Breach for Breach, Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth: What the Bible Says about Capital Punishment
By Betty Miller
Capital punishment is a difficult subject to discuss as there are many different opinions that all contain some truth about this issue. Some believe it is fair and just to administer the death penalty when criminals take a life or lives, while others think that it is cruel and unusual punishment for civilized societies. Many Christians are divided on this issue as well, with some following the Old Testament law of capital punishment and others choosing the seemingly gentler side of the Bible–the New Testament–as the basis for their opposition to this law. Are these two Testaments in opposition to each other? Since God does not contradict Himself, perhaps we need a deeper understanding of the Bible as a whole.
The Origin of Capital Punishment
Where did the idea of capital punishment come from? The first definition in the Webster’s New World Dictionary for the word “capital” is: 1) Involving or punishable by death (originally by decapitation) (a capital offense). Decapitation was the beheading of those who were convicted of any crime deserving the death penalty (thus Capital comes from the Latin word “capitalis” which means “of the head”). Murder, treason and other high crimes were punishable by death. Usually the state or governments set the standards for carrying out this punishment. However, before governments established this practice, the idea of capital punishment was first instigated by God in the Old Testament in the Bible.
And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. Genesis 9:5-6
And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death. And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast. And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again. And he that killeth a beast, he shall restore it: and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death. Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for one of your own country: for I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 24:17-22
Why Did God Institute Capital Punishment?
Why would a loving God who is supposed to love all of mankind issue these edicts? To answer this question, we must understand the overall purpose of God. In the first scripture we can see that God’s command was based on the dignity of man, as he is made in the image of God. God created the first man, Adam, gave him Eve, and told them to be fruitful and multiply. God desired not only to have fellowship with them, but with all subsequent generations. However, to be able to have real communion with man, God created him with a will. Men were given the right to choose if they wanted to commune with, and love and obey God or if they would rather choose to live apart from God, and reject and disobey Him.
God knew when He created men with free wills that not all would follow and obey Him. However, He also knew that many would want to love and serve Him. In giving men free will, He also had to establish laws for men to live by. When we look at the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus 20:1-17, we can see that these laws were given for the good of mankind. One of these laws is in verse 13: “Thou shalt not kill.” You may wonder if God said “do not kill,” why He would then decree that a murderer should be put to death. The reason is that the Hebrew meaning of the word translated as “kill” actually means “murder” or “to slay someone in a violent manner unjustly.” So, in the Ten Commandments God is saying, “Thou shalt not murder.”
God Sanctioned Government Authorities to Enforce Laws
God set boundaries on mankind by establishing ruling authorities that would make and enforce the laws He gave. The purpose for this was because He knew unregenerate society, without any restraints, would seek to destroy good men. God’s desire is that all men would come to Him and live by His laws. However, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and broke His law, sin entered into the world and was passed down to all of mankind through Adam’s seed. God, in His love for mankind, made a way for men to come back to Him, through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. Because Jesus lived free of sin and obeyed the law of God perfectly, He became the sin offering and died upon a cross, thus paying the price for all men’s sin. He then rose from the dead the third day showing that He indeed was the son of God. Now those who accept what Jesus did and repent of their sins can find their way through faith to be reconciled to God. This sacrifice covers and cleanses men even from the worst of sins including murder. Now, through Christ, even murderers can be forgiven and restored to a relationship with God so they can live forever with Him.
Where we find most of our problems with the two sides of capital punishment is that really both sides hold a truth of God. God’s law of justice for the taking of a life demands that life be taken; yet, God’s spiritual law of mercy and forgiveness grants that a murderer can be forgiven and restored. How can we reconcile this? We must understand that God instituted civil authorities to maintain order in the earth. God uses them to restrain evil and they should be obeyed for this purpose. In the New Testament, we see that even Jesus surrendered to the governing authorities because He was submitted to God.
Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above… John 19:11
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. Romans 13:1-5 (RSV)
From these verses, we see that governments can elect to practice capital punishment, the harshest form of punishment. It is enforced in the United States today and each year there are about 250 people added to death row and 35 executed. Once a jury has agreed on convicting a person of a criminal offense, they then proceed to the second part of the trial, which is to then set the proper amount of punishment for the severity of the crime. This is the punishment phase. If the jury recommends the death penalty and the judge agrees that it is just, then the criminal will face some form of execution. Lethal injection is the most common form used today. The choices of execution vary from state to state but are as follows: hanging, electrocution, gas chamber, firing squad, and lethal injection. There are guidelines that are followed before a prisoner is sentenced to death. Of those, one of the most important reads: Capital punishment may be imposed only when guilt is determined by clear and convincing evidence leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the fact (Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Branch 5-25-84).
