In a previous post on abortion, Matthew Lee raised the issue of how many pro-abortion advocates bring up the death penalty. By doing so, they hope to show that Christians are inconsistent in saying we should never take human life.
Now, in one sense I think this is a non-issue. The objection doesn’t really get off the ground for at least two reasons:
- Even if Christians are inconsistent here, that doesn’t make them wrong to oppose abortion. Perhaps they are simply wrong to support the death penalty. So that doesn’t defuse the pro-life argument.
- The objection relies on a fallacy. Christians are concerned with unjustly taking a human life. But the death penalty is the taking of a human life precisely because justice demands it. So the objection trades on a pretty flagrant category error.
So this objection doesn’t do anything to shift the burden of proof away from the person arguing for abortion. But still, the death penalty is a pretty important topic, so Christians should have an answer to that. As Matthew observed,
If you have some New Testament passages you can point me to that you feel support the death penalty, I would truly love to hear them and your reasoning. I mean that with all sincerity. Quite frankly, it would allow me to respond to this criticism in a much more meaningful way. I could say “I agree with you, but many Christians look at Book Chapter:Verse which says such and such and feel that that means God supports the death penalty. Thus it is not inconsistent with a “pro-life” worldview.”
As it stands, when people bring this up and I don’t have an answer they feel they have somehow taken the moral high ground and it tends to end meaningful discussion of the real issue of abortion.
So I’m going to look at this from a couple of angles. The first is with regard to Matthew’s argument that “when Jesus said only the person who is free from sin can act as executioner that is exactly what he meant.” The passage he’s referencing here is John 8:3-11 (LEB):
Now the scribes and the Pharisees brought to him a woman caught in adultery. And standing her in their midst, they said to him, testing him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery! Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (Now they were saying this to test him, so that they would have an occasion to bring charges against him.)
But Jesus, bending down, began to write with his finger on the ground, taking no notice. And when they persisted in asking him, straightening up he said to them, “The one of you without sin, let him throw the first stone at her!” And bending down again, he wrote on the ground.
Now when they heard it, being convicted by their conscience, they began to depart, one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone—and the woman who was in their midst. So Jesus, straightening up and seeing no one except the woman, said to her, “Where are those accusers of yours? Does no one condemn you?” And she said, “No one, Lord.” So Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”
1. Why John 8:3-11 can’t be used to build an anti-death-penalty theology
I think there are at least three big problems with building a theology against capital punishment from this passage.
A. The uncertainty of the passage’s authenticity
As the ESV Study Bible notes regarding John 7:53–8:11 (emphasis mine),
There is considerable doubt that this story is part of John’s original Gospel, for it is absent from all of the oldest manuscripts. But there is nothing in it unworthy of sound doctrine. It seems best to view the story as something that probably happened during Jesus’ ministry but that was not originally part of what John wrote in his Gospel. Therefore it should not be considered as part of Scripture and should not be used as the basis for building any point of doctrine unless confirmed in Scripture.
And I think Scripture elsewhere strongly supports the death penalty—so any appeal to John 8:3-11 is suspect from the outset, even if the exegesis is sound. That said, I don’t think the exegesis is sound—which leads me to my second objection…
B. The irregularities of the Pharisees’ conduct
The way the Pharisees go about applying the law here throws serious doubt on what principles we can deduce from Jesus’s response. They’re using this woman as a pretext to trap Jesus. So their concern is not with justice, but with injustice. One clear indicator of this—aside from the fact that it’s explicitly stated in verse 6—is that the law actually commands the death of both parties caught in adultery (eg Deuteronomy 22:22). Moreover, as I understand it, the people who were supposed to execute them were the wronged parties; not the religious authorities.
Yet the Pharisees bring only the woman to be stoned, and seem not to have produced any spouses willing to commence the execution. So it’s far from clear that we should take Jesus’s acquittal of this woman to mean that he is overturning the idea of capital punishment. It seems more likely he is overturning the notion that a mock trial is a valid way to execute someone.
C. It proves too much
The principle Jesus draws on for acquitting the woman is, “The one of you without sin, let him throw the first stone at her.” I think many people interpret that as something along the lines of, “Sinners aren’t qualified to judge other sinners.” That seems to be the kind of interpretation you need if you’re going to draw an anti-capital punishment theology out of this.
But surely God didn’t expect such a high standard when he laid out the law for Israel. Why would he sanction capital punishment at all if he knew no one was qualified to carry it out in the first place? (Indeed, if it would positively be sin for anyone to carry it out?)
