“We have been discussing capital punishment, and cannot agree. Some believe the Bible teaches it, others believe not. Would you please answer, with Scripture: Does God approve capital punishment today?”
Please note that Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
I have heard arguments on both sides of this issue, and I seriously doubt that I will settle the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But I will give the results of my own study on the subject.
First, God puts a high priority on human life. He said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…God created man in His own image” (Genesis 1:26, 27). Many argue that because of that, it is never up to man to take the life of another person. But this overlooks God’s own “commentary” on that: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). In other words, because of the sanctity of human life, the one who murders another human forfeits his own life. And note the phrase, “by man his blood shall be shed.” God uses man to punish man.
Throughout God’s dealing with Israel, He ordered capital punishment. God’s penalty for murder was execution, “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:12). But death was also the penalty God decreed for kidnapping (Exodus 22:20), homosexual relations (Leviticus 20:13), adultery (Deuteronomy 22:22) and for several other offenses. When Achan rebelled against God (and endangered all of Israel) God ordered that he be put to death (Joshua 7:1, 22 – 26). God made it clear that His decree to “put to death” certain kinds of evildoers was two-fold:
(1) It removed the offender from society so that he would not further influence those around him (Deuteronomy 19:13)
(2) It served as a deterrent to others (Genesis 9:6, Leviticus 24:16 – 23).
As some of you know, we do not live today under the laws of the Old Testament (Colossians 2:14; Romans 7:1 – 7; etc.). What about New Testament teaching on this subject? Jesus commanded, “…do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matthew 5:39). The same idea is found in the apostle Paul’s writing, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone…Never take your own revenge” (Romans 12:17 – 19). Does this mean that evildoers should not be punished in this life?
The apostle answers that in the next few verses: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God…For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil…if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:1 – 4).
The passage in Romans chapter 13 definitely shows that God has ordained that “the governing authorities” punish criminals. The “sword” certainly indicates capital punishment. And, rather than separating ourselves from government, Christians are expected to use it (that is, their citizen and political rights). The apostle Paul certainly did. On trial before Festus, Paul said, “If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die” (Acts 25:11). He recognized the “right” of the government to impose the death penalty! But he then added, “but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Being a Roman citizen, he had the right to so appeal, and he used it. He recognized the right of the government to execute a man and he also recognized his rights as a citizen.
Does God approve the death penalty today?
He surely did in the days of Noah and later. He did during the time of the Law of Moses. And He did during the days of the apostles. In every age, include this gospel age, God has approved the death penalty for evildoers.
Some claim that we may make mistakes, and therefore we should not execute those found guilty. Surely no one would contend that our government today is more corrupt or more prone to mistakes than was that of the Roman government with Nero as the ruler! But Nero was the ruler when Paul wrote, “those (authorities) which exist are established by God…(the authorities) do not bear the sword for nothing.” In ancient times jails and prisons were not an option, and today for many cases there may be better sentences than “death”. But, according to the Bible, there can be no doubt that God has always approved the death penalty for severe crimes.