Previously, we saw how capital punishment is compatible with love, honors God’s sovereignty over life, and encourages the condemned to repent and be saved. Now, let’s finish our discussion by looking at three biblical counter-examples to execution.
In Genesis 4, Adam and Eve’s two sons bring their offerings to God. God accepts Abel’s and rejects Cain’s. In his anger, Cain strikes and kills his brother. God discovers Cain’s violence and banishes him for life while also protecting him with some sort of divine mark. Doesn’t this show that even God does not favor executing murderers?
One way to explain Cain’s survival is that the law against murder wasn’t given by God for another 1,600 years after Noah’s flood. Even the Old Testament wasn’t written by Moses for another 900 years after that. But this response fails since there is the punishment of banishing. If it wasn’t a crime because the law hadn’t been given yet, there would have been no punishment at all. Also, Cain clearly expected to be punished by God and men. Thus, his severe but non-capital banishment demands explanation, and the only biblically plausible answer is that this wasn’t murder.
Nothing in the text indicates that Cain intended Abel’s death. Not only are there hundreds of ways to strike a man and kill him unintentionally, but it’s even possible, as the first homicide in history, that Cain didn’t even understand the consequences of his assault. Furthermore, even if Cain did intend to kill Abel in a moment of rage, it’s not clear this would legally qualify as pre-meditated. God’s penal system distinguishes negligent homicide from murder. Thus, one might say we know it wasn’t murder precisely because God merely banished him.
In 2 Samuel 11, King David sees Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop near the palace, commands her to be brought to him, commits adultery with her, discovers she is pregnant, fails to trick her husband into sleeping with her to cover the pregnancy, and then has him killed through a complex military conspiracy. How does God respond? He sends Nathan the prophet to chastise David, who repents for his crimes and goes on living, but God condemns the bastard child to death.
If God is for capital punishment, why doesn’t David get executed? Both adultery and murder were capital crimes in Israel, and this must have been the worst-kept secret in the Mediterranean. There were even witnesses for every part of the conspiracy (a necessary component of Old Testament capital law). So why the leniency?
I believe it’s because David was King of Israel, anointed by God Himself through the prophet Samuel. Though this will sound strange to our ears which have been trained by the concepts of law as king, the rule of law, and equality before the law, David was above the law. No matter what the anointed of God does, he is still holy because of the anointing and cannot be touched. David demonstrated this by refusing to kill King Saul, who deserved it many times over. Moreover, when David learns that an aide assisted Saul’s suicide in battle, David immediately executes him for touching God’s anointed.
So David was spared a doubly-deserved death only because he was king. Nevertheless, a life penalty was still taken: the child. Thus, the Bible gives one precedent to explain why David wasn’t killed and also a reason to think that the murder still required the compensatory death of a human. It’s certainly a difficult passage, but it’s also certainly not a clear repudiation of the death penalty.
In John 8:1-11, the Pharisees bring Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery to see if He will authorize her execution. After He famously says, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” they all depart. Jesus proceeds to send the woman on her way, saying, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more.” Of all passages in the Bible, this one most clearly shows that Jesus opposed capital punishment, right?
First, we should note that this passage is textually dubious. The best manuscripts don’t include it, and both its placement and style controvert its authenticity. Even so, the Christian community has long considered this an iconic story of Jesus’ mercy. So, to merely throw it out would be inappropriate. Besides, it may well be a legitimate story, just not one included in the John manuscript. Hence, an interpretation would be more helpful than a dismissal.
The trouble is that most people wildly misunderstand this story. The Pharisees’ only reason for bringing this woman to Jesus was to put Him in a dilemma. On the one hand, Jesus couldn’t call for her execution since Roman law prohibited anyone other than a Roman court from doing this. The Pharisees proved they knew this when they later brought Jesus to Pilate rather than killing Him themselves. On the other hand, He couldn’t oppose her execution because this would have proven He was a false prophet for contradicting God’s Law. The passage even explains this in verse 6, “… they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him.”
So, the Pharisees wanted to make Jesus a heretic for opposing capital punishment, but He evaded their trap. The tremendous irony is that now, 2,000 years later, people who claim to love Jesus teach that He was precisely the heretic His enemies wanted to paint Him as. If Jesus was in fact repudiating capital punishment in this story, then He was neither the divine Son of God nor a true prophet. As I’m apparently more reluctant than others to embrace this conclusion, I can’t interpret Jesus as rejecting the Old Testament here. Had He been, His enemies would have left jubilant rather than ashamed. There are many theories on the meaning of this story, but the one thing we must not do is use it to say Jesus overturned God’s Word as His enemies intended.
What we see with the above examples is that even the difficult Bible passages don’t undermine the validity of capital punishment.
The religious and the secular arguments agree: capital punishment is purposeful, rational and pleasing to God. If you have read all eleven of these columns, I thank you for your persistence and your patience and trust they have been useful.