The death penalty is a highly charged and emotive hot-button issue, and a subject of endless debates. Among Christians, opinion is divided on the lawfulness of the death penalty under the current dispensation of grace. With the abolition of the law of Moses (where the death penalty was freely used as a punitive measure for offences like idolatory, murder, rape, kidnapping, adultery, blasphemy, homosexuality etc,), the argument rages among Christians as to whether the death penalty for murder is justified in the New Testament. Since murder is not the unpardonable sin, and God does forgive murderers who repent, should Christians still support governments inflicting the death penalty on convicted murderers? What’s the biblical view with respect to the death penalty as punishment for murder under the new covenant of grace? We shall examine the Scriptures to answer these questions.
From the time of Noah, God made a universal and everlasting covenant of grace with mankind, after the great deluge. In the Noahic covenant, God identified murder as a heinous sin and crime that should be dealt with ruthlessly. God considered murder a violation of his unique image in humankind, and therefore prescribed the death penalty for anyone who kills a human being, be they animals or fellow human beings. Thus, the concept of the death penalty for murder started with God. The aim of this severe penalty for murder was two-fold: to take life for life and thus prevent a murderer from killing again, and to deter other would-be murderers from executing their murderous intentions. God created human life in his very image, and therefore, he alone knows the value of human life and the deserved penalty for snuffing it out, as well as the necessary deterrent to prevent people from contemplating murder.
Genesis 9:1 God blessed Noah and his sons and told them, “Multiply and fill the earth.
Genesis 9:2 All the wild animals, large and small, and all the birds and fish will be afraid of you. I have placed them in your power.
Genesis 9:3 I have given them to you for food, just as I have given you grain and vegetables.
Genesis 9:4 But you must never eat animals that still have their lifeblood in them.
Genesis 9:5 And murder is forbidden. Animals that kill people must die, and any person who murders must be killed.
Genesis 9:6 Yes, you must execute anyone who murders another person, for to kill a person is to kill a living being made in God’s image (NLT).
Deuteronomy 17:8 “If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God chooses.
Deuteronomy 17:9 And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment.
Deuteronomy 17:10 You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you.
Deuteronomy 17:11 According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you.
Deuteronomy 17:12 Now the man who acts presumptuously and will not heed the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So you shall put away the evil from Israel.
Deuteronomy 17:13 And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously (NKJV).
It’s instructive to note that God’s covenant with mankind through Noah is an everlasting covenant that’s meant to be operational for as long as the earth remains, and for as long as night follows day. Unlike the Mosaic covenant that was abolished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Noahic covenant, like the Abrahamic covenant, is still effective and operational today because it’s an eternal covenant of grace! God’s covenant with mankind through Noah was not part of the old covenant of law God made with Israel on Mount Sinai that’s been replaced with the new covenant of grace ratified by the blood of Jesus Christ. As a result, God’s promise of not destroying the world again with a flood remains, as evidenced by the sign of the rainbow in the sky each time it rains; seedtime (springtime) is still followed by harvest; winter and summer have not ceased, and night still follows day. All these are parts of God’s promise to mankind in the Noahic covenant. Therefore, the death penalty for murder prescribed in the Noahic covenant still remains valid, for as long as the other components of that covenant remain valid! The Lord Jesus too taught that those who live by the sword would die by the sword, and that those who kill others would be killed in return. Thus, under both testaments, murder remains a death penalty offence in the sight of God.
Genesis 8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and sacrificed on it the animals and birds that had been approved for that purpose.
Genesis 8:21 And the Lord was pleased with the sacrifice and said to himself, “I will never again curse the earth, destroying all living things, even though people’s thoughts and actions are bent toward evil from childhood.
Genesis 8:22 As long as the earth remains, there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.”
Genesis 9:8 Then God told Noah and his sons,
Genesis 9:9 “I am making a covenant with you and your descendants,
Genesis 9:10 and with the animals you brought with you—all these birds and livestock and wild animals.
Genesis 9:11 I solemnly promise never to send another flood to kill all living creatures and destroy the earth.”
Genesis 9:12 And God said, “I am giving you a sign as evidence of my eternal covenant with you and all living creatures.
Genesis 9:13 I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my permanent promise to you and to all the earth.
Genesis 9:14 When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will be seen in the clouds,
Genesis 9:15 and I will remember my covenant with you and with everything that lives. Never again will there be a flood that will destroy all life.
