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Is Capital Punishment Obligatory, Permissible or Immoral?

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The Bible is clear about the origins of the material world. God created it out of nothing. Included in the material world are two of God’s special creations: man and woman. The Bible gives an explanation of why man and woman are special in comparison to the rest of God’s creation. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27, ESV). The imago dei serves as a defining marker of what it is to be human. In all of God’s creation, no other creature bears the image of God. By virtue of this truth, humanity has certain responsibilities and rights that belong to it alone amongst God’s creatures. It is precisely because of the imago dei that human life and its dignity are to be protected against evil, and when human dignity is violated, God expects us to respond in a way that acknowledges and defends human dignity. This paper will assert that capital punishment is the obligatory response to certain violations of human dignity. Lastly, the paper will defend capital punishment from several objections.

Humanity’s Fall: The Reality of Evil

Evil becomes a factor almost immediately in human history. Out of the entire biblical narrative, only two chapters are devoted to creation’s pre-fall existence. Genesis 3 describes the fall into sin, which resulted from Adam and Eve’s failure to live as the Lord prescribed. They were then forbidden to eat from a particular tree in the midst of the garden. Giving in to the serpent’s deception, Eve first, and then Adam, ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. Adam and Eve were driven east of Eden and the results of their actions were both immediate and devastating.

Toil, pain, and death all became realities of human existence. Sometime after the fall, Eve birthed two sons: Cain and Abel. Evil impacted the relationship between Cain and Abel in a most terrible way. “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him” (Gen. 4:8, ESV). It only took one generation for one man to take another man’s life, to violate the image of God. The corrupted heart and will of man would only devolve into more and more sin, leading God to act. God flooded the entire earth and “[e]verything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died” (Gen. 7:22, ESV). The only survivors on all the earth were Noah, his family, and the animals with them on the ark. However, evil remained in the hearts of Noah and his family, and it would continue on into the hearts of their descendants. Still, knowing everything about the sinful state of man, God entered into a gracious covenant with Noah.

Common Grace: The Restraint of Evil

God’s common grace is God’s “universal sovereignty in creation and providence, restraining the effects of sin and bestowing general gifts on all people, thus making human society and culture possible even among the unredeemed.” Matthew 5:45 teaches that God makes the sun rise on the just and the unjust. He sends rainfall to both the just and the unjust. In other words, there are some blessings that God allots to all of humanity without distinction. This grace can be traced to God’s covenant with Noah. God tells Noah, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22, ESV). God promises to do this while the earth remains. That is to say, never will there be a time on the earth when these things will not be true. Every person, in every place, at all times is a beneficiary of these promises. Indeed, “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9, ESV). This is common grace.

As Herman Bavinck notes, God showed grace immediately after humanity’s fall into sin, yet this grace was shown most plainly in his covenant with Noah. Of this covenant Bavinck writes, “It is rather a ‘covenant of long-suffering’ made by God with all humans and even with all creatures. It limits the curse on the earth; it checks nature and curbs its destructive power.” One of the purposes of the covenant with Noah is to restrain evil, lest evil become so unchecked that human civilization is rendered impossible. C.F. Keil agrees with Bavinck’s assessment of the Noahic Covenant: “If God on account of the innate sinfulness of man would no more bring an exterminating judgment upon the earthly creation, it was necessary that by commands and authorities He should erect a barrier against the supremacy of evil, and thus lay the foundation for a well-ordered civil development of humanity.”

God’s common grace covenant with Noah is not specifically about redemption, though it does extend creation’s existence, making God’s special redemptive work possible. God’s covenant with Noah is a promise of preservation. Unlike other biblical covenants, which are redemptive in nature, the Noahic Covenant’s sign, the rainbow, does not involve the shedding of blood. It does not symbolize the shedding of blood (in contrast to circumcision, Passover, baptism, Lord’s Supper). In fact, part of God’s covenant with Noah is a command against the shedding of blood. God delivers a particular prescription in the covenant that applies to the restraint of evil, and more particularly to capital punishment. God says to man, “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” (Gen. 9:5–6, ESV). This command is God’s way of “erecting a barrier against the supremacy of evil,” and the underlying principle of the command is the protection of God’s own image.

