Some political issues seem to go in and out of season, from one year to the next. For a while we obsess over abortion, then evolution, then racism, then equal pay. Rarely do they occupy the front page at the same time. Recently, the trial of James Holmes has brought wide attention to the issue of capital punishment, for the first time in a while. Should he give his life, as punishment for the murder of dozens of moviegoers in 2013?
Some would insist that capital punishment is a perfectly proportionate penalty: a life for a life, seems perfectly reasonable. Others argue the opposite, that a death penalty is the ultimate hypocrisy: That if it’s wrong for me to kill you, then it’s equally immoral for the state to kill me..
Many will consult the Bible and come away with two very different conclusions: On one side, we should display mercy; on the other, we must uphold of the law: an eye for an eye, and so on. Surely I find it refreshing, whenever I see a fellow believer stand up for Bible truth in the public arena. Such a person is sure to face ridicule, persecution, or worse.
But here’s the thing: In the record of the Scripture, all of these crimes are worthy of death: murder, cursing parents, disobedience to parents, child sacrifice, kidnapping, blasphemy, adultery, bigamy, rape, bestiality, incest, homosexuality, heresy, witchcraft, idolatry, oppressing the poor, theft, fornication, loansharking, greed, envy, rabble-rousing, gossip, hating God, arrogance, and lack of faith.
So if you claim Bible authority to execute a murderer, then why not these others? Good question. Somehow, in our modern society, we’ve become quite selective with our moral outrage. Which leads us to defend the honor of God only halfway. Or less.
In the broader record of Scripture, this issue is not as simple as you might think:
First, any death penalty requires the testimony of at least two witnesses. This means eyewitnesses. Not fingerprints or DNA analysis, but two people who actually observed the crime with their own eyes. And you can forget any notions of witness protection or anonymous testimony. Open court, all the way.
Secondly, the witnesses themselves must be the ones to carry out the sentence. Not an executioner, not a firing squad. YOU. If you’re so certain that this man is guilty and worthy of death, here’s a rock. You first.
So what does Jesus have to say about it? Not much. But plenty.
On one occasion, an adulterous woman was brought before him for judgment. Not for a real trial, of course, but as a mockery and a test to see if he would uphold the law. Should she be stoned, as Moses prescribed? He could have answered any number of ways:
He could have judged her innocent; surely, he knew the truth. But she stood there naked, or nearly so, having been snatched from her lover’s bed only moments before. Not an option.
He could have pardoned her and set her free; but this would do nothing to satisfy the blood-lust of her accusers.
Or like many of our modern-day prophets, he could have proclaimed a new age in which adultery is no longer considered immoral. But nope.
Instead, he gave an answer that no one expected: Only the sinless, can punish sin.
Yes, the law was valid, and should be upheld.
Yes, she was guilty.
Yes, (apparently) two witnesses saw it happen.
Yes, she deserved to die.
Nothing in American jurisprudence, comes close to the model that we see in the pages of Scripture. If we execute murderers, we should do the same for heretics and thieves. And who among us is prepared to call out witches, or slay disobedient children? You might have your own reasons for believing that certain people are so evil that they don’t deserve to live. And you might be right. But now, who shall carry out the sentence?
I thought so.