The issue of capital punishment can be very controversial. Some may see it as very cruel, and some may see it as justice well served. We will be looking into this issue not from a humanistic view but from a biblical perspective. Is the death penalty or capital punishment right before God?
We will be looking first into the Old Testament. The laws may have been established and written in the time of Moses, and many references to the death penalty can be found there. But since the beginning of the world and even thereafter, as seen in the book of Genesis, there are already references to the death penalty being ordered by God. Before the fall of man, God commanded Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or he would surely die (Genesis 2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.). Adam and Eve may not have died immediately after disobeying God, but they lost immortality; because of that, all of mankind experiences death as the penalty for sin. After the great flood, God included in the Noahic covenant that if anyone takes another man’s life, such a person’s life will also be taken by another human being (Genesis 9:6 Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.). In Exodus, you can also find this − enforced by God later in the theocratic nation of Israel − as a death sentence for those who are found guilty of premeditated murder (Exodus 21:12 and Numbers 35:16). Murder is not the only crime that is penalized by the death sentence. The following are capital crimes based on the Mosaic law that God established for the Israelites:
- Striking one’s parents (Exodus 21:15)
- Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)
- Dishonoring one’s parents (Exodus 21:17)
- Failure to contain an owned ox, known to gore people, which results in another person’s death (Exodus 21:28-29)
- Practicing sorcery (Exodus 22:18)
- Sexual relations with an animal (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:15-16)
- Sacrificing to other Gods (Exodus 22:20)
- Exploitation of widows and orphans (Exodus 22:22-24)
- Working on the Sabbath day (Exodus 31:15)
- Human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:1-5)
- Cursing one’s parents (Leviticus 20:9)
- Adultery (Leviticus 20:10)
- Homosexual sexual relations (Leviticus 20:13)
- Incestuous acts (Leviticus 20:11-12, 14)
- Acting as a medium or spiritist (Leviticus 20:27)
- Prostitution by a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9)
- Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14-16)
- Rejecting the verdict of a judge or priest (Deuteronomy 17:12)
- False prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:20)
- False claim of a woman’s virginity during marriage (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
- Sexual relations with a person who is engaged to someone else (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
- Rape (Deuteronomy 22:25)
There is no denying that God did order capital punishment for the above-mentioned crimes. We cannot try to change God’s standards to fit the human understanding of justice. God is holy and righteous and He is the ultimate judge, not men. Even in the New Testament, there are references to the death penalty. Paul did recognize that God instituted civil government to represent His order and justice. It has been given the power to execute God’s wrath upon those who disobey the law of the land, and as Christians, we must submit and never rebel against these human authorities (Romans 13:1-5). Ultimately, God does exact eternal death in hell upon all sinners who do not repent (Romans 6:23).
It is not correct to say that capital punishment or the death penalty is unbiblical or that God is against it. There may be human judges who hesitate to pronounce the death penalty upon a criminal, for mercy and justice can battle within the human heart. But God is not like man in that He is divided within. When He judges, He is always just, merciful, and loving at the same time, without internal conflict. For instance, when God took away man’s immortality (Genesis 3:22 And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:) after Adam and Eve sinned, it was to spare them from living an endless miserable life of shame and guilt. Death was both justice and mercy. And at the same time, He showed grace and restorative compassion when He revealed His plans for the coming Messiah, who would crush Satan and save mankind (Genesis 3:15). Even King David experienced God’s mercy and grace despite his capital crimes of adultery and murder.
God may have ordered the death penalty or approved of the execution of it by civil authorities, but He does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11); He desires that they turn from their evil ways and go back to Him. As Christians, we also should not resist the government executing the death penalty for those who have done heinous crimes, but we also cannot take joy in it. It is our responsibility to pray and to share the Gospel, even with the “worst of criminals.” Praise God for those who do prison ministry, especially for death row inmates. Many have been saved in prison (even serial killers and terrorists) and have received new life and hope through the Gospel. It reminds us of the salvation given to the thief on the cross beside Jesus (Luke 23:40-43) despite his condemned state. God loves everyone and forgives all kinds of sins. He welcomes all to His kingdom and does count our sins against us when we repent and turn to Him.
“ For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.  But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
(Romans 5:6-8 KJV)