God and Capital Punishment
[NOTE: The author of the following article is an A.P. board member.]
In 1984 leaders of 13 major denominational churches in Florida signed a joint document condemning capital punishment. They described the death penalty as being extremely harmful, immoral, an action that encourages violence and demonstrates disrespect for human life and is inconsistent with the love of God.1 The conduct of these religious leaders is a classic example of refusing to think right about God. Capital punishment is a principle that is divine in origin and permanent in nature. It embraces all of time. God intends for the death penalty to be employed as an act of justice by duly authorized authorities for as long as man should inhabit the earth.
God as Executioner
It is incomprehensible that anyone with even a superficial knowledge of the Bible would object to the death penalty. The Bible is replete with examples of capital punishment with God as the executioner. Was God acting immorally, exhibiting disrespect for human life, and in defiance of His own nature when he destroyed the world of Noah’s day with a global flood? Can a man descend to a depth of sin and evil that he no longer deserves to live? The mind is the axis of life. The minds of the objects of God’s wrath were incessantly evil. They were barren of a single good thought (Genesis 6:5). They feasted on vileness like vultures on the rot of dead flesh and filled the earth “with violence” (Genesis 6:11). Had they forfeited the right to life? Is not God sovereign over all that is? Is He not the source of life? Does He not retain the right to decide when life should end? Is it possible for God to act in a manner inconsistent with His own nature? Is a man thinking right about God when, by implication, he accuses God of acting immorally? “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?” (Romans 9:20). The flood alone is proof of the moral justice of capital punishment and of its complete compatibility with the whole of God’s nature.
God executed capital punishment against Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim (Genesis 19). The inhabitants of these wicked cities had perverted the very core of man’s sexual being as designed by God. They were sick with sin. They coveted the unnatural and abnormal. They heaped dishonor upon “their own bodies” (Romans 1:24). They yearned after “strange flesh” (Jude 7). Their sexual passions were “vile” (Romans 1:26). They could not “cease from sin” (2 Peter 2:14). They had reached the point of no return. Did they deserve to live? God utterly destroyed these cities with burning sulphur and emblazoned the memory of them before the minds of men “for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire” (Jude 7).
Was God acting improperly when He slew Er, Judah’s firstborn, because he was wicked (Genesis 38:7), killed his brother Onan, because he refused to submit to the Levirate marriage law and perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel (Genesis 38:8-10), or when “it came to pass at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of livestock?” (Exodus 12:29). Does man have the right to call God into account for His actions? “Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘why have you made me like this?’” (Romans 9:20). Who is weak, frail, puny, sinful man to question the conduct of God? God destroyed the army of Egypt in the Red Sea (Exodus 14:26-28). He killed Nadab and Abihu because they “offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). He slew some in Israel who loathed the gift of manna, looked backward with longing eyes to the food provisions in Egypt, and demanded a change in diet (Numbers 11:4–34), and killed the ten spies who returned from Canaan with an evil report (Numbers 14:37). Is a man spiritually rational when he depicts such actions of God as immoral and dishonoring to human life?
God destroyed the families of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in the heart of the earth and 250 princes with fire because they rebelled against the authority of Moses and demanded access to the priesthood (Numbers 16:1-33). He then slew 14,700 in Israel who accused Moses and Aaron of killing “the people of the Lord” (Numbers 16:41). He executed capital punishment upon a large number of Israelites who expressed contempt for the leadership of Moses and God’s provisions of grace in the wilderness (Numbers 21:5-6). He slew 23,000 in Israel for fornication and idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:8), commanded an additional thousand to be executed by the hands of judges (Numbers 25:1-9), and granted Joshua a victory over a coalition of five armies by killing more soldiers with hailstones than the army of Israel had slain in battle (Joshua 10:11).
God executed a host of men in Bethshemesh because of their lack of reverence for the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 6:19), killed Nabal for his wickedness (1 Samuel 25:38), and slew Uzzah for touching the ark (2 Samuel 6:7). He killed 70,000 men of Israel as an act of judgment upon David and Israel because of sin (2 Samuel 24:15), used a lion to slay a disobedient prophet from Judah (1 Kings 13:24), and slew Jeroboam, the first king of the northern kingdom (2 Chronicles 13:20). He executed 102 soldiers in Israel who refused to honor His authority through Elijah (2 Kings 1:1-12), used an angel to kill 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night (2 Kings 19:35), and slew Jehoram, the fifth king of Judah, with a bodily disease (2 Chronicles 21:18-19). God killed Ananias and Sapphira for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-10) and slew Herod for refusing to glorify God (Acts 12:23). Is a man thinking right about God when he arrays God’s love against God’s holiness, justice, and wrath and depicts capital punishment as harmful, immoral, and lacking in respect for human life?
