Ask the Pastor: The Death Pentalty

A couple of questions have been submitted concerning the death penalty.

When a man kills another man, shouldn’t the killer get a death sentence?

The Catholic Church believes the death penalty is anti-Christian. What do you think?

The Bible actually has a great deal to say about the matter of jurisprudence, that is, about the matter of crime and punishment. Many people seem to think that the Bible only deals with matters of personal salvation—how they may be made right with God, how they may have their sins forgiven and find acceptance in God’s eyes, and so go to heaven when they die. Not at all an insignificant question! But it’s not the only question the Bible addresses.

The Bible actually has a great deal to say about how nations are to be governed. When God rescued Israel out of Egypt and took them to Mt. Sinai in the wilderness, he gave them a law to observe. And much of this law relates to the role of the civil magistrate and how he is to administer justice on God's behalf. God gave Moses a body of "case-law" in order to guide the judges in their legal decisions.

Let me give you an example of a case law from Exodus 21:33-34.

“When a man opens a pit, or when a man digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restoration. He shall give money to its owner, and the dead beast shall become his.”
Here the Lord is supposing a case of criminal negligence. A man digs a pit and fails to cover it or put a fence around it. His neighbor’s ox or donkey falls into it and is killed. The law shows that the man who dug the pit is to be held responsible for his neighbor’s loss because he has not taken a reasonable precaution to guard against his neighbor’s animal from falling into it. He is liable for damages. He must give the owner a new animal in place of the one that was lost.

Now this particular law doesn’t just concern digging pits and losing animals. It gives us general principles of legal responsibility and criminal negligence that can be applied rather broadly to other cases with similar circumstances. This is the purpose of case law—to provide general principles to guide judges in their legal rulings. And there are a number of case laws in the Bible (concentrated in Exodus 21-23) that give guidance for judges in ruling on such matters as personal injury, property damage, theft, and so on. There is a great deal of wisdom in these laws. When you read them, you think, “Yes, that’s right! That’s what ought to be done in such cases.” The decisions given in these case laws resonate with our innate (God-given) sense of justice. The assigned penalty fits the crime.

Several things need to be said about these case laws. First, in each instance, the assigned penalty is the maximum penalty which God allows. One important aspect of justice is that a person is not to be punished more than what is due—for instance, being executed for stealing ten dollars. That’s an unjust penalty because it doesn’t fit the crime. The penalties God assigns in the case laws of the Bible are the maximum penalties he allows for the specified crimes in order to guard against an injustice being done to the criminal by punishing him with a penalty greater than what his offense deserves.

Second, it’s important to note that there are a number of case laws that deal with crimes for which the assigned penalty is death. So we have no less an authority than God himself telling us that for certain crimes (e.g., rape, kidnapping, and murder) it is appropriate to inflict a capital sentence.

Third, in nearly every case, a lesser penalty may be substituted for the one assigned in the law. The judges are allowed some discretion. Also, much depends upon the wishes of the victim. The victim may press for the maximum penalty, a lesser penalty, or no penalty at all. That is, the victim may choose to absorb the loss and forgive the offender. That’s his right.

Fourth, there is one crime for which no lesser penalty is allowed than the one which is assigned in the law. And that's the crime of murder. "Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death" (Ex. 21:12). How do we know that no lesser penalty may be substituted? Because God tells us so in Numbers 35:31.

You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.
A “ransom” or “redemption money” in this context is a lesser penalty, as we learn by way of analogy from Exodus 21:28-30.
“When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable” (v. 28)
The owner is not punished in this case because animals are by nature unpredictable. Even otherwise tractable animals can unexpectedly become violent.
But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death (v. 29)
If the owner knows the ox has a tendency to be violent, he has a responsibility to restrain it. If he does not, and the animal kills someone, he is guilty of criminal negligence, and is subject to the death penalty.

If a ransom is imposed on him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is imposed on him (v. 30)
Since it was a case of negligence and not of willful, premeditated murder, some discretion is allowed to the judges and to the victim’s family to substitute a lesser penalty, say a monetary payment to the victim’s family. Of course no amount of money can make up for the loss of a human life, but the payment is intended to compensate for the loss of income the family suffers as a result of the death.

So in this case, and presumably in the other case laws as well, a lesser penalty may be substituted for the one assigned in the law.

But not in the case of murder.

Again, God says, “You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death” (Num. 35:31). God says, “No ransom allowed. You must put the murderer to death.” In fact, he goes on to say that the shedding of innocent blood pollutes the land, and that no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it (Num. 35:33-34).

Not only so, but he tells us that even if a murderer should seek to find refuge in the house of God, he should still be put to death. "If a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die" (Ex. 21:14). It was a custom among pagan nations in the ancient world for people to seek shelter, to seek immunity from punishment, by going to live in a temple. But the Lord says, "If a murderer seeks to do this in my temple, if he seeks to escape justice, take him even from my altar and put him to death."

But it’s not just in the case laws that we find death penalty required for murder. Immediately after the flood, God told Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). The flood was sent because “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:9). God’s remedy for this after the flood was the institution of civil government for the suppression of evil, including the execution of the murderer.

A person is sinning when he murders his neighbor, but the State sinning when it fails to execute the murderer.

But things change when we come to the New Testament, right? Not at all. Paul assumes the legitimacy of the death penalty when he says the civil magistrate does not bear the sword in vain (Rom. 13:4). The sword is a symbol of the magistrate's authority to inflict a capital sentence. In the same passage Paul calls the governing authorities who bear the sword, servants of God, avengers who carry out God's wrath on wrongdoers.

Let me summarize, the Bible clearly teaches that some crimes are deserving of the death penalty. In all but one, a lesser penalty may be substituted according to the victim’s wishes and the judges’ discretion. In the case of murder, however, nothing but execution is permitted.


Eric Bronson said…
Wow! This is the clearest and most concise statement of support that I've ever read concerning the death penalty. Thank you for so clearly proving its legitimacy.
Doug Enick said…
You're very welcome. Thank YOU for the encouragement.

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