The Bible’s Viewpoint
Should Christians Support the Death Penalty?
“IT IS morally and ethically wrong.” “It’s fair and righteous.” These opposing views came from two clergymen, both nominally Christian. They were wrangling over one of today’s burning issues—capital punishment. The newspaper article quoting them noted: “When religious leaders debate the death penalty, both sides cite biblical passages to back their positions.”
Some argue that capital punishment protects the innocent, promotes justice, and deters serious crime. Others insist that it is immoral—a way of responding to violence with more violence and far inferior to the nobler task of rehabilitating criminals, helping them to become useful members of society.
In the political arena in the United States, this debate is especially intense, and religious leaders have not hesitated to get involved. You may wonder, though, ‘Does the Bible have anything to say on the subject of capital punishment?’ In fact, it does.
Bestowing “the Sword” on Human Authorities
Shortly after the Flood of Noah’s day, Jehovah God affirmed the preciousness of human life and then stated: “Anyone shedding man’s blood, by man will his own blood be shed.” (Genesis 9:6) Of course, this was not an open license for revenge. Rather, it meant that duly constituted human authorities would thenceforth be allowed to execute those who took the lives of others.
In ancient Israel the Law that God transmitted through Moses stipulated the death penalty for certain serious offenses. (Leviticus 18:29) However, the Law also provided for impartial judging, eyewitness testimony, and curbs against corruption. (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 16:18-20; 19:15) The judges were to be devout men and were held accountable to God himself! (Deuteronomy 1:16, 17; 2 Chronicles 19:6-10) Thus there were safeguards against abuses of the death penalty.
Today no government on this earth truly represents divine justice as ancient Israel did. But governments do in many ways act as God’s ‘ministers,’ or agents, in that they preserve a measure of order and stability and provide needed public services. The apostle Paul reminded Christians to be obedient to these “superior authorities” and then added: “If you are doing what is bad, be in fear: for it is not without purpose that it [the government] bears the sword; for it is God’s minister, an avenger to express wrath upon the one practicing what is bad.”—Romans 13:1-4.
“The sword” Paul mentioned symbolizes the government’s right to punish criminals—even with death. Christians respect that right, but should they seek to have a say in how it is exercised?
“The Sword” Misused
Human governments have certainly wielded “the sword” for the sake of justice many times. But it must be admitted that they have also been guilty of misusing it. (Ecclesiastes 8:9) The government of ancient Rome was guilty of wielding “the sword” of judicial execution against innocent servants of God. John the Baptizer, James, and even Jesus Christ were among its victims.—Matthew 14:8-11; Mark 15:15; Acts 12:1, 2.
In modern times something similar has happened. Innocent servants of Jehovah have been executed in various countries—by firing squad, by guillotine, by hanging, by gas chamber—all of it “legally” carried out by governments trying to suppress Christianity. All powers that abuse their authority will render an account to God. What terrible bloodguilt they bear!—Revelation 6:9, 10.
True Christians shudder at the thought of bearing bloodguilt before Jehovah God. Thus, while they respect a government’s right to wield “the sword,” they are keenly aware of how it has been misused. It has served as a tool for persecution and has also at times been wielded with prejudicial harshness against some and inappropriate leniency toward others.* So how do Christians react to the debate over capital punishment? Do they get involved and push for change?
Can a Christian obey that injunction and still join the debate over the death penalty? Evidently not. This is, after all, a social and political issue. In the United States, candidates for political office commonly use their stand on the death penalty—whether for or against—as an important plank in their campaign platform. They debate the subject ardently and use the emotional intensity that this subject usually provokes as a lever to sway voters to their cause.
Perhaps the question for a Christian to ponder is this: Would Jesus have involved himself in the controversy over how this world’s governments wield “the sword”? Remember, when his countrymen tried to get him involved in politics, Jesus “withdrew again into the mountain all alone.” (John 6:15) It seems far more likely, then, that he would have left this matter where God put it—in the hands of the governments.
Likewise today, one would expect Christians to be careful not to jump into arguments on this subject. They would recognize the right of governments to do as they wish. But as Christian ministers who are no part of the world, they would neither avow support for capital punishment nor promote its abolition.
Rather, they keep in mind the words of Ecclesiastes 8:4: “The word of the king is the power of control; and who may say to him: ‘What are you doing?’” Yes, the world’s ‘kings,’ or political rulers, have been granted the power to carry out their own will. No Christian has the authority to call them to task. But Jehovah can. And he will. The Bible allows us to look forward to the day when God will bring about final justice for every crime and every abuse of “the sword” in this old world.—Jeremiah 25:31-33; Revelation 19:11-21.
For instance, the U.S. prison system has been criticized for executing under 2 percent of its death-row criminals each year. More of them die from natural causes than from execution. There have also been charges of prejudice—as statistics suggest that a murderer is more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim was white than if the victim was black.
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