Following the shocking Nia Glassie case, and a similar case in the UK, there has been some discussion on the blogs about whether we should bring back capital punishment. Few people have dared suggest this controversial idea in their posts (except for MK at Crusader Rabbit), but plenty of commenters have suggested it.
Back in the early ’90s, the Christian Heritage party (whose policy was to bring back capital punishment for murder) put out an excellent brochure on it, analysing the issue from a Christian perspective, which I will reproduce in part here (skipping only those bits that directly relate to CHP policy). The issue was analysed in detail in this brochure and I think it would be a good contribution to the debate today.
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT – IS IT BIBLICAL?
There is no doubt that Capital Punishment is an emotive, controversial subject. Many Christians are confused on this issue. Love, grace and mercy are often emphasised without due recognition of justice and the task of the State to uphold all that is good. …
Is Capital Punishment Biblical? …
In Genesis 9:6 the Bible says:
“Whoever sheds man’s blood By man his blood shall be shed For in the image of God He made man.”
It is not without significance that this verse should come after the flood. According to Genesis 6:13 the main cause of God deciding to judge the world by sending the flood was because “the earth was filled with violence”. This verse, then, is God’s remedy for violence.
Essentially it is teaching that capital punishment is the just and right punishment for murder. The verse gives a reason why such a heavy sentence should be given, namely, that murder is an attack on the image of God in which we are made. For this reason it is set apart from all other crimes in its seriousness.
We should also note that this verse is not restricted to Israel; it falls outside the Mosaic law and its supporting rationale is of abiding significance: each new life continues to be made in the image of God.
In the New Testament, Jesus says in Matthew 5:17,18:
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfil. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law…”
Jesus essentially reaffirms the law. He does not pit the law against the grace He was ushering in. Rather He shows the full significance and extent of the law. Thus we should not be surprised to find in Romans 13 a reference to capital punishment where Paul explains the task and function of the State.
He essentially argues that the State is to act on God’s behalf in promoting good and suppressing evil. He says of the State:
“But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.”
In this context the Bible everywhere uses ‘the sword’ as a symbol of death and judgement. Thus, it is teaching that the State is to avenge all evil, on God’s behalf, even to the point of using the sword.
The Evidence Required
It is important to also observe scripture’s teaching on the standards of evidence required before conviction. Both in the Old and New Testaments, such a sentence could not be carried out unless it be on the testimony of two or more eye witnesses. This is to ensure that no innocent person is executed. …
In practical terms this means that Arthur Allan Thomas and Lindy Chamberlain could not have received death sentences as they were convicted on circumstantial and forensic evidence. However David Gray, in Aramoana, who killed many of his victims in front of many witnesses, would have been liable to the death penalty. Most people see the justice in that.
Many Christians get confused on two issues.
- Grace versus Law
Some people pit the wrathful God of the Old Testament against the love and grace of Jesus in the New Testament.
This is, in fact, an ancient heresy. The Bible is clear that God is the same “yesterday, today and forever”. Thus when God judged nations in the Old Testament for shedding innocent blood (e.g. abortion), sexual promiscuity and violence, He is just as likely to do so in our times! The fact that He has not, only proves He is merciful.
The coming of Christ does not mean that law is totally done away with. Neither does the existence of grace and mercy mean that a Government is wrong to insist upon certain standards in society. In fact the very opposite is true. The Government must restrain evil, if the gospel is to spread and be heard (1 Timothy 2:1-7)! If God cannot ignore evil, neither must we. He even sacrificed His own Son in order to satisfy His own holy and just requirements and allow us to live.
When the thief, who was under the sentence of death with Christ, repented and believed, Jesus said that he would be in paradise with Him that very day. But the thief, while eternally forgiven, still had to pay for his crime. It would make mockery of the civil law if belief in Christ allowed one to be pardoned. The same is true for convicted murderers. They may be sentenced to death, but be eternally saved. They certainly have more opportunity to repent and be saved than they gave their victim.
- Personal responsibility versus State responsibility
Some Christians are against the death penalty as violating the spirit of Christianity and the example of Christ.
However, this is often based on a misunderstanding between personal responsibility and the God-given task of the State. As Christians we must not murder, but ‘love our enemies’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. But the State is given the task of suppressing evil and promoting good; to act as a minister of wrath on God’s behalf (Romans 13:1-4). God has ordained it to do what we as individuals cannot do. This is the only way to understand the Bible which sometimes commands us not to kill, but in other passages gives mankind the right to execute evil doers. Such state executions lift them out of the sphere of personal revenge and hatred, and places them in the realm of justice and the preservation of the lives of others. When Jesus dealt with the woman caught in adultery in John 8, He did not let the woman go free. He told them to stone her, if they were without sin! Clearly, Jesus was dealing with their hypocrisy. But He never said that the law was now null and void. He upheld it! When finally his prosecutors withdrew, He dealt with her on a personal level and forgave her sin, something that only Christ as Saviour could do. This is not to suggest that capital punishment should apply to adultery. We reserve this punishment for murder as the only crime sanctional outside the Mosaic law.
What do you think of this? Is capital punishment biblical? Is it applicable today? Would it help reduce our violent crime rate? I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts.