My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Captial Punishment:
Q: What is the Bible’s teaching regarding the death penalty? In what circumstances is it allowed, required, or forbidden? If a person comes to trust Jesus and is forgiven by God, should they still be executed for their crimes?
During Old Testament times, capital punishment was a fixture among the people of Israel. When God defined crimes and punishments for His people, several offenses were punishable by death. Much like our present-day federal law and the laws of many of our states, God specified the death penalty for crimes like murder and treason. In addition, the Old Testament law required the death penalty for several other offenses. These included things such as marital unfaithfulness, cursing one’s parents, or working on the Sabbath, which most readers would no longer associate with being punishable by death today.
These laws, however, were given to a particular people (Israel) in a particular time (before Jesus). In the Ten Commandments, which reveal God’s moral demands for all people of all times and places, murder, adultery, and other offenses punishable by death under the Old Testament law are still forbidden, but specific punishments are not mandated. Even in the cases where the Old Testament law did mandate the death penalty for crimes committed among the people of Israel, it always assigned the tasks of sentencing and executing to those lawfully appointed to rule the land and never to individuals or self-appointed judges.
On one hand, the New Testament demonstrates events where Jesus is shown having mercy on those who would have otherwise been punished with death, such as the woman caught in adultery described in John 8. However, in that case, those who were seeking to put her to death were not lawful representatives of the governing authorities. On the other hand, even though Jesus mercifully spared this particular woman from execution, He never speaks, in principle, against execution by a lawful government.
In Romans, Paul touches on the government’s prerogative to use execution as a means of punishing evil and keeping order when he says, “If you do wrong, be afraid, for [the one in authority] does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4 ESV) With these words, Paul acknowledges that, even in New Testament times, the government does have the right to punish wrongdoing, even to the point of capital punishment, and furthermore, indicates that when it does so, it is actually serving God by its actions.
Based on these verses and other examples from the Scriptures, the Bible’s teaching is that it is acceptable, although not mandatory, for lawful governments to exercise the “power of the sword” by executing those convicted of serious crimes. In accord with this principle, Christian churches have historically acknowledged and supported the right of the government to execute murderers, traitors, and those guilty of other serious crimes.
At the same time, Christian churches have historically opposed cases where a government abuses its authority by executing without a proper trial or by punishing minor crimes with death. Christianity has also opposed the abuse of government authority by handing down excessive punishments, such as those seen in Islamic law, which demands amputation of a hand for theft and other similar punishments.
While it is the prayer of all Christians that criminals would repent of their crimes and be forgiven by God, the Church recognizes that the government’s duty to keep order in society may prevent it from withdrawing a punishment based on a reported religious conversion. In these cases, the criminal may still need to face justice in spite of their repentance, because no human authority can judge the sincerity of the heart.