Capital punishment is the execution of a civilian by the state for some crime that the civilian has committed. Normally capital punishment is the punishment given to someone who has broken the sixth commandment, as found in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17: “Thou shalt not kill.” The purpose of this commandment is “the preservation of the life and health of the body, and so of the safety both of ourselves and of others.”
Capital punishment is a very controversial subject in human society today. There are several reasons for this. First, society tends to establish its teaching on emotions and feelings rather than basing and grounding its beliefs firmly on the rock of truth. In addition, the world has a mistaken idea about justice. The very first definition of justice that the Encarta Dictionary: English (North America) has is this: “1. fairness; fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.” However, for reasons that will be explained in this paper, this is an erroneous definition. But the chief and main reason for this antagonistic feeling for capital punishment is because the world has forsaken God and his word; they are no longer considered guidelines for the making of laws.
Therefore Christians, in opposition to the world, must know whether or not capital punishment is something to be upheld by them. They must know what is their duty concerning justice and capital punishment! This is what will be looked at in this paper.
First, let us understand what is a proper definition of justice, because a proper understanding of justice will affect our ideas about capital punishment. Plato was very close when he stated in his Republic that justice was doing one’s duty. However, Charles Hodge’s definition hits closer to the mark: “The word justice or righteousness . . . means rightness, that which satisfies the demands of rectitude or law . . . .” Further, giving an example of how a judge should act, Hodge describes God as judge, “He is impartial and uniform in their execution [the execution of laws, SM]. As a judge he renders unto every man according to his works. He neither condemns the innocent nor clears the guilty, neither does he ever punish with undue severity.” Therefore, according to this author justice is that which fulfils the demands of the law. It is not being fair or reasonable. It is doing what the law requires of us and if it is not kept, it is the proper execution of punishment by the judge.
Since God himself is perfectly righteous, that means that whatever He orders is just. Obeying him means that we are acting according to justice. As will be shown in the next several paragraphs God orders us in his word to use and practice capital punishment. This means that when capital punishment is practiced properly, we act justly.
Let us now move onto a topic that deals more directly with capital punishment, that is, proving that capital punishment is a Biblical concept. The first promotion of capital punishment in the Bible is in Genesis 9:6: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” John Calvin expresses the idea of this verse in his commentary by stating, “. . . but since they bear the image of God engraven on them, he deems himself violated in their person.” Matthew Henry in his commentary further explains the idea: “When God requires the life of a man from him who took it away unjustly, the murderer cannot render that, and therefore must render his own in lieu of it.” The combined idea of these commentaries is that since man is created in the image of God, his life is a very precious thing. Thus if someone commits murder, the murderer cannot give that life back, so his life is required out of justice. This idea makes capital punishment just!
Another passage that promotes capital punishment is Romans 13:4, “For he [the magistrate, SM] is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” This verse clearly promotes capital punishment. The magistrate does not bear the sword in vain against those who do evil. He may and must use it to punish criminals. Notice also that the magistrate acts in the place of God to execute temporal judgement. That is why he is called the minister of God. Thus there are texts that actively promote and command the use of this punishment. The Christian who adheres to the concept of Sola Scriptura (using the Bible as the only rule of faith) must therefore promote this method of punishment.
Nevertheless, there are various objections to the concept of capital punishment. An objection that is often raised is along the idea of Romans 12:19, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” The reasoning behind this protestation is that since vengeance is of the Lord, capital punishment is not proper for the follower of Christ to practice. In answer to that, it must be shown what the position of the magistrate is. It has already been shown in Romans 13:4 that he is the minister of God. Being the minister of God, he acts in the place of God. God has placed him in this position by his providential hand. It is his duty to make sure that proper justice is done and meted out. It must also be noted here that this position differs radically from the locus of the individual. An individual may not avenge himself because he is not in an area of authority and has not been placed by God in authority. Since he is not in authority, God has not given him the right and responsibility to deliver justice to the wicked. That alone is the charge of the authorities. It is the duty of the individual to love his neighbor. Therefore the Biblical answer to this objection is that the magistrate acts on earth in the position of God. God delivers just punishment to evildoers, both in this life and eternally. Therefore the magistrate may deliver just punishment to evildoers.
Another objection that is on somewhat the same foundation as the last objection, is this: Christ has commanded us not to reward evil for evil, as Matthew 5:38– 39 states: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Our response to this is that this text speaks of the individual acting by himself, to punish whoever has done evil to him. The individual may not execute judgement. That is the responsibility of the courts and the magistrates. There are several reasons for saying this. First, Christ in a large portion of his sermon on the mount has been refuting erroneous misunderstandings of the law. Thus when Christ says things like, “ye have heard that it has been said of them of old time,” he is refuting the misconceptions of the law. Second, the Jews were misinterpreting texts such as Leviticus 24:17: “And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.” They thought this spoke of personal vengeance. Therefore, Christ is not destroying the just law of retribution. He is rebuking the Jews for their acts of private vengeance. Also it must be remembered that God is a just God; he would not destroy justice. If he did, then there would be no need for Christ to have made satisfaction for all the sins of the elect on the cross.
