Friday, January 27, 2006

Biblical Stand on Death Penalty

I consulted Dr Leong Tien Fock, Research Coordinator with Malaysia Campus Crusade for Christ and this is what he says:

Yes, there is no direct link between Jesus and the question of the death penalty. He did not come to address specific political or legal issues though His life and teaching are relevant to these issues. These issues are already addressed in the Old Testament, which He accepts as authoritative.

Those who oppose the DP claim that Jesus spoke against it in the John 8 incident when He forgave the woman caught in adultery, which was punishable by death under the Mosaic Law. This is probably as close as you can get to linking Jesus with the DP. But there is a world of difference between the DP for MURDER and for any other offences in the OT. DP for murder in the OT (including under the Mosaic Law) was premised on Gen 9:6, which predates the Mosaic Law and was based on an unchanged truth--human beings are made in God's image and are therefore sacred and priceless. DP on other offences (like adultery) stipulated in the Mosaic Law are applications of the 10 commandments that are binding only under the Mosaic Covenant. All we can conclude is that in John 8 Jesus was doing away with the DP on all these other offences. This makes sense as He came to inaugurate the New Covenant to replace the Mosaic Covenant. We cannot use this incident to say Jesus did away with DP for murder because this stipulation predates the Mosaic covenant and was given to Noah and his sons, from whom ALL human beings descended.

Since Jesus accepted the OT as authoritative we can assume that He accepted Gen 9:6 to be authoritative. So we can say Jesus support the DP indirectly by accepting the OT as authoritative and by not repealing it. We can understand why Jesus did not directly address the DP (for murder). It was not an issue in the 1st century! Human conscience (created by God) did not argue against it. People took it for granted and there was no need to talk about it. It is only in the modern world when the theory of evolution began to reshape human conscience that this issue arose. So it has been an issue only very recently (a few hundred years is nothing compared to the entire history of mankind). Even today, most people would support the DP, I think. It is the vocal minority that speak against it.

Let us see how Jesus addressed a legal issue of His day: divorce (Matt 19:3-9). He quotes the book of Genesis (Matt 19:4-6)! So He rests on the authority of Genesis for a legal issue of His day. So if He were to address the DP would He not again quote the relevant passage in Genesis? Note He used Genesis to address the issue of divorce because He was asked to make a stand (Matt 19:3). Nobody asked Him about the DP (on murder)! No one would.

What I have shared here concerns what the Bible teaches on the subject. If people do not accept the Bible as authoritative, the debate will take a very different form. But on a subject like this, unless we assume that God exists and has spoken to us about it, one person's opinion is as good as another's. There is no point debating. If there is no God or He has not revealed moral truths to us, who are we to decide what is right and what is wrong?

The most powerful argument against the death penalty is the existence of wrongful convictions. We must certainly avoid executing the wrong person. But this does not mean the death penalty in itself is wrong. What we need to do is to uphold the death penalty in principle. And have adequately stringent safe-guards to prevent wrongful executions, even if this means some murderers escape the gallows due to the lack of adequately conclusive evidence. At least this will send out the right message that a murderer, if truly convicted, should pay with his own life, upholding the idea that a human life is sacred and priceless. Otherwise people will all the more view a human being as another animal, as taught by the theory of evolution. The consequence of this view is that people are being mistreated.

Why then do many Christians oppose the death penalty for murder? They abhor it. They oppose it based on how they feel towards it, not based on what the Bible says. Some may deny that they oppose it based on feelings. They may claim that it is based on reason, the reason being that a human life is precious, perhaps even going so far to spell out that human beings are made in the image of God. So they are reasoning that the death penalty for murder is wrong because a human life (that of the criminal) is precious. But the Bible is reasoning that the death penalty for murder is right precisely because a human life (that of the victim) is precious, in fact sacred and priceless! A criminal must pay for his crime. What is the just payment for deliberately killing a being made in the image of God? The murderer’s own priceless life.

So unless a Christian claims that his own reasoning is above that of the Word of God or that his own wisdom is higher than that of God, his opposition to the death penalty for murder comes basically from his emotional discomfort towards it. In other words, his God-given conscience conflicts with the God-inspired Scripture. In pre-modern times, the individual as well as the collective conscience of even non-believers agreed with the Bible on the death penalty for murder. If we affirm that the Bible is indeed the standard for our beliefs and behaviour we have to say that the conscience of even Christians have been corrupted.

Paul exhorts Christians to stop being conformed to this world but instead keep on being transformed by the renewing of their mind (Rom 12:2). In the Bible the “mind” is not just the seat of reasoning but also the seat of feeling. Thus to renew our mind is not just about changing what we think about an issue but also how we feel towards it. Whatever the Bible says is wrong, such as greed, but we do not feel it is wrong, our mind needs renewal. Whatever the Bible says is right, such as the death penalty for murder, but we feel it is wrong, our mind needs renewal.


Anonymous said...


A very good concise view explained!

Mr Wang Says So said...

I am very amazed.

Let me understand whether I am actually hearing you right. And if I am, I will open this for discussion on my own blog.

Are you saying this:

"The Bible says that we should have the death penalty. Christians who oppose the death penalty are going against the Word of God."

Sleepless in Singapore said...

Yes Mr Wang, you are right.

But I would like to point out 1 thing tho. I read your blog regularly, including the comments. With all due respect to your readers, most of them do not appear to be Christians. So I fear the discussion will take on a very humanistic tone; which will not be very meaningful to me.

To an unbeliever, a lot of things in the bible are 'amazing' to put it politely. For example, the bible says that God created man supernaturally, and suddenly (not thro millions of years of so called 'theistic evolution'), full-grown from the dust of the ground. You either accept it by faith or you don't. Nothing much to discuss actually.