Genesis 9:16 When I see the rainbow in the clouds, I will remember the eternal covenant between God and every living creature on earth.”
Genesis 9:17 Then God said to Noah, “Yes, this is the sign of my covenant with all the creatures of the earth.” (NLT).
St. Matthew 26:45 Then he came to the disciples and said, ” Still sleeping? Still resting? Look, the time has come. I, the Son of Man, am betrayed into the hands of sinners.
St. Matthew 26:46 Up, let’s be going. See, my betrayer is here! “
St. Matthew 26:47 And even as he said this, Judas, one of the twelve disciples, arrived with a mob that was armed with swords and clubs. They had been sent out by the leading priests and other leaders of the people.
St. Matthew 26:48 Judas had given them a prearranged signal: “You will know which one to arrest when I go over and give him the kiss of greeting.”
St. Matthew 26:49 So Judas came straight to Jesus. “Greetings, Teacher!” he exclaimed and gave him the kiss.
St. Matthew 26:50 Jesus said, ” My friend, go ahead and do what you have come for.” Then the others grabbed Jesus and arrested him.
St. Matthew 26:51 One of the men with Jesus pulled out a sword and slashed off an ear of the high priest’s servant.
St. Matthew 26:52 ” Put away your sword, ” Jesus told him. ” Those who use the sword will be killed by the sword.
Revelation 13:9 If anyone has an ear, let him hear.
Revelation 13:10 He who leads into captivity shall go into captivity; he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints (NKJV).
The implementation of the death penalty for murder has been left for human governments to effect, right from the time of Noah. Under the Mosaic covenant, Israel operated a theocracy, with priests, judges and later kings given the mandate to implement God’s law, including the death penalty for murder. Although the death sentence was not always faithfully executed under the law, it was more a failure of human governments to enforce a divine law, than a rescinding of the death penalty by God. Governments of all shades, including autocratic and despotic ones, have this divine authority to enforce the death penalty for murder. Even under the covenant of grace, the apostles still recognised the divine authority of rulers to execute the death penalty on offenders. The apostle Paul mentioned the fact that rulers do not bear the sword in vain, and are to legitimately use it to punish those who violate the law. In that respect, rulers are to be a terror to evil doers, by effectively using the sword to punish crimes adequately and uncompromisingly!
Deuteronomy 17:8 “Suppose a case arises in a local court that is too hard for you to decide—for instance, whether someone is guilty of murder or only of manslaughter, or a difficult lawsuit, or a case involving different kinds of assault. Take such cases to the place the Lord your God will choose,
Deuteronomy 17:9 where the Levitical priests and the judge on duty will hear the case and decide what to do.
Deuteronomy 17:10 The decision they make at the place the Lord chooses will always stand. You must do exactly what they say.
Deuteronomy 17:11 After they have interpreted the law and reached a verdict, the sentence they impose must be fully executed; do not modify it in any way.
Deuteronomy 17:12 Anyone arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the judge or of the priest who represents the Lord your God must be put to death. Such evil must be purged from Israel.
Deuteronomy 17:13 Then everyone will hear about it and be afraid to act so arrogantly (NLT).
Romans 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.
Romans 13:4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil (NKJV).
1 Peter 2:13 Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme,
1 Peter 2:14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.
1 Peter 2:15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men—
1 Peter 2:16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.
1 Peter 2:17 Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (NKJV).
How is murder viewed from the perspective of those murdered? If the victims of murder could communicate with us, what would be their number one demand concerning the people that killed them? What would constitute adequate and satisfactory justice for them? What would make their souls really rest in peace? Well, murdered people have actually spoken in the Scriptures (in both the Old and New Testaments), and they’ve demanded for only one thing- vengeance upon their murderers! The blood of Abel cried out to God from the ground for vengeance against Cain. The souls of those martyred for their faith in Christ in the book of Revelation cried out relentlessly for vengeance upon their murderers. They looked up to God, the avenger of blood, to avenge their deaths. By vengeance, the souls of murdered people want the termination of the lives of their murderers. They want nothing less than the death penalty inflicted on the people who killed them. And God has granted human governments the authority to execute that vengeance upon their murderers. But, in the instances where the human justice system failed them, God has promised them divine justice in bringing their murderers to book. If God promised to destroy those who destroy their own bodies, how much more would he destroy those who destroy the lives of others? Initially, God placed a curse on Cain and declared him a fugitive and a wanderer for murdering his brother, and prevented him from being killed in return, by threatening to punish seven-fold whoever would kill Cain for killing his brother. That apparently emboldened Lamech, Cain’s descendant, to kill too, and he expected killing him in return to be punished seventy-seven fold! Cursing Cain and condemning him to a life of vagrancy (more like banishment from civilised society, a form of imprisonment) didn’t appear to be a sufficient deterrent for his progeny Lamech to refrain from murder. Lack of sufficient deterrence for murder may also have occasioned the unprecedented violence that engulfed the world just before the flood, which necessitated a near-total obliterative judgement for the chaos that resulted from humanity’s extreme wickedness. The above factors may have been responsible for God upping the penalty for murder to the death sentence in the Noahic covenant and in subsequent covenants with mankind. The death penalty appears to be the strongest deterrent for murder, as a murderer is not allowed to live further to have the opportunities to kill again, and other people who witnessed their execution would think twice before contemplating murder, knowing the fate that awaits them.
