In a previous article, I showed that the Old Testament endorses capital punishment. Now, let's see whether the New Testament maintains or contradicts this teaching.
Many Christians believe that faithfulness to the ministry of Jesus requires them to oppose capital punishment. Though they acknowledge that the Old Testament mandated this penalty for murder, they think Jesus changed everything. Typically, their view is that the harsh and mean God the Father of the Old Testament established execution, but the loving and kind God the Son of the New Testament abolished it. I'm pretty sure such people don't realize they're denying the Trinity when they say this.
The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the eternal unity of all three persons of the Godhead, but such a fundamental disagreement between the Son and the Father would rupture this unity. In fact, if Jesus had contradicted any of the Father's principles, let alone such a well-established one, that very disagreement would have immediately disproved His claims to be the divine Son. This was exactly the heresy the Pharisees were hoping to trap Him into when they brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. Even His enemies knew that He had to affirm capital punishment in order to prove Himself a true prophet. How strange, then, that those who claim to love Jesus assert that He did exactly what His enemies failed to trick Him into doing! Far from opposing capital punishment, Jesus actually advocated it, as His unity with the Father required.
In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus taught, "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished." Just a few verses later, He extends the prohibition against murder to hatred and condemns haters to "the hell of fire" (v. 22), which is strange talk for someone who opposes capital punishment. It's difficult to dismiss these verses because they occur smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which is often mistakenly offered as the repudiation of Old Testament justice. If Jesus elsewhere opposes capital punishment, then He is not only contradicting the Father, but even His own words.
Later, Jesus scolds the Pharisees and scribes for teaching leniency toward rebellious children by quoting the Old Testament, "For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,' and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death'" (Matthew 15:4). Subsequently, when the Romans come to arrest Jesus, Peter rather ineptly tries to defend Him by killing Malchus, but only succeeds in slicing off his ear. Jesus rebukes him with the warning, "Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword." Far from advocating pacifism, as this passage is often misused to do, Jesus here teaches Peter that using the sword (for murder) will only get the sword used against him (for execution).
Shortly thereafter, Jesus tells Pilate in John 19:11, "You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above …." This authority to put Jesus to death would be odd if it didn't entail the general power to execute criminals. Finally, when He is dying by crucifixion, Jesus accepts the repentance of the thief on the cross, who says to his reviling companion, "Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds…" (Luke 23:40-41). Had Jesus disagreed with this statement, responding to it with the promise of eternal salvation was a rather obtuse way to express the correction.
Beyond all this evidence that Jesus affirms the consistent biblical principle of capital punishment, there is yet one more vital concept to grasp. Christians believe that Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of us all. Although His sinlessness merited eternal life, He endured the death we deserved to extend that gift to us. As Clark University Professor Michael Pakaluk so perfectly expressed the point, "If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins…." If we didn't deserve the death penalty ourselves, then why would Christ need to suffer it on our behalf in order to satisfy the justice of God? Denying the death penalty directly assaults the justice of the Father—the One who required His own Son to pay precisely that price in our stead.
What about the rest of the New Testament?
Since both Jesus' teaching and His death affirm capital punishment, it should come as no surprise that the rest of the New Testament reinforces this view.
When confronting Governor Festus, Paul says in Acts 25:11, "If I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of these things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them." He both affirms capital statutes and accepts them as binding on him if he has broken one. Later, in the New Testament's most famous passage on the nature of government, Paul explains, "But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil" (Romans 13:4). Finally, the same Bible which begins in Genesis 9:6 with the establishment of capital punishment, carries the theme consistently throughout the text, and ends by reiterating it in Revelation 13:10, "If any one is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if any one kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints."
Literally from beginning to end, the Bible teaches that capital punishment is authorized and required by God. If so, then why do so many people claim to oppose this practice on religious grounds? We'll consider some of their objections in the next column.