Man as God’s Executioner
God often used man to administer judgment upon men and nations whose sin and rebellion called for the cessation of life. He used the sons of Levi to slay some three thousand men who had sinned in worshiping the golden calf (Exodus 32:27-28). He used Israel to stone a man who blasphemed the name of God (Leviticus. 24:10-14) and a man who violated the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36) and to bring judgment on His enemies (Numbers 21), and He praised and blessed Phinehas for appeasing His wrath in slaying two adulterers (Numbers 25:6-14). God’s statement to Abraham, “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16), points to the inevitable judgment that would befall the inhabitants of Canaan when their sin reached the full mark. At the close of his life, Moses reminded Israel of the end of God’s grace, mercy, and forbearance with the seven nations in Canaan, and said, “And when the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.” (Deuteronomy 7:2). God used the nation of Israel to execute judgment upon the people of Canaan for their longstanding idolatry and sin (Joshua 1-12).
God used Israel to administer capital punishment upon Achan and his family (Joshua 7). The period of the judges was a spiritually tumultuous period in Israel’s history as the people “did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way” (Judges 2:19). They adopted the idolatry and wicked ways of the pagan nations. God utilized the king of Mesopotamia; Eglon, king of Moab; Jabin, king of Canaan; the Midianites, Ammonites, and Philistines to bring judgment upon them. As they manifested repentance, God would raise up judges to lead Israel in freeing the nation from the oppression of these heathen rulers and punishing them for their own idolatry and sin. Rivers of blood flowed across the land during this chaotic period as God used men to inflict capital punishment upon other men because of their impenitent sin and rebellion.
The Ammonites were descendants of Lot. They were pagan, idolatrous, cruel, and exceedingly corrupt. They refused to aid Israel in a time of great need and joined Moab in hiring Balaam to curse them (Deuteronomy 23:4). In the early days of Saul’s reign, they threatened to gouge out the right eyes of all the men in the city of Jabesh (1 Samuel 11:2). And the “spirit of God came upon Saul” (1 Samuel 11:6), and God employed Saul and Israel to kill the Ammonites until “it happened that those who survived were scattered, so that no two of them were left together” (1 Samuel 11:11). The Amalekites shared kinship with the Ammonites in idolatry, cruelty, and wickedness. When Israel ascended out of Egypt, the Amalekites attacked them from behind, killing the most vulnerable: the elderly, weak, and feeble (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). God reminded Saul of this act of inhumanness and said, “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them.” (1 Samuel 15:3).
David was a “man of war” (1 Chronicles 28:3). He was a sword of judgment in the hand of God to execute the penalty of death upon the enemies of God, whose corruptness of life called for their destruction. He often inquired of the Lord, seeking His will concerning battle engagements. He said of God, “He teaches my hands to make war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.” (2 Samuel 22:35). In a summary of some of his military victories, inspiration asserts, “And the Lord preserved David wherever he went.” (2 Samuel 8:14). God’s role for David’s life was for him to function as a hammer of God’s judgment upon heathen nations steeped in idolatry and iniquity and to secure and bring peace to Israel, thus creating a tranquil environment for Solomon to construct the Temple. It was this very point that David pressed upon the mind of Solomon in the closing days of his life (1 Chronicles 22:6-19).
God used Abijah, the second king of Judah, to render judgment upon Jeroboam and Israel because of their apostasy and idolatry. Five hundred thousand men of Israel perished in this conflict. Judah was victorious because “they relied upon the Lord God of their fathers” (2 Chronicles 13:18). Asa, the third king of Judah, faced an Ethiopian army of a million soldiers, the largest army mentioned in the Old Testament. He implored God for divine aid. “So the Lord struck the Ethiopians before Asa, and before Judah” (2 Chronicles 14:12). During the reign of Jehoshaphat, the armies of Ammon, Moab, and Edom descended upon Judah. In Jehoshaphat’s prayer before the congregation of Judah in Jerusalem, he expressed the nation’s helpless state and their total dependence upon God. God executed judgment upon the wicked nations by turning their swords against one another until “and there were their dead bodies, fallen on the earth. No one had escaped.” (2 Chronicles 20:24).
