Is the Bible for or against capital punishment?
Being one of the frequently asked questions on biblical ethics, I don’t want to respond with a mere yes or no. The topic is better understood when set within the framework of redemptive history.
In general, it is argued that the presence of sinful hearts made capital punishment necessary. The first instance of a law that has any semblance to the death penalty is found in Genesis 9:5-6.
Man changed—for the worse—when he disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit. Sin has been rampant ever since. From Genesis 4 onwards, our history has been characterised by murder. From Cain killing his brother, Abel, violence has filled the earth.
After He judged the world with the flood, God renewed the presence and flourishing of humankind in the world through Noah and his family. God did this even though He was fully aware of the evil intention of the heart of man right from his youth.
And so, God made it clear to man that murdering a fellow human being would be taken very seriously by Him. Why? Because, for Him, it is akin to an attempt to murder God Himself. God made us in His image and likeness—unlike and more valuable than any other creature. God conveyed how seriously He thought of the value of human life by sentencing a murderer to death. “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image”” (Genesis 9:5-6).
Sin is not a trivial matter; God made sure people knew that
When God initiated the covenant relationship with Israel, He set forth laws that revealed His righteous character. Every one of those laws has something to do with God’s essential nature, how He relates to man, and how He expects us to live.
Deliberate violation of these laws is an act of rebelling against God and His wisdom as revealed through His laws. And to those who deliberately rebel against God’s character, He brings judgment. God’s own people, the nation of Israel, are prime examples of whom He carried out capital punishment (Leviticus 20, 21:9; Deuteronomy 13, 17:1-13, 19:11-13). Sin is not a trivial matter; God made sure people knew that.
In short, God instituted capital punishment in the Old Testament for two purposes:
The Bible does not prescribe that nations must have the death penalty on the table today. However, a majority still have it in place to keep society in check. And God allows all nations to have room for capital punishment in their justice system as a means to control violent, sinful behaviour.
In conclusion, let us dwell on the fact that God worked through the most cruel form of capital punishment—the crucifixion invented by Phoenicians—to redeem humankind from destruction. With Jesus’ death on the cross, there is no need for a theocratic nation like Israel obligated to issue the death penalty for crimes against God. That is why no New Testament passage mandates capital punishment—at least not explicitly.
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