“[A governing official] does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath…”
Question: Do any New Testament personalities or books support execution?
Answer: Jesus, Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Hebrews, Revelation, and even an angel all support the death penalty.
Some Christians reject the death penalty for Scott Peterson on the grounds that:
- Jesus repealed eye-for-an-eye punishment
- Christians must forgive criminals criminals
- Christians should not judge not judge
- Christians should not repay evil for evil for evil
- Only those without sin can enforce execution execution
- God commanded, “Thou shall not kill” not kill”
Read the rarely-considered New Testament passages below, and then re-evaluate these arguments against execution.
The Death Penalty Debate
Scott Peterson murdered his wife Laci and their son Conner. If given life in prison, as punishment the government would feed, clothe, educate, medicate, entertain, and legally represent him for the rest of his life. Laci’s family would pay taxes in part, to keep Peterson comfortable, warm in winter and cool in summer. Will that type of punishment put fear into the hearts of other would-be murderers?
Some oppose the death penalty on practical grounds, arguing that it is not a deterrent. However, in the late sixties, when there were an average of 6,000 murders a year, the United States Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional in the way it was administered. Six years later, when it was reinstituted in the early seventies the number of average annual murders had jumped to nearly 16,000 victims per year.
In countries like Saudi Arabia, which enforce a swift and certain death penalty, violent crime is rare. Singapore and Los Angeles have equivalent populations, yet in one year Singapore had 58 murders (some followed by swift execution) while Los Angeles had 1,063. Criminal sub-cultures like the Mafia show that the death penalty deters even career criminals, since few will ever double-cross their superiors, fearing the repercussions.
Others oppose the death penalty on moral grounds. Some Christians base their arguments on statements made by Jesus Christ and therefore many listen attentively. These arguments often intimidate good people into shying away from execution. Many Christians claim society should forgive criminals and instruct them to “go and sin no more.” Ideas have consequences and the popularity of this idea parallels a huge sustained crime epidemic.
There is a right way to deter criminals and to end America’s crime epidemic. Consider:
The Apostle Paul did not object to execution. He knew and defended his rights as a Roman citizen. Yet while on trial, he volunteered an endorsement of capital punishment to the Governor in Caesarea:
“For if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying…”
God said, “Vengeance is Mine” showing that vengeance is inherently good. Individuals are not to avenge themselves, but must allow God to avenge in His way:
“Repay no one evil for evil. …do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord.”
Paul instructs us not to seek our own revenge, but to “give place to wrath.” Paul then explains that the proper channel for wrath is the “governing authorities.” The place for wrath is government:
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities... For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.”
Godly rulers are a terror to evildoers. God commands earthly governments to execute criminals with the sword:
“For [the governing authority] is God’s minister… But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
A sword beheads; it does not flog. Paul instructs believers to “not avenge” themselves, “but rather give place to wrath.” Governments are the place for wrath for they are “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath.” Individuals have one role, governments another.
The author of the book of Hebrews also supports the death penalty. The certainty of an earthly punishment under the Mosaic Law indicates the sureness of an eternal punishment for those who reject Jesus Christ:
“Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies [present tense] without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot...”
Execution teaches men of the certainty of God’s eternal punishment. When government neglects the death penalty, people scoff at the second death. The New Testament reinforces Old Testament support for the death penalty:
“Be afraid of the sword for yourselves; for wrath brings the punishment of the sword, that you may know there is a judgment.”
“The righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance… So that men will say, '... Surely He is God who judges in the earth.'”
“Will you profane Me [asks the Lord] killing people who should not die, and keeping people alive who should not live…?”
Jesus affirmed the Mosaic Law and He blasted the Pharisees for opposing God’s commands:
“Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? For God commanded, saying... `He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say...”
Jesus here did not shrink from even this harsh statute which His Father had given to Old Testament Israel to illustrate the eternal death deserved by those who cursed their heavenly Father. But while there has since been “a change of the law” (Heb. 7:12), quoting Jesus on this shows that He did not oppose the death penalty.
While Jesus was on the cross the Romans inflicted the death penalty on the two criminals (not from the Greek kleptes a thief, but lestes: a hardened criminal). Christ said nothing in their defense. One of those two mocked Christ. In response, the other criminal (whom Jesus would immediately declare righteous, Luke 23:43) said, “we indeed [are punished] justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds” (Luke 23:41).
Angels in heaven agree with just execution:
“And I heard the angel… saying: 'O Lord… You have judged these things. For they have shed the blood of saints... and You have given them blood to drink. For it is their just due.'”
God will equip the two witnesses in Revelation to execute those trying to harm them:
“And if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed…”
Revelation penman the Apostle John also taught that you reap what you sow:
“...he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.”
If Jesus supports the death penalty, why did He say “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first,” regarding the adulteress? She repented, and God can forgive criminals as He forgave David; yet in neither Testament did He thereby repeal the law. Further, the Pharisees here tried to trick Jesus (John 8:6) into a conflict with Pilate since the Romans had revoked the Jews’ authority to put a criminal to death (John 18:31). Did Jesus repeal the law in His sermon?
“You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you… whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
In the Sermon on the Mount Christ spoke of individual “heart” attitudes, not governmental criminal policy. Further, with the above construction, He did not outlaw punishment, just as He did not repeal prohibitions against murder or adultery when He said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder, and…’ `You shall not commit adultery...’ But I say to you…”
When Jesus said, “Judge not… [you] hypocrite” (Mat. 7:1, 5) He spoke to criminals. But to His followers He commanded “judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24) and complimented “You have rightly judged” (Luke 7:43). “He who is spiritual judges all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15) said Paul.
Jesus taught: “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). Jesus authorizes you to forgive those who “sin against you,” not those who murder your neighbor. Only God and the victim can forgive a murderer. And God will forgive him only “if he repents.”
The Ten Commandments do not forbid killing, but “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13; Mat. 19:18). God instructs men to punish murder (unlawful homicide) with execution (lawful killing Gen. 9:6; Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17). So God forbade murder and commanded the lawful execution of murderers.
“Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 24:17) “executed speedily,” added Solomon (Eccl. 8:11). “Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer… but he shall surely be put to death” (Num. 35:31). Only then “all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously” (Deuteronomy 17:13).
And since innocent life is precious, including the lives of Laci and Conner, Scott Peterson should be executed.
© 2004 Bob Enyart
Denver Bible Church
PO Box 583
Arvada CO 80001