The Bible and the Ballot Box 2
If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, we have to let our faith inform every aspect of our lives – not just what we do on Sunday. Nowhere is this more important than how we, as citizens of a republic, let our faith shape how we vote and otherwise influence our government.
Few political issues cause as heated arguments between Christians as capital punishment. Both sides argue from the Bible. Both sides approach the issue with a great deal of passion. I have no illusions about changing anyone’s position, but there is one side in this debate that commonly calls the other’s compassion and devotion to Christ into question. My goal is to convince that group – those opposed to the death penalty – that the other side is making a reasonable and biblically acceptable stand.
The Mosaic Mandate
We should start this discussion by addressing the elephant in the corner:
“If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death” (Lev 24:17).
The Mosaic Covenant required the death penalty for quite a few offenses. Yet none of us really wants to start imposing capital punishment on rebellious children – well, occasionally, but I get over it quickly. How can we use the Law to impose the death penalty for murder but not cursing your parents, adultery, or Sabbath breaking? We can’t. That’s ok, because we are not part of that covenant – and praise God!
But we can take two important concepts from Moses. First, capital punishment is not murder. The same God who said, “Do not murder,” also prescribed death as the punishment for many crimes including murder. There is a difference. That doesn’t mean we have to employ it, but the death penalty is obviously not murder.
The second thing we take from the Law, and related to the first, is, since God instituted the death penalty, capital punishment is not inherently immoral. Too often liberals have said just the opposite, but liberal Christians cannot make that statement without impugning the Almighty Himself.
The Noahic Covenant
Long before Moses, God gave a command to Noah:
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Gen 9:6).
Many have framed their argument against the death penalty around the inherent dignity and value of all human life. Here we see God using the same basis for the institution of capital punishment. He says, because human life is so valuable, the appropriate punishment for taking a life is to forfeit your own.
This passage is also in the Old Testament, but we cannot cast this aside as easily. The Mosaic Covenant was binding on the nation of Israel. This is clearly presented as a universal statement. And if this no longer applies to us, does God’s promise to never again wipe out humanity with a flood (v 8-11) also expire?
The Roman Rulers
If the OT were the sole support of capital punishment, those who oppose it on biblical grounds would have a better case. The truth is, though, the NT specifically mentions capital punishment:
“For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong … if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:3-4).
The sword only serves one function. If this is not talking about capital punishment, what can mean?
This passage is more striking when you look at the preceding paragraph:
“Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (12:19).
Leave room for God’s wrath. The ruler is an agent of God’s wrath.
Forgiveness on the Mount
There is one other elephant in the room. Jesus, in fact the whole NT, has a lot to say about forgiveness and revenge:
“But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt 5:39).
I think when Jesus told us to forgive and not take revenge, He meant exactly what He said. But He didn’t mean anything more than what He said.
Jesus tells us how to live life as a subject of His kingdom. But His commands do not tell us how to run a country. As a matter of fact, if you run a criminal justice system according to this principle, you cease to have a criminal justice system.
As Greg Koukl has pointed out, if we can’t give someone the death penalty because “Jesus would forgive,” we also can’t give them life in prison. We can’t give them five years, five days, or five minutes in prison. We can’t even give them a $5 fine. We have to forgive. If Jesus didn’t mean that we can’t have any criminal punishments, then He didn’t mean we can’t use the death penalty.
The Silent Church Fathers
My final appeal will be, again, to tradition. If Jesus’ instructions to forgive require discontinuing capital punishment, we should expect the early church fathers to mention that. They took Jesus’ commands on this topic very seriously – even to the point of a radical pacifism.
The fact is they didn’t talk about this much. The only references I could find to the death penalty in the first couple of centuries of the church were from Tertullian who complained about unjust application of it to Christians but seemed to assume it was a legitimate punishment in the state’s arsenal.
In an earlier piece I said you shouldn’t vote for someone who holds a position you are convinced is recklessly immoral. But I also don’t think you should reject someone for a carefully considered position you disagree with.
I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind about supporting capital punishment here. In truth, you can be a conservative and reject capital punishment, or you can believe it should be used sparingly. You can reject it as no longer necessary or as an overly dangerous tool in our flawed legal system. I find it justifiable and occasionally necessary but in dire need of serious reform.
The question is not whether you can support capital punishment. The question is whether you can see how a reasonable person could believe that capital punishment is acceptable biblically. If you can do that, then this is not an issue that should drive you away from voting for a candidate.
The next Bible and the Ballot Box will enter into the always-unpleasant battle over abortion.
The Bible and the Ballot Box 1: Helping the Poor Biblically
Politics, Religion, and Brotherly Love
Voting for Candidates You Disagree With
Capital Punishment Reform
Immigration Reform and Christianity
Christianity and the Environment: 7 Principles
7 Principles and 1 Hot Topic