One Christian on Capital Punishment and Abortion (Part I)

I was recently asked how Christians can take a position against abortion and stand in favor of capital punishment.  I found this question rather interesting considering that I’m a Christian and I’m against both abortion and capital punishment.  However, I thought this would be a good opportunity to look at these issues in light of what the Bible has to say. 

This is a large subject so I’ll be dealing with it in two parts.   Let’s start with capital punishment.

There are three key issues that I’d like to address.  The first issue is the government’s right to administer capital punishment—and I do believe governments have the authority to administer a death penalty.  The next issue is how this right fits within the 6th commandment found in Exodus 20:13, “thou shall not kill” (KJV). And the final issue is the citizen’s responsibility within his or her government, specifically in the United States.

Paul, writing during a time of Roman oppression (and possibly great persecution) tells the Christians in Rome that they are to submit to the civil authorities because God installed those authorities to this position.  In Romans 13:1-7, he writes,
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.  [2] Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  [3] For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?  Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, [4] for his is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, and avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.  [5] Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.  [6] For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.  [7] Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to who revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:1-7, ESV).
His readers probably didn’t like taxes or oppression or the political opinions of the dictator in charge, and they lived under harsh and corrupt circumstances the like we Americans have never known.  Much can be said here, but my point is that God installs the civil governments of the world and expects that we will submit to them.  (Now, there are exceptions.  For more on the exceptions read the book of Daniel.)

Civil governments, it seems, are given the ability to create laws and keep order.  Even Jesus was subject to these laws when he was tried under Pilot, the Roman official who ordered his crucifixion.  We never see Jesus argue that the law that sentenced him and the two criminals next to him to death was unjust.  Jesus was innocent of the charges but the authority of Pilot to order his execution is never challenged.  In addition, we find many instances where God’s law for the Hebrews includes a physical death penalty.  It is part of the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:6.  In Exodus 21 (the chapter after God gives the 10 Commandments), God lays out some laws for the Hebrew people, giving a number of crimes that will result in a penalty of death (see Exodus 21:12-28).  This is seen throughout the Books of the Law (that is, the first 5 books of the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch).  Therefore, given that God installs governments and gives them the right to administer laws, and even that in the laws God gave to the Hebrews capital punishment existed, and considering that the New Testament doesn’t challenge the existing civil laws of the day, I believe that governments today have the right to administer capital punishment.  Now, you might be asking why I’m opposed to capital punishment considering what I’ve just presented.  I’ll get to that in a moment. 

But first let’s deal with Exodus 20:13, the 6th Commandment. 

The translation of the Bible called the King James Version, translates Exodus 20:13 like this: “Thou shall not kill.”  This translation has filled our vernacular to the point that some people take this to mean not to kill in battle, and still others understand it as not to kill even animals for food.  But the problem is the word “kill.”  Our English meaning of this word is something to the effect of, ‘to cause the death of’ or, ‘to terminate the life function of.’  But that is not the meaning of the Hebrew word that the KJV translated.  In the Hebrew—the original language of the Old Testament—the word is ratsach, which is to murder.  In other uses of this word, including non-biblical uses found in ancient literature, this word is most used for intentional or negligent murder much like we would use the words murder or manslaughter today.  The Septuagint (LXX), which was the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek a couple hundred years before the incarnation of Christ, translated this word as phoneuo, which in the Greek also means murder or more specifically ‘to murder.’  This is the word used by Jesus when quoting the Old Testament when he gave is famous Sermon on the Mount.  Looking through many other translations, I’ve found Exodus 20:13 is almost always translated, “You shall not murder,” some simply say, “Do not murder.”

But just for a moment, let’s say all we have is the King James Version.  How can we understand what God is meaning by his command not to kill?  If we continue reading the conversation between God and Moses, we find that in just a few hundred words later, God gets into some specifics about this killing stuff.  In Exodus 21:12-28 (which I also mentioned above), God outlines when a person should be put to death for killing another and when that is not okay.  For example, if a man does not lie in wait, that is, he plans to kill another, but instead it is something of a fight gone bad, the killer should be allowed to live.  “But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning” says Exodus 21:14, “you shall take him from my alter, that he may die” (ESV).  Simply striking your parents was enough of a reason to face the death penalty, as was being in possession of an illegally gained (or kidnapped) slave.  And surely killing in battle must not be the same because thought out the Old Testament God orders his people to attack other nations.  He gives the faithful boy, David, the ability to kill the warrior, Goliath (1 Samuel 17), and David is highly honored and loved by God.  And if you were thinking about becoming a vegan based on the 6th Commandment, you should probably read the book of Leviticus first.  Leviticus outlines just how animals were to be slaughtered for sacrifices and feasts.  Obviously, even if we have a bad translation of the word ratsach (thank you KJV), we can see that this does not mean every form of the word ‘kill.’  Therefore, we must ask ourselves if capital punishment falls inside or outside the idea of the biblical discussion of murder.  It seems to me, that capital punishment, that is, execution administered by the state and regulated by the law, is not the same as murder.  The Bible is not against capital punishment. 

Yet, I am against capital punishment.  Why?

After working in the American legal system, I am concerned that we could get it wrong. Our society is such that we would rather let a guilty person go free than punish an innocent person.  This  idea echoes Exodus 23:7, which reads, "Be sure never to charge anyone falsely with evil.  Never sentence an innocent or blameless person to death, for I never declare a guilty person to be innocent" (ESV).  At times, I feel capital punishment does not reside in the spirit of this attitude, especially considering that we have seen new evidence overturn incorrect rulings.  Death is final.  There is no overturning capital punishment. 

But if the Bible is not against capital punishment and I feel God gives governments the right to administer the death penalty, how can I be against it? 

As Americans, we are a part of our government.  Actually, we are the government.  Our collective voice is intended to be what grants our various local, state, and federal governments the ability to make laws (This right is ultimately granted to us and other nations by God, as discussed above, and we should be thankful).  As citizens of the USA, our opinions matter and we vote to make our opinions known.  We can be opposed to, or in support of laws because our government system allows us to take part.  The Bible doesn’t say governments must to have capital punishment.  The governments of the Bible did, but while this punishment is allowable, it is not required. This is how I can say the Bible allows governments to engage in capital punishment but I don't want our government to do so.

In Part II, I will address the topic of abortion. Continue to Part II.

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* Photo of "Old Sparky" is in the public domain. Photo of protesters is registered under a creative commons license: / CC BY-SA 2.0