News headlines have recently been filled with controversy as several Arkansas Death Row inmates were scheduled to be put to death this month, only to have last minute stays of their executions for various reasons. Capital punishment is controversial due to the varying issues involved regarding the truth of justice, how to apply justice, fairness in sentencing, the role of the courts, and methods of administering it.
Debate also swirls around questions of retribution, prevention, deterrence, restitution, rehabilitation and judicial reform. Each issue is important and cannot be exhausted in this space. Nevertheless, there are two commonly asked questions which must be addressed: First, does capital punishment violate the fundamental truth of the sanctity of human life? Second, does capital punishment go against extending mercy and grace to others? What does the Bible say?
The Bible teaches every person is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Every life is precious. The Bible makes a clear distinction between killing and murder. Like English, separate words exist in both Hebrew and Greek for both. Murder, means “the unjustified taking of a human life” (Genesis 9:6, Exodus 20:13). “Do not murder” is one of the 10 Commandments.
Some argue against capital punishment by pointing to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “you have heard it said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say… turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-42). In that context Jesus is speaking of personal retaliation as an individual response to evil. There is a difference between agency: person and state. Romans 13:1-7 reveals God’s plan for governing authorities is to uphold good and punish evil. Only the proper authority can mete out justice (see also 1 Peter 2:13ff). As a result, it seems in some cases capital punishment is allowable, just, and permitted (though not preferable) ironically, as a way to uphold, preserve, and promote the sanctity of innocent life.
A second question raised involves the issues of mercy and grace. Mercy and grace are different things. Mercy is not giving someone what they deserve, while grace is giving someone what they do not deserve. Contrary to popular belief, forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. When Jesus died on the cross, grace could be extended to all precisely because justice had been served. Some point to John chapter 8 and the story of the woman caught in adultery, where Jesus famously said “whoever among you is without sin cast the first stone.” Jesus’ problem was the sinful, judgmental, vengeful motivation of the religious leaders who conveniently left the man alone and unfairly applied their own law.
As odd as it may seem, as a Christian, the issue of capital punishment turns my heart and mind to the cross of Jesus Christ. The only hope for true and lasting change is repentance from sin and placing faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. On the cross He took the justice/punishment we deserve (Ephesians 2:1-8; 1 Cor. 5:21; Col. 2:13-16, book of Romans). All who look to Christ in faith are liberated and set free from the prison cell of sin and the death sentence we deserve (Romans 6:23). In Christ we have been given mercy by not getting what we deserve (Jesus died in our place), and grace by getting what we don’t deserve (forgiveness and freedom). There is room for disagreement among even Christians when it comes to capital punishment, but there is one thing we can all agree upon: We all need God’s mercy and grace.