Capital punishment has been a debated issue for many years in the U.S. and will probably remain a hot-button issue for many years to come. Even Christians tend to disagree as to whether it is right or wrong and for those Christians in favor of the death penalty, there is disagreement over what crimes should be punishable by death.
The first mention of the idea of putting someone to death for a crime in the Bible appears in Genesis 9 when God spoke to Noah and his sons after they disembarked from the ark–
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. [Genesis 9:5-6]
So the first and only crime designated for the death penalty was the crime of murder. That’s understandable since the most important thing all people (saved or unsaved) have in common is their very life and because we are all created in God’s image, God lets us know that the lives of humans is sacred.
Centuries later when Mosaic law was established in Israel, crimes punishable by death were expanded to include such things as domestic violence against parents (Exodus 21:15), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), child sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2), bestiality (Leviticus 20:15-16), blaspheming God’s name (Leviticus 24:16), and rape (Deuteronomy 22:25-27), just to name a few. Now that we live in a different era, some of the crimes and sins in the Old Testament that required capital punishment are not considered to be so serious that we would consider them as punishable by death. That is partly due to Jesus Christ coming to Earth to teach us about God’s grace and mercy and his teachings affecting the laws of mankind in many parts of the world.
Although God established capital punishment during the early years of the Earth’s existence, we are shown in the Bible many times that unjust rulers use the death penalty as a guise for getting rid of righteous or innocent people that they don’t like. The death penalty was used by Jezebel against Naboth to steal his land, by Manasseh the king of Judah to destroy those who resisted his evil policies, by Herod Antipas to slay John the Baptist so he wouldn’t look foolish in front of his friends when he promised to give his stepdaughter Salome whatever she wanted, and by Pontius Pilate to crucify our Lord under pressure from Jewish leaders.
In spite of his foreknowledge that government leaders would use capital punishment to murder innocent people including himself, the Lord Jesus Christ never condemned the death penalty as a way of punishment and seems to promote it in his teachings. There are at least two instances in the scripture where Christ talks about the death penalty. The first instance is when Jesus spoke of harming children–
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! [Matthew 18:6-7]
Here we see clearly that Jesus states that anyone who offends (commits a criminal offense) against a child deserves to be put to death in a way where they will suffer–death by drowning. Yes, Jesus, our sinless Lord said a person who criminally harms a child should have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea. A millstone is a very heavy stone used to grind grain into flour. So apparently Christ was not really concerned with the human rights of a criminal offender receiving what we might argue today as being cruel and unusual punishment. He was more concerned about the cruel and unusual violation of the child victims’ rights at the hands of an offender.
The next instance in scripture of Christ discussing capital punishment is when an act of Pontius Pilate was brought to his attention–
There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things?
I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. [Luke 13:1-3]
Pilate had executed a group of Galileans at a time when the Galileans were involved in a religious ritual of offering sacrifices. The people who told him about the incident must have told him in a tone of condemnation toward the Galileans. They obviously felt that the Galileans were so evil that they deserved the death penalty and their feelings were probably justified. But notice Christ’s response. It was a response to get them to take a good look at themselves. He did not condemn the death penalty or state that the Galileans were treated wrongly. Instead he essentially asked the people around him, “Do you think that you are better than these Galileans because they were punished for their evil? No, you’re not better than them in God’s eyes because unless you repent of your sinfulness by believing in me you will perish in the same way they did.” He told them that their end would be the same as the most vile, unrepentant criminal, which is an implied reference to them going to hell when they died, unless they repented of their sins. We are justified to condemn criminal acts of offenders as being worthy of the death penalty if it applies, but we go too far if in our condemnation of those criminals, we assume that we are spiritually superior to them if we don’t have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
The idea and principle of the death penalty was never condemned in the Bible, but its abuse was condemned, especially in the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because we are shown that men in power can use capital punishment to harm innocent people, we are taught in the Bible that it should never be taken lightly or used loosely, but this in no way invalidates the very idea of having it as a law.