Does the Bible really demand death for a wide variety of offenses? Well, yes and no.
“Old Testament law commanded the death penalty for various acts,” note the theologians at Got Questions?
God was the first to set up the death penalty, agrees the conservative website Creation Tips.
However, most people are convinced that Jesus opposed capital punishment, notes author David Reagan. “In the eyes of both proponents and opponents of the death penalty, the case is closed. Jesus would be against it. But, I must protest. Most theologians, as usual, are wrong. Jesus did support the death penalty and He left a hearty biblical record proving the point. Jesus has been so remade by the modern world into a mix of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Tiny Tim that they cannot see the Jesus clearly portrayed in the Bible. Let us look at the record.”
Indeed, the scriptures list quite a number of capital offenses, concede the Got Questions? Theologians: “murder (Exodus 21:12), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), being a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:5), prostitution and rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), and several other crimes. However, God often showed mercy when the death penalty was due. David committed adultery and murder, yet God did not demand his life be taken (2 Samuel 11:1-5,14-17;2 Samuel 12:13). Ultimately, every sin we commit should result in the death penalty because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Thankfully, God demonstrates His love for us in not condemning us (Romans 5:8).”
But then there’s the matter of “what did Jesus do?”
“When the Pharisees brought a woman who was caught in the act of adultery to Jesus,” continues Got Questions? “and asked Him if she should be stoned, Jesus replied, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). This should not be used to indicate that Jesus rejected capital punishment in all instances. Jesus was simply exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The Pharisees wanted to trick Jesus into breaking the Old Testament law; they did not truly care about the woman being stoned (where was the man who was caught in adultery?) God is the One who instituted capital punishment: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6).
“Jesus would support capital punishment in some instances. Jesus also demonstrated grace when capital punishment was due (John 8:1-11). The apostle Paul definitely recognized the power of the government to institute capital punishment where appropriate (Romans 13:1-7).
“Consider this,” argues Reagan: “The Mosaic Law very strongly supported the death penalty and Jesus never once disobeyed the law or taught against it. He said, ‘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). The law made numerous provisions for the death penalty. Jesus did not come to destroy these provisions but to fulfill them. As such, He would have supported the death penalty.
“After the worldwide Flood of Noah’s time,” write Creation Tips, “God put safeguards in place against human violence. Of prime importance was the death penalty: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man’ (Genesis 9:6).
“If a human or an animal killed a human, the killer was to be put to death (Genesis 9:5). This was because of the sacredness of human life. God created humans in His image, so murdering another human meant you would forfeit your own life.
“Interestingly, God has never revoked the death penalty. Jesus said He did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfil it (Matthew 5:17). And the Apostle Paul preached about the government’s right to invoke capital punishment on evildoers (Romans 13:1-5).
“What about wrong convictions? What if an innocent person is wrongly sentenced to death?
“Well,” answer the Creation Tips folks, “there is no more famous case of an innocent person’s being condemned to death than when God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, endured an unjust trial on trumped-up charges, suffered, and died on a wooden cross. Yet God did not intervene. The need for justice is so strong that it seems He is willing to put up with an occasional wrong conviction rather than remove the death penalty.
“But God is also merciful. He often shows charity and mercy when the death penalty is due. David committed murder, yet God did not take his life. In John chapter 8 we read that the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery, and asked Him whether she should be stoned to death, as the Law of Moses required. Jesus said, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’ They all left.
“God allows governments to impose the death penalty. We should all be aware that if we do wrong in a country that allows the death penalty, we must be ready for the punishment.
“Those who say the death penalty isn’t a deterrent to crime miss the point. The penalty is not chiefly to deter others, but to punish and remove from society the one who would perpetrate such serious crimes.
“How should a Christian view the death penalty?” ask the Got Questions theologians. “First, we must remember that God has instituted capital punishment in His Word; therefore, it would be presumptuous of us to think that we could institute a higher standard. God has the highest standard of any being; He is perfect. This standard applies not only to us but to Himself. Therefore, He loves to an infinite degree, and He has mercy to an infinite degree. We also see that He has wrath to an infinite degree, and it is all maintained in a perfect balance.
the death penalty in all instances. Christians should never rejoice when the death penalty is employed, but at the same time, Christians should not fight against the government’s right to execute the perpetrators of the most evil of crimes.”
“One more proof can be found in the ministry and message of the Apostle Paul,” writes Reagan. “Paul told those to whom he ministered, ‘Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul was not sinless as His Savior was. But he was meticulous in his service to God (see Philippians 3:4-6). And, according to his own testimony, he was careful to follow the life of Jesus Christ. Certainly, if Jesus had been opposed to the death penalty, then so would Paul have been.
“However, Paul recognized the justice of the death penalty. When he was brought before the judgment seat of Festus, he said, ‘For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die’ (Acts 25:11). By this, Paul admitted that there were offenses worthy of death and that the government had the right to administer death in those cases.
The problem of whether the Bible supports the death penalty has nothing to do with the clarity of scripture, says Reagan. Instead, “It has everything to do with the carnal preconceptions of man. Man wants a toothless Jesus. He wants the Jesus who suffers the little children to come but he rejects the Jesus who runs the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip. He wants a Jesus who will smile on his fornication and adultery, on his dishonesty and hypocrisy, with a boys-will-be-boys look. He does not want the Jesus who called the Pharisees a bunch of ugly names (see Matthew 23) or the One who talked about hell more than He talked about heaven.
“In short,” says Reagan, “modern man wants, and so envisions, ‘another Jesus.’ The Corinthians are warned against such teachers and preachers. ‘For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him’ (2 Corinthians 11:4). We should still warn believers of such false prophets today.
“Jesus believed in the death penalty,” concludes Reagan. “It was established by God, codified by the law, supported by Jesus Himself and sustained by the Apostle Paul. Theologians have no biblical evidence against it. They only have their perception of another Jesus. May we never follow that other Jesus, but ever remain faithful to the Jesus of the Holy Bible.”