I wrote a post the other day on two theologians’ perspectives on the death sentence. Al Mohler says that based on Genesis 9:6, we should support it. However, Roger Olson, a theologian, heartily disagrees, believing that the death sentence is something that is never a necessary measure.
What are we to think of these things? After having thought over this for quite a bit, I want to give my answer (this is a complicated issue, so this post is longer than usual).
First, I do find an ongoing principle of retribution in Genesis 9:6. However, I’m not sure I see a command of the death sentence. The verse does lay down a principle of blood for blood, much like eye for eye, tooth for tooth found in the Mosaic Law. At the very least, this passage is espousing civil law enforcement.
Nevertheless, the death penalty clearly is communicated and supported in the Mosaic Law. Exodus 21:22-25 advocates tooth for a tooth, eye for eye. So, under the circumstance that a person takes someone’s life, their life should be taken as a result (Exod 21:12). There are numerous other circumstances in which a person would be sentenced to death: for kidnapping (Exod 21:16), for blasphemy and idolatry (Exod 22:20, Lev 24:16), for rebellion against parents (Deut 21:20-21), rape and homosexuality (Deut 22:25, Lev 20:13), etc (for a whole list, follow this link).
More than this, within the Mosaic Law, God saw some sins as more meritorious of death over others. For sins which were unintentional, the people of Israel could give an offering to God for which their sins would be atoned (Lev 4). However, intentional, or high-handed sins deserved death (Num 15:29-30). The point here is that some sins were covered by an offering, while intentional or deliberate sins merited being “cut off from the people” (Num 15:30).
What we can gather generally from this is that the death sentence as a mode of operation is not sinful. In fact, it is just. If the Mosaic Law was a revelation of the holy character of God, than the death sentence can’t be wrong.
In fact, we learn that if God is to remain holy, he must punish and separate himself from sin (Is 59:2). And in the Old Testament, if Israel was to be a holy nation, they had to align themselves with God’s holy character as revealed in the Mosaic Law. And, if Israel should disobey, they would suffer the consequences — i.e. being cut off. This is why the idea behind the death sentence was to “purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 17:7); i.e., be holy by removing the evil person.
And we find that Israel did suffer the consequences for their sin. We learn from the prophets that most of Israel committed sin deserving of death (Jer 2-3). They practiced idolatry and immorality, even sacrificing their children to false gods. As a result, everyone was worthy of being sentenced to death. And for that, they were exiled and enslaved to pagan nations.
But what we must also consider is that the Mosaic law, and the exile of Israel, is not the end of the story. While Israel bound themselves to God by this covenant, God knew it was an inferior covenant, because the law only hindered their holiness. Paul tells us that the law was unable to free Israel from sin (Acts 13:39). Paul further clarifies that the covenant was inferior not because of the law itself, but because of the sinfulness of man (Rom 7).
For this reason, rather than destroying Israel (and all humanity for that matter), God chose a better new covenant (Jer 31, Ezek 36). He decided to make another covenant that would not only atone for the peoples’ sin permanently (Heb 10:1-14), but also enable them to be holy unto God (Jer 31:33). And, God did this by sentencing Jesus to death on our behalf. Jesus took the death sentence that all Israel, and indeed all humanity, deserved (Gal 3:13).
Here’s where my opinion on the death sentence comes in: by sentencing Jesus to death, considering him accursed, God dealt with the need for the death sentence found in the Mosaic Law.
Practically, this means two things. First, this means that the kingdom of God’s beloved Son is a totally different realm wherein lies the forgiveness of criminals and murderers deserving of wrath, because Jesus absorbed God’s wrath in himself. For this reason, Christians should live out the economy of Christ, and give grace where wrath and justice would otherwise be deserved. Jesus says this himself:
“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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you“
Christians should live differently. Rather than distributing justice or vengeance, we should give grace. Why? Because we are forgiven of our own travesties against God. And, if we were to be dealt justice, we would also deserve death! So, Christians should be for the forgiveness and repentance of criminals through Christ.
However, and secondly, the government does not operate by these principles. The economy of the kingdom of Christ is a foreign thing for them. And, if it is just for God to sentence sinners to death, it’s not unjust for the government to sentence guilty murderers to death (I’m not considering whether any given justice system is fair or corrupt; I’m just considering whether the death sentence itself is valid).
What this means, to me at least, is that I can’t fault the government for working on principles of justice. Life for life is certainly a just thing. But, I also can’t gloat in the face of the death penalty. Rather than being glad that criminals are put to death, as a Christian, I mourn for them. And, rather than scorning their evil, I am reminded of my own evil.
This is obviously a hard issue. But, I guess my answer toward the death penalty would be this: While the death penalty is just, there is a new and better way found by faith in Christ. And I’d rather restrain and incarcerate a murderer for life than sentence him to death in the hopes that he would be redeemed by faith in Christ. As a result, I certainly don’t condemn the death penalty, because it’s simply operating on principles of justice and retribution; but neither do I delight in it. And I personally wouldn’t be able to execute anyone without violating my conscience. What I prefer is governmental restraint toward criminals (i.e. incarceration and rehabilitation), and deadly violence when needed.
I’ll end with a quote by Scot McKnight on this issue: “the system of grace taught by Jesus deconstructs the system of justice by taking it to an entirely new level. Not the level of offense and punishment, but the level of offense and punishment-with-redemption. Perhaps time and efforts on our part will lead [a convicted murderer] to the sort of honesty before God that discovers that God’s redemptive work can make murderers anew. The Apostle Paul is a good example” (link).
Indeed, Paul is one of the greatest examples of this!
**I wrote a follow-up to this post, and you can read that here