Last week the state of Arizona executed Eric John King for two murders that occurred during a robbery in December 1989 that netted $72. On the same day the prelates of the Arizona Catholic Conference released a statement expressing vehement opposition to the death penalty. “We firmly hold that capital punishment is state-sanctioned vengeance,” said the bishops, “that is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
I confess that these claims left me flabbergasted. As philosopher Ed Feser notes, “these statements are, from the point of view of the actual teaching of the Church, either false or in need of serious qualification.” Feser adds, “the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is grounded in natural law and in the infallible moral teaching of scripture, and is the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church from her foundation down to the present day.” [Emphasis in original]
I not only agree with my Catholic brother that it is legitimate in principle, but would go further by claiming that the Bible requires the death penalty to be applied for certain crimes.
As a Reformed evangelical I believe that many human institutions, including civil government, are divinely ordained and delegated a certain degree of authority and responsibility. While ultimately under God’s control, civil government is given a degree of sovereignty over certain spheres of human existence. One of the most important areas in which government is ordained to act is in dispensing justice.
While no government is able to carry out this task perfectly, the more it conforms its view of justice with God’s moral law, the more legitimate its authority and the more just the State will be. We are able to know the moral law because it is revealed to us either through special revelation such as the Bible or through natural revelation, such as natural law. For the reasons justifying capital punishment we will turn to special revelation.
Not surprisingly, many Christians look to the Mosaic Law when searching for justifications. Denying the legitimacy of the death penalty is made more difficult when we recognize that the law God gave the Israelites included twenty-one different offenses that would warrant the death penalty.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that the Law of Moses only applied to Israel. Since this particular covenant was made between God and the Hebrew people, it was never universally applicable. While we might be able to discern moral truths by looking to the Law, our decisions on how to apply it would be arbitrary and unwarranted. How would we rationalize, for instance, applying the death penalty to cases of murder but not for cursing one’s parents?
Although the Mosaic Law doesn’t provide a sound basis for a defense of modern capital punishment, there is a covenant that does: the Noahic covenant. After God destroyed mankind with a flood, he established a covenant with Noah, his family, and—most importantly for us—his descendants. Along with the promise that he would never destroy the earth by water again, God included this moral command from Genesis 9:5-6:
And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
This verse not only provides a moral norm for capital punishment but delegates the responsibility to mankind—to a legitimate, though undefined, human authority—and limits it to a particular crime: murder. Since this covenant is “everlasting” (9:16) and “for all future generations” (9:12), it’s as applicable today as it was in the age of Noah. Unless Christians adopt a form of supersessionism in regards to this covenant, we must recognize that this Noahide Law is still applicable and binding on all mankind.
But who is the legitimate authority to carry out this duty? In Israelite society, the family of the victim carried out God’s mandate; when more advanced forms of governing authorities were created, this duty was transferred to the magistrates.
Some Christians have argued that since modern liberal governments do not recognize the authority of God, the modern state is free from having to carry out his mandates. The result is that the question of capital punishment must be considered a matter of social, and sometimes individual, justice. Since capital punishment does not serve a legitimate societal interest, they contend, its only purpose is to slake a victim’s quest for vengeance.
This argument turns on the assumption that outlawing private revenge frees governments from the responsibility to implement God-mandated capital punishment. But what basis do we have for believing that claim?
Admittedly, there has been a beneficial moral evolution away from revenge-based legal structures. In the Ancient Near East, a person claiming wrongdoing was expected to seek personal justice by retaliating in kind. As might be imagined, this seeking of justice would often escalate into a private vendetta, and eventually into a blood feud between families or tribes. The resulting suffering would often far outweigh the original injustice.
The Mosaic Law, however, placed limits on personal vengeance, allowing only what was directly proportional to the injury done. This is known as the lex talionis, the law of retaliation (Ex. 21:23-24; Deut. 19:21; Lev. 24:20-21). The phrase “eye for an eye” doesn’t literally mean you could poke someone’s eyes out (as Ex. 21:26-27 make clear) but only that the compensation had to be in exact proportion to the damages. (We should also note that verses are given to the judges—Israel’s version of the civil magistrate—to adjudicate the matter. A third party mediated the vengeance.)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus places an even greater restriction on the lex talionis: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matt. 5:38-39)
This is a radical limitation on what was once considered an individual right to justice. The passage is both inspiring and intimidating; the very thought of living such a life is humbling.
But we should carefully note what Jesus didn’t say in this passage. What he left out of the verse he quoted is as important as what he included. Exodus 21:23-24 states: “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, . . .”
Notice that Jesus starts quoting at “eye for an eye” instead of “life for life.” Murder was not, nor had it ever been, a matter of individual vengeance—that is, an issue that can be adjudicated under tort law. When a person commits murder they are committing an offense against God himself and not against a mere individual, his family, or even society. Jesus’ command only applies to individual vengeance; it does not abrogate God’s command in the Noahic covenant.
Different orderings of the social contract may shift the burden of carrying out capital punishment from one societal sphere (the family) to another (the civil magistrate). But the duty must be carried out. If Christians believe their governing authorities are legitimate then we must expect them to take on the role instituted by God himself.
The Apostle Paul makes clear that governing authorities are tasked with implementing the wrath of God on the evildoer. In Romans 13:1-6, Paul says:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
St. Paul is making a logical argument with multiple, interrelated premises:
1. All authority is derived from God.
2. All Christians are subject to these governing authorities.
3. All such authorities have been instituted by God for the good of the people.
4. Governing authorities are God’s servants (Whether they recognize this fact or not is inconsequential, as Paul implies).
5. Resisting these authorities is resisting what God has appointed and will result in divine judgment upon the individual.
6. Governing authorities that “bear the sword” are carrying out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
The passage by St. Paul is unambiguous: Governing authorities are instituted by God to carry out God’s wrath on the evildoer. Whether citizens of the State—including we Christians—recognize his Lordship over civil government is inconsequential; the Bible makes it clear that nations and rulers are servants of God (See Isa. 45:1; Jer. 25:9; Dan. 4:32).
We may choose to reject the legitimacy of this arrangement, but in doing so we are choosing to reject God’s wisdom. Governments and societies may choose to rebel against God’s commands, but for professing Christians, that shouldn’t be an option. If Christians believe governing authorities are legitimate, then we must expect them to carry out this mandate against murderers. For officials of the church to slander the officials of the state by claiming they are “not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ” while they are carrying out God’s command is scandalous.
This is not the only scandal, however. There are serious concerns with how the death penalty is applied and carried out in the United States. While the Bible establishes a justification and requirement for capital punishment, it does not address the problems that can occur with its application. We have a moral responsibility to redress these wrongs through the political process. What we must not do, though, is allow our apprehension about the means, method, and scope of capital punishment to override our obedience in carrying out our Creator’s command.
Long ago, God made a promise to never again destroy the human race with a flood. When we see the rainbow in the sky we are to remember the everlasting covenant between God and “every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” As Christians, we should remember more than just the covenant. When we see a rainbow we should remember that we are made in the image of God. And when we see the electric chair we should remember, too, the price to be paid when we destroy the image-bearer.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Arizona Bishops Appeal for End to Death Penalty
Ed Feser, Deadly unserious