Many news articles and statements have been made debating whether the death penalty should still be used. One of the arguments against the death penalty is that it is cruel and unusual punishment. The website for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explains, ‘It is cruel because it is a relic of the earliest days of penology, when slavery, branding, and other corporal punishments were commonplace… It is also unusual because only a random sampling of convicted murderers in the United States receive a sentence of death.’ Scott Rae explains the flaw in this argument when he writes about the use of lethal injection used for euthanasia, ‘If that can be done medically for a terminally ill patient as an act of mercy, then surely the death penalty can be administered in the same way.’ This argument assumes that society has become better and more civilized since the period they call the early days. This view of humanity becoming better and thus not needing capital punishment anymore is well summed up by Gov. Gavin Newsom when he says, “And I think if someone kills, we don’t kill. We’re better than that.” This argument relies heavily on people feeling like they are above killing others and claims that society has moved past capital punishment as a whole. Although this may seem to be a good argument at first, it relies on humanity being inherently good and does not take into account the sin nature of humanity.
A second reason put forward against capital punishment is that people have the right to live. The BBC website states when talking of this subject, ‘Everyone has an inalienable human right to life, even those who commit murder; sentencing a person to death and executing them violates that right.’ This again looks like an acceptable argument at first but falls apart as soon as a person realizes that the only right humanity has without God is death.
Another common argument from those who want to see capital punishment banished is that is does not reduce crime. They claim that putting people to death for killing others is not going to cause the criminals to rethink before they do kill someone. In the words of Max Ehrenfreund, ‘Despite extensive research on the question, criminologists have been unable to assemble a strong case that capital punishment deters crime.’ On the other hand, Wayne Grudem writes,
Similarly, death penalty opponents Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago and Adrian Vermeule of Harvard University write, “Capital punishment may well save lives.” They add, “Those who object to capital punishment, and who do so in the name of protecting life, must come to terms with the possibility that the failure to inflict capital punishment will fail to protect life.
The experts clearly do not agree on the effectiveness of the death penalty in reducing murders. Regardless of whether it deters people or not, there is one thing the death penalty does really well. In the words of Donald Trump, ‘They say it’s not a deterrent. Well, you know what, maybe it’s not a deterrent but these two [men convicted of killing two police officers in Hattiesburg, MS] will not do any more killing.’ Although there is evidence for the death penalty reducing the amount of murders, even if it does not do that it removes repeat offenders. Gordon Clark makes this same observation when he writes, ‘The liberal arguments are superficial. One is that capital punishment does not deter. Obviously it deters the executed criminal, If it does not deter others, the reply is that the law may not deter, but its enforcement will.’ This is not a very good reason for capital punishment to be enacted but it certainly is not a good reason for people to abolish it.
Another argument used by both sides of the debate is the use of resources. The ACLU website states, ‘Limited funds that could be used to prevent and solve crime (and provide education and jobs) are spent on capital punishment.’ This argument makes some sense when you look at the numbers that the BBC records on their website, ‘New York spent about $170 million over 9 years and had no executions.’ This is a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a program that appears not to be used at all. The expense is mostly coming from the appeal process that takes place to decide if a person is actually going to be given the death sentence. Rae points out,
But that expense needs to be compared with the cost of adequately caring for prison inmates for the rest of their lives. The cost of housing, feeding, security, and health care, particularly as the inmate ages and requires more extensive care, easily exceeds the legal fees and court costs borne by taxpayers during the appeals process.
Although capital punishment costs less in the long run, it is certainly not a good way to decide if it is ethically okay or not. In the same BBC web page that argues that the death penalty costs too much is also says, ‘Justice cannot be thought of in financial terms.’ Although the cost of capital punishment is often brought up, it cannot be the deciding factor.
