Science in Christian Perspective



New Testament Christianity and the Morality of
Capital Punishment


From: JASA 13 (December 1961):

With the ultimate execution of Caryl Chessman after more than a decade of successful legal delays, the whole subject of capital punishment has suddenly become a major issue in many parts of the country and in the world around us. Marchers picket governors' mansions across the country protesting the carrying out of the death sentence upon convicted criminals. Emotional radio commentators and newspaper columnists join with the more intellectual authors of the Saturday Review to condemn the whole practice of capital punishment. Nowhere does there seem to be raised a contrary voice in this important sociological controversy. It is important for the Christian to face the issue squarely.

A humanitarian interpretation of society invariably leads to a denial of the right of men to put other men to death for any cause whatsoever. As long as murder is a crime only against man and society, there is no authority greater than that of man to impose the death penalty; since the failings of society are obvious, who is to say that all society is not responsible in some measure for the crime of the murderer? Who then can bear the responsibility of judging another man worthy of death? Besides, what a fine line separates the criminally guilty from the criminally insane; who is to judge between an intent meriting condemnation and an illness calling for pity and help? And so it is that the humanitarian cry of our day is to do away with the barbaric practice of capital punishment.

These same humanitarians have long since done away with the concept of hell, relegating this offensive teaching of Christianity to the bone pile of discarded dogma. They have made God over after their own image; they would convince themselves and their followers that God is not a Sovereign Father after all, but rather an Indulgent Daddy. They have forgotten the basic point in the carrying out of a crime: it is first of all a sin against God, as well as a sin against man. This is the point at which Christianity begins, the point which the Bible sets forth most clearly. When David felt the charge of Nathan after his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah, he cries out, "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned."1, And the prodigal son in the parable of Jesus cries out to God and his father as he returns repentant,

*Dr. Bube is a research physicist at the RCA Laboratories. He is an authority on photoconductivity and is author of numerous papers as well as of a recent book in this field.

"Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight. "2 It is not primarily the sin against man that calls forth the death penalty for the murderer, it is the sin against God.

The death penalty was to be invoked for many sins of men against God and their fellow-men according to the Mosaic law. The command on Sinai, "Thou shalt not kill"3 carried with it many other statements clearly setting forth the way the murderer was to be dealt with: "He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.' '4 "And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death ."5 "The murderer shall be surely put to death.' '6 "Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.' '7 If a man possessed an animal which was known to be dangerous, such as an ox, but did not take adequate precautions to confine the animal, and if that animal killed a man, then the owner was subject to the death penalty. But in this case he could pay a ransom to redeem his life.8 Such was not the case for a murderer: "Moreover ye shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death.9

The viewpoint of the Mosaic law against transgression of that law was sufficiently strict that the death penalty was to be invoked for many other offenses beyond that of direct murder. Among such offenses were: striking one's father or mother,10 kidnapping a man and selling him into slavery, 11 cursing one's father or mother,12 defilement of the sabbath,13 sacrificing children to the idol Moloch,14 adultery,15 incest, 16 sodomy,17 intercourse with beasts,"' witchcraft and wizardry,19 blasphemy,20 intrusion of strangers upon the tabernacle, the sanctuary, or the priests' functions,21 false prophecy,22 enticing to idolatry,23 stubborn and rebellious behavior on the part of a son .24 The guilt of sin fell upon the sinner and not on his immediate relatives: "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.' 25

In many places the Mosaic law emphasizes the importance of witnesses in making sure of the guilt of the accused. The situation is illustrated in its clearest form in the injunction given relative to idolatry :26

"If there be found among you, . . . man or woman, that hath . . . gone and served other gods, and worshipped them . . . . and it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain . . . then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman . . . and shalt stone them with stones, till they die. At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you"

The problem now confronting us is what part, if any, of these Mosaic regulations have been properly carried over into the new dispensation of our Lord Jesus Christ. As a matter of record, the death penalty is not invoked for any of the above-mentioned causes except that of murder. Is this a valid exception? Jesus Himself in His treatment of the woman taken in adultery indicated the negation of the death penalty for that offense .27