Moreover, how could we have a judicial system in the first place if sinners aren’t qualified to judge other sinners? After all, this principle doesn’t just apply to capital punishment. If sinners are unqualified to judge other sinners, then presumably no one is qualified to sentence anyone for anything.
So I think the principle Jesus is drawing out here is not that sinners can’t apply the law. The law was given to sinners precisely so they could apply it. Rather, the issue in this case is that the Pharisees were not actually engaged in justice at all—merely hypocrisy.
(There’s also the fact that Jesus says in Matthew 7:2, “with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” I think there’s a pointed sense in John 8:3-11 in which Jesus is suggesting to the Pharisees that it would be much better for them if they did not seek the nth degree of punishment permissible by law, given where they’re headed on the day of judgment.)
2. Scripture supports capital punishment in both the Old and the New Testaments
The second angle to look at this from—and in some ways it makes the appeal to John 8 irrelevant—is to ask what Scripture says elsewhere about the death penalty. Matthew Lee seems particularly concerned with finding evidence in the New Testament, so that’s where I’ll spend my time. But I’d hasten to add that if God sanctions something in the Old Testament, we ought to sanction it also, unless we have good reasons to think it does not apply to our situation. And God clearly does sanction the death penalty in the Old Testament law—see for example Wikipedia’s list of capital crimes in the Torah.
Moreover, this is by no means an innovation for Israel. Rather, it’s an application of a principle of justice we see articulated very early on: namely, that the wages of sin is death (as Paul puts it in Romans 6:23). We also see this being worked out in terms of capital punishment way back in Genesis, when God names murder as a capital crime:
As for the one shedding the blood of humankind,
by humankind his blood shall be shed,
for God made humankind in his own image. (Genesis 9:6)
So these principles really preclude us from thinking that capital punishment was just something intended for Israel’s particular judicial system. That’s actually the opposite of what we find, which is that capital punishment is a practical outworking of a theological principle which spans the entire Bible, and the capital laws given to Israel are just specific examples of this.
But let’s look at the New Testament. Romans 13:3-4:
So do you want not to be afraid of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from it, for it is God’s servant to you for what is good. But if you do what is bad, be afraid, because it does not bear the sword to no purpose. For it is God’s servant, the one who avenges for punishment on the one who does what is bad.
Immediately after instructing believers not to take personal vengeance (Romans 12:17ff), Paul goes on to remind them of the means by which God has appointed human institutions to act as his avenger on earth. And he specifically calls out the Roman military institution as an instrument of God’s law, singling out the sword as a tool of justice.
The sword, of course, is designed to kill. That is its purpose. It was the sidearm of the ancient world. Modern police wear pistols; Roman soldiers wore swords.
Now, I don’t think this passage is advocating soldiers summarily executing wrongdoers. Rather, it is emphasizing two things:
- The individual soldier carries the threat of lethal force to uphold the law. Behind every law, no matter how innocuous, is the threat of lethal force. If you break that law, and you choose to resist arrest, it doesn’t take much to escalate the situation to the point of your death—and there is nothing illegitimate in the authorities killing you if that’s the situation you’ve forced on them.
- The state, as an instrument of God’s authority, uses lethal force (represented by the sword) in the dispensation of justice. The Roman Empire was no stranger to the notion of capital punishment; execution was a common punishment, and often it was most unpleasant (they “popularized” crucifixion, for example). So Paul seems to be explicitly legitimizing the use of lethal force in the dispensation of justice, and saying that even an institution as corrupt as the Roman Empire still maintains law through this method on God’s behalf.
This general approval of the state as an instrument of God is reflected in 1 Peter 2:13-14, and also very notably in Acts 25:11, where Paul is defending himself to Festus against the Jews, who are bringing scurrilous charges against him. He says:
I am standing before the judgment seat of Caesar, where it is necessary for me to be judged. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also know very well. If then I am doing wrong and have done anything deserving death, I am not trying to avoid dying. But if there is nothing true of the things which these people are accusing me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar!
So Paul is not contesting that there are indeed crimes worthy of death—indeed, he says he would not try seek to escape death if he had indeed committed such crimes. It is not because of the injustice of capital punishment that he thinks he should be acquitted, but rather because he is innocent.
These are the clearest places in which the New Testament speaks of capital punishment and the role of the state. And I think the conclusion they force on us is that, far from denouncing capital punishment, the New Testament assumes the same ethical principle as we find in the Old: namely, that the state has a right to use capital punishment in the administration of justice on God’s behalf.