Probably the single best reason given by those who look to abolish the death penalty outside of what the Bible has to say is that an innocent person could be killed. This is a real concern as the judicial system is run by sinful humans who make mistakes. Clark points out the first flaw in this argument, ‘Do you prefer 10,000 murders to save on innocent man rather than one tragedy to save 5000 lives?’ Although this does put the issue into perspective, it still could be argued that killing someone innocent is not worth the risk. Clark addresses this in his next sentence when he says, ‘But of course this type of argument is superficial and irrelevant. God gave the right of capital punishment to human governments.’ All of these arguments do not really matter if the Bible says that capital punishment is supposed to be taking place.
The biggest passage used to argue that capital punishment is commanded in the Bible is Genesis 9:5-6 where it says, ‘And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” This verse clearly commands that if someone kills another man, he is to be killed by men. Walter Kaiser, Jr. explains this verse in more detail when he says, ‘The context makes plain that the verb יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ, ‘he shall shed,’ must be a command. Verse 5 states that God demands it: ‘I (= God) will demand and account for the life of his fellow man.” God clearly commands that if someone murders someone else it is the responsibly of other humans to put that person to death.
This command by God makes perfect sense when the value of human life is taken into consideration. Verse 6 states that human beings are made in the image of God. Grudem explains the implications of this when he writes, ‘To be in God’s image means that human beings are more like God than anything else on the earth, and it also means that they are God’s representatives in this world (for they are like him and thus can best represent him).’ As a result of this special gift from God, the death of a human is of great importance to him. This means that if a human takes the life of another human it is a big deal to God and must come with the ultimate punishment. The reason for this is explained by Grudem when he writes, ‘The murder of another human being is therefore a kind of attack against God himself, for it is an attack against his representative on the earth, an attack against the “image” of himself that he has left on the earth.’ This clearly shows that God has every reason for his command for capital punishment.
Although this argument for capital punishment appears very clear there are some people who try arguing that this command changed in the New Testament. A common passage used in this argument is Matthew 5:38-39 where Jesus says, ‘ You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ From this passage people propose that Jesus is saying it is wrong to retaliate against someone and that a person needs to just forgive and thus we should not seek capital punishment. As David Gushee and Glen Stassen write, ‘Then Jesus named the sinful pattern as violent or revengeful retaliation (Mt 5:39). Such revengeful retaliating leads to more killing.’ This statement is quite an accusation when considering what the text actually says. In order to decide if this is a valid argument a closer look at the text is required.
In Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus was clearly trying to teach that retaliation is wrong. He says that instead of fighting back Jesus commands that a person is to not resist. This command could mean that believers are to not seek the death penalty when someone murders someone else. The problem with this argument is summed up by Warren Wiersbe when he writes, ‘Jesus replaced a law with an attitude: be willing to suffer loss yourself rather than cause another to suffer. Of course, He applied this to personal insults, not to groups or nations.’ After a closer look at the text, it is clear that Jesus was talking to individuals and not to a government. As a result, it becomes clear that this passage is not evidence to abolish the death penalty. Gushee and Stassen are correct to say that it is wrong for a single person to go retaliate and execute someone on their own but it is clearly wrong to apply this passage to all death sentences.
Another Bible passage that is used in the case against capital punishment is John 8:2-11. In this passage, a woman who was caught in adultery is brought before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees. They brought her before him to see what he would do to try and bring a charge against him. They asked Jesus what they should do. Jesus the says that the person without sin should throw the first stone. After they all leave Jesus tells the woman that she can go and chargers her not to sin anymore. People will argue that since Jesus did not execute this woman he is saying that the death penalty is no longer an acceptable way to punishing people. This appears to make a lot of sense initially but again falls apart after further study for the following two reasons.
The first reason is that the account of the woman caught in adultery is not found in the original manuscripts. As it is said in the Life Application Commentary when referring to this story, ‘It does not appear in any Greek manuscript until the fifth century, and no Greek church father comments on the passage prior to the twelfth century. Even then, the comments state that the accurate manuscripts do not contain this story.’ The story of the woman caught in adultery is of questionable origin to begin with. It is possible that it was written with one of the gospels and then inserted into John at a later date. For the next argument the assumption will be made that this is truly part of Scripture but that is still not something that can be verified.
