“Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”
~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)
It is not my intention to ruffle feathers with this post. I intend to have a conversation about capital punishment, the Bible, and Jesus. Many Christians believe that the death penalty is the right thing according to the Bible.
When we approach scripture, we need to ask “What is it actually saying?” For us to best understand this, we must investigate the text.
Many people base their entire view of the death penalty for murderers on just Genesis 9:6-7:
6 “Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind. (repeating Genesis 1:27 NIV)
I want you to notice the nature of verse 6. It is set apart in literary style from the rest of the verses (NIV indents it for this reason). When we read it from a literary perspective, it is written as a poem/song in the style of A-B-C-B-A.
(A) Whoever sheds | (B) human blood | (C) by humans shall | (B) their blood | (A) be shed
This is most likely a quote from an outside source that is put into the conversation in these verses.
Immediately following is verse 7.
7 As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”
This style mirrors Genesis 1:27-28
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them; (A – B – C – B – A poem/song)
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it…”
Whoever wrote and/or compiled Genesis 9 wanted to mirror Genesis 1 to represent a restart of creation after the flood.
- Genesis is the account of the world and civilization passed down (mostly verbally) before there was ever the ability to write. When they were written (possible parts by Moses), many of the accounts would have taken place in the past (at least 400 – 450 years).
- Most scholars believe that Genesis was compiled (with some other Old Testament works) in Babylon in the 500’s B.C.
The writing and/or compiling of Genesis would have happened after the actual Exodus. Capital punishment for crimes laid out in places like Leviticus 20 would have already been in practice, and Genesis 9 is mirroring that practice. This is different than a prequel establishment of capital punishment, before the Levitical Laws, that many people believe was taking place in Genesis 9.
What about Jesus?
Jesus is the same God of the Old Testament that was finally revealed as a human. He is the God of the Bible that holds the authority of interpreting truth that was misunderstood by God’s people. Think about the “Sermon on the Mount” where Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…”. I also think of Luke 24.
The purpose of the Bible isn’t just the Bible in and of itself. The purpose of the Bible is Jesus who reigns supreme over everything, including the Bible and all other interpretations (John 5:39-40). He has the authority to interpret the truth that was misunderstood or misrepresented! I am not saying that the Bible isn’t true or authoritative. I am saying that rightly interpreted Biblical truth will not contradict Jesus and the truth that He taught and lived. God allowed for what we call accommodation when the authors wrote (people communicating about God with their limited understanding of the world and God – I talked about this here ). Jesus showed us the heart of God in the way that interpreting accommodation in Old Testament passages would oftentimes lead His people astray, and they would miss the heart of God.
Look at Leviticus 20. It is a list of crimes that the Levitical Law states are punishable by death.
“If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death” (NIV).
Pretty clear right? If we were being rigid Biblical literalists, there would be a lot of deaths carried out over these things that seem normal in our culture!
In John 8, a woman is caught in the act of adultery. The teachers and interpreters of the Biblical law bring her before Jesus. Certainly, you would expect God Himself to carry out the death penalty listed in His word (The Bible). To do otherwise would be to be unbiblical right?
Many of us that advocate for the death penalty as Biblical justice would be the same ones asking Jesus this question in the text:
4 “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Jesus shows the very heart of God that many of us miss. Our trends and behavior show us and the world that we thirst as a Christian culture for retributive justice. We think that this is what God is about because the Bible seems to point to it, but Jesus in the Bible shows us something different.
7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Could it be that if we are to be true followers of Jesus, we will seek the same kind of restorative justice that Jesus showed, as opposed to the retributive justice that the teachers of the law pushed as Biblical? The way that we tend to think God sees a just society playing out is in advocating for capital punishment. Also, a belief in retributive justice as God’s justice affects the way that we handle people we know that keeps tripping up with sin struggles.
I have seen people be crucified in the church over sin struggles that they could be restored from. We tend to think that in order to correct sin, that we have to bring down the full weight of the gavel. In Jesus, we see a totally different image of God and justice. This is the true image of God. Jesus doesn’t condemn the sin of just one who could be punished by death, but He reveals the sin of all! We have all sinned and are on the road that leads to death, but Jesus’s posture isn’t to desire to advocate for that end for us. No, that is what the Satan does as the accuser! Jesus’s desire is to bring forgiveness and restorative justice.
I know that not everyone will agree with me. However, I do believe that rethinking the death penalty, its usage, and if it really is in line with the restorative nature of Christ is a conversation that we need to have. The death penalty is strongest in areas that have a majority of Biblical influence because many believe that it is Biblical justice. Many of these areas in the Bible belt and south are also areas that still struggle with racism and have a majority of African Americans executed (many who have been found later to be innocent).
How do you think that Jesus would respond?
What would it look like to heal this system and embody the restorative nature of Jesus?
I also encourage everyone to check out these books:
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Executing Grace by Shane Claiborne
Featured Image by Roberto Nickson