A Case for the Death Penalty

Michael Medved, in an article in Townhall.com, makes a case for the death penalty by saying that those who use the Bible to oppose the death penalty ignore the teachings of the Bible on this issue.

The following is an excerpt of his article:

This point came home to me with unusual force during synagogue services this last Saturday. The weekly portion of the Bible which was read out loud this week by all Jews, everywhere, included verses (Deuteronomy 19: 11-13) that leave little doubt as to the Old Testament’s insistence on the death penalty. Scripture declares that “if there be a man who hates his fellow, and ambushes him mortally, and he dies” then the killer cannot escape to one of the established “Cities of Refuge” intended for perpetrators of accidental death. With a pre-mediated murder, the Bible says: “Your eye shall not pity him; you shall remove the innocent blood from Israel; and it shall be good for you.”

Concerning this passage, the authoritative Twelfth Century sage, Maimonides, offers an explanation with haunting contemporary resonance: “The verse concludes that by executing the murderer, the nation will insure that it shall be good for you, because compassion for a murderer breeds further bloodshed, since it frees him from death and sets an example for others, who may be tempted to follow his example.”

In other words, misplaced compassion for a pre-meditated murderer brings cruel consequences for future innocent victims – as recent academic studies of the death penalty and its powerful deterrent impact very clearly indicate.

In response to the Old Testament’s direct (and frequently repeated) authorization of capital punishment, Christian opponents of the death penalty claim that Jesus replaced the harsh Mosaic law of justice with a new Gospel of forgiveness and mercy. They cite the famous Gospel injunction to “turn the other cheek” or the suggestion that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone,” without acknowledging that these exhortations apply to individual conduct and not to governmental authorities. In the New Testament, in fact, Paul makes clear in Romans 13:4 that believers should not expect society to abolish capital punishment: “But if you do evil, be afraid; for (the governing authority) does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister; an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”

Moreover, the same section of Matthew’s Gospel that includes the celebrated exhortations to “love thine enemy” and “turn the other cheek” begins with Christ’s unequivocal declaration (Matthew 5: 17-18) that he has no intention of abrogating properly interpreted Old Testament law: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”

In this context, the early Church unhesitatingly endorsed the death penalty. Clement of Alexandria, the great scholar and teacher of the Second Century, declared that “if someone falls into incurable evil – when taken possession of by wrong or covetousness – it will be for his good if he is put to death.” In the Fourth Century, St. Jerome (venerated by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Lutherans alike) wrote that execution of “murderers, blasphemers and poisoners” is not “shedding of blood, but administration of laws.” Aquinas also strongly reasoned for the death penalty, and as recently as the Catechism of Trent (1566), the Catholic Church unequivocally affirmed that “lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent.”

Read Michael Medved’s article by visiting Townhall.com.

As a Christian, I have my own views about the death penalty. Christians are divided on this issue and they cannot agree whether the state has the right to impose the death penalty upon those who take a life.

The fact is, that notwithstanding the different ways Christians interpret the Bible’s teaching on the death penalty, the state has the right to enact laws imposing the death penalty upon those who commit murder. Medved makes a strong argument for this view and I tend to agree with him.

As a Christian I may oppose the death penalty because I believe that the power of God in Christ can transform any person, including hardened criminals. But I also believe that the state has the right and the authority to demand justice on behalf of victims by requiring the death penalty for murderers.

Any discussion of the death penalty must begin with the most important biblical passage on this issue: “Murder is forbidden. Any person who murders must be put to death. You must execute anyone who murders another person, for to kill a person is to kill a living being made in God’s image” (Genesis 9:5-6).

Where do you stand on this issue?

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4 Responses to A Case for the Death Penalty

  1. Jim Getz says:

    >As a Christian, I don’t think we can make such decisions about the death penalty without first looking at how the Early Church interpreted it in light of Jesus. In particular, stories of Egyptian monks hiding convicts sentenced to death from the authorities (many of whom were also Christians) speaks volumes to me on how we should address the issue.Then again, I started out my career in patristics, so I may be a bit biased 😉


  2. >Jim,Thank you for your comment. I think you and I are on the same page on this issue. Christians don’t have to embrace the death penalty but the issue is whether the state has the right to enact laws upholding the death penalty. My view is that the state has that right.Claude Mariottini


  3. Peter Kirk says:

    >Here we are bypassing some very complex issues of hermeneutics, as to whether the Old Testament civil law still has authority today, and if so, over who. My own position would be that it does not have authority over modern secular states, and that the Christian Reconstructionist movement which seeks to impose it on the state is fundamentally misguided. On this basis I have to conclude that the Bible does not have any specific teaching about whether the state has the right to enact any particular laws, but only about how Christians should respond to the laws which are enacted. There is more to the matter than that, but more than is suitable for this comment.


  4. >Peter,Thank you for your comment. My statement refers to the fact that the state has the right to establish the death penalty for murder, notwithstanding what the Bible says.When the state enacts a death penalty law, the state is not depending on the Bible for instruction. A death penalty for various crimes existed in ancient societies even before there was a Bible. Thus, when the state enacts a death penalty law, the state is not using the Bible as the authority for that law.Claude Mariottini


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