By Wayne S. Walker
On Monday, Jan. 17, 1977, at approximately 7:50 A.M. (C. S. T.), an official of the state of Utah announced, “Gary Mark Gilmore is dead.” Thus ended one of the strangest struggles in American history. It was strange because Gilmore, convicted of one murder and having confessed to another, was fighting for his right to be executed as a murderer. This fight was carried on against such “libertarian” organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union which continually sought stays of execution against Gilmore’s will. Since then, several other convicted murderers have been put to death in some states, while other states, like Illinois, have completely outlawed capital punishment.
The last previous execution in the United States had occurred in 1967, nearly ten years before, in Colorado. In 1965, the U. S. Supreme Court ordered a moratorium on further sentencing criminals to death, and in 1972 declared the death penalty as it then existed to be unconstitutional because, they said, it was being arbitrarily imposed and thus was considered cruel and unusual. In response, several states rewrote their statutes concerning the death penalty so that they were mandatory instead of arbitrary. However, early in 1977 the Court ruled the death penalty itself is constitutional but said mandatory death sentences were wrong and each case must be examined on its own merits within certain guidelines. [No one would ever be able to accuse our nation’s Supreme Court of being consistent!] Several states began rewriting their death penalty laws again.
The purpose of this article is not political or social. It is not the author’s intent to tell anyone what he or she must believe about capital punishment. Nor is it my aim to tell people how to vote should the question ever appear on the ballot (although I doubt that it probably ever will). My soul desire is simply to inform the reader of what the Bible, and thus what God, has to say about the putting to death of murderers by civil authorities. We shall examine the topic by noting objections that many have often raised against it.
I. “It is against the nature of God.” Then why did God Himself command it in Genesis 9:5-6? Notice the reason for it in this passage—man is in the image of God. If all men are still in the image of God, then it should still be right to put to death those who murder one made in God’s image. And in the New Testament, read Acts 25:11. The inspired apostle Paul recognized that there are some crimes which are worthy of death. So capital punishment is not necessarily against the nature of God.
II. “The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Exodus 20:11).” First of all, the Old Testament law, including the Ten Commandments, was done away and we are no longer under its precepts. But this principle is also found in the New Testament. However, when God said not to kill, what did He mean? Is it wrong to kill a dying horse or a beef cow? Is it sinful to be involved in a purely accidental killing? What about abortion—killing unborn babies? It is amazing that the majority of those opposed to capital punishment are also pro-abortion!
And are we to suppose that the command would apply only to the firing squad but not to the murderer? The Ten Commandments applied only to the individual and not the government. The same law which forbade killing by an individual also commanded the Jewish civil authorities to put to death those convicted of certain crimes (Exo. 21:12-14, Num. 35:30-34, Heb. 10:28). And, as we shall see, God still authorizes civil government to wield the sword. Furthermore, we have Jesus’s own interpretation of the command in Matthew 19:18: “Thou shalt do no murder.” It is a gross misapplication to apply Exodus 20:13 to capital punishment.
III. “Jesus did away with ‘an eye for an eye’ concept.” It is true that the Old Testament taught “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:23-24), and that Jesus abolished that principle so far as His disciples were concerned (Matthew 5:38-39). But again, we must understand that this idea did not refer just to retaliation by individuals but to judicial pronouncements. Jesus’ statements were to correct its misuse by individuals, and they inhere only to the individual and not to the government. What the teaching of Jesus actually forbids is personal revenge and not capital punishment. There are several other passages which teach against revenge (Matthew 7:12, Romans 12:17-21, 1 Peter 2:21-23), but none exclude punishment by the proper authority, including death for capital crimes.
IV. “The state has no right to take life.” Why says? Not the Bible! God says that the state has the right to punish evildoers, those who commit crimes. See Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 1:8-9, 1 Peter 2:13-17. And if someone has done something worthy of death, the civil government, as God’s minister of punishment, must mete out the just desserts. “…For he does not bear the sword in vain…” (Rom. 13:4). Remember that personal vengeance by the individual is wrong. The state is God’s appointed agent for this, and the wronged ones should seek justice through God’s authorized messenger. This may include capital punishment.
V. The foregoing ought to be enough to establish a Biblical basis for the scripturalness of capital punishment. But another objection is that it does not deter crime; therefore, it is useless and should be abolished. However, in Ecclesiastes 8:11, the inspired writer said that when punishment is not executed firmly and swiftly, men will be more inclined to do evil. Regardless of what some sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other bleeding-heart liberals may say, the Bible teaches that punishment deters crime! There are also statistical studies which back this up (e.g., Yunkers, Southern Illinois University, 1976), and the testimony of experts such as Robert L. Shevin, attorney-general of Florida, to corroborate it.
VI. There are many other arguments which people make against capital punishment. “Innocent people have been executed because of it.” Certainly there must be safeguards to avoid this, but the abuse of a practice does not necessitate its abolishment. “It is contrary to ‘love thy neighbor.’” Again, the very law which taught love to one’s neighbor (Lev. 19:18) also commanded capital punishment, so the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. “It takes away one’s sacred right to life.” This begs the question. According to God, those who have committed murder have forfeited their right to life by the nature of their crime. “It cheapens life.” No, what cheapens life is to let those who take it willfully get off free or with a light sentence.
“Life imprisonment is better.” Those who have been there say that this can be more cruel and inhumane than execution. Finally, “It is cruel, inhumane, and barbaric. Once extracted, it is beyond retraction.” But what about the murders committed? Were they not cruel, inhumane, and barbaric? And were they not beyond retraction? Actually, many end up feeling sorrier for the ones who are guilty of these heinous crimes than for the victims of their horrible crimes. No, two wrongs do not make a right. But this article has attempted to show that capital punishment is right, so those who disagree must now prove from the Scriptures that it is wrong.
The reader should be able to see why many are honestly and sincerely convinced of the scripturalness of capital punishment based on Biblical teaching. Again, no one is trying to force his opinion on anyone. The article is written only to present evidence from the Bible for capital punishment. Someone might ask, “Then what does the ‘Church of Christ’ believe about capital punishment?” If he means what does “our” creed book teach or what is the “official” position of our “governing leaders,” the reply is that there is no such thing. The Lord’s “church” is simply people. If he is referring to what the people believe, it does not really matter what their beliefs are. We should rather be concerned with what God’s word says. Each individual must study the issue and make up his own mind for himself. But this writer firmly believes that the facts, both scriptural and otherwise, indicate not only the validity but the need for capital punishment.
—taken from Torch; Jan., 1980; Vol. XV, No. 1; pp 10-13 (slightly revised and updated)