Dan Popp
Jesus and the death penalty: "Let God be God"
By Dan Popp
June 10, 2013

Because the 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. – Solomon (Ecclesiastes 8:11, NKJV)

If there is any indicator of the moral disease of our society, it's that we kill the innocent and allow heinous criminals to live. And if one is wrong, the other is, too.

I wish I could be on the other side of this issue – I really do. It would comfort me tremendously to believe that Jesus forbade all killing, and that we could leave all justice to God in the future, where no mistakes will be made and where, frankly, I'm relieved of responsibility. But none of these is true. Jesus didn't forbid all killing; God's perfect justice in the future doesn't excuse me from doing justice here and now; and even in the Kingdom of God, believers will be responsible for understanding and administering justice. Do you not know that we will judge angels? (1 Corinthians 6:3a)

Starting at the beginning

In thinking about capital punishment, some want to start with Jesus' words, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." (Matthew 5:38,39) But Jesus didn't speak those words in Eden – to a human race with no history and virtually no divine revelation. If we're going to tackle this question honestly and thoroughly, we need to find the proper beginning-point. In Genesis 4 Cain kills Abel, and this is God's dialog with the first murderer:
    He said, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to Me from the ground. Now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth."

    Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me." So the LORD said to him, "Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold." And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him.
    (Genesis 4:10-15, NAS95)
Don't miss the voice of your brother's blood. Whatever this blood anthropomorphically cried to God, it must have been something like "Murder!" "Justice!" "Vengeance!" (Compare this to Hebrews 12:22-24) So we learn that justice is something that puts a demand on God. The death of the innocent pleads loudly that God do something. Also note that Cain understood that his life was forfeit; the righteous punishment for his crime was his own death. Commentators seem to agree that God's mercy here was not for Cain's direct benefit, but for the preservation of the tiny human race.

The death penalty comes up again in Genesis, in what I think is a universal application. God promised Noah and his family, just off the ark:
    "Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed, For in the image of God He made man." (Genesis 9:5,6)
A few quick comments: This law is so universal it applies even to the beasts. An animal that kills a human is not "executed" for violating the moral code; it is killed as a message to people about the sanctity of human life. This should instruct is that justice is for the benefit of society, not the benefit of the criminal. From every man's brother reminds us of Cain's killing of Abel; now God says there will be no more free passes for murder. No statement could appeal more strongly to our sense of justice than the rule, Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed. It isn't just, it isn't right, it isn't congruent with the laws of the universe that the intentional killer should continue to enjoy God's gift of Life after he has taken that gift from someone else. From this statement we learn that reciprocity is one aspect of justice. And God gives the reason for this rule: For in the image of God He made man. As long as humans are made in the image of God, the cause for this law persists, and we have a right to the protection of this law. Yes, preserving innocent life is the purpose of the death penalty. Noah's family had just seen the entire human race wiped out; this was part of God's promise of their safety. Don't tell me you're "pro life" because you're against the death penalty. God's ultimate pro-life statement is the death penalty.

Let God be God

In my view the weakest objection to capital punishment is the assertion that human beings "should not play God;" that He alone has the authority to end anyone's earthly life. This is refuted everywhere in the Bible. To Noah and his descendants God says, Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed. In the Mosaic Law the death penalty was demanded for several crimes. In the histories God commanded Israel to wipe out certain very depraved and unrepentant populations. I'm not even going to go into the violence in the Psalms. In the gospels, the redistributionist on the cross to Jesus' right confesses that he's being executed justly. In the epistles, both Paul and Peter teach that government is instituted to exact God's vengeance on the wicked, including taking their lives. "Letting God be God" means nothing if it doesn't mean doing what He says. Surely "playing God" is overriding His express will with our own. So we're back to the only relevant question: What did God tell us to do?

Numbers 35 is a fascinating chapter about the Cities of Refuge that God commanded the Israelites to set aside. It gives us a picture of the fundamental elements of justice in cases of one person killing another. Please read the entire chapter when you get a chance.
    Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall select for yourselves cities to be your cities of refuge, that the manslayer who has killed any person unintentionally may flee there. The cities shall be to you as a refuge from the avenger, so that the manslayer will not die until he stands before the congregation for trial." (vv.9-12)
We Christians love to hear about the "kinsman redeemer," the close relative who buys us back from slavery. But the word avenger, above, is the same word: gaal. The kinsman redeemer is also the kinsman avenger. There's something awry in our conception of mercy if it precludes justice.

This brings us back to Christ, the fulfillment of this type of the Kinsman Redeemer/Avenger. Some may object that I've been dwelling on the Old Testament, and ignoring Jesus' words. But never forget that the One who became flesh and dwelt among us is the same One who spoke Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed. It was the pagan Gnostics who taught that Christ came to demolish the worship of that old, inferior Hebrew deity. Their dead heresy lives on in the doctrine of too many Christians today, I fear.

I hope to tackle more objections to the death penalty in my next article.

© Dan Popp


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