In this article, I want to do a few things. The first and foremost is to present a multi-faceted case in favor of capital punishment on the basis Scripture. In addition to this, I will briefly respond to three of the most utilized arguments against the doctrine of capital punishment. My goal is to provide a short yet compelling case in favor of my position through the clear articulation of a rational position.
Defining Capital Punishment
Capital punishment, as I define it, is that act of political authority wherein an individual is killed for having committed crimes against the law. The question of the extent of capital punishment – answering to which crimes for which capital punishment should be administered – is a topic for another post (i.e. “the legitimate extent of capital punishment”). What I will defend here is simply the most obvious, necessary, and biblical application of capital punishment: that of capital punishment in the case of murder.
Capital Punishment and Scripture
The biblical account of the reconsolidation of humanity post-flood provides the principle which clearly undergirds the full manifestation of the doctrine of capital punishment made fully manifest in the 13th chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. As the story goes, God judges humanity for its iniquity (Gen 6:9-11). It is worth noting that God condemned the world, in part, for its violence (Gen 6:11). Following this, God plans to reconsolidate and continue his original plan with mankind, i.e. their being fruitful, filling and ruling the earth.
Having judged the world, God spoke to Noah regarding his covenant with mankind (9:1-17). This short narrative is filled with the same language as the original creation story in Genesis 1-3. In it, God reiterates the call to Noah to be fruitful and multiply (v. 9b), reiterates man’s task and place over creation (2-3), promises the preservation of the creational order (vv. 8-12), and provides a sign and seal of that preservation with the rainbow (v. 13).
Yet, negatively, and unlike the original creational covenant, this covenant includes “fear” and “dread” on the part of animals toward man (v. 2). In addition to this, the narrative has a theme of life and death within it – particularly with regard to the violent removal of life from living substances. Noah and his descendants are given the freedom to eat anything “that moves,” yet not with it’s “life-blood” within it (vv. 3-4). Blood is sanctified and forbidden for consumption, I believe, because of the sanctity that God wants to place on life. Blood is a sign of life, therefore blood is to be set apart.
Most significantly, the “blood”/“lifeblood” theme continues in the next verse with a particular reference to the “lifeblood” of man (v. 5). According to the Noahic covenant, the shedding of the lifeblood of man and beast will require a “reckoning.” The sixth verse is a pertinent expression of the nature of this “new creation,” which God promises to preserve following the deluge. It reads, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (v. 6).
This clear instance of the broadest notion of “capital punishment” is woven into the fabric of the post-flood nature of the world, which God promised to preserve in Genesis 9. It is a covenant which is made, in its extent, to “all of mankind.” Understanding the broad and enduring nature of this covenant is the key to understanding the present day application of its principles to this question of capital punishment. We are, in a very real way, still under the blessings and stipulations of the Noahic covenant because we are still among the humanity descended from Noah to whom it is addressed (Gen 9:8-11).
The Mosaic Covenant, which was fulfilled and made obsolete by the advent of the New covenant, includes an administration of Noahic principles, but this does not thereby nullify the previously established covenant and the principles contained within it. In other words, there was a continuity between Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants. Again, the principle of capital punishment is contained within the Noahic covenant. It does not follow that because the Mosaic covenant was fulfilled and made obsolete, the covenant undergirding the Mosaic covenant (Noah’s) is fulfilled and made obsolete. Rather, though the Mosaic covenant is made obsolete by the New Covenant, the New Covenant is manifest alongside the Noahic covenant. In a real way, the Noahic covenant existed and still exists for the sake of the establishment of both the Mosaic and the New Covenants. Without the preservation of a world, where would God have called Israel? Without the preservation of a world, how could Israel birth the Christ?
