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Is the Death Penalty Biblical?
Alfred B. Davis
Posted: February 7, 2022

In Genesis 6:5-7 the Bible says:

"And GOD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them."

God, however, spared Noah, instructing him to build an ark to save himself and his family along with representations of the air breathing animals from a coming world-wide flood. Following the flood, Noah and his family got out of the ark in Genesis chapter 8 and offered up a sacrifice to the Lord. In chapter 9 God blesses Noah and his family and issues several commands to govern their lives in the new world. Among those commands, in verses 5-6, is the death penalty:

"And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." This is far different than what God decreed for Cain prior to the flood. In Genesis chapter 4 we read about the first murder recorded in the Bible. Cain, whose offering was refused by God, was jealous of his brother, Able, whose offering was acceptable to God. The Bible tells us in verse 8 that "…Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him."

Over the next several verses God confronts Cain and curses him for slaying Able. In Genesis 4:10-12 God says, "…What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth."

In Genesis 4:13-14, Cain objects, "My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me." Apparently, Cain feared that others would seek to avenge the death of Able by killing him. This indicates that, even at that early time in man's history, the concepts of vengeance and retribution were understood and practiced.

God responded in verse 15 saying, "Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold" and then "…set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him." God apparently wanted Cain to wander the earth in a miserable condition as a testimony of His displeasure with and condemnation of murder. Consequently, He pronounced a curse on anyone who would avenge Able by killing Cain and marked Cain in such a way that everyone would know. (The Bible does not give us any indication of what the mark was.)

Unfortunately, Cain's punishment did not serve as a sufficient deterrent against murder. A few verses later, in Genesis 4:23, we find one of Cain's descendants, Lamech, saying to his wives, "Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt." He then reassures them that they have nothing to worry about, saying, "If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold." And, by Genesis chapter 6, we find that the world became so wicked and evil that God resolved to destroy it.

Having proved that banishing someone from society was ineffectual in preventing murder, God preemptively decrees, after the flood that those who kill are to be put to death. This is for two important purposes: recompense and protection.

Protection is seen in Genesis 9:5 where God says, "And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it". An animal, domestic or wild, that kills people is a threat. Killing that animal protects the community. So, too, with murderers.

To recompense, however, is to make amends or requital for something; to pay back or compensate; to retaliate. You can see it expressed in Ezekiel 7:8-9 where the Lord says,

"Now will I shortly pour out my fury upon thee, and accomplish mine anger upon thee: and I will judge thee according to thy ways, and will recompense thee for all thine abominations. And mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity: I will recompense thee according to thy ways and thine abominations that are in the midst of thee; and ye shall know that I am the LORD that smiteth."

In this passage, and others, God expresses what is known as Lex Talionis, or the Law of Retaliation. To better understand the concept of Lex Talionis, consider Deuteronomy 19:16-21:

"If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong; Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days; And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother; Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."

This passage in Deuteronomy makes it clear that evil demands just compensation or recompense. Whatever a false witness sought to do to the one accused would be done to him. For example, if someone sues for a million dollars, claiming damages and injuries, and is found to be a false witness, then he must pay a million dollars to the one he sought to sue (wouldn't that cut down on frivolous lawsuits if we did that today!). In other words, the punishment was not merely to fit the wrong, but to recompense the wrong. In fact, that is the whole principle behind the phrase, "life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."

Consider that principle for a moment. Punishment is not only to be commensurate with the wrong but to recompense the wrong. That was a radical notion when it was expressed in the Mosaic Law because it eliminated punishments out of proportion of the crime and essentially made everyone equal in the eyes of the law regardless of money, position, or title. Contrast that with the prevailing laws of the day, such as the Code of Hammurabi, which allowed extreme punishments and favored the rights of the nobility over those of the peasantry.

In the case of murder, God commanded that "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" as the just recompense for murder. God, the giver of life, essentially decreed that the only acceptable recompense for murder was the forfeiture of the murder's life. Furthermore, the life of the murderer was to be taken by hand of man acting as God's divinely ordained agent of retribution rather than by a mob of vigilantes or someone half mad with revenge. It was to be, in other words, a controlled and deliberate response to a serious situation rather than an out-of-control lynching.

We can see this developed further in the Mosaic Law, which required the oral testimony of more than one witness before someone could be put to death. Deuteronomy 17:6, for instance, said:

"At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death."

