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QUESTION: What does the Bible say about capital punishment?
ANSWER: Capital punishment is used in many countries around the world as a deterrent to crime. It has its origin in the Word of God as does every facet of American government. Capital punishment is a divine institution. That is, God ordained government to maintain law and order and designated certain crimes as capital crimes (deserving of death) in order to protect society.
The initial instructions are found 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.” That this law was given to governments and not individuals to indiscriminately apply is seen in examples of its application. There are several crimes that God says are deserving of death. They include: premeditated murder (Exodus 21:14); kidnapping and slavery (Exodus 21:16); praying or sacrificing to images of anyone or anything instead of the One True God (Exodus 22:20 and Deuteronomy 13:6-10); breaking the Sabbath day of rest (Exodus 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36); false prophets were to be stoned (Deuteronomy 13:1-10); and, after being given a chance to grow up and given every opportunity to change their ways, juvenile delinquents were to be killed as well (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). We may not agree but that doesn’t matter, God is a Holy God.
A punishment is levied as a deterrent to crime. The Bible says in Ecclesiastes. 8:11, “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.” This is the origin of our laws that require a speedy trial.
It is interesting that in the government God gave to Israel as a nation He never once mentioned a prison or jail sentence. A Capital sentence of death was executed immediately. Non-capital crimes required the guilty party to pay back the loss with reparation, whether they stole a sheep or caused someone to lose an eye. They would keep their jobs and “work it off.”
According to the Bible, it is not murder to kill a thief breaking into your house (Exodus 22:2). All court decisions resulting in a guilty verdict required at least two witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6). In a case of accidental death, the guilty individual would flee to one of six cities of refuge and remain there until the death of the High Priest. They would need to continue working in order to pay the loss owed to the family, but their life would be spared.
Did Jesus change or take away the authority of governments to carry out capital punishment when He was on the earth? The Bible says in Matthew 5:17, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” Jesus did not come to destroy the righteous law. (He certainly destroyed the hypocritical application of the law that the Jews legalistically required – but that’s another subject.)
Jesus did not question Rome’s authority to execute capital punishment. In fact He simply reminded Pilate that the authority he possessed came from God: John 19:10-11, “Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” We also know that Ananias and Sapphira received the death penalty in Acts 5.
How can God allow man to kill? God never commands man to lie or cheat or to sin in any respect. In fact, it would be sin for God to command man to sin. However God most certainly has the power to take life. And because God can take life He can authorize His agent (government) to do the same. “For this cause pay ye tribute [taxes] also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing” (Romans 13:6).
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