Monday, August 24, 2020

Anonymous Asks (107)

“What does the Bible say about capital punishment?”

The law of God received by Moses at Sinai gave instructions to the leaders of Israel concerning the conduct of Israelites and the foreigners who chose to travel and live alongside them. The penalties for religious and criminal violations of the Law were identical for both nationals and foreigners.

The Old Testament Hall of Shame

Crimes sufficiently serious to merit the death penalty under the Law included but were not limited to: murder; negligent homicide; hitting, cursing or persistently disobeying a parent; contempt of court; lying under oath in a capital case; kidnapping; rape; adultery; incest; homosexuality; bestiality; blasphemy; false prophecy; offering sacrifices to false gods; breaking the Sabbath; witchcraft; and child sacrifice.

The circumstances under which the death penalty was to be applied, the relevant judicial process and the standard of proof required to impose the death penalty are detailed in the above links and elsewhere in the Law of Moses.

It is evident from the historical books of the Old Testament that these commands to Israel’s leadership were carried out sporadically and inconsistently over Israel’s time as a sovereign nation in the land of Canaan. Further, under Roman rule or during the Babylonian and Assyrian captivities, Israelites and Jews were often prevented by the laws of the relevant empire from punishing capital crimes as their law commanded, and, being subjects of an empire, were occasionally exposed to capital penalties not contemplated in their own law.

I’m almost sure that doesn’t really answer the question.

The Question Behind the Question

When young Christians ask what the Bible says about this or that issue, especially capital punishment, they are not generally looking for a historical retrospective. They are asking what today’s laws ought to look like if we lived in God-fearing nations rather than secular pseudo-democracies. So let’s try to answer what’s really being asked here.

My own belief is that a truly God-fearing nation today would govern itself similarly to the way Israel was intended to be governed under the laws God gave them. They were given good, moral regulations that provided a disincentive to evil behavior when carried out humbly and obediently. Any nation that observed these laws consistently would be a better place to live than a nation that did not, and the degree to which any nation today departs from the principles embodied in the Law of Moses is the degree to which it will be characterized by massive injustices, wretched moral examples in high places, and persistent temptations to wrongdoing.

We Just Disagree

That said, there is a great deal of disagreement between Christians on this subject. Many well-intentioned believers utterly fail to make the very important distinction between the phrases “the Bible says” and “the Law of Moses says”. While the Law of Moses obliged Israelites during a particular period in their history to execute judgments of this sort, and even warned them of national judgment if they failed in their duties, the Bible does not suggest for a moment that Christians today have either the right or the obligation to put anyone to death for any crime, no matter how heinous. That is simply not the job of ordinary believers. It is a task for the relevant civil authorities, who will give account to God one day for the manner in which they discharge their duties. Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses and certainly have no right to impose on others penalties to which we ourselves are not subject.

Now, because many nations in the West still make some pretense of being run democratically, it is certainly possible to vote for the election of politicians who advocate for some of these principles of justice, assuming we can find any, or to vote against those who most passionately repudiate them. If you insist that is the moral duty of believers living in the West, I will certainly not try to dissuade you from your position, though I think the prospect of seeing a return to capital punishment at all, let alone capital punishment carried out along Old Testament lines, extremely unlikely.

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