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Am I a "Heretic" for Endorsing Capital Punishment? (1)


Recently the state of Texas executed its 500th person since capital punishment was restored by the Supreme Court in 1976. [For a brief history of capital punishment and the legal developments in the U.S., see John Jefferson Davis, Christian Ethics, pp. 176-78.] That’s more than all other states combined.

Perhaps in response, Roger Olson wrote a blog article on July 3, 2013, entitled, “The Heresy of Capital Punishment” (www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/).

What does Olson mean by this? He explains:

“It is my considered opinion that belief that capital punishment, at least as it is known and practiced in the U.S. today, is a heresy when espoused by Christians. It manifests an embrace of the myth of redemptive violence by humans and flies in the face of the ethic of Jesus which forbids violent retribution. It is absolutely, incontrovertibly contrary to love. And it is, as practiced in the U.S. today, manifestly unjust.”

He doesn’t stop there. As for how Christian churches should respond to those members who advocate capital punishment, he writes:

“I believe Christian churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. They ought, at the very least, to declare it incompatible with Christian faith and put members who openly believe in it under some kind of discipline (not necessarily excommunication but at least forbidding them to teach it in the ecclesial context). And those who practice it, actively seeking it and participating in it, should be excommunicated from Christian churches.”

Our approach to this issue must begin by a careful analysis of the relevant biblical texts. It’s important to acknowledge up front that an air-tight exegetical case cannot be made in defense of capital punishment. But I do believe the Bible has recognized and endorsed the legitimacy of it in the past. What we should do in the present is a matter of grave importance.

(1) The place to begin is with Genesis 9:5-6 where we read: “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.’”

Several questions should be asked. First, is Genesis 9:6 a statement of fact or a divine command? Is it predictive or prescriptive? Is it a forecast of what the consequences of murder will be, or is it a divine sanction for capital punishment (hereafter CP)? The Hebrew grammar will permit either view.

If this is merely predictive, the point of the text is that divine retribution against the murderer will take its course and will sooner or later catch up with the killer. In other words, God's providence will ultimately insure that he/she be brought to justice.

However, v. 5b speaks of God's requiring the life of the murderer from the hand of man. If in v. 5b God requires the death of the murderer, it seems reasonable that in v. 6 he commands that it be done. Subsequent provisions in the Law of Moses also explicitly require that murderers be put to death. Experience tells us that not all murderers have in fact had their blood shed by other men. Thus, if Genesis 9:6 is merely predicting what will happen to murderers, it is a prediction that has failed. The fact is, many murderers go to their graves after a long and happy life. Not all of them are brought to justice. It seems more likely, then, that the text is prescribing CP.

A second question to ask: Do we have reason to believe that this command is a pattern we are free to follow or perhaps even a moral responsibility that is universally binding?

My answer is two-fold. First, the basis for the command is that man is created in the image of God (v. 6). "To kill a person was tantamount to killing God in effigy" (Walter Kaiser/91). Man is still in the image of God. Thus the rationale for CP is not tied to any cultural or socio-economic phenomena but to a truth regarding man that is universally relevant. Second, the command is part of the Noahic covenant which is universal in scope and carries no ethnic limitations (vv. 9-10). Noah stood as the new head of the race, even as did Adam in Eden. This is a new beginning, a re-creation of the world, as it were.

(2) A second important passage is Exodus 20:13 – “You shall not murder.” But there are several reasons why this text cannot be used to forbid CP.

The word translated “murder” is one of several Hebrew terms which means to take life. Here it should be rendered "murder" (not “kill”). This is a prohibition against the unlawful taking of an innocent life. That such a text does not prohibit all life-taking is also evident from the fact that God commanded Israel to kill their enemies during the conquest of Canaan (see my previous 3-part series titled, “Was God Guilty of Genocide?”). And we must not neglect Exodus 21:12 which clearly endorses CP (“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death”).

As a brief aside, be it noted that the death penalty in the Mosaic Law was called for in numerous cases: (1) premeditated murder (Ex. 21:12-14); (2) kidnapping (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7); (3) striking a parent (Ex. 21:15; the word means "to attack with great force," not merely slap; i.e., it is attempted murder by severely beating someone); (4) cursing a parent (Ex. 21:17; a repudiation of parental authority; a verbal despising of them); (5) sacrificing to a false god; idolatry (Ex. 22:20); (6) sorcery/magic (Ex. 22:18); (7) breaking the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2); (8) adultery (Lev. 20:10-21); (9) homosexuality (Lev. 20:13); (10) incest (Lev. 20:11-12,14); (11) bestiality (Lev. 20:15-16); (12) human sacrifice (Lev. 20:2); (13) blasphemy (Lev. 24:11-14,16,23); (14) incorrigible juvenile delinquency (Dt. 17:12; 21:18-21; this is not a young teen but an "older youth"; this deals, not with a one-time outburst, but with a settled disposition; note the public trial); (15) false prophecy (Dt. 13:1-10); (16) fornication (Dt. 22:20-21); and (17) rape (Dt. 22:23-27).

In the case of all these offenses (with the exception of murder), it was possible to pay a ransom or make some form of monetary or property settlement and have the sentence commuted (see Num. 35:31). We must also remember that we are no longer under the stipulations of the Mosaic Code and therefore we cannot assume that CP is valid today simply because it was endorsed under the old covenant. Having said that, we must also acknowledge that the presence of CP in the Mosaic Code indicates that, at least in principle, the practice was not morally abhorrent or inconsistent with the character of God.

(3) Our third major passage is the justly famous encounter of Jesus with the woman taken in adultery. I encourage you to pause for a moment and read John 8:1-11. (Although this narrative is probably not a part of the original inspired text of John's gospel, it probably occurred precisely as recorded. See John 20:30-31; 21:25.)

