Capital Punishment in the Bible.
The death penalty as a capital punishment for heinous crimes is a continuing source of discussion and debate in the Philippines. The discussion was revived when President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated his call for a “swift passage of the law reviving the Death Penalty by lethal injection for crimes specified under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002”, in his fifth State of the Nation Address last Monday, July 27, 2020.
This renewed call will certainly be the subject of moral and political debate in the Philippines. This debate over capital punishment in the country will be reinvigorated by that pronouncement by the president.
The bible’s take on the issue is rather complicated. It requires critical skills to distinguish whether bible writers are merely presenting a narrative or giving us accounts that serve as precedents. Another aspect that must be considered is the nature of the Law stipulated in the Covenant.
Capital punishment was an essential feature in the justice system of Old Testament Israel. The modes of capital punishment according to the law of Moses were, by the sword (Exodus 21), strangling, fire (Leviticus 20), and stoning. In early times, a common mode of punishment among the pagan nations was crucifixion. Crucifixion was regarded as the most horrible form of death, and to a Jew it would acquire greater horror from the curse in Deut. 21.
Christians’ Relationship to the Old Testament Law
Since capital punishment is stipulated in the Old Testament laws it is necessary for us to consider our relationship to these laws. To see whether these laws are still applicable to is today.
Fee and Stuart six (6) guidelines for understanding the relationship of the Christian to the Old Testament law:
- The Old Testament law is a covenant. A covenant is a binding contract between two parties, both of whom have obligations stipulated in the covenant. In Old Testament times, covenants were often given by an all-powerful suzerain (overlord) to a weaker, dependent vassal (servant). They guaranteed the vassal benefits and protection. But in turn, the vassal was obligated to be loyal solely to the suzerain, with the warning that any disloyalty would bring punishments a specified in the covenant. How was the vassal to show loyalty? By keeping the stipulations (rules of behavior) also specified in the covenant. As long as the vassal kept the stipulations, the suzerain knew that the vassal was loyal. But when the stipulations were violated, the suzerain was required by the covenant to take action to punish the vassal. We are not expected to keep the laws of the covenant. However, they are essential for us to read and know if we are going to appreciate the biblical Story – God’s Story – and our own place in the Story.
- The Old Testament is not our Testament. Testament is another word for covenant. The Old Testament represents God’s previous covenant with Israel made on Mount Sinai, which is one we are no longer obligated to keep. Thus, it is safe to assume that none of the covenant laws are binding on us unless they are renewed in the new covenant (New Testament). Unless an Old Testament law is somehow restated or reinforced in the New Testament, it is no longer directly binding on God’s people. There have been changes from old covenant to the new covenant. God expects his people – us – somewhat different evidences of obedience and loyalty from those he expected from the Old Testament Israelites. The loyalty itself is still expected. It is how one shows this loyalty that has been changed in certain ways.
- Two kinds of old-testament stipulations have clearly not been renewed in the new covenant. (1) the Israelite civil laws and (2) Israelite ritual laws. The civil laws are those that specify penalties for various crimes (major and minor) for which one might be arrested and tried in Israel. Such laws apply only to citizens of ancient Israel, and no one living today is a citizen of ancient Israel. The ritual laws constitute the largest single block of Old Testament laws and are found throughout Leviticus, as well as in many parts of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These told the people of Israel how to carry on the practice of worship, detailing everything from the design of the implements of worship, to the priests’ responsibilities, to what sorts of animals should be sacrificed and how. The sacrificing (ceremonial killing, cooking, and eating) of animals was central to the Old Testament way of worshiping God. Without the shedding of blood, no forgiveness of sins was possible (Hebrews 9:22). When Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice was accomplished, however, this old-covenant approach was immediately made obsolete. It no longer figures in Christian practice, although worship – in the new-covenant manner-continues.
- Part of the old covenant is renewed in the new covenant. Some aspects of the Old Testament ethical laws are actually restated in the New Testament as applicable to Christians. But such laws derive their continued applicability from the fact that they serve to support the two basic laws of the new covenant, on which depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:40): “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deut. 6:5) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus thus excerpts some Old Testament laws, giving them new applicability (Matthew 5:21-48), redefining them in terms of love for neighbor rather than simply as prohibitions to be “kept.” Thus, we say that aspects rather than simply the laws themselves are renewed from the old covenant to the new.
- All of the Old Testament law is still the Word of God for us even though it is not still the command of God to us. The bible contains sorts of commands that God wants us to know about, which are not directed to toward us personally. If we are not concerned about building parapets around the roof of our houses (Deut. 22:8), we should nonetheless delight in a God who cared that houseguests not fall off a roof with which they were unfamiliar, and therefore he taught his people to build their houses with that sort of love for neighbor in mind. This fits into our understanding of the Law as part of Israel’s story of the new covenant, without knowing well how the Law functioned in Israel’s story, the story of the former covenant.
- Only that which is explicitly renewed from the Old Testament Law can be considered part of the New Testament “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Included in such a category would be the Ten Commandments, since they are cited in various ways in the New Testament as still binding on Christians (Matt. 5:21-37); John 7:23), and the two great commandments from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. No other specific Old Testament laws can be proved to be strictly binding on Christians, valuable as it is for Christians to know all of the laws.
Furthermore, there were mechanisms in place to avert the death penalty in some situations, and God sometimes spared the lives of people whose actions, legally speaking, would have otherwise meant the death penalty.
Example of this is Deuteronomy 29:10-12: “You shall also have the bull brought before the tabernacle of meeting, and Aaron and his sons shall put their hands on the head of the bull. Then you shall kill the bull before the Lord, by the door of the tabernacle of meeting. You shall take some of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and pour all the blood beside the base of the altar.”
This passage sets an important standard for Israel. Sin deserves punishment. God revealed to his people through the Law that the one who sins against God does not deserve to live. But he also provided a procedure by which the sinner might escape death: a substitute’s blood could be shed – the blood of an animal to which the sin is transferred.
Therefore, we can safely say that the bible does not explicitly set its imposition of death penalty as capital punishment as a precedent. We cannot use the bible as argument for the passage of a law that will revive the death penalty in the Philippines or elsewhere in the world.
Fee, Gordon D. and Stuart, Douglas. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: OMF Literature, Inc., 2004.
MySword for Android. Riversoft Ministry, 2011-2019.
Zondervan NASB Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999.