Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Why I Support Capital Punishment, Part 11

Published 05.09.09 at

Previously, we saw how capital punishment is compatible with love, honors God’s sovereignty over life, and encourages the condemned to repent and be saved. Now, let’s finish our discussion by looking at three Biblical counter-examples to execution.

Religious Objection 6: What about Cain?

In Genesis 4, Adam and Eve’s two sons bring their offerings to God. God accepts Abel’s and rejects Cain’s. In his anger, Cain strikes and kills his brother. God discovers Cain’s violence and banishes him for life while also protecting him with some sort of Divine mark. Doesn’t this show that even God does not favor executing murderers?

One way to explain Cain’s survival is that the law against murder wasn’t given by God for another 1600 years after Noah’s flood. Even the Old Testament wasn’t written by Moses for another 900 years after that. But response fails since there is the punishment of banishing. If it wasn’t a crime because the law hadn’t been given yet, there would have been no punishment at all. Also, Cain clearly expected to be punished by God and men. Thus, his severe but non-capital banishment demands explanation, and the only Biblically plausible answer is that this wasn’t murder.

Nothing in the text indicates that Cain intended Abel’s death. Not only are there are hundreds of ways to strike a man and kill him unintentionally, but it’s even possible, seeing as how this is the first homicide in history, that Cain didn’t even understand the consequences of his assault. Furthermore, even if Cain did intend to kill Abel in a moment of rage, it’s not clear this would legally qualify as pre-meditated. God’s penal system distinguishes negligent homicide from murder. Thus, one might say we know it wasn’t murder precisely because only God banished him.

Religious Objection 7: What about King David?

In 2 Samuel 11, King David sees Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop near the palace, commands her to be brought to him, commits adultery with her, discovers she is pregnant, fails to trick her husband into sleeping with her to cover the pregnancy, and then has him killed through a complex military conspiracy. How does God respond? He sends Nathan the prophet to chastise David, who repents for his crimes and goes on living, but God condemns the bastard child to death.

If God is for capital punishment, why doesn’t David get executed? Both adultery and murder were capital crimes in Israel, and this must have been the worst-kept secret in the Mediterranean. There were even witnesses for every part of the conspiracy (a necessary component of Old Testament capital law). So why the leniency?

I believe it’s because David was King of Israel, anointed by God Himself through the prophet Samuel. Though this will sound strange to our ears; which have been trained by the concepts of law as king, the rule of law, and equality before the law; David was above the law. No matter what the anointed of God does, he is still holy because of the anointing and cannot be touched. David demonstrated this by refusing to kill King Saul, who deserved it many times over. Moreover, when David learns that an aide assisted Saul’s suicide in battle, David immediately executes him for touching God’s anointed.

So David was spared a doubly-deserved death only because he was king. Nevertheless, a life penalty was still taken: the child. Thus, the Bible gives one precedent to explain why David wasn’t killed and also a reason to think that the murder still required the compensatory death of a human. It’s certainly a difficult passage, but it’s also certainly not a clear repudiation of the death penalty.

Religious Objection 8: What about the woman caught in adultery?

In John 8:1-11, the Pharisees bring Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery to see if He will authorize her execution. After He famously says, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” they all depart, and Jesus sends the woman on her way, saying, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more.” Of all passages in the Bible, this one most clearly shows that Jesus opposed capital punishment.

First, we should note that this passage is textually dubious. The best manuscripts don’t include it, and both its placement and style controvert its authenticity. Even so, the Christian community has long considered this an iconic story of Jesus’s mercy. So, to merely throw it out would be inappropriate. Besides, it may well be a legitimate story, just not one included in the John autoscript. Hence, an interpretation would be more helpful than a dismissal.

The trouble is that most people wildly misunderstand this story. The Pharisees’ only reason for bringing this woman to Jesus was to put Him in a dilemma. On the one hand, He couldn’t call for her execution since Roman law prohibited anyone other than a Roman court from doing this. The Pharisees proved they knew this when they later brought Jesus to Pilate rather than killing Him themselves. On the other hand, He couldn’t oppose her execution because this would have proven He was a false prophet for contradicting God’s Law. The passage even explains this in verse 6, “they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him.”

So, the Pharisees wanted to make Jesus a heretic for opposing capital punishment, but He evaded their trap. The tremendous irony is that now, two thousand years later, people who claim to love Jesus teach that He was precisely the heretic His enemies wanted to paint Him as. If Jesus was in fact repudiating capital punishment in this story, then He was neither the Divine Son of God nor even a true prophet. As I’m apparently more reluctant than others to embrace this conclusion, I can’t interpret Jesus as rejecting the Old Testament here. Had He been, His enemies would have left jubilant rather than ashamed. There are many theories on the meaning of this story, but the one thing we must not do is use it to say Jesus overturned God’s Word as His enemies intended.