The Noahic covenant will not be fulfilled until this “old creation” is met by the full-consummation of the redemptive work of Christ in the full realization of the “new creation.” And though aspects of that new creation are present among us now, that new creation has become incarnate within the “old creation” order established with Noah; and thus such principles of that Noahic covenant, the harmony of the sphere and the institution of capital punishment, subsist even among and alongside the great New Covenant. That this is the case is evident in the reiteration of Noahic principles, by the Apostle Paul, in Romans 13. Here he explicitly states that the State is the bearer of God’s sword, given the duty and privilege of administering the vengeance of God for the well-being of those who do good. If you live by the sword, murdering others by the sword, you will die by the government who bears the sword (Matthew 26:52). The connection between Romans 13 and Genesis 9 is evident. The inherent connection between these chapters, and Paul’s clear and enduring depiction of the nature and task of government, is a clear justification for the enduring righteousness of capital punishment – the killing of murderers by the State as the State, in all nations everywhere.
Three Objections to Capital Punishment
- Renovation is Preferable to Justice
This is part of the position of the contemporary Roman Catholic institution (1). Their position is essentially that a fully-fledged “Personalism” (a Philosophy which reckons with the dignity of the human person), nullifies the legitimacy of any purported form of capital punishment. This position, to my mind, is unjustified. Philosophical Personalism could just as easily be utilized in order to justify Capital punishment: “The human person is so dignified that in order to prevent the desecration of more personal beings, we must punish murder to the uttermost, that is, capitally.” In addition to this, theologies and philosophies that prefer governmentally ordained restorative programs to justice-oriented programs are fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the distribution of spheres within the biblical worldview. According to the Bible, the State is given the sword, not the keys to God’s redemptive kingdom. The church, as Clark asserts, is a minister of the covenant of grace . The State is to administer God’s vengeance. Restoration or renovation from the State is not preferable to justice from the State.
- You Can’t Be Pro-Life and Pro-Capital Punishment
Frankly, this argument is more due to a lack of listening to our opponents and less to any problem with capital punishment. God instituted capital punishment and God hates abortion. In Scripture, capital punishment is given for the common good of the subjects under a government (Romans 13). In addition, its basis is the substantial dignity of those made in God’s image and likeness. The very fact that the individual who commits so heinous a crime is “held morally accountable” is proof of his dignity. He has such a lofty form, being made in the likeness of God. Commensurate with that form is his duty to preserve life. Failure to preserve the lives of others is thus met with the greatest amount of guilt. Moreover, the greatest punishment commensurate with that great guilt is death through God’s instituted means, as a manifestation of his justice.
- Capital Punishment Gives Too Much Power to the State
In my opinion, this is the most legitimate objection to the doctrine of capital punishment. Yet, if one is to admit that murder, at least, is to be punished by the State in terms of capital punishment, then we can move onto the question of extent – whether or not anything else should be punished, capitally. As for now, my response to this objection is, first of all, that it is unbiblical. God is the one who grants power to the State and we are to submit to his ordinance. The obvious and explicit power which he gives to them is the power to kill murders. A second response to this question is in terms of what power we are willing to say government should have. And it is good to have a government, fit with limitations, checks, and balances to kill those people who murder other people.
Though I think capital punishment should, even in society today, extend to rapists and pedophiles, I have limited my case to simply murder. After one is willing to admit of the biblical necessity of capital punishment in the case of murder, I will argue for the sake of the greater extent of capital punishment to crimes that I believe to be of greatest offense to our fellow man. For now, I will end praising God for His gracious design of our dignified nature and ask you to openly consider whether our prejudice against capital punishment is more due to our circumstances than his Word and sound reason.
Citations & ReferencesR. Scott Clark on the contemporary papacy and capital punishment: https://heidelblog.net/2018/08/contra-papam-capital-punishment-is-just/
Hodge’s Treatment of Capital punishment within his discussion of the 6th commandment: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/hodge/theology3.pdf, 519-520
Patrick SteckbeckSee More Essays
Patrick Steckbeck is a graduate of Reformation Bible College, earning a B.A. in Theological Studies. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Philosophy, specializing in Aristotle and Aquinas. He is the founder of The Reformed Philosopher.