A common question that comes up when capital punishment is discussed in accordance with the Bible is why Cain was not killed for killing Abel. John Calvin probably has the best answer when he writes on Genesis 4:15: “. . . nothing was granted to Cain for the sake of favouring him; but for the sake of opposing, in future, cruelty and unjust violence. And therefore Moses now says that a mark was set upon Cain, which should strike terror into all; because they might see, as in a mirror, the tremendous judgement of God against bloody men.” And further, speaking concerning Genesis 4:24: “God had intended that Cain should be a horrible example to warn others against the commission of murder; and for this end had marked him a shameful stigma. Yet lest anyone should imitate his crime, he declared whosoever killed him should be punished with sevenfold severity.” Thus, capital punishment was not used on Cain, but a mark was given him. This mark was an example to man of the horrible punishment that would await him who followed Cain’s example.
Yet another objection to this principle is that the possibility of error is very large when capital punishment is used and there is no way to correct the mistake after the person has been killed. To answer that, God still demands that capital punishment be used. Let us turn to a pre-meditated miscarriage of capital punishment found in the Bible. In 1 Kings 21 there is the story of how Ahab desired the vineyard of Naboth. Jezebel ordered Naboth to be tried according to the testimony of false witnesses who said he blasphemed God and the king. For this blasphemy Naboth was put to death and Ahab gained possession of the vineyard. The point behind this passage is that although there are still blunders (and sometimes even deliberate blunders), God still commands the use of this just punishment. This still makes it a terrible thing when the wrong person is killed, but that should not persuade us from using what God has commanded us to use! Reverend Herman Hoeksema puts it this way: “And no sentimental reasons, or false humanitarian motives, can ever excuse for disobeying the command of God.”
It still is a horrible thing when the wrong person is killed. That is why the magistrate must always be certain when condemning someone to capital punishment. It is his calling to make sure the sentence is just. God severely punished Jezebel and Ahab for their unjust act. Ahab himself was killed in battle by the Syrians (that itself was a punishment from God), but 2 Kings 9:24–26 tells us how Jehu killed Jehoram, Ahab’s son: “And Jehu drew a bow with his full strength, and smote Jehoram between his arms, and the arrow went out at his heart, and he sunk down in his chariot. Then said Jehu to Bidkar his captain, Take up, and cast him in the portion of the field of Naboth the Jezreelite: for remember how that, when I and thou rode together after Ahab his father, the LORD laid this burden upon him; Surely I have seen yesterday the blood of Naboth, and the blood of his sons, saith the LORD; and I will requite thee in this plat, saith the LORD. Now therefore take and cast him into the plat of ground, according to the word of the LORD.” Later, Jezebel was thrown from her palace window and devoured by dogs. This clearly shows that God does not allow unjust actions to go unpunished.
It must also be stated that the executioner is not responsible when the wrong person is put to death. The responsibility ultimately lies with the magistrate who ordered his death. “Nor is the hangman, who executes the deed, responsible to God for it. Even when he personally should judge that in a certain case justice miscarried, and that the person whom he is called to deprive of his life was not guilty of murder, not he, but the judge, the magistrate, is responsible before God for the execution of capital punishment.”
One last objection to the concept of capital punishment is that the murderer is deprived of his most basic human right, that is, the right to life. This objection, however, does not stand logically, for it is a non sequitur. If the murderer is so concerned about his own life and the preservation of it, he should have thought twice about killing a fellow human being, who has just as much right to life as the murderer.
In closing, capital punishment is a Biblical and just concept. Christians must promote it if they have any desire of following the Bible. Humanitarian and supposed Biblical objections do not stand with the whole teaching of Scripture. Murderers must be punished justly!
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2008)
- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume I Genesis, (Baker Books, 2003)
- Herman Hoeksema, Love Thy Neighbour For God’s Sake: An Exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism (B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955)
- Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1852)
- King James Version Bible
- Plato, Republic (http://www.wisdomhomeschooling.com/online/Politics/Republic4.htm)
- Matthew Henry, Commentary on Genesis http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc1.Gen.x.html) accessed May 28, 2012
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Baker Book House Company, 1988)
Quoted from Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1852), 583
Plato, Republic Book IV (http://www.wisdomhomeschooling.com/online/Politics/Republic4.htm)
Quoted from Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, (Baker Book House Company, 1988), 153
Quoted from John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume I Genesis, (Baker Books, 2003), 295
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume I Genesis, (Baker Books 2003), 214
Quoted from Herman Hoeksema, Love Thy Neighbour For God’s Sake (B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), 52