So far this year 29 people have been executed by the State. Those 29 “victims” of capital punishment were responsible for the murders of (at least) 49 people. Last year there were 42 men executed who were responsible for (at least) 70 murders. [http://deathpenaltyusa.org/]
Is it right or wrong for the State to sentence someone to death? That question is so loaded that I’m not really going to go there. Are there some crimes and some criminals that deserve the ultimate sentence? I think so. There must be consequences for our actions. The more violent the crime, the harsher the consequence should be so that, in theory, people are deterred from committing such crimes. In practice, however, human history has shown that no matter how severe the punishment, crimes will still be committed. People will break human (and divine) laws regardless of the consequences.
Back in the very beginning, God created Adam in the Garden. God had ONE RULE. That’s it. Don’t eat from this one tree. The consequence for breaking that rule? Death (Genesis 2:16-17).
After Adam and Eve broke that ONE RULE, God had no choice but to carry out his punishment. From that day on they were banned from eating from the Tree of Life, thus they began the process of dying (Genesis 3:22-24).
Things escalate quickly and violently. In the course of two chapters we are taken from the very first time sin entered the world all the way to a brother killing his own brother in cold blood. We would call it first degree, or premeditated, murder. The penalty for which, in many states, is death. God, however, does not strike down Cain for killing Able. Instead he sends Cain into exile to live out his life as a nomad, a wanderer. God even protected Cain from anyone seeking revenge (Genesis 4:8-15).
But, as humans are wont to do, we took advantage of God’s grace toward Cain and twisted it to mean there are to consequences.
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.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Genesis 4:23-24)
This began the downward spiral into rampant evil and widespread violence without fear of consequences. When society has no rules, especially no punishments for crimes against our fellow man, then everything begins to fall apart. It got to the point that “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).
God had had enough. He dished out the ultimate punishment upon the entire evil human race, save for Noah and his family. The evil was purged beneath the cleansing flood waters. On the dry side of the flood, God made a covenant with Noah and mankind never to destroy the earth with a flood. But some things had to change. There had to be rules, boundaries, and consequences for breaking them.
And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.
“Whoever sheds human blood,
by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made mankind.” (Genesis 9:5-6)
The point: God takes human life SERIOUSLY. We are not just some happy accidents of evolution. We are created and fashioned in the very image of God himself. Every human being on the planet, all 7 billion of us, carry within us the express image of our Creator. To snuff out another person’s life is to snuff out the image of God.
God continues to drive home this point in Exodus after he has freed the nation of Israel from Egyptian captivity. The crossed the Red Sea and made camp at the base of Mt Sinai where God gave them the 10 Commandments and the rest of the Law. Look at what some of the very first laws have to say about human life.
“Anyone who strikes a person with a fatal blow is to be put to death. However, if it is not done intentionally, but God lets it happen, they are to flee to a place I will designate. But if anyone schemes and kills someone deliberately, that person is to be taken from my altar and put to death.
“Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death.
“Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.
“Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.
“If people quarrel and one person hits another with a stone or with their fist and the victim does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held liable if the other can get up and walk around outside with a staff; however, the guilty party must pay the injured person for any loss of time and see that the victim is completely healed.
“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:12-25, emphasis added)
Get the point?
There are some problems with this, however. First of all, it is possible to devalue human life and damage the image of God without actually hurting or killing someone. Check out what Jesus says:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
Secondly, just as humans have a tendency to take advantage of God’s mercy, we are also prone to twist God’s laws in ways he never intended. The idea of life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc., was supposed to be a deterrent. God intended the consequence to prevent violent crimes. Mankind, however, took these punishments as hard and fast rules. You hit me, I hit you back – it’s the law! It was used as justification for continuing the cycle of violence and revenge.
Again, Jesus has something to say about this:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)
In other words, we don’t HAVE to take an eye for an eye or return blow for blow. We have the power to put a stop to the cycle of revenge and payback.
Lastly, we are not under the Law of Moses anymore, we are under the Law of Grace. God gave Israel laws concerning reaction when someone acts violently towards another person. Under the new Law and the new Covenant, we have instructions on how to be proactive in dealing with difficult people.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
ONE FINAL THOUGHT
I would be remiss if I failed to mention this fact: We ALL deserve the death penalty. We are all guilty of sin, and all sin leads to death. This is pretty much step one in preaching/receiving the gospel message. Every single one of us deserves to die the death that Jesus Christ died for us.
There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… (Romans 3:22-23)
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
We are all guilty. We all deserve the penalty of death. But through Christ not only have we received a stay of execution, we have been set free from prison and given a place in the Family as adopted sons and daughters and co-heirs with Jesus!
Can I get an amen?
I can’t tell you to believe one way or the other about the ethics and morals surrounding capital punishment. What I CAN tell you is that God values life so much that he will demand an accounting of every time we have devalued life. But more than that, God sent his only Son to die in our stead so that we might be set free from the bonds of sin and death and might have life eternal with him.