Love, but punish justly

Does capital punishment fit within a Christian moral ethic? Is death a penalty a Christ follower can sanction? Or, as someone once put it, would Jesus throw the switch?

Many Christians wrestle with this, and there seems to be biblical support for both yea and nay. Those who oppose capital punishment cite Jesus’ teachings on mercy and forgiveness, and His admonition to ‘let him who is without sin throw the first stone.’ They remind us that He calls us to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile and love our enemies.

But it seems to me that if we’re basing our judicial system on these texts, we should be letting the criminals go free, not simply choosing life in prison over the death penalty. Is that what Jesus would have us do?

I believe His focus with these teachings was on the attitude of our hearts and our propensity for calling others to account for their misdeeds and completely overlooking our own. He was zeroing in on our own guilt. His listeners, His disciples, the unaccused were actually the “convicted” ones.

But the Old Testament Law clearly decreed what we know as capital punishment today: “Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. “ Exodus 21:12  Even before the Law we see God telling Noah, “And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” Genesis 9:5-6  Did Jesus, God in the flesh, abolish the Law? He says in Matthew 5, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” And then He goes on to cite various OT commandments and regulations with, “You have heard that it was said…” followed by, “But I tell you…” And what He tells them does not nullify the command but rather strengthens it or increases its reach. Because not only does murdering your brother bring judgment but hating him as well.  Not only is sex with someone other than your spouse adultery, but also lusting after that person.  As always, Jesus goes to the heart because that is where our true self is.

If we think that Jesus’ reminder that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves effectively forbids us to put our fellow man to death for murder, we need to consider that this exhortation to love comes from Leviticus 19 and is followed in Leviticus 20 by multiple commands to execute the death penalty on our neighbors whom we are to love, even for offenses that are not criminal in our age, like cursing one’s parents.

When we look at God’s reasoning for the death penalty, I think we can see why it still applies as an appropriate punishment for murder. Though many argue that it is immoral because all men are created in the image of God, that is exactly the justification God Himself gave when He decreed it in Genesis 9. Because of the immense God-given value of every human life, murder must exact the ultimate price of its perpetrator. But more so, it is not only to protect God’s honor but also for OUR protection.  “You must purge the evil from among you. The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.”  Deuteronomy 19:19b-20.  If the death penalty was carried out swiftly, the number of innocent lives taken by murder would be greatly reduced.  This is a fact that always seems to be overlooked in discussions about capital punishment.  In our zeal to protect the lives of the guilty, we are assuring that many more innocent lives will be taken because the specter of life in prison is just not enough of a deterrent.  Nor is being on death row for 20 plus years.

I realize our system of justice is imperfect and changes need to be made to make it more equitable and effective. Nevertheless, I do believe the Scriptures confirm that the death penalty should remain a part of it.