Politics & The Bible–The Death Penalty

Posted: December 6, 2010 in Uncategorized

The death penalty is a subject that hits very close to my heart.  I helped to defend a young man accused of a capital crime while at Cornell Law School.  I honestly believe he didn’t harm anyone but he was sentenced to death nonetheless.  Therefore, I opened Dr. Grudem’s chapter on the death penalty with a great deal of prejudice.  That being said, here we go…

Wayne Grudem opens the discussion by asking the question, “Should the government take the life of a person who has been convicted of certain crimes?” He begins to answer that question by stringing together three biblical texts he believes are most relevant for a discussion on capital punishment: Genesis 9:5-6; Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14. They read as follows:

Genesis 9:5 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.

Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

1 Peter 2:13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.

After examining these texts, Grudem argues that it is right for the government to take the lives of those who have caused the deaths of others.  He does not deny that there should be enough evidence to reasonably convict someone of such a crime and then inflict the ultimate punishment.  Neither does he deny Scripture’s admonition to love our enemies but he believes that when the entire Bible is balanced that we as Christians have a right to demand justice for crimes while also simultaneously loving those who have hurt us even those who have taken the life of those we love (Romans 12:20)–after all God has such an attitude, does He not?

What about the Sermon on the Mount? Grudem wisely points out that Jesus’ statement about “loving your neighbor as yourself” is a quote from Leviticus, which also prescribes the death penalty.  What about turning the other cheek? Again, as Augustine argued, the only way to harmonize the admonition with the rest of Scripture is to view the teaching as applying to individual Christians only…not nations.  If one plays the Sermon on the Mount as a trump card over the rest of the Bible then the person has created a “canon within the canon” or “Holy Scripture within Scripture.” 

But what about those who have been wrongly convicted? Grudem argues that while there are isolated cases of those who have been released from prison while on death row, no one, to his knowledge, has wrongfully been put to death.  This is where Grudem falls short for how does he know no one has wrongfully been put to death? Moreover, I would be happy to introduce him to someone who shouldn’t be on death row.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe Grudem is right that the Bible does prescribe the death penalty for those who have caused the death of individuals outside of a battlefield but I think he needs to stress one aspect of the Old Testament law, which we find in Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15 and Numbers 35:30 teach that no one is to be put to death on the testimony of less than 2 witnesses.  Why would God demand at least 2 witnesses? It is reasonable to assume that He demanded a high level of certainty before allowing someone to be executed.  Do we demand the same level of evidence from our courts today? Sadly we do not.

Next up, is it proper for a Christian to defend himself or herself with deadly force? Stay tuned.


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