Since man is made in the image of God, man’s life is conferred a dignity that God takes very seriously. Genesis 9:6 offers several principles that lay the groundwork for what we know today as capital punishment. It should be remembered that these principles are universal, as it is prescribed as part of God’s common grace covenant to all. First, it indicates a “blood for blood” principle, offering the basis for retributive justice. Second, humans are accountable to God for the way justice is pursued. The final principle serves as an explanation for the first two: the imago dei in Genesis 9:6 serves a dual role. It is the basis for why murder is wrong. That is to say, it shows why murder needs to be punished and there should be a “blood for blood” principle. However, the imago dei also explains why humans are responsible for dispensing justice in these cases. As his bearers of the image of God, humans have been given a unique judicial authority.

While the Noahic Covenant and its divine commands do not establish a robust prescription for civil magistrates or state governments, it does offer the necessary ingredients for building such institutions. Some level of delegated authority and order is assumed in God’s Genesis 9:6 commands. If this were not the case, one would never be able to discern which life-taking event is murder and which life-taking event is an act of retributive justice. In sum, while not a complete exposition on legislative and judicial authority, God’s covenant with Noah offers “divine sanction” for human beings to cooperate with one another to create systems committed to human preservation and justice.

The State: A Common Grace Institution

The state, or governing authority, is a common grace institution. Romans 13 provides the most explicit defense of the state’s God-ordained right to dispense justice on evildoers. Furthermore, there is a relationship between Romans 13 and God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis. David VanDrunen writes, “If we wish to understand and apply Paul’s teaching in Romans 13, we most likely should read it as building on a foundation laid in Genesis 8-9.”

Paul writes to the Christians in Rome: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (Romans 13:1–7, ESV).

According to Paul, the state bears an authority instituted by God himself. Thus, the first similarity between Romans 13 and the Noahic Covenant is the identity of the one to whom God delegates judicial authority: man. A second similarity between Romans 13 and Genesis 8–9 is the threat of violence. Romans 13 supplements the “blood for blood” principle laid forth in the covenant with Noah. Paul says that the civil authority bears the sword as a means of God’s wrath. There is no way to understand Paul’s words that removes the threat of violence. In both passages, “coercion undergirds authority.” A final similarity between the two passages is that both seek to preserve humanity. God puts these measures in place as means of preservation; or as VanDrunen puts it, “The responsibility to pursue retributive justice presented in Genesis 9 and Romans 13 is protectionist in nature.”

Paul, defending himself before Festus, says, “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar” (Acts 25:11, ESV). This passage reinforces the authority of the state, as Paul appeals to Caesar, head of the Roman government. Paul’s words also appear to assume that there is a crime for which death is the penalty. Just because Paul acknowledges this truth does not mean the law itself is just, but Paul does not dispute the legitimacy of the law or punishment. Paul disputes the charge that he is guilty of such an offense. Acts 25:11, while a descriptive passage, corroborates the aforementioned prescriptive passages from Genesis and Romans.

To recap, the principle of common grace as a restraint of evil is delivered in Scripture very early on. More specifically, God enters into a common grace covenant with Noah, wherein he includes a command for image bearers to protect the dignity of other image bearers, specifically in the case of murder. This is the foundation of retributive justice. Later, in Romans 13, Paul echoes Genesis 8–9 by again declaring the right and responsibility for human authorities to distribute justice against evildoers. Since both Genesis 8–9 and Romans 13 are referring to civil authorities outside of God’s special covenant relationship with Israel and the Church, these commands to pursue justice cannot be restricted to specific governments under certain theocratic systems. In Romans 13:1 Paul says every person is subject to governing authorities. In fact, he uses the same Greek phrase that is used in the Septuagint translation of Genesis 9:10 to designate God’s covenant with every living creature. Therefore, the state is a common grace institution responsible for overseeing the protection of all of God’s image bearers, and it does so by executing those who voluntarily take the life of another human being. Any civil authority that fails in this capacity fails at its God-ordained duty. In other words, capital punishment is obligatory.

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Capital Punishment: Obligatory Cases

Having established that capital punishment is, in principle, the obligatory duty of all governing authorities; the question now becomes one of application. In what kinds of instances should capital punishment be implemented? The Mosaic Law includes instructions to administer the death penalty for about twenty different crimes, including breaking the Sabbath, adultery, and cursing parents. This paper will not address whether or not the death penalty today should apply to any or all of these offenses. Since this paper’s particular argument for capital punishment is grounded in Genesis 9 and Romans 13, it is best to only make capital punishment obligatory in those cases prescribed in the aforementioned texts. With this in mind, capital punishment, as presented in the Noahic Covenant and Romans 13, is obligatory in cases of premeditated or intentional murder.

