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Is Capital Punishment Biblical?
Does the Bible allow for and impose capital punishment in cases of murder? How about other crimes? By “capital punishment” I mean the act of the civil government ending the life of a criminal in certain cases.
The arguments pro-and con for capital punishment come up from time to time, so I thought it would be useful for brethren to have the scriptures on the subject so you can give a truly Biblical answer on this topic. You will read today of some of the many instances—even beyond murder -- when God prescribed capital punishment.
One reason people believe capital punishment is not Biblical is that they misunderstand the 6th commandment, usually rendered “Thou shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13) But even a quick study of that Hebrew word there will show us that it clearly means “murder” and is translated “murder” in many Bible versions. The KJV “kill” can leave a wrong impression. We are not to murder. If we were not to ever “kill” – then we could never even kill animals or mosquitoes, which was never God’s intent. Of course we can kill animals for food. See Leviticus 11 and Deut 14. And “manslaughter” – the unintentional killing of someone – did not earn the death penalty either.
Let’s read God’s clear instructions after the Flood to Noah in cases where someone has murdered someone else.
Genesis 9:5b-6 “From the hand of every man's brother I will require the life of man.
6 "Whoever sheds man's blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.”
This was told Noah by God himself. When a person murders and takes away someone else’s life, scripture is SO clear: the government of man has the right to end that murderer’s life. So many become repeat murderers, as we all know. Of course the executioner of the murderer, administering justice, is not guilty of murder himself.
The end of Gen 9:6 says one reason murder is so abhorrent to God is that we all are made in the image of God! So committing murder earns the death penalty for that person. As we’ll see there were many other sins that warranted the death penalty as well.
Scripture is also clear that accidentally killing someone, what we might call “manslaughter” – is not the same as premeditated murder.
Here’s a general principle too: when YHVH himself says to end someone’s life, then we’re being obedient to HIS command. We are NOT breaking the 6th command – “Don’t murder” – in those cases. For example, when God told Israel to eliminate the Canaanites in the land he was giving to Israel, that was God’s command. The level of sins being committed by the Canaanites by that time was so egregious that God was imposing his own death penalty, but this time, by the sword of Israel.
When Israel also dropped to such evil levels, they also were severely punished, many died by the enemy’s sword and then Israel and Judah were even sent into captivity. And many died for their evils. They lost that land for a time as well. So God was fair.
- David clearly was not guilty of murder when he killed insolent Goliath, though I heard a Church of God minister say David did break the 6th commandment when he killed Goliath! But the Bible clearly celebrated David’s faith and courage! See. Hebrews 11:32-34.
- Samuel clearly was not guilty of murder when he chopped Agag into pieces, upon God’s command that all Amalekites were to be exterminated for their evils. Saul did not obey that command. HE was the one guilty of disobeying God. 1 Samuel 8:15-33.
Exodus 21:12-14 "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. 13 However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. 14 "But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die.
Leviticus 24:17 'Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death.”
What about someone caught breaking into your home at night? Let’s say you strike him, and he dies. God says the home owner is not guilty of murder in that case. God says it’s different if the break-in happens in daytime though. Read Exodus 22:2-4. On that last one, the laws of the land we live in now make it difficult to protect yourself even in self-defense at home or anywhere else. So be careful to follow self-defense laws in your state or country carefully.
When YHVH himself lays down such clearly worded instructions on what the nation is to do to murderers, we should realize it’s the right thing to do! Of course, this must be left to the civil government, as Paul also explains in Romans 13:1-5.
So believers should accept that, according to God’s word itself, the civil government has the right to execute murderers. We should not fight it. Neither should we feel any joy in the death of anyone. Remember all of us incurred God’s death penalty for breaking HIS law (Romans 6:23). But thankfully God has given us a way to avoid the penalty when we accept what Jesus Christ did for us. But my point is: we can’t get up on our high horse in indignation against others who deserve the death penalty. God was merciful to you. We can hope for mercy to be extended to others who truly turn from their wicked ways too.
When Israel was ruled by God’s law as a nation, there were many other reasons for capital punishment. Are you ready?
Here are a few more: For striking your mom or dad (Exodus 21:15). If a pregnant woman is struck so she loses her child, the offender could be executed, life for life (Exodus 21:22-25). God also said people could be executed for getting involved in witchcraft, seances, being a medium who is contacting the dead (Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:9-11; 1 Chronicles 10:13). People were executed for breaking most of the Ten Commandments, but not all. Idolaters, sabbath breakers, and all adulterers were to be put to death (Leviticus 20:10). Those engaged in bestiality – whether man or woman – were to be put to death (Leviticus 20:15-16). In fact, just read Leviticus 20 and see a wide range of sexual immorality that resulted in the death penalty, by God’s word – including incest and many more.
I know some of you may believe that anyone who broke any of the 10 Commandments earned the death penalty. That’s true, as far as the wages of sin goes, but as far as what the civil authorities were allowed to do, that wasn’t the case. For example, thieves were allowed to live, but they had to pay back 4x for sheep and 5x for stolen oxen. See Exodus 22:1. Neither do I see any command to execute someone who coveted. That was probably a good thing as hardly anyone would have been left alive!
A false witness – once discovered – earned the penalty that would have been given to the one he was lying against (Deuteronomy 19:16-20). Imagine if we practiced that law today!
God also pronounced the death penalty on prophets or ministers who claimed God had spoken to them, when God had not done so. (I hear that so often within Protestant churches –“God told me” or “God said…” as they preach.) Read Deuteronomy 18:20-22.
Ministers: be so careful not to do this! You think it makes your sermons more interesting, but if God really has not spoken to you about something, don’t claim you heard his voice or heard him tell you something if you did not. But if you have a strong urge to do or say something you feel is from the Almighty, then indeed do so, after testing “the spirits.” Someone who gives a very specific prophecy that does not come to pass is a false prophet.
Kidnappers were also to be executed (Deut. 24:7). There are many other listed reasons for incurring the death penalty. My point is: God himself declares the death penalty both in the Old Testament and New Testament (Romans 13:1-7).
The point should be getting very clear now: God tells us there are certain misdeeds, evils, crimes, etc., that deserve the death penalty by the proper authorities, according to God’s own command.
There’s another Biblical principle: if we don’t execute justice speedily, it’s just a normal tendency for murderers and other lawbreakers, to keep doing evil.
Ecclesiastes 8:11 NKJV “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.”
Ecclesiastes 8:11 NLT “When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong.”
Many states no longer even have the death penalty. Only 3 executions occurred in 2021 nationwide in the USA.
God is merciful. When there’s been admission of sin and contrition, we can be happy if some do not receive the death penalty. YOU will not receive the death penalty you earned. And God did not execute King David and Bathsheba for adultery, though it carried the death penalty, for example. See Leviticus 20:10 and 2 Samuel 12:12-13.
This is worthy reading and contemplation. I have always thought capital punishment is against the will of God but this article has debunked that belief and opinion in me. I now understand what capital punishment is in the light of God's word, I now understand better. Thank you Philip Shields, for writing about this and for the Biblical clarifications. George Otieno, Kenya Minister.
Thanks a lot Brother Phillip for clearing the air on this subject. I have now grasp the meaning of capital punishment in light of the Scriptures. I like the way you have tied it to the Scriptures. Be blessed. Bro. Ondigo , Kenya.