Did Jesus abolish the death penalty when he said to the religious leaders, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” and to the woman taken in adultery, "Neither do I condemn you"? Several things should be noted.

The incident took place on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. 7:2,37) when Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims. Chance encounters between men and women, leading to adultery, would be commonplace. Her accusers claimed to have caught her in the very act. It was difficult to prove adultery under Jewish law. Mere suspicion was inadequate. Even direct knowledge of their presence together was insufficient grounds on which to bring charges. There had to be at least two eye-witnesses who "must be able to testify that the movements of the people in question allowed no other interpretation" (than that adultery had occurred) (Leon Morris, 293).

Their motivation is made clear in v. 6 (“This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him”). They were not there out of moral outrage or because of a commitment to justice. They intended to trap Jesus. They wanted grounds on which to accuse Jesus, not the woman.

Where was the man with whom she had allegedly committed this sin? Had he escaped? Did they deliberately let him go? Had he bribed them? Perhaps they had intentionally set him up with the woman so they could make use of her against Jesus. Or did they regard only women caught in adultery as morally accountable? Was she married? If so, where was her husband? Was she single, engaged?

Their intent was to entrap Jesus on the horns of a dilemma (cf. Mt. 22:15-22). The Jews could pass sentence on a capital crime but did not have the authority to execute someone (cf. John 18:31). If Jesus were to insist that she be executed, this could be twisted into an illegality or an endorsement of subversion against the Roman state that might serve as the basis for an accusation against him in a court of law. On the other hand, if he refused to demand that she be punished, they could persuade the people he was in defiance of the Mosaic Law and thereby undermine his reputation among those who were his followers.

His response was to bend down and write “with his finger on the ground” (v. 6b). The Pharisees interpreted this as a stalling tactic and pressed their attack by repeating the question (v. 7).

Why and what did Jesus write in the ground? Suggestions include: (1) he was imitating the Roman magistrate who would first write down the sentence of a criminal and then read it aloud. If so, Jesus would be writing the words of v. 7b. But if this is the case, why does he write again, as v. 8 indicates he does? (2) Some say he wrote Jeremiah 17:13. (3) Other say it wasn't what he wrote but the mere fact that he wrote that is significant. See Exodus 31:18 where God wrote the Law with his finger; hence, Jesus is symbolically declaring that he is God, author of the law. (4) Perhaps he was doodling, hoping to calm his anger or perhaps buy time to think. (5) Did he write the sins of his accusers? (6) Perhaps he first wrote Exodus 23:1b (“You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness”) and then Exodus 23:7 (“Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked”). In the final analysis, we simply don't know.

What did Jesus mean in saying, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her”?

We know that he was not requiring absolute sinlessness before one can rightly/justly participate in a criminal proceeding. If he were, there could never be any civil justice (neither judges nor lawyers nor witnesses nor juries) or ecclesiastical discipline, for all are sinners; none is sinless.

Others say he means that if you are a sinner you should refrain from ever judging or criticizing others. But see Matthew 7 and 18.

He may mean, "He who is without the sin of adultery . . ." I.e., an adulteress cannot be condemned and executed by other adulterers. But is it likely that all of these religious leaders were adulterers?

He probably means, "He who is without fault," i.e., whoever is qualified to serve as a legitimate witness against her and has fully complied with the law of Moses. In other words, Jesus questions their competence to serve as legal witnesses against her. Thus, "He who is faultless in regard to the criteria for a witness against her, let him cast the first stone."

The Mosaic Law required that both the man and woman caught in adultery be executed (Dt. 22:22-24). Also, more than one person had to testify to having caught them in the act (Dt. 17:6-7). If only one was willing to bear witness, the case would be thrown out. Also, the eyewitnesses had to throw the first stone, indicating that he, if he existed, was not present. Finally, if the victim was later found to be innocent, having been put to death on the basis of perjured testimony, the executioners (witnesses) were themselves to be executed (see Dt. 19:16-19).

Thus Jesus is probably challenging the integrity of the eyewitness case against her. The religious leaders leave, stunned and humiliated (v. 9).

Why did Jesus decline to condemn her (vv. 10-11)? Primarily because he was not an eyewitness either. But neither does he condone her sin. He doesn't make light of adultery by setting her free. He commands her to "sin no more." Thus, if Jesus abrogated the death penalty in John 8, he did it only in the case of adultery, not murder.

(4) Our fourth text is Acts 25:11 where we find Paul testifying before Festus. The apostle declares: “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.” Three observations are in order:

First, Paul recognized that there were in fact some crimes that were worthy of death. How many or which ones we cannot know; but at minimum, murder is in view.

Second, Paul says he would offer no resistance should he be found guilty of such a crime. He would make no plea for clemency simply because he was a Christian.

Third, implicit in Paul's statement is his belief that the governing authority had the right to inflict capital punishment. He did not rebuke or denounce the government for usurping a prerogative it did not rightfully possess.

(5) We now come to Romans 13:3-4 where Paul envisions a two-fold purpose of government: to promote and praise that which is good, and to prohibit and punish that which is evil. In order to carry out this latter function, God has invested the state with the power to inflict punishment: the sword (cf. Lk. 21:24; Acts 12:2 where the sword is associated with death). The sword is not merely a sign or symbol of the state's authority to enforce its laws but also a power to execute.

In the next article we’ll turn our attention to some of the arguments typically used against the legitimacy of CP.

1 Comment

Wow, tough topic. I don't "support" capital punishment but I think the points outlined here are solid. Thanks!

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