Randy Beck and David VanDrunen offer a helpful reminder when it comes to applying capital punishment. They write, “Insofar as Genesis 9:6 calls human legislators and judges to image God, they do well to let a degree of forbearance and patience temper the quest for justice.” In other words, governments should resist any urge to eradicate evil altogether, since this is impossible until the return of Christ and the full reign of his kingdom on earth. An overzealous desire for justice here on earth may send governments beyond their prescribed authority. This is another reason that capital punishment should likely be preserved only for premeditated and intentional murder.

Broken Implementation

One objection to capital punishment is the death of the innocent. This may occur because of corrupt authorities or due to faulty investigation. Whatever the case, innocent people being put to death should cause everyone to pause and examine the death penalty debate much closer. However, once things are examined more closely it becomes apparent that this objection is not actually an objection again capital punishment itself. It is not an “in principle” objection. This objection is against the incorrect implementation of capital punishment, which is a different discussion altogether. If there are cases of unfair targeting of a particular group (for example: a particular ethnic group or the impoverished), the problem must be addressed immediately. However, any attempt to fix a problem of discrimination that finds its answer in dismantling the death penalty altogether is wrongheaded. This objection should not cause any nation or society to end the death penalty, but it should be recognized as “an argument for the careful implementation of it.”

Cherry Picking Genesis 9:6

The second objection is hermeneutical in nature. In Ethics for a Brave New World Feinberg and Feinberg note that some opponents of capital punishment charge its proponents with cherry picking Genesis 9:6 while ignoring the previous commands found in verses 4 and 5. Genesis 9:4 prohibits eating flesh that still has blood in it. Genesis 9:5 requires the killing of animals that kill human beings. The proponent of capital punishment has a couple of different ways avenues for response.

The first path offered by the Feinbergs is to note the theological justification of the command in Genesis 9:6. This makes the directive in 9:6 fundamentally different from the previous two commands. In other words, the “blood for blood” principle of Genesis 9:6 is rooted in the imago dei, and “so long as man is made in God’s image, the rule is applicable.” A second route of reply is to point out that the other two commands are not repeated in the New Testament, whereas Paul in Romans 13 repeats the command from 9:6.

The path one takes in reply to this objection will be dependent on one’s understanding of the continuity or discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Whichever path is taken, it is incumbent upon the proponent of capital punishment to deal honestly and rightly with God’s word, and not simply to pick a verse that seems to advocate his preferred position. Consistency should be the aim of any person interpreting God’s word. The Scriptures themselves charge the believer with this responsibility: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, ESV). While every interpreter should seek to meet this standard at all times, it seems especially pertinent in matters such as this, as life and death are literally at stake.

The Woman Caught in Adultery

A possible objection to capital punishment is found in John 7:53–8:11. Issues relating to this passage and textual criticism will not be explored in this paper. For purposes of this essay it will be assumed that the passage is original and inspired. The Feinbergs write, “Opponents of the death penalty claim this is the one time Jesus spoke about the death penalty, and he waived it. He forgave the woman.” According to the Mosaic Law, one found guilty of adultery was to be stoned to death by eyewitnesses. The Scribes and Pharisees, as was their habit, attempted to trick Jesus on the Mosaic Law. They brought to him a woman who had been caught in adultery and Jesus replied, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, ESV). Are opponents of capital punishment right when they invoke this passage as a proof that Jesus abolished the death penalty?

John Howard Yoder, an opponent of the death penalty, says, “The Christian challenge to the death penalty begins where Jesus does, by challenging the self-ascribed righteousness of those who would claim the authority to kill others.” Here Yoder is attempting to show that no one is qualified to administer capital punishment because no one is sinless. However, it is important to understand what Jesus means by “without sin” when he speaks to the Scribes and Pharisees. If Jesus means that sinlessness is required for judging others, then there can be no such thing as criminal justice, whether capital punishment or any other measure of punishment. It is more likely that Jesus was referring to “without sin” in this particular instance. In other words, if the Scribes and Pharisees were guilty in this case, they could not cast a stone at the woman, for they were guilty as well. We find out that each of them was guilty, as they all walk away acknowledging such. This does not necessarily mean they were guilty of adultery, but they were guilty of disrespecting the law in some fashion. For example, the Mosaic Law required that both people involved in adultery should be present. In this case, though, the man was nowhere to be found. Only the woman was presented for punishment. In other words, those attempting to punish the woman did so with impure motives, which also violated the Law.

Finally, Jesus was in no place to condemn the woman himself, for he was not an eyewitness. Far from abolishing the Mosaic Law, it appears Jesus was truer in his adherence to it than those seeking to use it to trip him up. This passage cannot be used to overturn capital punishment. It is particularly irrelevant to cases involving murder, like those applicable to Genesis 9:6.

