The frightening increase in violent crimes, scandal in the highest governmental agencies, and a general spirit of lawlessness of recent times have focused national attention on the need for an equitable system of laws and their prompt and fair enforcement. A general feeling of moral outrage exists, and people are calling on the courts to impose stiffer penalties on criminals. In addition, many citizens are beginning to recognize that good government is everybody’s business. But why should we accept capital punishment or the death penalty as the most viable solution for murder?
No one should take any vengeful satisfaction in seeing a murderer put to death. But capital punishment is a necessity that Scripture imposes on society for the maintenance of justice and the common welfare. There are four main reasons why capital punishment is right.
First, capital punishment is right because it is taught in the Bible. In Genesis 9:6 we read the command of God: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed…” This decree is based on the fact that human beings, though sinners, bear the image of God. The obligation of Genesis 9:6 is therefore for all people of all ages. The only thing that would invalidate this granting of the supreme power of life and death to society is the possibility that some later biblical teaching abolishes it. But neither Jesus nor any of the New Testament writers rescinded the decree. And Paul, though he did not mention the death penalty, confirmed the authority of civil government to punish all who do evil. He said that a ruler should be feared because “it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). Now let us look at the three most common objections to this point.
- First, capital punishment violates the commandment, “You shall not kill/murder.” However, the Hebrew word “ratsach” translated “kill” means “murder with malice.” It refers only to intentional, unauthorized, unjustified slaying. God commanded the death penalty. Those who quote the sixth commandment (Ex. 20:13) as an argument against capital punishment ignore the biblical context.
- Second, capital punishment contradicts the New Testament principle of love and forgiveness. This argument fails to recognize the biblical distinction between a personal ethic and a civil ethic. Christians are to forgive as Christ forgave them (Eph. 4:32), but civil government must act as a “minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). There is another angle to forgiveness. Only the offended party can forgive. In a murder, the offended party is dead. He cannot forgive, and society has no right to “forgive.” Society can show mercy if it believes there are mitigating circumstances. Thus the death penalty may not be the proper response to every form of murder. In any case, most of those who claim that capital punishment is inconsistent with the Christian ethic of love and forgiveness are themselves inconsistent. They still agree to the imprisonment of murderers. This may be a lesser punishment, but it is nevertheless still punishment – not forgiveness.
- Third, capital punishment was abolished along with the law of Moses. Capital punishment was given before the law (Gen. 9:6), although it was incorporated into the law (Num. 35:25-34; Deut. 17:12-13). Even if you could wipe away the law, you would still have the mandate of Genesis 9:6. Finally, if capital punishment was abolished along with the law, why does the apostle Paul refer to the ruler not bearing the sword for nothing? This is a clear reference to the government’s power to take life as part of its judgment on evildoers (Rom. 13:4).
Second, capital punishment is right because it is reasonable. Why shouldn’t a person who deliberately takes the life of another have to forfeit his own? That person he murdered was a human being too. He had hopes and dreams. He no doubt had a loving family and good friends. Many people today are so sympathetic to the murderer that they all but forget the victim and his loved ones. Whenever an execution takes place, the news media tend to build up the agony of death row, the terror of the hangman’s noose, and the gnawing dread of the electric chair. But they seldom show the bereavement and heartache of the victim’s family. No one likes the idea of execution, but the fact remains that if a society does not justly sentence wrongdoers, it will soon become crime-ridden and unsafe. The most common objection is this:
- Capital punishment is “barbaric.” They have said that the death penalty is cruel, “a relic” (Bedua, The Case Against the Death Penalty. ACLU Pamphlet). This objection usually comes from those who assume wrongly the evolution of man and society. In other words, since man is becoming more and more moral and humane, he should leave all forms of violence behind. This is contradictory to biblical teaching. Romans 1:21-32 clearly teaches that man is on the moral skids. Left to himself he would become totally corrupt in all his behavior. The fact is, barbarism would be expressed in the manner in which the death penalty is carried out, not necessarily in the penalty itself. All forms of cruelty and torture are indeed barbaric. The Bible teaches, however, that the reason for the death penalty is respect for life and God, a very unbarbaric idea. Note the rest of Genesis 9:6. “For in the image of God he made man.” Moses is saying that murderers should be put to death because life is of inestimable value, since it is made in the image of God. This is reasonable.
Third, capital punishment is right because it does act as an effective deterrent to further crimes – in spite of claims to the contrary. When capital punishment is in effect within a society, the number of murders decreases. Reliable statistics bear this out. In 1966 and 1967, when the death penalty was still on the books in our country, not one policeman was murdered from ambush. But during the four years from 1968 through 1971, after capital punishment was no longer a threat, 49 policemen died as a result of being shot down. This is certainly no mere coincidence! Nor is the fact that a gang of vicious robbers in London continued their attacks unabated after one of their members was given life imprisonment, but disbanded immediately when two other cohorts were executed for their crimes.