Genesis 4:8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Genesis 4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Genesis 4:10 The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
Genesis 4:11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.
Genesis 4:12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”
Genesis 4:13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is more than I can bear.
Genesis 4:14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”
Genesis 4:15 But the LORD said to him, “Not so ; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him (NIV).
Revelation 6:9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.
Revelation 6:10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
Revelation 6:11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been (NIV).
Genesis 4:19 Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah.
Genesis 4:20 Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock.
Genesis 4:21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.
Genesis 4:22 Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.
Genesis 4:23 Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me.
Genesis 4:24 If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (NIV).
Genesis 6:1 When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them,
Genesis 6:2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.
Genesis 6:3 Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal ; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
Genesis 6:4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days —and also afterward —when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
Genesis 6:5 The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.
Genesis 6:6 The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.
Genesis 6:7 So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created —and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground —for I regret that I have made them.”
Genesis 6:8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.
Genesis 6:9 This is the account of Noah and his family. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.
Genesis 6:10 Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.
Genesis 6:11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.
Genesis 6:12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.
Genesis 6:13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth (NIV).
1 Corinthians 3:16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?
1 Corinthians 3:17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple (NIV).
The argument some Christians have put forward against the death penalty for murder is that, murder is not the unpardonable sin, and that God still forgives murderers who repent. Therefore, murderers should be imprisoned instead and given the chance to repent. Agreed that God does forgive murder, because it’s not the unpardonable sin. However, divine forgiveness for the sin of murder does not address the issue of murder as a grievous crime against humanity and against the state. Divine forgiveness is to avoid the second death in the lake of fire, which is the wage of unremitted sin. The repentant murderer will escape the second death and inherit eternal life, if he or she places faith in Christ Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Nevertheless, God’s decreed penalty for the crime of murder still remains physical death. The crime still needs to be punished, though the sin may have been forgiven. It’s the function of human governments to punish crime, while God forgives repentant sinners. Even while awaiting execution, the murderer has the chance to make peace with God and thus secure his eternal destiny. One of the purposes of the death penalty is to prevent the murderer from rejoining society after incarceration (as some do on parole), with the possibility of becoming a serial killer. How many murderers released on parole have ended up killing more people thereafter! How many have ended up as serial killers! Any subsequent deaths caused by these murderers could have been prevented if they had been executed after the first murder they committed. And some would-be murderers too could have been deterred by the prompt execution of cold-blooded murderers, following conviction by the highest court of the land.
Also, some argue that a few innocent people have been wrongly executed under the death penalty, only for their innocence to be discovered posthumously. It’s really a tragedy and travesty of justice to punish any innocent person for a crime they didn’t commit, and even more so with the death penalty. The problem in such a case is not the inappropriateness of the death penalty for murder, but a failure of the criminal justice system. Everyone should be presumed innocent until their guilt has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt. Even in the Old Testament, people were only sentenced to death after a thorough judicial examination, and upon the testimony of two or three witnesses taken on oath, with the penalty of death for bearing false witness. If people contrived to bear false witness against an innocent person just to get him or her executed, if the witnesses were found out later to be false, they too would be put to death. Such safeguards were to limit the chances of sentencing an innocent person to death by error. The death penalty for false witnessing was to deter people from bearing false witness that could lead to the execution of an innocent person. Thus, reformation of the criminal justice system is needed to prevent the sentencing of innocent people to death. Sentencing of people to death should only be done when the evidence of guilt is incontrovertible, and when no doubt exists about culpability. If any doubt exists, it’s better to set free a guilty person than to kill an innocent one. That should be the guiding principle of the law.
