outside" tend to forget that while society as a whole may be safe, inside prison walls a murderer has hundreds of potential victims to choose from, and I will affirm that many such inmates would as soon kill or harm one of their own as blink.

      The majority of inmates have committed less serious crimes and are no happier about having a murderer in their neighborhood than you would be to have one next door. Life imprisonment does not solve the problem here, it merely moves it out of sight.

      There is another point as well. As Glenn Miller has noted in another context, "the ancients disagree with moderns over what is 'morally acceptable euthanasia'. The ancients--from the evidence of suicides--clearly believed that a sudden death was preferable to an anticipated life of future suffering (e.g., slavery), an anticipated death by starvation/thirst/exposure, or of torture (e.g., capture by rival rulers)."

      In the same light, a suggestion that those now on death row should perhaps be put to work for the rest of their lives reflects our own conception that any life of such misery is better than none at all. The ancients would not have agreed. Which side of Patrick Henry's proclamation we prefer could decide how we stand on this question.

    We may close out now with some points and observations. In another essay I noted that there were three purposes for response to any crime. Let's apply these contextually to CP:

    1. Punishment/restitution. This can mean a fine, a return of property, or even a prison sentence, the latter being conceived as a way of "paying" society for the crime committed. As has been shown the Bible does apparently consider CP a viable form of payment.
    2. Rehabilitation. I.e., taking steps to ensure that the person does not do the crime again. Many con-CP arguments allege that it is always possible to rehabilitate someone. My own experience disagrees -- I think such persons have never been inside a prison in the real world. But I would also affirm that such cases are rare, as well as, on the other hand, not really engaged under the present system of criminal justice.
    3. Protection of the innocent. This is a hefty pro-CP point; however, as pointed out above, would do nothing to protect those who are "relatively" and contextually innocent within the prison walls.

    So it boils down to this: The Bible allows (but does not mandate) CP. The contextual grounding within which it was applied in the Bible is now different in modern society, and we must look at the issue accordingly. Space does not permit, obviously, a full analysis of modern society and a decision on what crimes, if any, ought to warrant CP -- hence we offer no definitive conclusions beyond that it is clear that we do have it as an option.

    -JPH