The Bible and the Death Penalty
The question of Capital Punishment has been raised; a question the answer to of which is more important to Christian doctrine than some might think.
The Roman Catholic Pope, Francis, issued a recent decree changing the doctrine of his church regarding the issue, and creating something of a firestorm of controversy within the Catholic church. According to Francis, the death penalty is unacceptable and immoral and constitutes “an attack” on human dignity. These views aren’t exactly noteworthy, as he had written articles in years past stating much the same. What is somewhat startling is the claim made by Catholic officials that this doctrinal stance is in harmony with both historical Catholic teaching and the Bible.
We’ll leave the historical argument to others with more vested interest in Catholicism. What we are most interested in is what the Bible actually teaches on the matter.
Biblically, the validity of the death penalty, when enacted by government authorities, is about as uncontested a doctrine as one can find. When Noah first stepped off the ark, God established the following principle: “Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of every beast I will require it, and from the hand of man. From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.” (Genesis 9:5-6; NKJV)
Pointedly, we might observe the death penalty was enacted by God as a safeguard against the violation of “human dignity.” To enact it therefore is to uphold human dignity, and to ignore it is to lessen human worth.
In the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible and the cornerstone of the Old Testament, the death penalty is mentioned in every book as valid. Three of the crimes for which it was deemed appropriate by God were murder, kidnapping and rape. Again, all crimes against “human dignity.” Each man is special, made in God’s image, and we should treat each other accordingly. When we fail to do so, God insists there be consequences.
In the New Testament, Jesus had no problems with the death penalty. Even when on trial for His life, he plainly told Pilate that He agreed Pilate had authority to put Him to death. Jesus’ main quibble was that He believed the authority came from God, not man. (cf. John 19:10-11) This same attitude was later echoed by the apostle Paul, when he stood before Festus, stating, “If I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying.” (cf. Acts 25:11)
Sometime before this, Paul had written to the Roman church concerning government authority, and stated, as an inspired prophet of God, “[the government authority] does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” (Romans 13:4b; NKJV) The “sword” Paul mentions was the means by which Rome executed its own citizens.
The biblical authority for the death penalty is well established from beginning to end of the Bible. One must seriously question the validity or understanding of those who, claiming to be speaking on behalf of God, claim otherwise. God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and His opinion on such things is not subject to change; nor will His word change. (cf. Hebrews 1:10-12; 1 Peter 1:22-25) Bluntly, Catholics must ask themselves, do they believe God’s Word or do they believe their Pope?
Further, one of the things God is trying to teach us in the Bible is the principle of consequences. God has always tried to teach men that certain actions have certain consequences. Men obviously don’t always apply these consequences as they should, but God does so unfailingly. Men might miscarry justice; God never does.
This principle of consequences is important to get right because it affects our understanding of sin in general. All sin creates immediate consequences in this life. But sin also brings eternal consequences. Thus, God has taught men, “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23a). In this case spiritual death; also called hell. Murder may be an attack against human dignity, but sin is an attack against God’s dignity, and the consequences are much more severe. It is the reality of these consequences that God wants us to understand, because only in accepting that will we accept the gift of God, in Christ Jesus: eternal life. (cf. Romans 6:23b)