Second, this example is not a case of the death penalty due to murder but to adultery. It is true that the law given to Moses required the death of anyone caught in adultery. That said, the command in Genesis 9 was given long before the command to execute those caught in adultery. As Grudem states, ‘ First, even if this text is used to argue against the death penalty for adultery, it is not a story about a murderer, so it cannot be applied to the use of the death penalty for murder, which was established in God’s covenant with Noah long before the covenant with Moses.’ On top of this, the very law that the Pharisees were trying to use to trap Jesus does not line up with what they have presented. Leviticus 20:10 says, ‘If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.’ The fact that only the woman was brought before Jesus in the first place also makes this scenario a very week one to base an argument against capital punishment on.
Many people have used Jesus arrest in Matthew as a reason against capital punishment as well. This idea comes from Jesus rebuking Peter after he tried to defend Jesus from being taken by those who wanted to kill him. In Matthew 26:52 it says, ”Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” It does not say that in every situation it is wrong to use a weapon. All Jesus says is that Peter is not to try and save him in this particular scenario. Grudem points out how ridiculous this claim is when he writes, ‘Jesus was not saying that no soldiers or police officers should ever have weapons; rather, he was telling Peter not to attempt to resist those who were arresting Jesus and would lead him to crucifixion.’ Jesus knew what was going to happen and it makes sense that he would tell Peter not to try and stop it as Jesus knew he needed to go to the cross.
Cain in Genesis 4:10-16 is another example used to argue that God does not want people to see the death penalty upheld. Gushee and Stassen write, ‘They usually overlook the examples of murderers whom God did not want killed, like Cain, who murdered his own brother out of premeditated jealousy.’ It is true that God did not put Cain to death but before this is taken as a reason to abolish capital punishment some more research is required. Kaiser explains this situation a little further, ‘The key to answering the question of what God’s purpose was in protecting Cain is to note the importance and significance of family law. The family was barred from acting as prosecutor, jury, witness, judge, and executor.’ Since it has been so little time since the creation of the world it makes sense that God did not make someone who is closely related to Cain execute him. On the other hand, this does not answer why God did not execute him personally. In the end, there is no way to know exactly why God did not execute Cain. God can do what he wants but that does not mean that every time he does something the laws and commands he has laid out for humans change. Grudem points out more scenarios where God did put someone to death for what they had done, ‘We see this with the fire that fell from heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24–29); the flood (Genesis 6–9); and the sudden deaths of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1–2); Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Num. 16:31–33); and Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:7).’ God can do what he wants to whomever he wants. He is not bound by the rules that he has laid out for mankind.
1 Peter 2:13-14 is another example of a passage that supports the death penalty. Peter is commanding believers to submit to their authorities. David Walls and Max Anders write the following about this statement, ‘The apostle Peter wanted believers to submit willingly, but his words are not presented as an option, but as a command.’ This command is clearly present but does not initially appear to really be in reference to the death penalty. Grudem explains the connection,
The expression translated “to punish” in verse 14 (eis ekdikēsis, literally “for the punishment”) includes the same word that Paul uses for “vengeance” that belongs to God (Rom. 12:19). Paul also uses a word from the same root to say that the civil government is “an avenger [Greek, ekdikos] who carries out God’s wrath” (Rom. 13:4).
God has given the ruling authorities the command to act as a means for God’s punishment on earth. Since God commands in Genesis 9 that a man must die for murdering someone, the ruling group is clearly given the command by God to do so.
The death penalty is a highly debated topic among both the secular and Christian world. Both have some good arguments to support their position. These points are sometimes difficult to dispute because they can be based on people’s feelings or opinions. In the end, each person has to decide for themselves what they believe regarding this issue. This has been a brief examination of some of the arguments from the Bible and from other people in society regarding this debate. Overall, the evidence does appear to support the use of capital punishment when someone murders someone else.