Science in Christian Perspective



New Testament Christianity and the Morality of Capital Punishment: A Rebuttal

From: JASA 14 (September 1962): 77-79.

The New Testament is a wondrously radical document. It is so radical that very few Christians believe that Jesus, Paul, et al., really expected to be taken seriously. Jesus, by His own testimony, came "to fulfill the Law,"1 but what He meant by this amounts, for all practical purposes, to abolishing the Old Testament law code. Rather, the statements in the Old Testament become for Jesus points of departure for probing deeply into the heart of man and for determining the kind of character God longs to find in man.

Jesus summed up the entire Law in three words: Thou shalt love.2

  Whatever springs from pure love, from a desire for the best for the object of love, is right, no matter how many statutes the expression of that love might violate .3 One might even say that he whose thoughts and actions, toward God or toward man, are always governed by love can do no wrong!

It is significant that Jesus' greatest disciple, Paul, though a man of action, always on the move, probably galled more by the enforced inactivity of prison than by the insult of it, different from Jesus in so many ways, yet echoes again and again this teaching of his Master, that love should be the controlling force in a Christian personality.4 He several times expressed the principle that man is completely free before God.5 The only restraints in man's relations with God and man come from his conscience.6 There is no such thing as propositional Law; there is only love.

One form which this attitude takes in the New Testament is a principle which might be called the Principle of the Second Chance. This is especially well illustrated by Jesus' reply to Peter when asked how many times one ought to forgive an offender. "Until seventy times seven, "7 must surely mean, "there is no limit to the number of times one ought to forgive." In commenting on the Lord's Prayer, Jesus said, "If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."8 Equally clear is another statement from the Sermon on the Mount: If one should "smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."9

The Noachian law'O is often cited in discussions of capital punishment. Yet it would seem to be repudiated by Jesus when He expresses His attitude toward the lex talionis, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."11" The lex talionis is no longer to be a principle of action. To be sure, "a life for a life" is not specifically cited here, but unless there can be found a specific exclusion of this application of the lex talionis in the teaching of Jesus, one would seem to be under compulsion to reject it along with every other application of that law. Jesus dealt in principles, and the rejection of a principle is the rejection of every application of that principle.

To require a specific statement on every possibility in Christian behavior would necessitate a code book of absurd proportions. The New Testament offers principles for behavior and then leaves it up to the individual to apply those principles. Jesus has repudiated the lex talionis, and the Christian must then make the application to every expression of the lex talionis. The lex tali onis represented a tremendous advance over previous systems of punishment. The Principle of the Second Chance represents not just an advance in attitudes toward punishment, but an entirely new approach.

Not only does a specific teaching of Jesus require the abolition of capital punishment, but the whole nature of Christianity cries out against it. Christianity comes as a redemptive religion. Christ came to "seek and to save that which was lost."12 He came "to give His life

*Dr. Ericsson was formerly Instructor in New Testament, Bethel Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. He is now Associate Professor of Bible, Frederick College, Portsmouth, Virginia.

a ransom for many."13 "The whole have no need of a As to the former inconsistency, the theoretical case
physician, but they who are sick. "14 He came that those sick "might have life, and have it more abundantly.15is
Surely there can be no place for capital punishment in a religion which stresses Life.

Redemption takes place in the present, not in the future, though it has its future aspects.16 And the redemp tion which Jesus brings is a redemption of the whole man, not just of the spiritual side of man. To advocate death, even in a limited number of instances, would deny the stress which Jesus placed on Life.

A corollary of this is that the Christian has an obli gation to bring Life to whomever he can. The stress in
treatment of criminals ought not to be on punishment but on rehabilitation. Restraints of some kind are need
ed, but the institutions created to deal with criminals ought to serve two functions: (1) They should be used
to protect society from men with dangerously distorted minds. This is for the sake of society, not for the
punishment of such men. (2) The emphasis in such institutions ought to be on rehabilitation, with the goal
of returning them to society as safe and useful citizens. It need hardly be mentioned that the surest form of
"rehabilitation" is the New Life in Christ. This is a strong argument for more evangelical prison chaplains.

Criminals have sick minds. They are incapable of a peaceful relationship with other men, and so are rightly
restrained as disruptive to society. In many cases, the criminal tendencies of an individual are not his fault,
but are an inevitable result of his environment. Some men never have even a First Chance, let alone a Second
Chance. Is it fair to punish a man for something that is not his fault? Granted, it may be necessary to protect
society from him, but this very "protection" offers a splendid opportunity for concentrated effort at rehabilitation, and it ought not be ignored by those who preach a religion of redemption. Rehabilitation is difficult, but every offender has a right to it. Perhaps some men are beyond redemption, but this is a matter for God to decide, not man.

