Dan Popp
Jesus and the death penalty: "Turn the other cheek"
By Dan Popp
June 29, 2013

I conclude this series by dealing with the words of Jesus that are often brought up as an objection to the death penalty:
    "You have heard that it was said, 'AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also." (Matthew 5:38, 39, NAS95)
I think we have to make at least three mistakes in order to allow this into the conversation at all.

Mistake #1: Misapplication

A slap isn't a capital crime. In order to apply this to our question, we'd have to extrapolate from this one verse a kind of general, Gandhi-like doctrine of non-resistance, and then fill our entire worldview with it. This is the same kind of error made by those who insist that Jesus is a Communist because He cares about the poor.

Earlier in this same sermon, Jesus had warned against the false notion that He had come to erase what God had written in stone:
    "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17, 18)
Jesus didn't come to give us new laws. Six times in this sermon He repeats, "You have heard...but I say," and in all cases He applies the old, external law in a more personal and internal way. Scoffers and atheists read the Sermon on the Mount as a list of legal pronouncements; believers should know better.

Mistake #2: Mis-identifying the audience

Recently I heard a pastor on the radio say, "Whatever God said to one person, He said to everyone!" Reverend, with all due respect, that's crazy talk. We need to know whether Jesus was speaking to governments or to individuals when He said to "turn the other cheek." Government cannot "turn the other cheek" even metaphorically to absorb and tolerate injustice, because justice is its only legitimate purpose. Only I can sacrifice myself. The government cannot do it for me; it can only do it to me.

Mistake #3: Red-letter bias

I'm afraid that many of us hold a vague idea that Jesus' spoken words are "more inspired" than words penned by Moses or Paul. Now, in the red letters Christ said to the Apostles, "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come." (John 16:13) So the red letters confirm the black letters. The Spirit speaking through Jesus cannot contradict the Spirit speaking through the Apostles.

So what did the Spirit say through the Apostles on this subject?
    and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:32)
Note that everything above is in the present tense. They know – now. The ordinance of God – still in force in the New Testament era. Those who practice such things are – currently – worthy of death. Then there's the scripture I've quoted so often in recent days:
    [Governmental authority] is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. (Romans 13:4)
Those are also the words of Jesus because He is, as all Christians confess, "one substance with the Father" and the Spirit. And God in His Word never tells us about a human society so infused with gospel virtue that it has outgrown capital punishment.

To touch briefly on two incidents in which Jesus personally encountered the death penalty, and had the chance to nullify it: First, the case of the woman taken in adultery.
    The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more." (John 8:3-11)
This is a fascinating scene worthy of much study, but all we need to know for our present inquiry is this: Are we looking at a pardon, or a change in legislation? I think any person of good will and average intelligence would agree that this is a pardon. But a pardon, you see, presumes that the law remains in effect.

Second, and finally, the robber-turned-Christian gave this deathbed testimony on Calvary: "And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." (Luke 23:41) If Jesus passed up an opportunity to correct moral error and to forever set us straight about capital punishment, then He did something very wrong indeed. But the criminal, probably illiterate, having been a Christian for all of four seconds, had learned something very precious: that God's justice and His mercy are not mutually exclusive. He was receiving grace at that moment precisely because he was getting justice.

To recap:

In the opening article I argued that "Let God be God" must mean to obey Him, so the crucial question is, What has God said?; and that the death penalty was given by God to preserve innocent life – pro capital punishment is the "pro-life" position.

Next, I acknowledged the possibility of injustice because of "Flaws in the System." I showed that God is aware of the problems of human error, corruption and uncertainty, but has given this dangerous tool to us anyway, therefore He is not persuaded by this objection; and that a bad execution does not take away a government's authority to perform a righteous execution.

Then I took on the objection that if we let heinous criminals live, "They May Become Christians." I tried to show that the welfare of the evildoer is not a rational basis for this objection (it refutes itself); that the best we can do is to obey God by both preaching the gospel to the criminal and executing him; and I mused that the death penalty may advance the gospel in a society by giving people a much-needed graphic illustration of absolute morality.

In my final essay, above, I hope I've convinced some readers that the usual "red-letter objection" is misplaced and misused; and that there are plenty of black-letter reasons and red-letter reasons to continue to enforce a death penalty in civil law.

© Dan Popp


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