Capital Punishment as a Recognition of the Sanctity of Life

Capital Punishment as a Recognition of the Sanctity of Life

The following are notes from our Wednesday evening Bible study discussion of June 7, 2023. It is wonderful to be able to talk about serious truths while enjoying a night of laughter and fellowship. This is what Wednesday nights are at CRBC and we invite you to join us from 7-8 PM.

During the course of the evening, we discussed various things related to the wording of the text itself, the subjects of burnt offerings, atonement, the alteration of man’s relationship with the animal kingdom, the command to avoid the eating of blood, and this led us finally to the topic of capital punishment.

Our passage of focus is Genesis 8:20-9:6:

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse[a] the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
9 And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. 3 Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. 4 But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
   by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

The issue of capital punishment is, at its heart, an issue of the sanctity of life. Those who oppose the death penalty argue otherwise claiming capital punishment is, by definition, a failure to recognize the inherent dignity of human life that all people share- including those who commit the crime of murder. The Scriptures, we will see, argue differently.

The subject of the sanctity of life has been a thread that runs through the first chapters of Genesis. The first sin recorded after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden is Cain’s killing of Abel and, in response, the curse pronounced upon Adam is amplified in the curse placed upon Cain. Cain, like his parents, will one day return to the ground but, due to his shedding the blood of Abel upon the ground, Cain is now also cursed “from the ground” (4:11) as it will not yield crops unto him as it once had and he would now be a restless wanderer upon the earth. Nevertheless, God’s view of the sanctity of life is such that even Cain is protected from his life being taken by others by there being a mark from God placed upon on him (4:15). Cain does not learn from God’s mercy, however, and we find him and his descendants after him, living in continued rebellion against God. This is exemplified in Lamech’s boast that he has killed someone. Considering the construction of the biblical narrative as the two lines of mankind- the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent- develop, it is clear that Lamech is put forth as an illustration of the progress of evil in the land. By the time we get to God unleashing the flood, we are told that the earth was filled with violence (6:11) and this was one of the causes for God’s judgment. In this way, the flood is linked to mankind’s lack of recognition of the sanctity of human life.

After the flood, in His mercy God determines that He will not again judge the earth in this way despite the fact that man’s heart remains evil from his youth (8:21). Once again, however, God demonstrates the value He places on human life by making provision for it. Theologian John Murray points out that the provisions in the first verses of chapter 9 are all in service to the safeguarding and enhancement of life:

     9:1 – the propagation of life (seen again in vs. 7)

     9:2-3 – the sustenance of life

     9:2, 5-6 – the protection of life

God’s statement of 9:6 that, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,” could be taken simply as a fact. In other words, God is saying that divine retribution will eventually catch up with one who is guilty of murder and this is a declaration, not a commandment. It is generally accepted, however, that this is, in fact, a command for capital punishment for the following reasons:

     1) Verse 5 states that “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.” This seems to lay a requirement on the “fellow man” to avenge the killing of another.

     2) Verse 6, then, appears to give the reason why such a command would be given.  

     3) Later the law of God would demand that a murderer be put to death ( for example Numbers 35:16-21) which would be a legal codification of the intent Genesis 9:5-6.  

What we learn in Genesis 9:6 is that the institution of capital punishment is grounded in the fact that people are bearers of the divine image. This sets mankind apart from the animals. It follows that to attack a person is to attack the image of God. Genesis 9:6 is also pointing to the fact that the fall did not erase the divine image in man. The image remains intact despite the fact that man’s heart remains evil from his youth. This serves to direct us to the perpetuity of this divine command. Because the image of God will always be in man, the prohibition against murder, as well as the punishment for it, will always remain in force. We see this illustrated in the inclusion of the prohibitions and judgments in the Mosaic code, as well as in the call for human governments to “yield the sword” in Romans 13.

