There has been a lot of debate lately surrounding the death penalty, with Utah approving the use of execution by firing squad (in the event that lethal injection drugs are not available at the time of execution).
This leads to an important question: What does the Bible say about the death penalty? Everyone knows that one of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall not kill.” How, then, could Christians stand for something like the death penalty? As we will discuss, though, the Bible actually supports the death penalty, and so should Christians.
Death Penalty in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, God gave the Israelites the Law. The Mosaic Law was a guide for their lives, socially, religiously and economically. Within the Mosaic Law, there were offenses that were punishable by death and those that were punishable by a lesser punishment. Some of the offenses that were punishable by death included (but were not limited to): blatant rebellion against one’s parents (Ex. 21:15-17; Lev. 20:9), being a false prophet (Deut. 13:5, 18:20), worshipping false gods or blaspheming God (Lev. 24:14-16; Ex. 22:20), murder (Ex. 21:12-14,22-23; Lev. 24:17), rape (Deut. 22:25-27), adultery (Lev. 20:10-12; Deut. 22:22), and practicing homosexuality or bestiality (Lev. 18:22, 20:13). There were 16 different offenses in all that were punishable by death. Death as a punishment for certain sins was clearly an acceptable form of punishment according to the Law given to Moses by God. The death penalty, in fact, was established even before Abraham – in fact, during the time of Noah (Gen. 9). God told Noah, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. For God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). We also should note that, often, God showed mercy when an act called for the death penalty (2 Samuel 11 and 12). Additionally, every sin we commit deserves death – but God is merciful to all of us (Romans 6:23, Romans 5:8).
The Underlying Reason and the New Testament
The question remains: Why did God allow the death penalty if he told Israel, “You shall not kill”? First off, one must understand the meaning of the Hebrew word, rāṣaḥ, to be “murder,” not “kill.” If all forms of killing (war, capital punishment, self-defense, etc.) were prohibited, then there would be quite a few contradictions throughout the Bible. However, if the prohibition is against murder, then it is cohesive with the rest of the Mosaic Law and the council of Scripture.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul recognized the death penalty as permissible by God and as a function of government (Romans 13:1-7).
The reason why certain offenses were punishable by death is that they blatantly distorted the design of God and the glory of God. Murder is not simply the taking of a life; it is the purposeful, planned-out destruction of that which bears the image of God. When we see why God would take these offenses so seriously, we understand why someone in this context could not have committed these crimes and been allowed to continue to live.
Since we do not live in a nation that is submitted to the Mosaic Law, what is the relevance for today? Here’s why: Man is still made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). In 31 states, capital punishment is allowed for aggravated (or first-degree) murder. This means that those who plan out and execute a murder could be sentenced to death. When someone murders another person, they are destroying the image of God in that person as well. We should never rejoice when the death penalty is used. However, we should understand that the death penalty for such an offense is acceptable according to Scripture.
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