Sermon on the Mount

Some point to the Sermon on the Mount as evidence that the death penalty is no longer applicable. Christ teaches his followers to love their enemies; He does not teach them to seek revenge. “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” (Mat. 5:38–39, ESV). How should this passage be understood? As the Feinbergs point out, earlier in his sermon Jesus addressed murder when he addressed anger. He could have ruled out capital punishment in such cases, but he did not. In fact, Jesus warns of coming punishment of some kind. While this is an argument from silence, it would be odd for Jesus to teach on the topic of murder and fail to rule out the death penalty there, only to abolish it later when teaching on a different topic.

The shift in focus is precisely why verses like Matthew 5:38–39 cannot be used to argue against capital punishment. Here Jesus is teaching his followers how they should react when struck on the cheek, not how the government should react. Rather than taking justice into his own hands, the follower of Christ should be willing to suffer for his allegiance to Christ. The Feinbergs write, “The verses say nothing about how a government should respond to those who break the laws of the state. If one demands that these passages be applied to criminal justice, then the logical result would be to rule out all punishment for all crimes.” This passage may have something to say about individual self-defense, or response to demeaning insults, but it does not address the government’s use of the sword as a means of retributive justice.

Pro-Life Ethics

Can someone consistently hold to a pro-life ethic and be pro-capital punishment? Or are the death penalty and pro-life ethics mutually exclusive? Those who are against practices like abortion and euthanasia often use the pro-life label. There are compelling reasons to believe someone can consistently be anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia, and pro-capital punishment. The Feinbergs are again helpful on this discussion. “Given a sanctity-of-life ethic, human life is sacred and must be protected. Hence, abortion and euthanasia are ruled out. Execution of murderers underscores the sanctity of life and the seriousness of taking the innocent life of others.” In other words, it is because of the murderer’s violation of the sanctity ethic that he should be put to death.

Those being killed by abortion and euthanasia are not guilty, and thus do not deserve to be killed. To equate a murderer’s life to an unborn child’s life is a failure to acknowledge fundamental categories of guilt and innocence. It is possible to be consistently pro-life and advocate for the death penalty, because if practiced as prescribed in Scripture the death penalty is pro-life because it protects the dignity of human life.

Conclusion

Humans have been given a unique dignity amongst God’s creature because they are made in God’s own image. Because of this unique dignity, God protects human life in a special way and expects humans to do the same. This expectation is grounded in his covenant with Noah, found in Genesis 8–9, and the expectation is universal in scope and binding as long as the earth exists. Because of this expectation, capital punishment should be obligatory in cases of premeditated murder. Various objections have been entertained. These objections range from the biblical arguments (both Old and New testaments) to charges of inconsistency. These objections fail to negate the binding nature of Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (ESV).

Bibliography

  1. Anderson, Kerby. Christian Ethics in Plain Language. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005.
  2. Armacost, Barbara E. and Peter Enns. “Crying Out For Justice: Civil Law and the Prophets.” In Law and the Bible: Justice, Mercy and Legal Institutions, edited by Robert F. Cochran Jr. and David VanDrunen, 121–150. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.
  3. Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics Volume Two: God and Creation, edited by John Bolt, trans. John Vriend. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004.
  4. Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics Volume Three: Sin and Salvation in Christ, edited by John Bolt, trans. John Vriend. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004.
  5. Beck, Randy and David VanDrunen. “The Biblical Foundations of Law: Creation, Fall and the Patriarchs.” In Law and the Bible: Justice, Mercy and Legal Institutions, edited by Robert F. Cochran Jr. and David VanDrunen, 23–48. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.
  6. Feinberg, John S. and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics For a Brave New World. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.
  7. House, H. Wayne. “Reaffirming the Death Penalty for Today.” In The Death Penalty Debate: Two Opposing Views of Capital Punishment, edited by Vernon Grounds, 101–104. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991.
  8. Keil, C.F. “The Pentateuch.” In Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.
  9. VanDrunen, David. “Power to the People: Revisiting Civil Resistance in Romans 13:1–7 in Light of the Noahic Covenant.” Journal of Law and Religion Volume 31, Number 1 (2016): 4–18, Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www-cambridge-org.ezproxy.sebts.edu/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/S0748081415000417
  10. Yoder, John Howard. “Jesus and the Social Order.” In The Death Penalty Debate: Two Opposing Views of Capital Punishment, edited by Vernon Grounds, 139–148. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991.

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