Numerous Law in the USA Founded on Biblical Principles
Some may not be aware that even the specific laws here in the United States that determine guilt or innocence, are also found in the Bible. In fact, they were established by our forefathers, many who were godly Christian men who read and obeyed the Word of God. Many of these laws are listed in chapters 21, 22 and 23 in the book of Exodus and Numbers 35:15-34. In reading these chapters, you will note that God made a distinction between the penalties for manslaughter (usually killing in self-defense or by accident without malice) and murder (premeditated vengeful killing or violent killing with anger and malice). Our courts require that a murderer can only be convicted if there is sufficient evidence and witnesses to the crime. This too, comes from the Bible.
Under our government mandates, the use of the death penalty, as intended by law, was to reduce the number of violent murders by eliminating some of the repeat offenders; thus it is being used as a system of justice, not just a method of deterrence. Opponents of the death penalty will argue that although it is said to exist as a crime deterrent, it really isn’t. Some modern supporters of capital punishment no longer view the death penalty as a deterrent, but as a just punishment for the crime. This is a shift from the attitudes of past generations. Supporters of the death penalty say it would be a deterrent to crime if punishment was done more speedily (this of course, immediately after conviction).
Some believe that one of the many problems with the death penalty is that it is anything but swift and sure. They contend that a more timely enforcement of the death penalty would help to reduce the crime problem by instilling a sense of respect for the law. Our society should realize that crimes carry consequences. The long and drawn out process of appeals in our court system has allowed many convicted criminals to remain in jail at an enormous cost to society. As in the case of Ted Bundy, the system seemed flawed when it allowed him to remain on death row for 10 years after murdering more than 50 women. One issue that stood out at this execution to me was the fact that a whole crowd of spectators came to the prison and shouted and rejoiced as he was being executed. The Bible says that God never rejoices at the death of the wicked and we are not to do that either.
Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die … Ezekiel 33:11
Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. Numbers 35:30-31
God Desires Justice & Fairness
The latest person (at this writing) to receive the death penalty was a Texas death row inmate, Gary Graham, who was executed June 22, 2000, for a 1981 murder. He always protested his innocence, expressing confidence he would one day become a free man and help lead the fight against the death penalty. Graham, who was a black man from a poor Houston neighborhood, contended that his path to death row was paved by poor representation from his court-appointed lawyer and a legal system that he said discriminated against minorities and the underprivileged. Because Graham was black, some people believed this was a racist issue.
Graham’s case aroused international controversy due to allegations that he received incompetent counsel at his trial for the murder of Bobby Lambert outside a Houston supermarket, and also the fact that his conviction largely rested on the testimony of a lone eyewitness. Graham insisted he did not commit the murder and went to his death screaming and resisting. The Lambert slaying occurred during a two-week crime spree in 1981 by Graham, then in his late teens, who admitted to ten armed robberies, including two shootings and the rape of a 57-year-old woman.
Though man may make judgements that are biased according to race, and/or societal status, God does not. He never condones a judgement based on anything other than truth or justice. God is no respecter of persons and He desires that all receive a fair and just trial no matter what their social status may be.
Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. Acts 10:34-35
Is the Judicial System Flawed or Fair?
Even though our justice system is flawed in ways, due to sinful and imperfect men who are in it, there are still many checks and balances to keep innocent people from being executed wrongly:
- The criminal trial itself, by a jury of 12 impartial people.
- Evidence must be produced to show guilt beyond a shadow of doubt.
- The judge must agree that the trial was fair and can order a new trial if he finds irregularities.
- A new blood testing system (DNA Genetic Testing) to determine guilt or innocence in murder cases, when applicable, is now available.
DNA testing is a rather recent development in the death penalty issue. DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) is called the genetic building blocks of life. Everyone has a unique DNA pattern except for identical twins. The scientific community has now discovered a way to test blood to determine if that blood came from that particular individual; or actually could not have been from them, because of the DNA genetic coding. This has been helpful in determining guilt or innocence, when evidence has been kept with blood stains on it. Even if the blood is old, the DNA code is still present. Other body fluids carry the same DNA coding and can be tested also. This testing is an additional deterrent to executing the wrong person in cases where an innocent man or woman is charged with murder.
As Christians, we must pray that honest, fair and godly men and women will be selected to serve as judges, wardens, and other positions that operate our judicial and penal systems. This is one of the greatest deterrents for people being wrongly charged with all crimes. Even though the possibility exists for the innocent to be executed unjustly, the alternative is far worse. If evil men are allowed to go unpunished, evil would eventually take over. If we want a fair judicial system we must work at changing it by prayer, involvement, serving, voting, etc. Complaining about the system will never change it. Change must begin in us.
