What Is the Bible’s View?
Capital Punishment—Is It God’s Law?
“THE death penalty is NOT God’s law,” declared a dramatic headline in the Toronto Star of January 29, 1971. That was the unequivocal view of the writer, a former moderator of Canada’s United Church. For various reasons many religious groups favor abolition of capital punishment. In general, opponents of the death penalty consider it cruel. But advocates believe that it deters crime.
Inescapably, this is an issue charged with emotion, for it involves life, man’s most precious possession. Who is best qualified to resolve the matter? Why, the Supreme Life-Giver, Jehovah God. (Ps. 36:9; Isa. 42:5) Surely, Jehovah also has the right to make laws governing his gift of life. Of course, his thoughts and ways are higher than man’s. (Isa. 33:22; 55:8) So, at first, one may not fully understand or appreciate God’s regulations. Yet, his decrees are not loveless, unfair or faulty.—Jer. 9:24.
It cannot be said that Jehovah is opposed to capital punishment per se, though he certainly does not approve of all executions. For disobedience to divine law, Adam and Eve suffered the death penalty, as God decreed. (Gen. 2:16, 17; 3:17-19; 5:5) Jehovah executed wrongdoers during the global flood of Noah’s day and in wicked Sodom and Gomorrah. (2 Pet. 2:5, 6) Through human authorities in ancient Israel, God sometimes had capital punishment carried out. (Ex. 32:27, 28; Num. 25:1-11) Furthermore, in the coming “great tribulation” Jesus Christ will execute blatant violators of divine law.—2 Thess. 1:6-9.
Human authorities frequently have classed murder as a capital offense. What does God’s law say about it? “You must not murder,” states one of the Ten Commandments. (Deut. 5:17) The Christian apostle John wrote: “You know that no manslayer has everlasting life remaining in him.” (1 John 3:15; Rev. 21:8) When emotionally moved, perhaps by sensational journalism, some may feel that execution of wanton killers is cruel. But cannot the same be said of their violent acts that deprive others of life? Often, too, ‘the murderer slays the afflicted and the poor one.’ (Job 24:14) And while mere sentiment is not the basis of all judgment in these matters, who can ignore the grief of the bereaved?
Surely, the all-wise Life-Giver weighed every essential factor when he originally stated his immutable law involving murder and capital punishment. To survivors of the earth-wide deluge, and with the entire human family in mind, Jehovah declared: “Your blood of your souls shall I ask back. . . . Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed, for in God’s image he made man.”—Gen. 9:1, 5, 6.
The Supreme Law-Giver thereby authorized the exercise of human authority in executing murderers. By putting such criminals to death, governmental authority acts as “God’s minister, an avenger to express wrath upon the one practicing what is bad.” (Rom. 13:1, 3, 4) Of course, this does not give unauthorized persons the right to ‘take the law into their own hands’ and violently do away with a manslayer.
While considering deliberate murder a capital offense, God’s law to Israel made provision for merciful treatment of the unintentional manslayer. He was granted safety within one of the nation’s cities of refuge, but only after responsible men had determined that the death was accidental. The unintentional manslayer was not imprisoned, but was required to do useful work that benefited himself and others.—Num. 35:9-34.
Jehovah’s law given to the Israelites also required capital punishment for criminal negligence and certain acts of wrongdoing that were extremely injurious physically, mentally and spiritually. God thus showed loving concern for the people in general. If adhered to, his regulations would have elevated Israel above pagan nations, steeped in such corrupt practices as incest, sodomy and bestiality. (Ex. 21:29; Lev. 18:6-30; 20:10-23) Capital punishment removed grossly immoral wrongdoers from the scene and with them the possibility that they might cause others to follow them into degradation. Furthermore, execution of wanton killers prevented their depriving still others of life.
Some may ask, “Does capital punishment really deter crime?” God, who knows well the makeup of man, says it does. Concerning the apostate, we are told: “You must stone him with stones, and he must die, because he has sought to turn you away from Jehovah your God . . . Then all Israel will hear and become afraid, and they will not do anything like this bad thing again.”—Deut. 13:6-11.
Occasionally, human authorities have executed persons unjustly for trivial acts of wrongdoing. For this, worldly governments must bear responsibility before the “Judge of all the earth.” (Gen. 18:25) Also, at times the innocent have been put to death. For instance, Israel’s Queen Jezebel saw to it that Naboth was falsely accused of cursing God and the king. So, he was executed for something he did not do. (1 Ki. 21:1-16) But God’s just law required that a malicious witness pay with the very thing he schemed to take from the accused. Viewed properly, Jehovah’s decree that ‘life go for life’ does not indicate disregard for life, but magnifies God’s high evaluation of it.—Deut. 19:15-21.
Jehovah is not responsible for travesties of justice that result in death by execution, for he is just. (Deut. 32:4; Isa. 40:14) Moreover, he can resurrect the hapless victim of unmerited capital punishment at the hands of human authorities. (Acts 24:15) The Romans imposed the death penalty on two thieves impaled alongside Jesus Christ. While robbery itself was not a capital offense according to the Mosaic law, one of these evildoers acknowledged, “We are receiving in full what we deserve for things we did.” That wrongdoer asked Jesus to remember him when in Kingdom power, and Christ promised, “You will be with me in Paradise.” He thus assured that criminal of a resurrection in the future earthly paradise. (Luke 23:32-43; Matt. 27:38) Of course, Jehovah shall decide whether specific individuals suffering the death penalty through the centuries will be resurrected.
We must conclude, then, that capital punishment for deliberate murder was part of divine law that applies to all mankind. In ancient Israel, when God’s decrees were followed strictly and the death penalty was justly imposed for certain serious crimes, this was not due to the cold, cruel whim of a loveless deity. Capital punishment served as a deterrent to crime and was a protection for the people. And we know that Jehovah is neither unaware nor insensitive to any abuse of human authority in imposing the death penalty. Happily, Christians can also look to this God of love and mercy to bring about earthly conditions wherein death—and eventually the need to inflict capital punishment—will be no more.—Isa. 25:8, 9.