The religious and the secular arguments agree: capital punishment is purposeful, rational, and pleasing to God. If you have read all eleven of these columns, I thank you for your persistence and your patience. I trust this has been useful.


Naum said...

Do you really think Jesus was pro-death penalty?

Every time I reread the Gospels, I am convinced he was not and we have the first centuries of church history where Christians were forbidden from (a) carrying out violence against others and (b) serving in the military. It wasn't until the taint of empire (Constantine) that Christians accepted violence as OK.

Pre-meditated killing is murder. Especially when innocent blood is shed.

But this man makes a much better argument than me, and is much more qualified than me and you to discern whether or not capital punishment is biblically sanctioned:

dudleysharp said...

St. Thomas Aquinas: "The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers." Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.

Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. In addition to the required punishment for murder and the deterrence standards, both Saints find that executing murderers is also an act of charity and mercy. Saint Augustine confirms that " . . . inflicting capital punishment . . . protects those who are undergoing capital punishment from the harm they may suffer . . . through increased sinning which might continue if their life went on." (On the Lord's Sermon, 1.20.63-64.)

Saint Thomas Aquinas finds that " . . . the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore." (Summa Theologica, II-II, 25, 6 ad 2.)

St. Thomas Aquinas: "If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgement. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted." Summa Theologica, 11; 65-2; 66-6.

"St. Thomas Aquinas quotes a gloss of St. Jerome on Matthew 27: "As Christ became accursed of the cross for us, for our salvation He was crucified as a guilty one among the guilty." As Prof. Michael Pakaluk writes: "If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins and crucified among thieves." " That Christ be put to death as a guilty person, presupposes that death is a fitting punishment for those who are guilty." The Death Penalty: An Opposing Viewpoints Series Book, Greenhaven Press, (hereafter TDP:OVS), 1991

Saint (& Pope) Pius V, "The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder." "The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent" (1566).

Pope Pius XII: "When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live." 9/14/52.

Christians who speak out against capital punishment in deserving cases " . . . tend to subordinate the justice of God to the love of God. . . . Peter, by cutting off Malchu’s ear,. . . was most likely trying to kill the soldier (John 18:10)", prompting " . . . Christ’s statement that those who kill by the sword are subject to die by the sword (Matthew 26:51-52)." This " implicitly recognizes the government’s right to exercise the death penalty." Dr. Carl F.H.Henry, "A Matter of Life and Death", p 52 Christianity Today, 8/4/95.

dudleysharp said...

He is not that qualified.

God: 'Honor your father and your mother,' and 'Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.' Matthew 15:4

Jesus: "So Pilate said to (Jesus), "Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?" Jesus answered (him), "You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above." John 19:10-11

Jesus: Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." (Jesus) replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Luke 23: 39-43

Jesus: "You have heard the ancients were told, ˜YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER" and "Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court". But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, "Raca", shall be guilty before the supreme court and whoever shall say, "You fool", shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell." Matthew 5:17-22.

The Holy Spirit: God, through the power and justice of the Holy Spirit, executed both Ananias and his wife, Saphira. Their crime? Lying to the Holy Spirit - to God - through Peter. Acts 5:1-11.

The Word of God: Numbers 35:16-21. Note the words "shall" and "surely". What do you think they mean?
‘But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. ‘If he struck him down with a stone in the hand, by which he will die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. ‘Or if he struck him with a wooden object in the hand, by which he might die, and as a result he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. ‘The blood avenger himself shall put the murderer to death; he shall put him to death when he meets him. ‘If he pushed him of hatred, or threw something at him lying in wait and as a result he died, or if he struck him down with his hand in enmity, and as a result he died, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death, he is a murderer; the blood avenger shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.
Here is the full context

Some lesser New Testament scholars

Saint Paul, in his hearing before Festus, states: "if then I am a wrong doer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die." Acts 25:11.

St. Augustine: "The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment "Thou shalt not kill", for the representative of the State's authority to put criminals to death, according to the Law or the rule of rational justice." The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 21

St. Thomas Aquinas finds all biblical interpretations against executions "frivolous", citing Exodus 22:18, "wrongdoers thou shalt not suffer to live". Unequivocally, he states," The civil rulers execute, justly and sinlessly, pestiferous men in order to protect the peace of the state." (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 146