Idolaters and enemies of God, the Syrians affirmed that God was only a local Deity with limited power (1 Kings 20:28). God employed Israel to punish Syria and they “killed one hundred thousand foot soldiers of the Syrians in one day.” (1 Kings 20:29). An additional 27 thousand were killed by the weight of a wall that fell upon them in the city of Aphek (1 Kings 20:30). God utilized Jehu to judge the wicked house of Ahab. “So Jehu killed all who remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, and all his great men and his close acquaintances and his priests, until he left him none remaining.” (2 Kings 10:11). He then killed all the worshipers of Baal until he had “destroyed Baal out of Israel” (2 Kings 10:28).
Israel descended into such depths of sin that God raised the sword of Assyria against them and destroyed their national identity in Assyrian captivity (2 Kings 17:5-23). Judah emulated Israel’s conduct and God utilized Babylon to execute judgment upon them. He later used the Medes and Persians to judge Babylon. Isaiah specifies ten pagan nations who suffered the judgment of God because of their grievous sin (cf. Isaiah 13-23). The New Testament closes with God’s answer to the martyrs of Christ who cried, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). God administered judgment upon the enemies of His Son and the church and declared, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God has avenged you on her!” (Revelation 18:20).
Is a man thinking right about God when he sees all of these biblical examples, yet still declares the death penalty to be harmful, immoral, disrespectful to human life, and inconsistent with the nature of God?
Divine Laws Demanding the Death Penalty
Following the global Flood, God reiterated the need for the increase of the human family (Genesis 9:1). Sin had changed everything, and the tranquil co-existence between man and animal had been supplanted with hostility (Genesis 9:2). The vegetarian status of both man and animals prior to sin had now been changed to allow man to consume meat (Genesis 1:29-30; 9:3).2 Divine permission to eat meat was accompanied with a prohibition regarding the consumption of blood. “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” (Genesis 9:4), because the “life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). Since human life reflects the image of God, the most severe possible penalty is attached to the action of murder that brings it to an end. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.” (Genesis 9:6).
This principle and penalty embraces all of time. Civil government is ordained of God (Romans 13:1). It is an expression of God’s concern for man’s well-being, and when functioning faithfully, it discourages lawlessness and promotes peace and serenity. Romans 13:4 describes authorized civil authorities as ministers of God, persons who do not bear “the sword in vain,” and avengers divinely bound to execute “wrath on him who practices evil.” The sword is a symbol of capital punishment and, when wielded by the state, is an action authorized by God. Any man who attempts to sheathe the state’s sword is in rebellion to God and His will. He is resisting “the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:2). God placed the sword in the hand of the state, and no man has a right to remove it.
“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:12). The willful taking of life demands the life of the perpetrator. In ancient times, God granted the right of vengeance to the victim’s nearest relative, designated as the “avenger of blood” who shall “put the murderer to death” (Numbers 35:19). Cities of refuge were provided for accidental slayings, allowing one to live in peace and safety whose act of killing was unintentional (Numbers 35:6-15). Moreover, the taking of life for self-defense purposes is not murder, and such action is not subject to the death penalty. The need and desire for self-preservation is divinely implanted. It is as natural and inherent to life as food and drink. It would be wholly inconsistent with the nature of God to design man with such a potent need and then refuse him the right to exercise it. Preserving one’s own life or the life of any innocent victim from the murderous intent of evil doers is perfectly compatible with both the nature of God and the nature of man as designed by God. Exodus 22:2 envisions just such a case as a man kills a thief caught breaking into his home at night in defense of himself and his family and is rendered guiltless.
“And he who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:15). “And he who curses his father or mother shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:17). Mothers descend into the depths of pain and anguish in order to bring life into the world. God’s mothers and fathers are heaven’s gift to children. Parents functioning according to God’s pattern for the home are children’s first insight into the nature of God. Parents are god-like in a child’s eyes. Parents who love God set the feet of their children on the road to eternal bliss. To strike or curse such a parent is an assault upon the heart. It inflicts mental and emotional pain that far exceeds physical suffering. It undermines the peace and joy of the home, the bedrock of society, and afflicts the heart of God.
“He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16). Kidnapping was punishable by death. Stealing a man for slave traffic invited the death penalty even when the victim was yet in the thief’s possession. Robbing a man of his personal freedom was a capital offense. Exodus 21:22-23 contemplates an expectant mother’s losing her life or the life of her miscarried child as she endeavored to shield her husband from an aggressor. The aggressor was to be put to death. Exodus 21:29-30 envisions the death of a man or woman by an ox known to have a violent nature. Unless the relatives of the victim agreed upon financial compensation, the owner of the ox was to suffer the death penalty.