When a person knows the death penalty is swift and sure, he’s less likely to take someone’s life than if he has a chance of eventual parole. Those serving time in prison have gone on record that they were much more likely not to murder when the death penalty was in effect. Nobody wants to die – and the threat of execution has stopped many potential slayers from pulling the trigger. Why have murders been on the increase? Because executions were nonexistent between 1967 and 1984. The homicide rate has increased alarmingly since capital punishment was discontinued. In 1960, the number of people murdered in our country was about 9000. But in 1971, the year preceding the Supreme Court decision to abolish capital punishment, 17,630 were slain. This is a 96 percent increase, while the population grew only 15 percent. The enemies of capital punishment may be shouting for joy because not one criminal was put to death in 1971, but what about the families of these nearly 18,000 victims? The extent and depth of their suffering is beyond measure. So what are some objections?
- Capital punishment does not really deter murder. Undeniably, capital punishment fails to deter some murders, even in an ideal society, but no one ever promised it would deter every murder. This argument usually resorts to statistics. In its heyday about middle of this century, the statistical argument seemed strong because justice was not carried out fairly and swiftly. These once imposing statistical arguments have been dramatically weakened by events of the last 15 or 20 years. Since the death penalty was abolished, the per capita murder rate and the actual number of murders both doubled. In response, a new generation of Americans has reinstated the death penalty in most of the states. Yet, the efforts of state legislatures to rewrite the death penalty statutes have been thwarted by certain lawyers and a drawn-out legal process, and until a few years ago none of the people on death row had actually been executed. Justice William Rehnquist of the Supreme Court complained, “What troubles me is the Court … has made it virtually impossible for states to enforce with reasonable promptness their constitutionally valid capital punishment statutes” (Newsweek, July 18, 1983).
What is the biblical case for deterrence? Scripture teaches that just and swift punishment deters crime. Ecclesiastes 8:11 reads, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.” The ruler of Romans 13:3, 4 who “bears the sword” instills a fear of practicing evil. This is deterrence. The deterring effect of capital punishment would be even more dramatic if our judicial process were more efficient. Over a thousand men now await execution. The more biblically influenced our system of justice, the greater its deterrent effect could be.
- There is no justification for capital punishment if it does not clearly deter murder. Deterrence is only one reason – and not the best one – for the death penalty. In addition to fostering respect for life created in the image of God, capital punishment is the only just form of punishment for premeditated, first-degree murder. Deep in every human being is a sense of what is just, although it may be perverted for selfish reasons or distorted by abuse of overreaction which we call “revenge.” The timeless principles of justice are set forth in that part of the Mosaic system we call the “civil ordinances.” Exodus 21:23-25 is the classic example. “But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” The gist of the principle is that the punishment must fit the crime. For the crime of premeditated murder, Exodus 21:12-13 is clear: put the murderer to death.
Fourth, capital punishment is right because it protects the innocent. An executed murderer is never going to murder anyone else. According to an FBI report, 19 of the people who murdered policemen from 1960 to 1970 were parolees who had once been convicted of first-degree murder. Not one of these officers of the law would have died if the death penalty had been enforced. Again, this is not the primary purpose for exacting penalties for crime, but it is one of the blessings that flows from it. Lost among all the talk about the rights of criminals and fine points of the law are the long nights of anguish suffered by their victims. Forgotten, too, is the terror that enshrouds a community when a known criminal is on the loose. This happened in Grand Rapids, Michigan. On separate occasions, two young women were kidnapped, raped, and then brutally murdered. The crimes were committed within a short period of time, and the evidence indicated that they had been done by the same person or persons. Many women became frightened and refused to leave their homes alone at night. A spirit of fear settled over the community. Then, when two young men were arrested and convicted, everyone seemed to breathe easier and began to feel safe once again. What is one objection to this point?
- Capital punishment entails too great a risk of irreversibly punishing innocent people. This objection appeals strongly to our sympathies. Putting an innocent person to death is indeed a frightening possibility. The Old Testament recognized this hazard and put safeguards of various kinds into the legislation pertaining to the death penalty. For example, two or three witnesses were necessary (Num. 35:30), and giving false witness bore the death penalty (Deut. 19:15-21). Cities of refuge were designated for certain cases to be heard before the elders of the city (Deut. 19). Today’s system also puts safeguards around the death penalty, in fact so many that the process of appeals affects the death penalty’s deterrent value. Which is the greater loss: never carrying out justice by never putting malicious murderers to death, or putting an innocent person to death in a rare instance? And such mistakes are rare. Even in our imperfect judicial system, there are very few proven cases of innocent people having been executed.
Thus we see that the wise Creator, the One who created people in His image, has sanctioned the death penalty to preserve life and godliness. His original creation was sinless and deathless, but sin distorts everything. Now, living as we do in a sin-filled and cursed world, we should follow His guidelines to effectively deal with willful destroyers of mankind. Murder violates the sacredness of human life, and therefore the one who commits murder should forfeit his life in return. The Bible teaches it. It’s reasonable. It’s a deterrent to crime. And it protects the innocent.
Contributing authors: Richard W. De Haan, Dr. John Morris, Prof. William H. Baker, Th.D.