Christianity and theology

Death Penalty From a Biblical Perspective

Lucius Banda, one of well known musicians in Malawi,  once sang in a song titled “Tisayana bwanji”:

Malemba amanena usaphe munthu

Sati boma lokha lingathe kupha…

Chigawenga ndichouma mtima

Koma ngati boma lichibwezera zasiyana pati.

Literal translation would render the verse as follows:

The Scriptures says “Thou shall not kill”

They don’t  say that only the human government can kill…

A murderer is a merciless person

But if government executes him too then where is the difference?

This is a popular opinion among those who reject the death penalty also known as the capital punishment.  There are so many Christians in Malawi and all over the world today who hold that the death penalty for murderers is unbiblical. But does Scripture really prohibit the observance of  death penalty by human governments? When human governments implement death penalty, are they committing murder thereby breaking the Sixth Commandment?  Doesn’t Jesus words in Matthew 5:38, 39 prohibiting  an eye for an eye principal (lex talionis) render capital punishment unbiblical? What should we say about those who are falsely accused of murder and are executed,  and how do we deal with those who commit murder but manipulate justice systems and get away with it? These are the questions I would like to address in this post. Please note that I am discussing death penalty as punishment for murder cases only.

First, we need to know the origin of death penalty. It all begun with God himself in Genesis Chapter Nine. But before we  dwell on  this chapter, I would like us to consider the first murder to occur in the history of the world as recorded in Genesis 4:8. Cain committed the first murder by killing his brother, Abel. God pronounced judgment on Cain and said: “And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth,” (Genesis 4:11, 12). Cain then complained to the Lord that his punishment was greater than he could bear and people who would  find him in his wandering would kill him. Then God said, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:15).  The Lord then  put a mark on Cain so that no one should kill him.

In this passage, we see the Lord reserving the right of implementing capital punishment to himself. God does not execute Cain; instead,  God punishes Cain in a different way and declares that no one should put him to death. If this was the  only instance of God’s revelation  regarding murder and death penalty, those who advance that human governments should not implement capital punishment could have surely been right.

However, this incident is just the beginning of God’s revelation to us regarding murder and capital punishment. We need to progress to Genesis Chapter Nine where God reveals even more clear regarding murder and death penalty. In His covenant with Noah after the flood  which also applies to us even today, God makes this statement: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his image” (Genesis 9:6). This is where the capital punishment is established by God.

Unlike in the case of Cain in Genesis Chapter Four where God reserved the right to implement death penalty for himself, in Genesis Chapter Nine God entrusts the responsibility of implementing death penalty to human government for he says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” The man to shed the blood of the murderer is not just any man but the human government. Commenting on these two instances, O. Palmer Robertson in his book, Christ of the Covenants writes:”Earlier, God had reserved for himself alone the right to deal with the manslayer. In the case of Cain, God spoke judgment against the one who would dare touch him (Gen. 4:15). But now God deliberately places the responsibility for the execution of the wrongdoer on man himself (human government).” God requires that whosoever sheds human blood should have his own blood shed because man is created in the image of God hence Geerhardus Vos in his book, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments comments, “In life slain it is the image of God, i.e. the divine majesty that is assaulted.”

Therefore, when human governments (and all human governments are established by God as we read Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17) implement capital punishment, they are not committing murder and thereby breaking the Sixth Commandment rather they are carrying out their God-given responsibility. God’s command for capital punishment was later repeated in Exodus 21:12, 28 and Numbers 35:16-21.

Secondly, I would like to address some questions or concerns that arise regarding the death penalty. Doesn’t  the capital punishment contradict the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38, 39 in which He says: “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Is Jesus not prohibiting us from observing  the captial punishment in our societies in this passage? The answer is a resounding no.

Before I address what Christ is saying in the verses, I would like us to remember that Christ is God and it is God who established the capital punishment. Therefore, it means that it is Jesus who established the capital punishment. We should bear this in mind as we approach Matthew 5:38, 39.

Now, lets dive into the passage. Jesus words in these verses are based on the following passages of Old Testament: Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. The main teaching in these passages is that punishment for any crime should be equitable and fit for the crime. In the case of murder, God already declared that the fitting punishment for murder is the capital punishment. The words of Jesus in passage prohibit exacting a greater punishment on a lesser crime. Jesus further teaches against personal vengeance because the responsibility of exacting the punishment on various crimes is entrusted to civil authorities. The passage has nothing to do with abolition of death penalty as some argue. John Calvin says it better in his Bible Commentary:

An eye for an eye. Here another error is corrected. God had enjoined, by his law, (Le 24:20) that judges and magistrates should punish those who had done injuries, by making them endure as much as they had inflicted. The consequence was, that every one seized on this as a pretext for taking private revenge. They thought that they did no wrong, provided they were not the first to make the attack, but only, when injured, returned like for like. Christ informs them, on the contrary, that, though judges were entrusted with the defense of the community, and were invested with authority to restrain the wicked and repress their violence, yet it is the duty of every man to bear patiently the injuries which he receives (http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/calvin/cc31/cc31057.htm).

A fellow blogger has discussed Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:38, 39 at length on this link:  http://wittenberg-door.blogspot.com/2013/01/was-jesus-against-capital-punishment.html Please check it if you wish a further discussion on the passage.

Another concern that is usually raised is that sometimes innocent people (those who did not commit murder but are accused of murder) end up being executed for the crime they did not commit. It is true that some have been executed because they were falsely accused of murder. I don’t intend to underestimate the pain and the agony that this brings upon the individual that is falsely accused and also upon his or her family, relations and friends. However, we still need to realize that injustice occurs in this world because we are all fallen. We are not always able to know the truth regarding various allegations; nevertheless, this must not form a basis for abolition of the capital punishment. Where enough evidence has been given to prove that one committed murder, human governments should implement the capital punishment. In cases of  those who are falsely accused and later executed, our comfort should lie in the fact that God is sovereign and he knows all things. One day he will bring every secret thing into the open and he shall let truth and justice prevail (Ecclesiates 12:14).

Yet another concern is on those who commit murder and through their power and money and influence manipulate the justice system of human governments and get away with it. Shouldn’t this discourage Christians from advocating for the capital punishment since it only disfavors the poor. Again, I say not at all.  Regarding this matter, John Calvin in his Commentary of Genesis writes: “And we see some die in highways, some in stews, and many in wars. Therefore, however, magistrates may connive at the crime, God sends executioners from other quarters, who shall render unto sanguinary men their reward.” Calvin’s main point here is that although some might manipulate the justice system but God has his own ways of dealing with such individuals. We should always bear in mind that God is sovereign and all powerful.

In this post, I have labored to explain why death penalty for murderers is biblical and why human governments should implement it. I have also addressed some questions and concerns that seem to justify the abolition of capital punishments in human societies. Now, if we are to go back to Lucius Banda’s song I would respond and say: Human governments are established by God and God has entrusted them with the responsibility to carry out the capital punishment on murderers. Capital punishment is not the same as murder hence it doesn’t break the Sixth Commandment which orders, “Thou shall not kill.

Lucius Banda’s track,  “Tisiyana bwanji” below:

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