“You shall not permit a sorceress to live.” (Exodus 22:18). Sorcery strikes at the very heart of the sovereignty of God. It is an attempt to circumvent God and take charge of one’s own life. As are all efforts to rid man’s mind and life of God and His restraining influences, it appeals to the lust of the flesh. It fosters defilement (Leviticus 19:31). The Canaanites were engrossed in every form of sorcery and it was one of the reasons God removed them from the land (Deuteronomy 18:10-12). Saul’s consultation with the witch of Endor is cited as one of the reasons God “killed him, and turned the kingdom over to David” (1 Chronicles 10:13-14). Sorcerers were to be put to death by stoning (Leviticus 20:27).
All forms of perverted sexual activity, such as incest (Leviticus 20:11-12,14), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), and bestiality (Leviticus 20:15) were subject to the death penalty. There are complexities associated with man’s sexual being as designed by God that transcend human comprehension. This truth is mightily reinforced by God’s law concerning even the touching of a man’s genitals. Foolish indeed is the man who refuses to perceive this truth and proceeds to tamper with this aspect of life. Perverted sexual conduct is an egregious assault upon the very core of a man’s being. There is no action of man that calls for more intense judgment. The homosexuality of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboim incurred a judgment that God will not allow man to forget. It is a repetitive theme in both Testaments, a sign-post from God regarding His attitude toward this grievous sin (Jude 7), and the last book in the Bible holds it up as the epitome of sin (Revelation 11:8). A nation is doomed if it allows this sin to reach a level of national acceptance.
“The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:10). Heterosexual relationships outside of marriage were punishable by death. Adultery injures the marital relationship like no other sin. There is something unique about the one-flesh relationship in marriage, and there is something unique about the sin that severs it. The stringent nature of Matthew 19:9 bears witness to this truth. Relaxing the rigidity of God’s marital law is to man’s own peril. It is senseless to tamper with the things of God. Those who think right about God would never consider such conduct. There is nothing that creates more excitement in the halls of hell than for man to attempt to modify God’s marital laws intended to protect the sanctity of the home, the foundational unit of society.
Idolatry was a capital punishment offense (Deuteronomy 17:2-7). This grievous evil, the source of so many sins, plagued Israel for almost the whole of their national life until their return from Babylonian captivity. False prophets aiming to lure Israel into idolatry were to be killed (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Family members, such as one’s wife, son, daughter, brother, or friend who endeavored to entice their family “secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods” (Deuteronomy 13:6) were not to be pitied, spared, or concealed but were to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 13:8-10). Rumors concerning a city’s involvement in idolatry were to be thoroughly investigated, and if found to be true, the city in its entirety was to be destroyed, and even the spoil of the city was to be burned (Deuteronomy 13:12-17).
Acts of rebellion against decisions made by a tribunal of priests and judges in execution of God’s law were subject to the death penalty (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). Prophets who dared to speak where God had not spoken, or who prophesied in the name of an idol were to be slain (Deuteronomy 18:20). Harlotry by the daughter of a priest was punishable by death (Leviticus 21:9). Child sacrifice to an idol was subject to death by stoning (Leviticus. 20:2). Desecrating the Sabbath with work called for the death penalty (Exodus 35:2). Capital punishment was to be administered to any non-priest who attempted to usurp priestly functions (Numbers 3:10), to a non-Levite who encroached upon Levitical responsibility in performing the services of the tabernacle (Numbers 18:22-23), to any Levite who neglected or refused to give his own tenth of the tithe received from Israel (Numbers 18:25-32), and to any Kohathite charged with transporting the sacred furniture of the tabernacle, if he looked upon or touched any of it (Numbers 4:15,20).
A man proven to be a false witness was to be put to death if such was his intention regarding the accused (Deuteronomy 19:16-21). Capital punishment was to be inflicted upon an incorrigible son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), a new bride who was verified to be guilty of fornication prior to marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21), a man who raped an engaged or married woman (Deuteronomy 22:25-27), and one who blasphemed or cursed God (Leviticus 24:10-16).
Capital punishment is ordained by God. God intends for the death penalty to occupy a permanent place in society for as long as the world stands. Opposing the death penalty is an act of defiance against God, the nature of God, and the will of God. Those who manifest aversion to capital punishment are refusing to think right about both God and sin.