Unlike Abortion, capital punishment evokes little response from most Christians. This may be because Christians seldom have anyone in their family considered for the death penalty. For whatever reason, few have much concern for those on death row.

So why should the two of us be concerned? Neither of us is under sentence of death, or has committed a capital offense. We are not concerned only because we have discovered, firsthand, that prisoners are humans too. One of us still favored the death penalty even after being imprisoned. Our opposition to the death penalty springs from our study of the Bible.

Recently a number of TV ministers have advocated the death penalty, thereby fanning into a fire the embers that have been smoldering for the last 20 years. Scriptural support to justify these ministers’ statements, however, is virtually nonexistent. They attempt to justify their position three different ways: the use of statistics; quotation of Old Testament Scriptures; and misinterpretation of one New Testament Scripture.

Statistics And The Death Penalty

Those who rely on statistics try to show that when there are fewer executions there are more murders. Trying to prove this point statistically is a can of worms. Depending on how the figures are manipulated, almost anything can be proven. For instance, one minister tried to show that in the 11-year period from 1959 to 1969, when executions dropped from 49 at the beginning of this period to 0 by 1969, murders increased from 8,580 to 14,830. This is a very convincing statistic until one realizes that no mention is made of the population increase during the same period. Furthermore, no allowance is made for the fact this happened to be at a time when racial unrest was at a peak in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and ghettos were exploding.

Any person who has been in prison knows the reactivation of the death penalty will not reduce the number of murders. Men and women basically go to prison for three reasons: hatred, greed, or lust. Any one of these three reasons can produce the circumstances that result in murder. Until these three basic reasons can be eliminated—and we know that won’t happen until Christ returns—murders will continue, death penalty or no death penalty.

The Old Testament And The Death Penalty

There is no question that the Old Testament Law demanded the death penalty for murder. It also demanded it for rape, kidnaping, cursing a parent, dealing in witchcraft, being a wizard, performing beastiality, sacrificing to another God, working on the Sabbath, committing adultery, having stubborn and rebellious sons, practicing mediumship and contacting familiar spirits, blaspheming the name of the Lord, being a false witness in a case dealing with the death penalty, and lying. Finally, if a man lay with his father’s wife, both the man and woman were put to death.

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Today few of these still carry the death penalty. If the Old Testament commands for the death penalty for murder apply today, consistent interpretation would also require contemporary fortunetellers and blasphemers to be executed. And what about adulterers, or liars? Most of the crimes on the Old Testament list legally demand some form of punishment today, but it is the murderer alone who can be sentenced to death.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:17, “Think not that I am come to destroy the Law, or the Prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” Supporters of the death penalty cite this passage as evidence that Old Testament demands for the death penalty apply today. The logic is that since the Old Testament recommended the death penalty for murder, and Jesus didn’t destroy the law, we should still have the death penalty for murder.

This argument falters because Jesus’ emphasis was not on the indestructibility of the Law, but on the fact that he fulfilled the Law. He took all the death penalties of the Law upon himself, both physically and spiritually. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us. The Law has been fulfilled. We don’t need to kill people for adultery anymore. We don’t need to kill liars or murderers, or witches, as done in Salem, Massachusetts.

The new covenant demands that we pray for these people and break the bondage of Satan over them. We need to bind Satan so the light of the gospel of Christ can end blindness. God can forgive all manner of sin and wills that no one should perish. Do we then have the right to execute people before they are saved?

Examples of men who have found the Lord in prison and changed their lives are too numerous to mention. Tex Watson, of the Charles Manson gang, is one of the most famous born-again Christians still in prison.

And consider some capital offenders of the Bible.

• When Cain murdered Abel, God didn’t kill Cain. Instead he ensured Cain’s safety by placing a mark on him. After the murder, Cain raised a family in the land of Nod.

• By today’s standards, Moses committed what is commonly called “premeditated murder” (Exod. 2:11–12). Obviously God forgave him.

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• Joseph was kidnaped by his brothers and sold into slavery. He could legally have put all his brothers to death, but his forgiveness of them is one of the most touching stories in the Bible, and an example to all Christians.

• King David had Bathsheba’s husband killed so he could marry her. He deserved the death penalty. But David repented and the prophet Nathan told him the Lord had put away his sin and he would not be put to death.

• Paul thought he was doing God’s will when he put Christians to death. Later he stated that Jesus saved him, the worst of all humans, to show perfect grace. God was not interested in seeing Paul executed under the Law: he wanted to see a new, regenerate man.

• When Jesus was confronted with the woman caught in the act of adultery, a crime that should have required the death penalty, he did not condemn her but had mercy on her, giving us the perfect example of how a Christian should act.

• Finally, although Paul told the Corinthian church to expel the man who was having sexual relations with his father’s wife, he made it clear that after the man repented of his evil deed he should be received back into fellowship.

It is obvious the God of the Old Testament feels exactly the same way in the New Testament: he desires mercy. He no longer needs the blood of bulls or of men to satisfy the Law. In Matthew 9:13, Jesus emphasized Hosea 6:6 by stating that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. James 2:13 states: “For he shall have judgment without mercy that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.”

The Old Testament Law was certainly without mercy. According to Hebrews 8:7, the first covenant was not perfect: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.” The major thing wrong with the first covenant and the Law is that it made no provision for love and mercy. It perpetuates revenge instead of forgiveness and love.

Paul says in Romans 7:6 that Christians no longer follow the old way, but follow the new way, the way of the Spirit, the way of love and mercy. We are instructed not to return evil for evil but rather to pray for those who do harm to us and our families. This was virtually impossible for the people in the Old Testament because they did not have the advantage of having regenerated spirits. New Testament believers are commanded to love everyone.

Romans 13 And The Death Penalty

There are a few who claim Romans 13:1–7 indirectly allows the death penalty. This section of Scripture speaks of every soul being in subjection to the authorities who are over them, and teaches that the authorities have been appointed by God.

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Some people misinterpret this Scripture and use it to their benefit. Paul was trying to tell us that civil government, in general, is an ordinance of God for our welfare, and we should obey it. However, when the civil government’s laws conflict with God’s laws, we should obey God first. A law allowing the death penalty does not necessarily mean the death penalty is God’s will. If that were true, it is also God’s will for women to have abortions and for prayer to be disallowed in public schools.

Peter and John refused to obey the authorities when told to stop preaching about Jesus. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace because they refused to bow down and worship the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel refused to obey the law of the land and was thrown into the lion’s den.

We can see the ridiculous extremes of obeying the higher authorities when we consider the Nazi war criminals. Certainly God does not expect us to obey our governments blindly.

Becoming A National Example

Today the President wants to allow prayer in the classroom. As Christians, we should support him in this effort, but at the same time we should ask the President to excuse the approximately 1,150 people on death row from the death sentence, and commute their sentences to life imprisonment. As a nation that purports to be a nation under God, we should set an example for the world and extend mercy to the people Satan has in bondage.

Reminiscent of the reply Jesus gave the people wanting to kill the woman caught in adultery, a sign should be placed near every execution chamber in the nation: “Let him who is without sin throw the switch.”

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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