A study of the Scriptures reveals that the case of murder is indeed an exception. Or better, not so much an exception, as it is a regulation of God which precedes and follows the dispensation of the Old Covenant with the Mosaic regulations. The form of the commandment in the Mosaic law is merely one embodiment of a universal commandment of God which has always been in effect. Its institution comes early in Genesis when God presents the commandment to Noah after the flood. "And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man.' '28 This last sentence dearly sets forth the universal teaching that death by man is to be the penalty for murder. This penalty does not result primarily because of the crime against humanity; it results because a creature made in the image of God has been slain. Murder is intolerable because it is a usurpation by man of a power reserved unto God alone. God has therefore ordained that the murderer must be put to death. This commandment persists through both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The last book of the New Testament repeats the same theme: "He that killeth with the sword must be killed with the Sword."29

Who then is to be the instrument of carrying out this sentence of God against the murderer? Here an interesting insight is obtained by first examining the procedure under the Old Covenant as set forth in the book of Numbers.30 When a man was murdered under the Mosaic law, another became appointed to be his avenger to slay the murderer. Usually the avenger was a kinsman of the murdered man, and the Hebrew word used for 'avenger' means in part 'to act the role of a kinsman.' A careful system was established to protect a man who might kill another by accident so that he would not immediately fall victim to the avenger. Special cities were set apart as cities of refuge to which the slayer might flee for safety. "Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger: that the manslayer die not, until he stands before the congregation in judgment."+ The congregation became the medium for decision: "Then the congregation shall judge between the slayer and the avenger of blood according to these judgments: and the congregation shall deliver the slayer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to the city of his refuge, whither he was fled.' '32 It was the duty of the congregation to put the manslayer on trial to determine whether or not the crime was premeditated. If he were found guilty, then he was put to death; but if found not guilty of premeditated murder he was returned to the city of refuge where he was constrained to remain, upon penalty of death, until the death of the high priest, after which he was free to return to the land of his possessions. Thus there was a mechanism for trial and judgment, with the decision of guilt being in the hands of the congregation, and the responsibility of execution in case of guilt being assigned to the kinsman avenger.

The principle involved in the Noahic commandment is repeated by the Lord Jesus Himself: "All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. "33 The correlation between Old and New Covenant is completed by the revelation given through Paul in the 13th chapter of the epistle to the Romans. Here it is clearly shown that the kinsman avenger under the Mosaic ordinance is replaced by the civil authority under the New Covenant dispensation. "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil."34

In summary, then, it has been shown that the Scriptures throughout uphold the universal sentence of death upon the murderer. This sentence comes first of all because man, made in the image of God, has been slain by man, and therefore the murderer has sinned against God as well as man. Every safeguard possible to protect the innocent from false accusation and condemnation must be exercised; surely wherever there is reasonable doubt of guilt, the death penalty will be withheld. In the Old Covenant, safeguards were provided by requiring multiplicity of witnesses, setting aside cities for refuge, and granting to the congregation the responsibility of judgment. In the New Covenant, safeguards are provided by the civil courts of law with all their checks and balances. The ultimate conclusion, however, must be that the man who is guilty of murder must be put to death. To abolish capital punishment on principle is to turn one's back on the basic teachings of the Scriptures.


1. Psalm 51:4 
2. Luke 15:21 
3. Exodus 20:13 
4. Exodus 21:12 
5. Leviticus 24:17, 21 
6. Numbers 35:16-18 
7. Numbers 35:30 
8. Exodus 21:29 
9. Numbers 35:31 
10. Exodus 21:15 
11. Exodus 21:16 
12. Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9 
13. Exodus 31:14, 15; Exodus 35:2; Numbers 15:35 
14. Leviticus 20:2 
15. Leviticus 20:10 
16. Leviticus 20:11, 12, 14 
17. Leviticus 20:13
18. Leviticus 20:15, 16
19. Leviticus 20:27
20. Leviticus 24:16
21. Numbers 1:51; 3:10, 38; 18:7
22. Deuteronomy 13:5
23. Deuteronomy 13:9; 17:2-7
24. Deuteronomy 21:18-21
25. Deuteronomy 24:16
26. Deuteronomy 17:2-7
27. John 8:1-11
28. Genesis 9:5. 6
29. Revelation 13:10
30. Numbers 35:12, 25
31. Numbers 35:11, 12
32. Numbers 35:24, 25
33. Matthew 26:52
34. Romans 13:3, 4