Board index Capital Punishment

What does the Bible say about capital punishment?

Isn't God inconsistent, not following his own law?

Postby Olivia » Thu Nov 01, 2012 9:56 pm

Time and time again people bring up the issue of inconsistencies. For instants God made the law of capital punishment, my professor says God does not follow this law.

Re: Isn't God inconsistent, not following his own law?

Postby jimwalton » Wed May 01, 2013 11:30 am

God isn't guilty of any inconsistencies. It's only people who misunderstand who think there are such things. The example you gave is capital punishment. So let's look at that.

It first shows up in Gn. 9, after the flood. (By the way, Gn. 9 is like a renewal of Gn. 1. There are a world of similarities. God is consistent, and the way he started in Gn. 1 is the way he starts again in Gn. 9.) Gn. 9.1, you'll notice a blessing to be fruitful and multiply, just as in Gn. 1. Gn. 9.2-3, he gives them all things to eat—everything, except one thing, just like in Gn. 2. There it was the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; here it is meat with the blood still in it.
- meat was not a common dish on ancient dinner plates. Animals were kept for the milk, hair, and wool, not their meat. they only usually ate the meat when an animal died.
- blood was equated with life. The draining of the blood before eating the meat was a way of returning the life force of the animal to God who gave it its life to begin with. It recognizes that they have taken the life with permission and are participating in God's blessing as his guests. Their blood was, in that sense, sacred, meaning set apart.
- men weren't supposed to act like animals, who just tore away at a carcass. It's showed a kind of reverence for life. Animals were forbidden from just tearing into people (Gn. 9.5); so also people were to show respect for the life of the animals.

This law on blood is important. Mankind had rule over the creatures, but there was a limit to it, since the life of the animals was God's also. The Law of Moses reaffirmed this (Lev. 3.17; Duet. 12.15, 16). God is very consistent.

On to Gn. 9.5. There would be an accounting for every animal that killed a person, and for every person who killed a person. All life is God's, and human life supremely so.

Gn. 9.6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” Nowhere in the Bible is the requirement of the death penalty more forcefully stated. The reason? Man is in the image of God, and the life that he was given (Gn. 2.7) is identified with his blood (Lev. 17.14) To kill another human being is to to destroy one who is a a bearer of the divine image. So since life is identified as the gift of God, the taking of a man's life is considered not only an irreparable injustice against man, but also an outrage against God himself.

Notice what also is says: "By man shall his blood be shed. God is saying he won't avenge murder. Instead, he is giving humans judicial power to help control the rampage of sin, as God had just done by sending the flood (capital punishment). Revenge isn't being called for, but justice.

A society that outlaws the death penalty doesn't send a message of reverence for life, but one of moral confusion. If we outlaw the death penalty, we tell the murderer that, no matter what he may do to innocent people in our custody and care, women, children, old people, his most treasured possession—his life—is secure. We guarantee it in advance. Just as a nation that declares that nothing will make it go to war finds itself at the mercy of warlike regimes, so a society that will not put the worst of its criminals to death will find itself at the mercy of criminals who have no qualms about putting innocent people to death.

It is possible to be both pro-death penalty and pro-life (anti-abortion), because both are displaying judgment against the ultimate violation of the image of God—the unjust theft of human life. The Mosaic Law contains numerous death penalty provisions, to be executed by men after due process.

Did God ever execute capital punishment? Sure. (1) the flood (2) the conquering of the land of Canaan, (3) the man gathering wood on the Sabbath in Num. 15.32-36; (4) Korah in his rebellion against Moses in Num. 16, especially 31-35.

Where's the inconsistency?
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Re: Isn't God inconsistent, not following his own law?

Postby emily.summers » Mon Jun 10, 2013 3:44 am


At this point in my understanding, I do not believe in capital punishment. So here's why:

Pretty much everything you described in this post is Biblical and relevant, and presents no problem to me. I have absolutely no problem with God exercising the death penalty on humans; after all, He is the only one who intimately knows our hearts as they are and as they always will be, who can holistically see our place in His plan for the kingdom. I have no issues with this.

Where I run into a problem is when humans take on the role of the judge. We may look at a murderer and say that He deserves the death penalty. We may even be right. But when we give ourselves the power to actually make the judgement to end that person's life, I can't help but think we are overstepping our boundaries. Furthermore, I think a legal system that practices this regularly is bound to be wrong on many occasions. (And when that happens, doesn't that make the person responsible for their undeserved killing equally guilty of taking another man's life unfairly? What justice is there in that situation?) When WE decide to give someone the death penalty, that to me is almost like saying that the saving grace of Jesus doesn't apply to them. His blood pays for the sins that don't merit the death penalty, but murderers have to pay their own consequence.

I recently had the privilege of meeting a man named Patrick who lives as a missionary in the projects of Jackson, Mississippi. He is one of the kindest, gentlest, most loving, helpful, loyal, faithful and compassionate people I have ever spoken to. When he was 17 years old, he was arrested for and convicted of murder. He avoided the death penalty because of his age and smart lawyers. But had he committed the crime a couple years later, he could very well have received the death penalty, never been saved, and never been used to further the Kingdom like I KNOW God always knew He should and could be used.

While I agree with you that it certainly makes sense to practice capital punishment from a strictly judicial perspective in order to protect the lives of innocent people, I simply can't reconcile this with my faith. I have to believe that other people can be like Patrick, that even the serial killers are deserving of a second chance, and not beyond hope of being transformed and used by God. It angers and saddens me to think that we, flawed as we certainly are in our judgement, give ourselves the right to deprive ANYONE of that chance.

