Much of the argument about capital punishment might never have come up if the King James translators had better translated Exodus 20:13. Where the KJV has, “Thou shalt not kill” the New King James more accurately reads, “You shall not murder.” Murder was forbidden, but not all killing is murder.
Our subject is quite controversial and is often looked upon as a strictly political issue. We do not deny that this issue has political implications but we strongly deny that it is only a political issue. It is a Bible issue, and it should be our desire to understand what the Bible says should be our attitude toward it.
<hr /><p> </p> <h3> In The Patriarchal Age </h3> <p>Before God gave the written law to Moses on tables of stone, He dealt with men through the patriarchs or fathers of families and revealed to them His will. Capital punishment was enjoined upon men in the first age of the earth and its basis is clearly stated in <a href="http://bible.logos.com/passage/nkjv/Gen.%209.6" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Gen. 9:6</a>, “For in the image of God He made man.” It is a serious thing to murder a person, because every human being is made in God’s image. In the patriarchal age, a person could forfeit his own right to live by not properly respecting the other fellow’s right to live.</p>
This principle was understood even before God specifically ordained capital punishment. It evidently would have been carried out on Cain, the first murderer if God had not taken precaution to prevent it. “‘Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground: I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the LORD set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him” (Genesis 4:14-15). Cain understood the principle of life for life - that by taking the life of his innocent brother, others would consider that he had forfeited his own right to live, but God made an exception and saw to it that Cain would not be executed. Had God not put that mark on Cain there seems to be no doubt the death penalty would have been carried out. We do not know why Cain was spared, but the principle of life for life was understood even by Cain himself.
Another principle involved in this matter comes up in verses 23-24. “Then Lameth said... I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’” Lamech recognized the principle that he who kills under provocation is not guilty of the same offense as a cold-blooded murderer. We are not suggesting that Lamech was in the right, but there was a difference between the murder of an innocent man and the killing of someone who had wounded the slayer. Later, in the Law of Moses, that distinction is underscored.
By Noah’s time, violence had become so prevalent that God Himself passed sentence and carried out the death penalty on the whole human race except for Noah and his family, Gen. 6:5-14. “And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them: and behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopherwood... ‘“ So God revealed a plan by which Noah and his family could be spared. The rest of mankind was destroyed.
After the flood, God explicitly commanded, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). God even designated who would be responsible for carrying out that penalty. “From the hand of every man’s brother I will require the life of man” (vs. 3). Scholars agree that this verse teaches that the near kinsman of the victim was held responsible to take vengeance on the murderer. The penalty was not optional. It was required.
<hr /><p> </p> <h3> In The Mosaic Age </h3> <p>God chose the Hebrew nation to be the people through whom Christ would come. He gave them ten commandments along with many other statutes, laws, etc. - “the Law of Moses.”</p>
Israel under that law was a Theocracy — a form of government in which all laws were from God. Some of those laws were moral in nature, some spiritual, some civil, but all were from God. That nation was ruled according to His specifications. During that age, many moral and spiritual sins became capital offenses because the civil government was also the spiritual rule and vice versa. Murder was retained as a capital crime and kidnapping was added, Exodus 21:16.
As we suggested, even under the patriarchal system, extenuating circumstances were sometimes recognized. Such was clearly so in the Law of Moses, Ex. 21:12-14, “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him with guile, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die.” When a man committed cold blooded murder, he was to be put to death. If in a moment of anger or carelessness someone killed another person, the fact that the killing was not premeditated was taken into consideration. There were six cities of refuge to which a person could flee if he had unintentionally killed someone. He would be brought out for trial. If he were found guilty of premeditated murder, he would be executed. If it were found that he did not intend to kill, he was permitted to remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest. When the priest died, the slayer was free to return home and the avenger of blood was not to touch him. If the slayer left his city of refuge before the death of the high priest, he would be executed. Thus mercy was shown the slayer who did not intend to kill. Mercy was not to be extended to the willful murderer.
Under the Law murder was a capital offense. So was kidnapping. A false witness was to be put to death if he tried to cause an innocent person to be executed, Deut. 19:18-19. Certain moral and spiritual sins also brought the death penalty, including sexual immorality, idolatry, blasphemy, sorcery, false prophecy, disrespect for parents, and desecrating the Sabbath, Ex. 21:15-17; 22:18-20; 35:2; Lev. 10:10-16; 24:16.
Scholars agree that under Moses the avenger of blood in murder cases continued to be the next of kin to the victim. In other capitol offenses the whole congregation participated, the witnesses beginning the process, Deut. 17:7.
This Mosaic Law applied only to the Hebrew nation. The Gentiles continued to be under the system given to the patriarchs, so that their murderers were also put to death, and they were responsible to God to carry out that penalty. Whole nations were held responsible for seeing that God’s will in this matter was properly discharged. To Israel, God said, “Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death... So you shall not pollute the land where you are: for blood defiles the land and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who shed it.” (Num. 35:31-33).
