So, a while back I was sent a summons for Jury Duty. Yuck, right? Well, when I was finally selected to be considered for a jury and we were being examined by the Defense Attorney this question came up: “Do you think you could convict a man of murder knowing that the death penalty could be imposed?”
That question was just before we went home so I got to mull it over all night (maybe that’s what the defense wanted). I’ve been in the Military; guns don’t scare me, and I feel that I could have defended my country (thankfully I was never called to that duty, but for those that were – they have my undying gratitude and respect). I study my Bible and feel I have a fair grasp on what God wants for us, but I wanted to remind myself about what the Bible says about this … I needed to remind myself.
Of course, the first place to start is the Old Testament since the idea of “lex talionas” is prominent, very prominent in the old law. Take a moment and read Exodus 21:12-25 – what some versions have set off and labeled as the “Rights of the Accused.” Three crimes are listed as Capital or deserving of death: murder (Exo. 21:12), striking or cursing father or mother (Exo. 21:15, 17), and kidnapping (Exo. 21:16). The legal idea that we are discussing is firmly expressed in these verses:
“23 But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Exo. 21:23-25, NKJV)[I]
Some important considerations do come into focus upon further study. First, those that believed they were innocent of another person’s death could seek shelter and safety until the case could be adjudicated. Second, the victims of violence – if they did not die – had the right to receive monetary recompense for lost labor and medical expenses, or freedom if the injured person was a slave. Third, “lex talionas” may appear harsh, yet the principle limits the amount of retribution that could be demanded for a crime, and the retribution was decided by a judge. An individual didn’t have the right to say, “Well, since you stabbed me, I now have the right to shoot you.”
All of this is certainly good stuff, but the OT and the Law of Moses are there for our learning (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11), and because Christ has “broken down the middle wall of separation” (Eph. 2:14) and has “wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us … having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14); I had to keep looking. Of course, the best place to look for a Christian is the New Testament – the very words by which we will be judged (John 12:48; Rev. 20:12).
It is certainly fair to say that many examine the NT and see a pacifist position being described. As Jesus says,
“38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matt. 5:38-39)
Some affirm that it was here that the idea of Capital Punishment was abolished, as with the rest of the old law. One of the other crimes deserving death in the OT was adultery (Lev. 20:10), and yet Jesus put the emphasis on forgiveness for the woman that was caught in the act. Jesus, after the accusers were gone, told her to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Retribution is replaced with pardon. In John 15:13 we find that greater love does not exist than for one to lay down their life for friends. In 1 John 3:16 we find that the act of Jesus on the cross was how we know He loved us, and that we should be willing to do the same. Therefore, it is suggested that it is an inconsistency to love someone enough to give our lives for them and yet impose Capital Punishment upon them – for any crime. If this was all that was written on Capital Punishment we might feel justified in taking a negative position, but there’s more to be considered.
The NT also makes it very clear that the courts are established for a purpose.
“21 You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’” (Matt. 5:21)
“4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” (Rom. 13:4)
In the first verse above Jesus is speaking during The Sermon on the Mount – the same sermon in which we find the Beatitudes and the Model Prayer. Jesus uses many of the commands from the OT as a starting point and then He moves past the physical to the heart, something the Jews ignored. Jesus did not change or modify the command, but instead used the command as a vehicle to teach a deeper application and understanding. Judgement is not only for those that kill another, but also for those that hate and degrade another. Paul, in the second verse above, is speaking about “the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1) and “rulers” (Rom. 13:3), even noting that by resisting the authority we resist God, bringing judgment upon ourselves (Rom. 13:2). The “authority” is put in place to act as God’s minister to avenge evil, and Paul specifically lists murder with other evils in 1 Timothy 1:9; John also lists murder as a sin that deserves punishment in Revelation 21:8. Further, when Jesus is standing before Pilate (John 19:11) and Paul is standing before Festus (Acts 25:11), both recognize that the appointed representative of the civil government has the authority to administer Capital Punishment.
The answer continued to be elusive until finally I realized that as much as the Scriptures speak to us about love, they also speak to us about justice and the price to be paid for our actions. It is imperative we understand our actions have a cost, and that cost will have to be paid – here and in eternity.
“13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” (1 Pet. 2:13-14)
“8 in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.” (2 Thess. 1:8-9)
There will be a day of judgment for all people (Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 14:11), and at the name of Jesus every knee will bow (Phil. 2:10). All will receive justice at the hand of the Lord, and part of that justice will include those entering the wide gate and going down the broad road to destruction (Matt. 7:13). Do we have a duty to seek forgiveness and restoration? Of course; yet, just as the Court of Heaven will condemn sinners to an eternal damnation, the earthly courts have the power – on the behalf of society, under the authority of God – to condemn and execute judgment on those that break the law. For the Christian the real point is summed up as:
“28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28)
Needless to say, I was struck from the potential jury.
[i] Scripture taken from the new King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.