It also designated a number of cities of refuge where a person accused of murder could flee for safety until a proper investigation into the accusation could be made. If found guilty, the accused was to be turned over to the revenger of blood to be killed. (Read Numbers 35:16-33 and Deuteronomy 19:1-13 for more on the cities of refuge.)

In the New Testament, both Jesus and Paul acknowledged the death penalty and neither of them called for its repeal. Jesus referred to it in Matthew 5:38-39:

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."

The first part of Jesus Christ's statement refers to Lex Talionis, which is the responsibility of the government. The second part has to do with the responsibility of the private individual to suffer wrong, trusting God to bring vengeance where vengeance was due. This is brought out by Paul in Romans 12:17-19:

"Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."

In fact, Paul builds on this statement a few verses later when he points out in Romans 13:3-4:

"For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."

Now, either of these passages would have been a great opportunity for Jesus or Paul to condemn the death penalty, but they did not. Paul even went further in acknowledging the validity of the death penalty in Acts 25:10-11:

"Then said Paul, I stand at Caesar's judgment seat, where I ought to be judged: to the Jews have I done no wrong, as thou very well knowest. For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar."

Think about it. If Paul believed that Jesus Christ had done away with the death penalty, then why did Paul not only acknowledge it but express his willingness to be subject to it if he was worthy of it? In fact, Paul not only clearly recognized the validity of the death penalty, he also recognized the validity of the trial, judgement, and appeal process leading up to the death penalty, as well as the authority of the state to carry out the death penalty.

But some may object, wasn't Jesus all about mercy and forgiveness? Didn't He spare the woman taken in adultery from death?

In John 8:3-5 the Bible tells us that "…the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?" Jesus, however, seemed to ignore them, writing in the dirt with His finger, pausing to say in verse 7, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." He then went back to His writing while eventually everyone left leaving Jesus and the accused woman there alone. Jesus then looked at the woman in verse 10 and asked, "Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?" To which she replied in verse 11, "No man, Lord."

Now, the question about whether Jesus accepted the death penalty or not centers around the final comment Jesus made in John 8:11 when He replied, "Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more." Instead of rejecting the validity of the death penalty, Jesus actually followed the law of Moses. Remember, Deuteronomy 17:6 called for the testimony of two or three witnesses before someone could be put to death. Since there was no one to testify against her she could not, under Mosaic Law, be put to death. Consequently, rather than rejecting the law, Jesus upheld it, reminding us that it was not to be enforced by a mob but by an orderly process of trial, judgement, and appeal.

Of course, the ultimate answer to the question of whether the death penalty is biblical or not is answered in Genesis 2:16-17:

"And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."

While Adam did not die physically the moment he ate the forbidden fruit, he did die spiritually in that his fellowship with God was immediately severed. After all, death is fundamentally a separation. Spiritual death is separation from God and physical death is the separation of the soul and spirit from the body. Adam experienced spiritual death immediately and hid from God (Genesis 3:10). The process of physical death, however, began with the curse in Genesis 3:17-19, culminating with God stating, "…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." This state of spiritual death and impending physical death was passed from Adam to all his descendants. In fact, Paul referred to it when he wrote in Romans 5:12, "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned".

Then, there is also the death of the soul. In Ezekiel 18:4, God says, "Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die." The death of the soul occurs when the unrighteous are cast into the Lake of Fire for all eternity. It is also referred to as the second death because it occurs after physical death. The Bible describes it in Revelation 20:12-14 and 21:8:

"And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death."
"But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death."

Thankfully, though, while the Bible clearly states in Romans 6:23 that "the wages of sin is death" it also states that "the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." Jesus Christ came into the world to pay our sin debt. Hebrews 2:9 says:

"But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man."

Yes, the wages of sin is death. God in His holiness demands the death of the sinner as just recompense for sin. However, God in His mercy, according to 2 Corinthians 5:21, sent Jesus Christ to die in our place:

"For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."

Or, as Jesus put it in John 3:16:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Consequently, while we may argue over what crimes the death penalty applies to or even how it is carried out, God's Word is clear. The death penalty is biblical. The penalty of death for breaking man's law reflects the penalty of death for breaking God's law. But, fortunately, in the case of God's law, there is mercy available through God's grace. However, even God's mercy cost the death of His Son.