For the Church, the issue of capital punishment is a particularly hard topic to discuss. Within the Bible, there is a basis for both the support and the rejection of capital punishment to be argued and supported. On one hand, dangerous criminals should be held accountable for what they have done and some believe that the only appropriate punishment is death. While on the other hand, it can be argued that while criminals should be held accountable, that death is not an appropriate punishment because God is a God of mercy and grace. My intent is to explore both sides and investigate the hermeneutical and spiritual issues that come with this huge debate of capital punishment.
Charles Colson and the Affirmative
Theological support for capital punishment comes primarily from Lex Talionis or law of the talion or more simply, an eye for an eye. Charles Colson notes that, “Justice in God’s eyes requires that the response to on offense- whether against God or humanity- be proportionate.” In other words, if a human is to kill another human being, then the punishment should fit the crime; he should be killed as well. This principle comes from Exodus 21:23-25 which states, “If there is an injury, then you must give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.” Further Biblical support for this argument comes from Genesis 9:6 which states, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans his blood will be shed, for God made humans in his image.”
The issue with this view is that it does not take the Gospel into a full account. The majority of the texts supporting this view are from the Old Testament law and the only New Testament passage that builds a case for capital punishment is Romans 13:1-7. Before looking at the specific issue with a theological support of capital punishment, it is necessary to briefly breakdown this text. In the literary context of this passage is Paul laying out a vision of Christian ethics and living (Romans 12-13). The main issue with arguing this verse is the historical context. Paul wrote this letter to Christians living in Rome. They faced persecutions of all kinds simply for the fact that their leader was crucified. Crucifixion practically being a curse word in Roman society. Making this, not just a statement about government authority, but also a basis for Christians to be submissive to that authority. While Christians who affirm capital punishment are very quick to run to Romans 13, they often never seem to mention Romans 12:19 which says, “Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay.” This not merely for the Roman church, this is for all Christians throughout time and space. God will have vengeance and as Revelation 21:8 suggests, those who deserve justice by the hands of God. Romans 13 is not sufficient enough evidence for supporting a Christian affirmation of a mandate for capital punishment.
Which leads to the issue of faithfulness to the life and sacrifice of Jesus. In the same letter, Paul argues that Christ was the fulfillment of the law. This, however, does not mean that criminals should not be held accountable. Yes, they should be held accountable, but for the Christian ethic, death is not an option to support. Christ became the appropriate sacrifice for all. While there is an obligation to keep dangerous criminals off of the street, there is not much of a basis for a mandate of capital punishment
Matthew Arbo’s Argument Against
In the argument against Lex talionis, Arbo states that, “If one wishes to justify punishment on the Old Testament’s Lex talionis principle, then one must demonstrate how death as a punitive measure is morally right, since the civil and ceremonial elements of the law have been fulfilled in Christ.” This goes back to Romans 8:3-4 which states that, “what the law could not do since it was weakened by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” In reference to Matthew 5: 38-41, Arbo notes that, “If one is subject to wrongdoing or injustice, Jesus implores forbearance and charity, dismissing any reading that justifies vengeance.”
Another theological issue with capital punishment is the chance for conversion. Upon death, the person is no longer eligible for salvation. Arbo further notes that, “Clemency better allows for the possibility of rebirth in Christ.” And while the possibility is not guaranteed, it still gives the criminal a chance.
Now that both arguments have been briefly fleshed out and put under a microscope, the question comes to mind as which argument is most Biblical. The affirmative side seems to only be coming out an Old testament view of law. And while Romans 13 is a very convincing passage in support, using it to argue for the justification of capital punishment is useless. They are not reading Roman 13 with an entire view of Scripture and the Gospel. Secondly, they do not take into account Jesus teaching in Matthew 5:38-41. Theologically, there are several reasons why capital punishment can not be held as a working view of justice. As stated before, Revelation 21:8 speaks of the final death where God, in all of his glory, condemns the wicked and detestable. I cannot begin to know the pain and suffering that would come from losing a loved one to murder. But I have faith in God that he will redeem this world. I have the hope of Christ who took the world upon himself so that we might have salvation from the sin that resides in our hearts. I have hope in the Holy Spirit who comforts the soul and guides me through life. The beauty of the Gospel is that it does not stop with the resurrection. Jesus is coming back. He will come the take his children and to repay the justice that we so desperately long for. We long for justice. That is the reality of living in a broken and sinful world. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” As the Church of God, may we stop advocating for intentional deaths of criminals. May we let the groaning and the aching for justice sit on the back of Christ as we walk in this broken world. May Christ come quickly so that we may no longer groan for justice.
E. Brady Cox