The Issue of Forgiveness Versus Punishment
As Christians, how do we then deal with this issue of capital punishment, especially if we are involved or know someone personally on death row that we feel is innocent? Or perhaps the person was someone like Karla Faye Tucker, who, although guilty of the crime, was totally changed and had lived a righteous and rehabilitated life in prison for 15 years. Karla, with an accomplice had committed two horrible murders with a pick ax when she was 23 and high on drugs. Right after she went to jail a pastor visited her and led her to the saving knowledge of Jesus. From that time on she led an exemplary life and demonstrated a changed life and her Christian faith in prison. Many prayed for her as her execution date was set for February 3, 1998. However, the State of Texas carried out its law to execute murderers and Karla was not granted clemency. We are asked in the Bible to forgive Karla no matter what she has done.
For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. Matthew 6:14-15
Her last words were as follows: ¹
To the families of those she murdered: “I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this.”
To her family: “Baby, I love you. Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I’m going to be face-to-face with Jesus now.”
To the Warden: “Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you.”
Excerpts from a 700 Club Interview with Karla:
KARLA: “I asked God to forgive me and I knew I needed forgiveness. And I knew I had done something really horrible. But I think right at that moment what mostly hit me was His Love. His Love. It just surrounded me. He just put me in His arms and said, “I Love You”…(My purpose for this interview) is that lives would be saved, that lives would be touched that people would just come to know that no matter where they were He could touch them. He could change their life.”
Should not Karla have been granted clemency since she was no longer a threat to society (in fact, just the opposite was true)? She touched many peoples’ lives in prison and they too were changed for the better. We know God is a forgiving God and we as His children must be forgiving also. Does God’s Word address cases such as Karla Faye’s? Yes, we find God’s attitude toward her plight in this scripture:
Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right, he shall surely live. “Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just'; when it is their own way that is not just. When the righteous turns from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, he shall die for it. And when the wicked turns from his wickedness, and does what is lawful and right, he shall live by it. Ezekiel 33:14-19
For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10
Because Karla repented of her sins and accepted Christ as her savior, she could face death unafraid. She knew that only her body would die–and that her spirit would go to heaven and live forever with God. Karla paid her debt to society. However, Jesus paid her debt of sin and she did not have to go to hell. This shows the love of God for sinners. No matter how depraved we might become, the blood of Jesus can wash us as white as snow. Karla wanted others to know this truth.
Law Versus Grace
One cannot simply say that capital punishment is immoral on Biblical grounds as God gave us both law and grace. The truth is society would fail and crumble if we fail to keep the law and also if we fail to uphold it. The law tells us what we can and cannot do. It tells us how far we can or cannot go and God tells us to obey the law of the land. Man is a free moral agent and he is capable of choosing good or bad behavior. He must also be responsible to accept the consequences of that behavior. (Of course, the punishment for crime should fit the crime.) One may be influenced by his environment, but he is not ultimately controlled by it, as we have many testimonies of people who have risen above their poverty and evil surroundings. It makes sense to reward evil with punishment just as we reward those that have done good deeds. If we are not responsible for our choices, neither blame nor praise makes any sense.
As Christians, the Lord writes His law upon our hearts and we no longer have to be slaves to sin. He gives us the Holy Spirit which enables us to not only keep the law, but to go beyond what the law requires in doing good. We are told not only to forgive our enemies, but to do good to them. This takes God’s grace because we cannot love them without calling on the love of God. Jesus did not abolish the law. Scripture says He fulfilled it.
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. Matthew 5:17
God’s Reign Will End Capital Punishment
If we desire to see fair trials and justice done and see capital punishment end and yes, even the end of all forms of killing, violence, and death–we must realize that this can only come about through the kingdom of God coming to this world. God’s kingdom can only come about as all men yield to God and His laws. That time is coming when Jesus returns to this earth. At His second coming, He will then rule with a rod of iron and the devil will be chained and his followers destroyed. Satan can no longer tempt men with evil, so there will be no more murder and evil in the earth. We shall enter the Millennial Reign of Christ, when the earth shall rest from its tribulations. However, until that time, God has instructed us, as His children, to allow and pray for His Kingdom to be manifested in our individual lives and communities. We can change the world through allowing Christ to rule in our lives and thus affect those around us with His love and grace.
For those who refuse to allow His reign in their lives God has set government authorities in the earth to restrain evil by enforcing the laws of the land. Granted, they are imperfect and some are even evil. However, the alternative would be that evil would overcome those that were good if there were no laws. We can change the bad laws by allowing God to use us in our spheres of influence. We must do our part to pray, witness and become involved in the world to change it for the better. That is the way the kingdom of God will be established in our world through allowing God to reign in our everyday lives.
After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. Matthew 6:9-13
¹CNN News Coverage, February 3, 1998
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Topic: What the Bible Says about Capital Punishment
Related Topics: What the Bible Says about the Influence of the Bible on America; Mercy Killing (Euthanasia); War; School Shootings; Suicide; Forgiveness; Repentance; Healing