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Does any government have the right to practise capital punishment? Is this state-sponsored murder?


Capital punishment is the legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a capital crime. In exacting legal justice it also renders the guilty individual incapable of inflicting further harm.


Debate has raged for decades over whether the death penalty is appropriate or humane retribution, even for the crime of murder. Some argue that in putting the accused to death, the state itself becomes guilty of homicide and violates basic human rights, also depriving the accused of a chance of reformation. Others maintain that only God has the sovereign right in matters of life and death (Deuteronomy 32: 35).


The Israel Argument

Ancient Israel was commanded by the Lord to put to death one found guilty of premeditated murder (Exodus 21: 14).[fn1] Some make the argument that if it was right for Israel, it is acceptable to enforce capital punishment today. This approach often fails to take into account the unique nature of Israel’s government.


Israel was not a self-governing entity, but a theocracy: a nation subject to the laws of God and obliged to carry out His laws by virtue of their covenant relationship with Him. No nation since has had such a relationship with God. To assert that the Mosaic law as respects the penalty for murder is still valid is to argue for the methods prescribed in it, such as stoning. Under Old Testament law, the death sentence was also stipulated for crimes other than murder, such as kidnapping and adultery (Exodus 21: 16; Leviticus 20: 10).


Under its Law Covenant Israel’s institutions and ordinances served as pre-figuring types of the arrangements to be set up under the New Law Covenant, during the Millennial Age (though not in literal detail). God has laid down no Mosaic statutes for the nations of the world – the Gentiles.[fn2] (Recourse to capital punishment was effectively abandoned in modern Israel in 1954.[fn3])


‘Fair Play’

Lex talionis, the law of equal retaliation, is set out in Exodus 21: 24 as ‘an eye for an eye’. This principle, in prescribing equivalency, also served to limit the degree of retribution which could be exacted, forbidding disproportionate penalties. It is worth noting here, that by presenting unending torture as the penalty for ‘rejecting Christ’, many Christians breach this fundamental principle of justice, as there is no equivalency in the sentence. The rule of equivalency is illustrated by the death of Christ for Adam: the Ransom of which the ancient law was a forecast. The life of Jesus was forfeit in substitution for the life of Adam (Romans 5: 14; 1 Cor. 15: 22). The penalty extracted from the sinner cannot exceed what he is able to pay his life, which is finite.[fn4] Everlastingness is added by God only as a reward to the faithful; all incorrigible sinners God will destroy render lifeless.


Divine Authority Devolved to State

It appears from Romans 13: 1-7 that the duly-constituted government of a State has the right under God to regulate its affairs for the weal and security of its citizens, including the authority to impose penalties such as capital punishment (‘the sword’, verse 4). (See also, 1 Timothy 2: 1-6). Underlying this assumption is God’s derogation of some of His authority to non-Jewish states during the ‘Times of the Gentiles’, alluded to by Jesus in Luke 21: 24. It is always true that God rules over the affairs of this world through might be more accurate and He will preserve it until He is ready to supersede it with His theocracy on earth (Daniel 4: 32, 35). To this end, a form of law and order even though of dubious piety is necessary. A sense of justice was ‘wired’ into man’s constitution at creation and during the Gospel Age this has been supplemented by evangelization. Though primarily intended to win believers to the Body of Christ, the promulgation of the Gospel has broadly influenced the secular world in its formation of laws of equity and retribution. For the rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5: 44, 45, King James Version).


The Case of the Christian

Jesus laid down the standard for the individual consecrated Christian. In John 3: 17 we read, ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ In His interrogation before Pilate, Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight . . .’ (John 18: 36). Peter, in attempting to defend his Master, drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus responded, ‘Put your sword back in its place . . . for all who draw the sword will die by the sword’ (Matthew 26: 52) These references seem to indicate that the Christian, in following Jesus’ example, is enjoined against taking the life of another human being.[fn5] There appears to be no reason to extrapolate this injunction to society at large.




Footnotes for Q&A


[fn1] In Exodus 21: 12-14 a clear-cut distinction is made between wilful murder and accidental killing (manslaughter). A nuanced variation on the theme appears in Exodus 22: 2, 3: ‘If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if it happens after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed. . . .’ The principle of this law underlies the current law in England and Wales governing burglary (originally, intrusion by night) and housebreaking (originally, intrusion by day). That is, defence of one’s person or property does not guarantee immunity from prosecution when taking the life of another.


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[fn2]In the early Church, influential converts from Judaism wished to impose certain regulations from Jewish law on the Gentiles who were joining the Christian faith, and a council was called in Jerusalem to discuss the matter. The account of the meeting and the final ruling is in Acts 15.


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[fn3]‘With the establishment of the State of Israel, the question of the administration of capital punishment by a Jewish court became relevant. Since the new State took over the existing corpus of British mandatory law, the administration of capital punishment was a theoretical possibility. During the first murder trial to be held under Israeli jurisdiction, the Chief Rabbis notified the Minister of Justice of their opposition to the death penalty in the absence of a qualified Sanhedrin. The death penalty was officially abolished in 1954 in the Penal Code Revision Law. Until that time several death sentences were issued, but none was carried out. The death penalty was retained, however, under the Crime of Genocide (Prevention and Punishment) Law and for treason committed in time of war. The prescribed method of execution under the legislation cited is hanging for civilians and shooting for members of the military. In the only instance of capital punishment in the history of the State, Adolf Eichmann, convicted of genocide, was hanged in Ramleh prison in 1962.’ Encyclopedia of Judaism: Capital Punishment

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^[fn4] Pressing the point further, if unending torture is the sentence for Adam and all of his posterity, then Jesus would have to be suffering unending torture, something the Scriptures clearly deny.


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[fn5] Many dedicated Christians dispute this assertion and consider it right and proper to take up arms in defence of one’s homeland. This is especially true of a significant number of conservative Christians in the United States, for whom the country’s armed forces hold a special place of honour, and are esteemed as instruments of righteous retribution.


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Copyright February 2009,

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