Applications of Capital Punishment

There is a real inconsistency in the application of capital punishmen both in the theoretical arguments put forward by Christians who support it and in the actual practice of governments. As to the latter, one need only note the fact that the majority of the victims of capital punishment are poor, non-white, and men; this points up the inequality of the application of the law. To this it might be added that the large number of safeguards afforded by our legal system are, in practice, available only to men of relative wealth, for appeals and the various other legal devices to implement them are expensive. Even if these are made available by a court to everyone, the man who can afford to hire an experienced, clever attorney that can devote a great deal of time to the case has a distinct advantage over the man who must depend on whatever legal assistance is made available to him by the local government.

As to the former inconsistency, the theoretical case for capital punishment is usually based on the fact that man is unique among creatures, having been created in the image of God, and hence murder is an insult to that image and a particularly flagrant insult to Him whose image is represented. The ancient Hebrew actually applied capital punishment more broadly than this, as was pointed out in a recent article in this Journal.17

Hebrew applications of capital punishment may be characterized as including whatever was dangerously disruptive to their society. Within this broad characterization there seem to have been three categories: (1) that which is degrading to man, God's image, which would include such things as murder and some forms of kidnaping; (2) that which threatened the family, which would include such things as defiance of parents and sexual irregularities; and (3) that which was a threat to Israel's religion, which would include such things as worship of other gods and violation of the sanctuary.

The ancient Hebrew, then, was quite consistent in his application of capital punishment. But even if we limit ourselves to the one category referred to in the Noachian law, that which is an insult to the image of God, there is still a great deal of inconsistency, for there are many ways to offer this insult to God. Some of these are even worse than murder because they constitute a continuing insult, whereas murder is only a single act. There could be no better example than the dope peddler, whose product makes animals out of men. And what of the procurer, who retails human flesh, at a nice profit to himself? Are not these, and other men like them, guilty of a desecration of the image of God which is at least as serious as murder? Yet we limit our demands for capital punishment to only a few of the possibilities, notably murder and rape.

In the article referred to above,18 an attempt was made to demonstrate that the New Testament supports capital punishment. However, a glance at the Biblical references cited will show that there is little of the New Testament in Bubes argument. He offers thirty-four (or forty-four, depending on how the count is made) references to the Bible; only five of these are to the New Testament. This hardly sounds like a discussion of "New Testament Christianity"! Of those five references, one19 is offered in support of a preliminary point and is not itself concerned with capital punishment. A second20 actually denies the right to use capital punishment in a particular instance.

This leaves three references as Bube's New Testament basis for capital punishment. But one of these 23. is nothing more than a proverb, probably quoted by Jesus from the common stock of Jewish proverbs of that day, stating that violent men, no matter how good their cause (note that Peter was defending Jesus) can expect to die violent deaths. To say, "The end does not justify the means," is to say very nearly the same thing. Another


of the three 22 is a statement that God (not man) will avenge His persecuted and martyred saints.

This leaves but one passage 23 from the New Testament which might be taken to support capital punishment. Here the reference to the sword is somewhat deceptive at first glance. However, to say that the sword here symbolizes capital punishment is no more reasonable than to say that the policeman's pistol symbolizes the same thing. The sword and the pistol must symbolize the right of government to maintain law and order and to use force for that purpose, if necessary. Whether or not that right includes capital punishment must be decided from sources elsewhere in Scripture, but this passage cannot be cited in direct support of capital punishment.

In summary, then, it has been shown that the New Testament refuses to uphold the Old Testament sentence of death, even upon the murderer. The Principle of the Second Chance requires that a wrong doer be forgiven, though it does not necessarily follow that he should be permitted to continue on his disruptive way unrestrained.

Love demands the best for all men, whether that love draw a response from its object or not, and it can scarcely be argued that "die best" is death. Further, the very nature of a redemptive religion ought to compel the Christian to a ceaseless struggle to bring Life.

The writer is increasingly convinced that the defense of capital punishment arises from the conviction that, in a world under the control of a righteous God, sin must be punished and good rewarded. Indeed, this is quite reasonable. What the defenders of capital punishment miss is that rewards, good or bad, need not necessarily be distributed in this life. To abolish capital punishment on principle is to bring oneself into step with basic New Testament Christianity.


1. Matt. 5:17
2. Matt. 22:37-40
3. Cf. Mk. 3:1-6
4. Rom. 13:8-10; 1 Cor. 13; Col. 3:14
5. Rom. 14:14; 1 Cor. 8:4-6, 8; 10:31; Gal. 5:1
6. Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 10:24; 1 Tim. 1:5
7. Matt. 18:22
8. Matt. 6:15
9. Matt. 5:39
10. Gen. 9:6
11. Matt. 5:38-42
12. Lk. 19:io
13. Mk. lo:45
14. Mk. 2:17
15. Jn. 10:10
16. 1 Jn. 3:2-"now"
17. Richard H. Bube, "New Testament Christianity and the Morality of Capital Punishment," The journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Vol. 13, No. 4, Dec. 1961, pp. 114-116
18. ibid.
19. Lk. 15:21
20. Jn. 8:1-11
21. Matt. 26:52
22 ' Rev. 13: 10
23. Rom. 13:1-4