The 6th commandment of the moral law contains the prohibition “Thou shalt not kill.” Some try to make this command say more than it does by arguing that all forms of killing, including the death penalty, are prohibited. The proper way to understand this command, however, is to take it as a prohibition of murder, not killing in general. This is easily proven by pointing to the Mosaic laws’ prescription of the death penalty for, not simply murder, but a number of sins including adultery. In addition, the provision of sanctuary cities (Numbers 35:9-28) points to the recognition of a distinction between murder and other forms of killing. The sanctuary cities were established so that a person who has killed another could flee to them for protection from acts of vengeance and for them to get a fair hearing regarding what had taken place. The one who had committed the act would go before a tribunal who would determine whether the person was guilty of murder or if the death was a result of an accident and that the charged acted without any ill intent. If found to be guilty of murder, they were to be put to death. If not, their lives were to be spared and shielded from harm as they remained in the city.

It is in light of all of this that we view the power of the sword given to the government in Romans 13:1-7 (s.a., 1 Peter 2:13-17). The government is shown to be the instrument of God’s justice against crimes such as murder as it bears “the sword” and “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Given this command, it would be in violation of God’s clear declarative will for the government to not uphold and enforce the death penalty.

What we discover in examining the whole council of God is that the commands “Thou shalt not murder” and “Whoever sheds a man’s blood but man his blood must be shed” are both serving the same ends- the upholding of the sanctity of life. You cannot murder someone for to do so is to ignore God’s image in them and to declare that their life is not of value. If you do murder someone, the sanctity of the life of the one who was killed is, likewise, acknowledged and upheld by the execution of the one who committed the crime. Capital punishment is a declaration of the value that God places on human lives.

Answering the critics:  

(Some of these arguments, as well as the quotes, are taken from the book “Do the Right Thing: Readings in Applied Ethics and Social Philosophy” by Francis J. Beckwith.)

1) Question: “It used to be that the penalty for adultery was death. You don’t argue for the execution of  adulterers, why do you pick and choose which law to obey? Why execute murderers?”

What would you say?

We would respond by pointing to the following:

     1) The character of the sin. Murder is a greater, and more permanent, offense.

               a. In murder, there is no way to secure forgiveness from the offended party while, in adultery, forgiveness and restoration/compensation can be had.

               b. The fact that the image of God in the offended party has been permanently destroyed rather than offended.

     2) The timing at which capital punishment was instituted and the intended scope.

               a. The prescription of execution for adultery was a part of the civil laws of the nation of Israel. The prescription for the death penalty pre-dated Israel and was clearly given as a universal commandment for all of mankind for all times.

     3) Jesus seems to have abrogated the death penalty by saying that adultery would be addressed by divorce rather than by execution (Matthew 5:21, 32; 19:9).
     4) The giving of the power of the sword to the government points to the perpetuity of the command. Even if murder is not explicitly stated as the justification for the sword, it certainly would be included for it could not be justifiably used for lesser crimes and not for murder.

     5) In Acts 25:11, Paul indicates that if he had committed a crime worthy of death then he would not refuse to die. In this:  

               a. Paul recognizes that there are crimes worthy of death.

               b. Paul also recognizes the authority of the government to put someone to death.

2) “Capital punishment only compounds the offence by adding murder to murder.”

Why are they wrong?

In enforcing capital punishment, the State does not violate a murderer’s right to life as the murderer has already, of their own accord, forfeited that right.  The right to life can be overridden and the murder of another takes away that God-given right of the murderer. That being so, the murderer has not only forfeited his right to life, he has put himself positively in the position of deserving death. In their execution, therefore, the offence has not been compounded but, rather,  justice has been made right.

3) “Studies show that capital punishment does not deter potential murderers?”

     a) We actually cannot measure accurately the deterrent effect that capital punishment has on murder- how many people are going to tell a pollster “I was going to murder someone but decided not to for fear of execution”? There are, however, anecdotes from criminals how have said that, for example, they had chosen not to carry a gun during a crime such as theft so as to avoid the potential of their being charged with murder if they were to get caught in the act.

     b) Ernest van den Haag proposed a “Best-bet argument.” In it, he states that we may not know if capital punishment deters murder or not but that we ought to bet that it does. In other words, we ought to bet in favor of the innocent not in favor of the murderer. If we are right that it does deter murder, we’ve saved the lives of innocent people. If we are wrong and it does not deter murderers, the worst-case scenario is that we’ve executed murderers.

     c) The purpose behind capital punishment is not deterrence. The law of God is the deterrent. Once that law has been broken, the motive of the punishment is justice.

