That God is slow to wrath, is a hallmark of our religion. He is a God who wipes away your sins, and remember them no more. This is, perhaps, the attribute of the Christian God that most distinguishes Him from the impostors. God grants us His divine forbearance and prefers mercy over retribution! After all, “Love is patient, love is kind…”We are given to believe that God is the type of person who forgives, and he expects us to be the forgiving type. Shall I who owe so much to God, fail to forgive one who has trespassed against me in such a petty way? Banish the thought. If I am to be like God, I should forgive like God. How then can I simultaneously claim the legitimacy of the death penalty? Please read on!
I think every christian will have to wrestle with certain moral questions. The legitimacy of the death penalty, for me, is not one of them.
1. Sin equals death: In the beginning when Humankind was young, there was but one way to exercise evil. God had left all things good, save one small exception. God forbade the man to use his will in a way that contravenes His own. The biblical details are somewhat irrelevant, what’s important, for our purposes, is to keep in mind that Death came as a result of Humankind using its freewill to reject God. This from God’s own mouth, “In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” In other words, “My ways are the ways of life; walk in them and continue in My blessing. Deviate from them, and there are naturally occurring consequences, built in to the very nature of reality.” In natural terms, you cannot jump of a bridge without suffering the consequence of plummeting to your hurt or demise. Likewise, you cannot step out of God’s will without experiencing the Death which accompanies that act of will.
Can you imagine the utterly debased state of a human soul, were it not afforded the release of death? Why, we would have unlimited time to grow wickeder and more perverted. That death is the true penalty of sin is a grace to us. It can be no other.
In short, sin equals death. First spiritual death, then emotional/psychological, and eventually biological. It is His grace to us. This is God’s idea, not mine.
2. God has commanded that some specific sins be met with death: Some Christians will argue, shrewdly, that only God has the authority to take life. They will say, it is not for man to mete out death, because “all life is sacred”. This has the ring of truth, and it certainly deliberately appropriates our christian framework to makes its point. Why then does God command certain deaths, at the hands of his servants, like when Moses lead through the Sinai? “Oh, that,” they invariably respond, “Well, in that case we have God actually handing down the sentence personally.” Ahh, well, that is rather unique then isn’t it? Not so fast.
What if we actually believed that all the scriptures are God’s breathed word? What if we, for a moment, took seriously the idea that God codified his judgments (read: God actually handing down the sentence personally) within the civil and penal portions of the Torah? I actually take that view. God wrote us a lengthy letter, underscoring his personal opinions about the death penalty, and when to use it. Let me be as explicit as possible. I do believe that God commands Christians to execute some criminals. It is a command, not an option.
A cursory reading of the scripture reveals that there are a hierarchy of sins. On the earth, God has determined that some sins are deserving of more severe penalties than others. If you bear false witness, we may charge you a fine. If you injure a person’s body, we may beat you. If you maim another permanently, we can maim you in kind. If you kill, we are commanded by God to end your life. There are ascending penalties, each assigned to the act and each required by God. Remember these are not suggestions. God does not say, “Use your best discretion, these are just helpful hints. I trust your moral judgment.”
In God’s opinion, though not always within the scope of our limited moral understanding, some crimes merit death. It is God’s purview to take and give life. Sometimes he uses human agents. The Law is a set of scales, and the penalty must “balance out” the crime. This may be why we depict Justice as a blindfolded maiden holding a set of scales. God’s justice is not our justice, but “His ways are above our ways”.
We are not let of the hook, simply because we are born Gentiles. No one gets an easy pass from any part of scripture. The OT moral ordinances stand. They are not repealed. Paul says that the Law is perfect. Christians, specifically Jewish believers in Jesus, have not been formally released from implications of the Law. Even though they are expected to live by grace. In many places the New testament clearly refers the reader back to the Law. Jesus, certainly makes it plain when He says in Matthew 5:17, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Yes, Heaven and earth will pass away, but not one jot or tittle of the law shall pass away. (NASB) Whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of Heaven.” And again, in the below bulleted points Paul says the law is perfect and holy
• Rom. 7:12 Wherefore the law [Torah] is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
• Rom. 7:14 For we know that the law [Torah] is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.
• Rom. 7:22 For I delight in the law [Torah] of Elohim after the inward man…
• Rom. 6:1-2 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin [i.e., violation of the laws/Torah of YHWH, see 1 Jn. 3:4], that grace may abound? Elohim forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?
• Rom. 3:31 Do we then make void the law through faith? Elohim forbid: yea, we establishthe law. (Romans was written in about A.D. 56)
• 1 Tim. 1:8 But we know that the law [Torah] is good, if a man use it lawfully…
3.God commands the Israelites to commit, what some have labeled, genocide: Pacifist Christians are those who say there is no such things a just war. This is just a backwards way of saying, “War (or taking life in any way) is the worst sin.” Therefore, no Christian should take up arms for any cause, defend himself, join the army or police department. Now, is taking a single life really the worst sin? I say that it is not. Thankfully, a great portion of the Bible agrees with me. That there are greater evils than the taking of a single life, should be clear both from reason and scripture. Simply put, if the taking of a single life was the worst evil, than God would be in no position to demand His human agents do it. We have shown, in point 2, that God does indeed demand it from his human agents. From this we can conclude that, in many cases, not handing down a death penalty (when it is clearly due, and within the guidelines God gave us) is a worse evil.
This brings me to some points I think we can all think on. At least, they will help us clarify our own positions, if not change our minds.
Some additional points to ponder.
5. God gave us tools to work with, the scriptures, tradition, our reason, and emotion. These help us navigate the murky moral morasses we find ourselves in. So, what do the church fathers and ancient rabbi’s say?
6. The Death Penalty is most certainly not forbidden. You will not read that anywhere in scripture, not even by implication.
7. There will never be a time when bloodshed concludes, so long as Humankind rules. We must have a last, best defense against human depravity, and that is the penalty of Death. It is a tool for us, to control wickedness and propound self governance. It is a grace.
8. The example of Jesus should be followed as a model of mercy towards individuals, but the Law is the perfect legislative code to govern groups/nations. If a man takes the life of your child, you forgive Him because the Word of God commands it. But, the state ought to execute him, because the Word of God commands it.
9. People of good faith and honest conscience can disagree on this issue. But, it is nobodies right to assume the posture of “final authority” on matters of doctrine. If you disagree with your pastor(or me) on minor points of debate, don’t turn your back on him. He has the sames right to be wrong (sometimes) as you do!