New Testament Teaching on Capital Punishment
The nation of Israel was something like a theocracy. There was a much closer connection between civic laws and religious laws for Israel in the Law of Moses. Christianity is obviously not a “nation” like Israel was. Christianity is a spiritual nation that transcends civic laws as Christians are now found in nations all over the world. But, we live under civil laws.
God largely does not regulate the types of laws that a nation would put into place to govern its citizens. God has left the power of capital punishment in the lands of the civil government, the law of a society (Rom 13:1-6). Paul says that the governing authorities do not “bear the sword for nothing” (Rom. 13:4). Clearly the reference here is to capital punishment. Civil governments have the God-given right to implement capital punishment. God does not tell them for what crimes they might do that but He allows them to do that.
The question now arises whether a Christian can do so as well. Our government allows us to defend our homes, even if it means taking the life of the intruder. Our founding fathers wrote that right into the Bill of Rights, a set of rights that our founding fathers simply did not want to leave to the whims of future generations. I know there are many people, including the writers of my “beloved” TV show, MacGyver, who believe the 2nd amendment was intended for state governments, not for private citizens. But, that ignores the context when the amendment was written and it ignores what our Supreme Court has consistently and undeniably ruled in the 229 years of our constitutional republic.
God gives humans the right (cf Exo. 22:2) to take the life of an intruder and not be guilty of sin. There’s every reason to believe that that moral principle is still valid today, especially in light of the fact that our own government also gives us the right to take the life of an intruder under certain circumstances.
The church does not have the right to take people’s lives if they sin against God. God has given the church different rules that govern us disciplining ourselves. Our family does not have the right to discipline unruly members of our church. There are different rules in the family. But when it comes to the civil government and even Christians serving in and for the civil government, they have the right under the laws of our society to take the life of evil doers, based on those civil laws.
In other words, it is consistent with the nature of God and the law of Moses for Christians to serve in capacities, like the military and our local police force, that might put them in a position of taking the life of another, if they are working within the laws of our society.
But there are two major objections which we will deal with next…
Answers to Two Objections to Christians Taking the Life of Another
There are two notable objections to this idea that we need to consider before we close our study.
1. “The sermon on the mount commands us to ‘turn the other cheek.’”
Let me point out (#1) that there is no command or principle in the NT that is only for Christians. In other words, all of Christ’s law, from Matt to Rev, is over all of mankind. Christians are obligated to live by the sermon on the mount and non-Christians are obligated to live by the sermon on the mount.
(#2) The sermon on the mount is intended for individuals, not societies. The “beatitudes” are speaking about individual behavior. The verses where Jesus sets His teaching in contrast to the law of Moses, all deal with actions on the part of individuals (cf. Matt. 5:39). Jesus is talking about us as individuals. He is not limiting the response of nations to respond to an evil man like Adolf Hitler.
Can anyone, who knows the Bible, honestly say that when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, that Christians should have told the Czechs: “We’re sorry. You need to turn the other cheek.” When Hitler invaded France, Christians should have told the French: “We’re sorry. You need to turn the other cheek.” When Hitler bombed Great Britain, killing innocent women and children, should Christians have told them: “We’re sorry. You need to turn the other cheek!” Absolutely not! Jesus did not intend for the Sermon the Mount to be a green light for good people to let evil people run the world!
2. “Jesus was a pacifist. Therefore, Christians must be pacifist.”
(#1) Jesus was not a pacifist. He was God in the flesh and, as God, He was as much involved in killing those thousands of disobedient people in the OT as God the Father was. As the author of the law of Moses, Jesus was just as much involved in commanding Israel to kill others, under certain conditions, as God the Father was. No. Jesus was not a pacifist.
(#2) The whole life of Jesus was centered around one purpose: dying for the sins of mankind. The question of “pacifism,” as we are discussing it, did not come up in the life of Jesus. When a centurion (Matt 8; Acts 10) enters the picture, he is never called to drop his sword (cf. Luke 3:14).
(#3) Just because Jesus did not have to kill someone intruding into His house doesn’t mean we have no right to do so.
(#4) Jesus was dealing with duly-constituted human governments. The Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus to death, were the governments at that time. Jesus submitted to His government as He requires us to do. Jesus was not an anarchist (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:1-7).
Here’s the “long and short” of the discussion. God is love. But God killed people. Those two actions are not mutually exclusive. God commanded Israel to “love their neighbor” and to kill certain individuals under certain circumstances. It is entirely possible for us to do the same.
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