4) Former British Prime Minister Edward Heath said,

“The real point which is emphasized to me by many constituents is that even if the death penalty is not a deterrent, murderers deserve to die. This is the question of revenge. Again, this will be a matter of moral judgment for each of us. I do not believe in revenge. If I were to become the victim of terrorists, I would not wish them to be hanged or killed in any other way for revenge. All that would do is deepen the bitterness which already tragically exists in the conflicts we experience in society, particularly in Northern Ireland. (368)

How would you respond?

There is a difference between revenge and retribution (capital punishment). Revenge is a personal response towards someone who has injured you and often leads to an unequal distribution of punishment as vengeance is typically the result of anger and a desire for the offender to suffer a worse fate than the offended. Retribution is intended to be an impartial and impersonal response to the crime. The punishment enforced is equal to the gravity of the offense. In the case of murder, the punishment of execution is one of equal weight.  

5) “Innocent people could be wrongfully convicted and if even one innocent person is executed, that is one too many as it makes our government on the same level as a murderer.”

No one could justifiably argue that the execution of an innocent party is equivalent to murder. The act is retributive in nature and unintentionally wrongly applied. A society would be better served if efforts to ensure that the wrongly accused are not executed are followed rather than the punishment being altogether dismissed.

6) “The death penalty denies the murderer’s dignity as a human being. No crime can erase their inherent dignity.” Thurgood Marshall argued, “such a punishment has as its very basis the total denial of the wrongdoer’s dignity and worth.”

Capital punishment, as argued above, actually recognizes human dignity, it does not deny it. It is concerned with upholding the dignity of the victim and recognizing their worth as one made in the image of God.  

7) “To execute someone is to treat them as if they are not a moral agent and capable of reform. Once they are executed, such reform is impossible.”

Capital punishment recognizes the murderer as a moral agent in that it holds them responsible for the acts that they have chosen to commit. To not hold them responsible would be to treat them as less than autonomous moral agents who are not responsible for their own actions. Withholding capital punishment is, therefore, to declare them to be less than they are. It is to dehumanize them.  Additionally, reform is not rendered impossible leading up to one’s execution. Stories of those who have come to sincere repentance, even faith in Christ,  before their execution are not that uncommon.

8) “What about if they have become a Christian while awaiting execution?”

We recognize that the death penalty is not an absolute. For example, David had Uriah killed. As a result, David’s son died, but David did not face judgment. Paul is said to have been “breathing threats and murders” against the disciples (Acts 9:1) before his conversion. By implication, the State would have some leeway in determining if someone had come to such a state of contrition that they could justifiably be released from the sentence of death. At the same time, if clemency is not granted, we could not argue that the state has acted unjustly. They have, rather, upheld the decree of God and the dignity of man.

A case in point is the story of Karla Faye Tucker. She admitted that she killed two people in September of 1983. While in prison she said that she picked up a Bible from a prison ministry program and, "I didn't know what I was reading. Before I knew it, I was in the middle of my cell floor on my knees. I was just asking God to forgive me." While Tucker did request that her death sentence be reduced to life in prison and her advocates argued that she could accomplish much good in the prison system through the sharing of her faith, her request was denied. Her last words were, “I am going to be face to face with Jesus now. Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you.”

Later, the head of the team that oversaw the execution of prisoners, Fred Allen, suffered an emotional breakdown and changed his position on the death penalty. He said, "I was pro capital punishment. After Karla Faye and after all this, until this day, eleven years later, no sir. Nobody has the right to take another life. I don't care if it's the law. And it's so easy to change the law."

While sympathizing with Mr. Allen and having our hearts moved over the beautiful story of conversion, we would have to say that God is glorified in the salvation of Ms. Tucker and He is glorified in her execution. God’s law is upheld, justice is done, the dignity of life is recognized, and Karla Faye Tucker entered into the presence of her Savior- a testimony to His grace and mercy.

Soli deo gloria.  


What do we do with Matthew 5:21-26 or 1 John 3:15? Are those who call someone a “fool” as guilty as a murderer?

We would have to argue “no.” We need to understand that Jesus is countering those who claimed that only those who commit the actual act of murder will face judgment before God. He is not creating an equivalence between hatred in the heart and the actual physical act of murder but saying, rather, that hatred in the heart will be judged too.

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