justice, god

In Defense of the Death Penalty

Last week I wrote a post arguing that it is good to pray for God to end terrorism by justly taking the lives of those that seek to slay the innocent. That post raised a number of questions that illustrate tensions in the Christian world-view.

For example, does the model of Christ’s suffering and love mean that Christians should never use force or engage in war? Does Christ’s death on the Cross for our sins and our salvation mean that Christians are forbidden from taking human life, since Christ’s sacrifice proves His love for humanity? And how do we reconcile God commanding war and actively destroying people in the Old Testament with what we see in the life of Christ in the New Testament?

Today, let me take on two of those: 1). Isn’t all killing wrong? And 2). Shouldn’t Christians turn the other cheek in the face of evil?  

Isn’t all killing is wrong?

Some say that it is wrong for nations to pursue and execute terrorists—or simply that Christians shouldn’t pray for that pursuit to be successful—because war and killing are forbidden by the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

The problem with this reasoning is that the Hebrew word translated murder here is never used in military contexts or for the judicial punishing of crimes (except for Numbers 35:30click here for a pdf on that exception). The Hebrew language has eight different words for killing, and the word used in Exodus 20 is never used in relation to war, the penal system, or to hunting or killing animals. It typically refers to the unlawful killing of a person made in the image of God. It is a specific word which refers to the “private killing of personal enemies” (usually premeditated, with malice, or in some cases it’s used of an accidental killing such as in Numbers 35:6).

In the very next chapter, Exodus 21, God installs capital punishment in Israel, so the 6th commandment can’t be ruling out all killing. The Law of Moses prescribes capital punishment for at least ten different crimes, and in Exodus 22 God allows someone to kill in the case of self-defense or to defend their house. So, the command not to murder obviously isn’t an absolute prohibition on all forms of killing. It certainly didn’t prohibit Israelites going to war, which God himself commanded them to do. This is why it is best to see the sixth commandment as only banning unlawful killing. Hence, “You shall not murder,” instead of “You shall not kill.

C. S. Lewis pointed out, “All killing is not murder any more than all sexual intercourse is adultery.” (Mere Christianity, 118). This distinction obviously plays out through the rest of the Bible. God calls Israel to battle, David to slay Goliath, and Jehu to remove the Baal worshipers from Israel. Even in the New Testament, Jesus commands the disciples to take a sword (Luke 22:36), and we overhear martyrs praying for their blood to be avenged, and God himself answering that prayer (Revelation 6:10).

Or we could look backward from the sixth commandment to Noah. Long before Exodus 20, God made a covenant with Noah whereby he sanctioned capital punishment. Yahweh told Noah; “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6).  Notice Genesis 9 does not say Noah (or is progeny) should wait for God to judge and execute justice. Rather, God speaks of a new era where man through laws and government would be tasked with taking the lives of murderers. Certainly this is what Jesus had in mind when he reinforced the need for the death penalty–“All those who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

So, yes, murder is a sin. But this commandment from Exodus 20 doesn’t negate capital punishment as we see in Genesis 9, or self-defense in Exodus 22, and it certainly doesn’t contradict what Romans 13 says about the state having the right to bear the sword, bringing wrath on the one who practices evil. In fact, the dignity of human life is highlighted by the mandate to put to death those who violate it.

Shouldn’t Christians turn the other cheek?

Jesus said in Matthew 5:38:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

Some have objected the use of force and war in light of Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek. Here we must be careful about what exactly Jesus is correcting. In the Sermon on the Mount he is not critiquing the Jewish government or legal system of civil justice. Instead, he is dismantling the self-righteousness of his listeners. He is going after the misunderstanding that what applied to the courts should also apply to the individual. Part of common grace is that courts are to mete retributive justice. They have the right to take an eye for an eye. But individuals don’t have the right to take the law into our own hands. Even in the Old Testament, the victim never took an eye for an eye. They would go to court, and the court would rule and enforce a just penalty. Lex talionis is for judges, not private citizens. Jesus never undid what the law said about civil justice; he was merely telling his followers that the Pharisees’ application of that in personal matters was wrong.

So should the Christian turn the other cheek? Yes. But there is no contradiction between the saint turning the other cheek and the state executing a murderer. One has to do with personal spirituality, the other has to do with government responsibility. This is the important distinction we must always keep in mind. There are differences between personal ethics and national ethics. They are not the same. A christian police officer should not turn the other cheek when in uniform and faced with a criminal. He should wield the sword that God gave him and punish the criminal (Rom 13:4). In fact, turning the other check as a police officer would be remarkably unloving to society!  But when the uniform is off, that same officer should turn the other cheek and simply live out his Christian faith as an individual.

This distinction is obvious in other areas of life as well. We don’t claim that because governments levy taxes that individuals can as well. The Christian is called to show mercy and grace, and the state is called to punish criminals and exercise justice—two totally different domains, functions, and responsibilities.

Next week we will look more specifically at how these two different roles of state and individual should practically play out in the life of a Christian.

Source: The Cripplegate | Steve Ingino