There have been a number of opinion pieces in recent months urging the repeal of the death penalty, many by religious leaders. The implication in their columns is that the Bible supports their view. It is OK to show mercy and to not want to execute murderers, but it is not OK to misrepresent Scripture, which is God’s word. The Bible has much to say concerning the death penalty, and in the space allotted I shall present some of its principles.
First, God established the death penalty. After the flood, God said to Noah, “...Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed....” (Genesis 9:5-6). Concerning the law, given through Moses, three times in the Old Testament (in the context of governmental judgment) it is taught “...life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth...” (Deuteronomy 19:21), see also: Leviticus 24:17-20; Exodus 21:23-25.
In the New Testament, men used “eye for eye...” in personal relationships, which was wrong, which Jesus corrected (Matthew 5:38-39).
The New Testament also teaches that governments, which are ordained of God, have the authority to execute the death penalty: “...For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil... 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....” (Romans 13:1-6).
Second, capital punishment is a deterrent to related crime. “And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you” (Deuteronomy 19:20), see also Deuteronomy 17:13.
The Bible also tells us when and why the death penalty is not a deterrent: Withholding punishment encourages punishable actions to continue “...shall suffer punishment: for it thou deliver him, yet thou must do it again” (Proverbs 19:19).
Long delays in executing punishment remove the fear of judgment and strengthen one’s resolve to do wickedness: “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
In my opinion, appeals regarding court proceedings should be limited to three years. Appeals based on actual evidence should not be hindered.
Third, the Bible regarded the death penalty with gravity. No one was put to death when there was only one witness. “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death” (Deuteronomy 17:6).
The witnesses could not contradict each other; they had to agree (Mark 14:56-59). If a witness were a false witness, he would be considered worthy of the same punishment “as he had thought to have done unto his brother” (Deuteronomy 19:18-19). Nothing was taken lightly. There were also instances in the Bible where other evidences, besides word of mouth, were used. I certainly consider carefully guarded scientific evidence (i.e. DNA) credible witness.
Forth, the death penalty is justly pronounced, by God, upon all. “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12).
But God is merciful to us in that Jesus, God’s eternal Son, took the penalty for us, if we trust Him for forgiveness, on that basis. “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Edward Duncan of Exeter is a former Baptist pastor.