The same principle applied to other nations. “Egypt shall be a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, because... they have shed innocent blood in their land” (Joel. 3:19). See also Jer. 51:35-37. Egypt, Edom, and Babylon were to be judged because they allowed innocent blood to be shed in the land. How could they prevent it? Make the punishment severe enough to deter would-be murderers by executing known murderers.
<hr /><p> </p> <h3> In The Gospel Age </h3> <p>Now, let us look briefly at capital punishment in New Testament times. No nation today is governed as a Theocracy. Christ and His Father reign over the whole universe, but there is no special chosen nation as Israel once was. In fact in our age there is a distinction between things belonging to Caesar and things belonging to God, <a href="http://bible.logos.com/passage/nkjv/Matthew%2022.21" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Matthew 22:21</a>.</p>
Moral infractions, spiritual sins, etc., are not the concern of human governments except to the extent necessary to promote a peaceful and healthy society. But the crime of murder and things of that nature are not limited to the spiritual realm. Murder has always been a civil matter as well as a moral and spiritual matter, and it remains so.
Little is said in the New Testament about capital punishment but note that when the New Testament was written there had never been an age when capital punishment was not a requirement of God upon all societies, and not a country on earth where it was not practiced. It was universal. No one questioned it. Everyone took it for granted. Not only so, but what the New Testament does say lends weight to the argument that God intends murder to continue to be a capital offense.
When Jesus was arrested, Peter took a sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Matt. 26:52. “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’”
In Acts 25:11, Paul, having been arrested and brought before the court of Festus, said. “If I am an offender, or have committed anything worthy of death, I do not object to dying.” Some crimes are worthy of death.
In Rev. 13:10, John writes, “He who leads into captivity shall go into captivity; he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword.”
In Luke 23:40-41, even the penitent thief on the cross recognized the validity of the death penalty for crimes of which he himself was guilty.
From Genesis to Revelation, God’s overall intent and purpose in regard to this matter has not changed. Under the Theocracy, the nature of the government caused some moral and spiritual sins to be added to the list of crimes punishable by death, but with the end of the Old Testament age, such sins are no longer capital crimes, but cold blooded murder is still a capital offense and should be treated accordingly.
<hr /><p> </p> <h3> Who Is Responsible Today </h3> <p>Paul writes in <a href="http://bible.logos.com/passage/nkjv/Rom.%2013.1-4" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Rom. 13:1-4</a>, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who does evil.” Why does God allow human governments to exist? Because men need to be governed. And when a man will not respect the right of others to live, and takes the life of an innocent person, the government agent bears a “sword.” He bears that sword because he is God’s avenger to execute God’s wrath upon the evil doer. Rulers have a responsibility to protect those who live within the law and to punish those who beak the law. The “sword” of civil authority is not to be borne in vain, <a href="http://bible.logos.com/passage/nkjv/Rom.%2013.4" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Rom. 13:4</a>; <a href="http://bible.logos.com/passage/nkjv/Rev.%2013.10" target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Rev. 13:10</a>.</p>
Of course, some people could not conscientiously participate in applying capital punishment. Such individuals should refrain from being involved in the executive branch of government. They are not prepared to carry out the responsibility that may rightly belong to one in such a position.
<hr /><p> </p> <h3> Still Valid Today </h3> <p>Capital punishment is still a valid punishment for the crime of murder for two reasons.</p>
(1) The basis for it in the beginning is still valid: man is made in the image of God. Capitol punishment will be valid as long as man is in God’s image.
(2) Capital punishment was meant to serve two purposes that are as needed today as they ever were.  “So you shall put away the evil person from among you. And  those who remain shall hear and fear, and hereafter they shall not again commit such evil among you” (Deut. 19:19).
In Eccl. 8:11, Solomon wrote: “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” A look at any daily newspaper will show that he was right.
But some say, “Capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment.” We grant that it is far more unusual than it ought to be, but it is not cruel compared to what the guilty party did to deserve it. Capital punishment in our time has almost always been carried out in a manner in which the murderer is shown more pity and compassion than he did to the victim of his crime.
Registering the weapons of law-abiding citizens is of little, if any, help in deterring crime. If we would bring violent crime under control, we must learn to listen to God. When a person is found guilty of cold blooded murder, that person should be put to death. Period. Give him time to repent and get things in order, then execute him.
Sociologists, theologians, and politicians say the death penalty doesn’t deter criminals, that they do not fear it. If those in authority would do their best to see to it that every cold blooded murderer is executed, God says they will fear. Enforced without partiality, the death penalty would deter many from committing murder. It would certainly put an end to repeat offenders.
<hr /><p> </p> <h3> But What About Turning The Other Cheek? </h3> <p>In the sermon on the mount, Jesus was telling folk how to conduct their individual lives. Individually we have neither the duty nor the right to avenge ourselves. But civil rulers have a God-given responsibility to protect law abiding citizens and punish criminals. Rulers bear the sword, a symbol of death. And they must not bear it in vain. If those who are in authority are not willing to carry out God’s will in this matter, they should step down and make room for someone who is willing.</p>