I find myself wondering if you know of any scripture that specifically condones capital punishment not just as a righteous act of God's holy judgement, but as a regularly practiced, human, governmental policy?

Re: Isn't God inconsistent, not following his own law?

Postby jimwalton » Tue Jun 11, 2013 11:40 pm

Great question. Thanks for asking it. I'll give you some specific Biblical examples. The first occurs in Gn. 9.6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” I'll draw your eye to the middle phrase: "by man shall his blood be shed." God will not avenge the murder—he gives to humankind judicial power to enact as his representatives on the planet. Humans are to work side by side with God to help control the rampage of sin, by establishing just and moral governments, judicial processes that are righteous, and a system of truthful witnesses ("Thou shalt not bear false witness"), which is the only way society can avoid anarchy. Now, you and I both know that ANY and EVERY system has its strengths and weaknesses. No matter what system you implement, it will have problems, because it involves humans with faulty leadership, humans with mixed motives, and humans with immoral hearts. Nevertheless, God has put it in our hands to execute justice in the land, never implying that this mechanism is foolproof. What God is doing is (1) taking justice and the vengeance/revenge motive out of the hands of angry individuals and putting it in the context of a controlled moral (supposedly) environment, and (2) to show the value and sacredness of life at the same time. This verse lays the foundation for the judicial rights of the divinely appointed powers of government.

For one more example I'll take you to Romans 13.1-7, especially verse 4. While all the powers belong ultimately to God, he distributes the exercise of power to human agents—kings, judges, priests, elders, etc.—for the purpose of maintaining the moral order. The way it's supposed to work (vv. 3-4), is that the government upholds the right and punishes the wrong. They were given that authority by God. Notice verse 4: "for he does not bear the sword for nothing." This refers to judicial and police function, but it also refers to the death penalty. God expects people, in righteous authority, to represent his righteousness on earth.

You can also look at 1 Pet. 2.13-14.

Now, I'm not a cold-hearted guy. It's tragic and terrible when mistakes are made—in both directions. Sometimes the guilty go free, and sometimes the innocent get executed. NO system would eliminate all injustices. God tells us how to do it: moral laws, righteous judges, honest witnesses. We are given the authority to take it from there and make the system work.

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Re: Isn't God inconsistent, not following his own law?

Postby emily.summers » Tue Jun 25, 2013 1:33 pm

Jim, I hear what you're saying. But I still feel uneasy about it. To me, those verses look more like they are talking in a general sense about respecting God-given authority and the pursuit of justice- not specifically talking about capital punishment. They're just too vague for me to change my mind. And trust me, the minute I find something in the Bible that's more direct, that I can't reasonably argue with a clear conscience, I will change my mind. My intention is not to thrust my own moral beliefs onto the scriptures and make them fit where they don't belong. But I have yet to come across scripture that can't easily be interpreted another way.

Re: Isn't God inconsistent, not following his own law?

Postby jimwalton » Sun Sep 29, 2013 6:49 pm

Just so you know, Emily, it's not my intention to change your mind. I'm just sharing what I know and trying to give an honest answer. The last two verses I gave you (Romans 13; 1 Pet. 2) are more about respecting God-given authority, though they do mention punishing wrong-doers. The most solid piece I gave you is Gn. 9.6, where it specifically says that humans are supposed to be the ones who do the evaluating in pursuit of justice, the judgment, and the execution. Other evidences would be the places in Leviticus and Deuteronomy where God tells the Israelites to execute offenders of certain crimes (Lev. 20 and Dt. 22 have examples). Maybe those are the "more direct" things that you're wondering if they exist.

The whole reason Israel, America, or ANY country has a judicial system is because God has entrusted us with maintaining a just society. And I know, from your letter, that you believe this; it's just that you're not sure the directive to execute belongs in that set. I understand.

Capital crimes were not indiscriminate in the Old Testament. There was a specific list of what qualified for execution, and safeguards were built in so the system had integrity: due process, multiple witnesses were required, certain situations were taken into consideration, there were allowances for certain immunities. It was believed that if Israel could not regulate its own community with justice it would fall into social chaos and disaster. The law was the contextualize expression of God's character, and it was integral to the life of Israel as a nation. Israel was supposed to rule, do business, judge, protect, and provide for her citizens, just as God would. So if it was a situation where the people thought, "Well, God would reward this," or "God would punish this," the people themselves were to effectuate that action. To do otherwise was to, in effect, reward evil and negate what is good and just (Rom. 13.1-7). Ecclesiastes 8:11 reminds us, "When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong."

Genesis 9.5-6 tells us that premeditated murder constitutes the initiation of life-depriving force against an innocent person, and is the ultimate expression of despising divine authority. When, in defense of an innocent victim and society, the civil authorities execute a murderer, no inalienable right is being violated. To abandon the criteria for justice—the punishment fits the crime—is to abandon all criteria for punishment. A society that acknowledges proportionality for crime is not barbaric and uncivilized. Rather, it recognizes the sacredness of life and the character of God as LIFE.

And I'm glad you feel uneasy about it. We always should. It's both a tremendous responsibility and a heavy burden, much like the decision about waging war. It should ALWAYS be uneasy or we aren't really human. There is no pleasure in clarifying this difficult issue, nor can we afford to ignore uncomfortable ethical imperatives.

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