Execution. Such an awful and yet, according to many people, necessary thing. Where one life was taken, another must be. When dealing with death, people usually get touchy, so there’s no mystery behind the death penalty being controversial. I mean, some of the most heated issues in popular debate involve death (abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, police shootings, and war come to mind off the top of my head). So that the death penalty is also so divisive is no surprise.
What may be a surprise to some Christians is that even within Christianity, the death penalty is very controversial. Even though I grew up with almost exclusively pro-execution believers, I soon found out on getting older how much variety there is. Christianity even has hardcore pacifists, and apparently most of the early church fathers were anti-capital punishment. I found this quite surprising, so I’ve done a little debate and investigation.
Personally, my mental jury is still out. Both sides have plausible arguments, and I find some from each side compelling. But I just wanted to address here one particular argument I used to use, which I’ve realized is flawed.
In my old death penalty debates, the Old Testament Law would often come up. Even though the Law required the death penalty, my opponents said, we are no longer under the Law, so we do not need to execute anyone. The death penalty was abolished for us with animal sacrifices and food regulations.
While I responded with multiple arguments, one I used was that the death penalty came from God before the Mosaic Law, and so couldn’t have simply gone away along with the Law. When was this? Some of you may be familiar. In Genesis 9, the Flood is over and God is establishing a covenant with Noah and his family. On God’s part, He will never destroy the inhabited world again. On humanity’s part, God says this:
I will require the life of every animal and every man for your life and your blood. I will require the life of each man’s brother for a man’s life. Whoever sheds man’s blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in His image.
Here God sets up the death penalty way before Moses. So when the Law became unnecessary for believers, the death penalty probably did not because that law came from a covenant made before the Law with every human being who still lived.
But, there is a wrinkle in this argument. Immediately before giving the death penalty, God commands Noah, “However, you must not eat meat with its lifeblood in it” (v. 4). So in the same breath that God set up capital punishment in His covenant with people, He also restricted eating meat which still has blood inside as part of that same covenant.
This regulation obviously poses a problem. If we use this passage to maintain the validity of the death penalty, should we also forbid eating really rare steaks, and any other meat which still has blood inside? Both of these laws go back before Moses. They are both part of the covenant made Noah and his family, and we are all their descendants. So these two laws seem to be inseparable. The text seems to imply that if we accept one, we must accept the other, and if we say one is obsolete, we must say the other is, too.
This doesn’t prove that the death penalty is out, though. Even if we think the covenant with Noah no longer applies to us, we might find another reason for capital punishment. But this revelation certainly takes some of the bite out of the Biblical evidence for the death penalty.
Or does it? There is the uncomfortable possibility that these laws do still apply to us. After all, they were never revoked. The New Testament never says they are obsolete like the Law of Moses. Plus, God’s end of the deal (never to destroy all the human world again) is apparently still in force. Even more uncomfortably, the New Testament might actually tell us that the blood law still applies. Consider this: one of the first decisions of the apostles was the Jerusalem Council, which addressed the question of whether Gentile believers (that’s us) have to follow the Law. Here’s part of what they said:
For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things: that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things. Farewell.
We all agree that at least two of the things the council said—namely that we do not have to obey the Law and that we must abstain from sexual immorality—still apply to us today. So what about the commands related to food? Well, Paul seems to indicate that we are allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols as long as we understand that idols are nothing and as long as this does not violate our conscience (Rom. 14:13-23, 1 Cor. 8). So apparently at least one of these restrictions doesn’t apply anymore. And for the rest? Who knows?
My point in all this is that the covenant God made with Noah and his descendants definitely complicates the death penalty debate, even though I myself used to use that covenant for this very purpose. In this particular covenant, separating the law against eating blood with the law requiring the death penalty seems impossible. Moreover, there is at least some possibility that both do apply. So all of this warrants more careful research. In everything, we have to make sure that we are “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 KJV). What all applies to whom? When, where, why, and how does every verse and law apply? May the Spirit lead us into all wisdom on these matters.
By the way, even if the blood law does apply, we don’t have rule out all rare meat. Based on the way meat was handled then, the point of the law appears to have been that the blood in an animal has to be drained before eating. Getting every last drop of blood out was not necessary, or all that feasible.
(As a concluding side note, this issue is particularly interesting to me because there are immediate, albeit not major, practical applications in our diets and politics. Should we support or oppose the death penalty when we vote? Are we allowed to steaks that are really, really rare? These questions need answering for us to do certain parts of life in accordance with God’s will.)