Deuteronomy 19:1 “The Lord your God will soon destroy the nations whose land he is giving you, and you will displace them and settle in their towns and homes.
Deuteronomy 19:2 Then you must set apart three cities of refuge in the land the Lord your God is giving you to occupy.
Deuteronomy 19:3 Divide the land the Lord your God is giving you into three districts, with one of these cities in each district. Keep the roads to these cities in good repair so that anyone who has killed someone can flee there for safety.
Deuteronomy 19:4 “If someone accidentally kills a neighbor without harboring any previous hatred, the slayer may flee to any of these cities and be safe.
Deuteronomy 19:5 For example, suppose someone goes into the forest with a neighbor to cut wood. And suppose one of them swings an ax and the ax head flies off the handle, killing the other person. In such cases, the slayer could flee to one of the cities of refuge and be safe.
Deuteronomy 19:6 If the distance to the nearest city of refuge was too far, an enraged avenger might be able to chase down and kill the person who caused the death. The slayer would die, even though there was no death sentence and the first death had been an accident.
Deuteronomy 19:7 That is why I am commanding you to set aside three cities of refuge.
Deuteronomy 19:8 “If the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he solemnly promised your ancestors, and gives you all the land he promised them,
Deuteronomy 19:9 you must designate three additional cities of refuge. (He will give you this land if you obey all the commands I have given you—if you always love the Lord your God and walk in his ways.)
Deuteronomy 19:10 That way you will prevent the death of innocent people in the land the Lord your God is giving you as a special possession, and you will not be held responsible for murder.
Deuteronomy 19:11 “But suppose someone hates a neighbor and deliberately ambushes and murders that neighbor and then escapes to one of the cities of refuge.
Deuteronomy 19:12 In that case, the leaders of the murderer’s hometown must have the murderer brought back from the city of refuge and handed over to the dead person’s avenger to be killed.
Deuteronomy 19:13 Do not feel sorry for that murderer! Purge the guilt of murder from Israel so all may go well with you.
Deuteronomy 19:14 “When you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you as a special possession, never steal someone’s land by moving the boundary markers your ancestors set up to mark their property.
Deuteronomy 19:15 “Never convict anyone of a crime on the testimony of just one witness. The facts of the case must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
Deuteronomy 19:16 If a malicious witness comes forward and accuses someone of a crime,
Deuteronomy 19:17 then both the accuser and accused must appear before the priests and judges who are on duty before the Lord.
Deuteronomy 19:18 They must be closely questioned, and if the accuser is found to be lying,
Deuteronomy 19:19 the accuser will receive the punishment intended for the accused. In this way, you will cleanse such evil from among you.
Deuteronomy 19:20 Those who hear about it will be afraid to do such an evil thing again.
Deuteronomy 19:21 You must never show pity! Your rule should be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot (NLT).
In conclusion, the death penalty for murder was instituted by God himself, as part of the everlasting covenant with mankind God made with Noah after the flood. The purpose of the death penalty was to deter the unlawful killing of human beings by both humans and animals. This shows the high premium God places on human life, which was created in his own image. The Noahic covenant of grace was to last for as long as the earth remains, and is still valid today, including the death penalty component for murder. Even the Lord Jesus Christ recognised the legitimacy of capital punishment for murder, by warning his disciples that those who lived by the sword would die by the sword. The apostles Paul and Peter acknowledged the divine authority of governments in wielding the sword for the punishment of evil doers, as agents of God to execute God’s wrath on criminals. Therefore, Christians are admonished to operate within the ambit of the law, in order to avoid the sword of judgement and justice, for he that kills by the sword would be killed by the sword too. Thus, capital punishment for murder is still lawful under the covenant of grace, for it’s part of an everlasting covenant that remains valid for as long as the earth remains. Christians should therefore resist the pressure being put on them to feel it’s anti-life and immoral to support the death penalty, because the Creator of human life, as well as the highest moral Being, instituted the death penalty for murder, and still supports it. The death penalty for murder is not meant to violate the sanctity of human life, but to uphold it, by eliminating those who have no regard for the highest form of life, as well as deterring others who would contemplate the termination of other people’s lives. Thus, supporting the death penalty for murder is simply believing and aligning with God’s word without sentiments. That’s what Christians are called to do.
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