The Death Penalty: What Would Jesus Do?

Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. (Numbers 35:31)

Surprisingly, many Christians oppose the death penalty. In Maryville, Tennessee, some local pastors protested the death penalty by saying, "What would Jesus do?" In this essay I would like to explore this question. My conclusion is probably not the same as those pastors in Maryville.

Keith J. Pavlischek makes a very important observation:
If the marketing of "WWJD" trinkets is any indication, evangelicals are likely to be sympathetic to an approach that begins by asking "What would Jesus do?" But what if that is the wrong question? The problem is not, as Von Drehle suggests, that this is a legitimate question for one's personal life, but not for one's capacity as a public official or military leader. It isn't a very good question for one's personal life either. If I'm considering whether to get married or stay single and head to the mission field, it would be a mistake to ask—what would Jesus do? Because Jesus, the Word incarnate, didn't come to earth to get married, just as he didn't come to establish a university, think tank, or assume political office. The same can be said for just about every other issue we confront personally, let alone nationally. 1
Apparently some Christians do not realize that Jesus and Jehovah are one and the same. Jesus was not a prophet with new insights for living, He was God in the flesh--the same God who gave us the Ten Commandments, and who said, "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man" (Genesis 9:6).

This is not to be confused with the 6th commandment, which in the King James Version reads, "Thou shalt not kill." The proper translation of the Hebrew word is found in the New King James Version, which reads, "You shall not murder." Once again, a distinction needs to be made between "kill," "murder," and "execute," three very different terms.

Some people say Jesus' teachings of love and forgiveness require us to abolish the death penalty. But do they really? If we followed this particular argument to its logical end, we would have to do away with all punishment. But no one suggests we should do that. The alternative is always life in prison, but should we put murderers in prison for the rest of their lives? "But Jesus would forgive." Should we put them in prison for twenty years? "But Jesus would forgive." Should we put them in prison for a week? "But Jesus would forgive." The problem comes from applying interpersonal matters with matters between citizen and state.

There is a further problem with the understanding of the word, "forgiveness." Forgiveness means to "cease to feel resentment against." Forgiveness includes pardon for offenses, but I don't think that this is what Jesus intended. Instead, we are to cease to feel resentment against our offenders (hate the sin, not the sinner), but we are not to pardon, that is, to release them from the legal penalties. Parents punish their children even if they forgive them. God forgives sin, but we still have to pay the penalty for it. For example, God may forgive someone for sexual promiscuity, but He will not necessarily take away the resulting sexually transmitted disease. We should forgive our offenders, but we should not ask that the government not punish them.

Death penalty opponents never fail to mention the adulteress whom Jesus forgave. This is irrelevant for two reasons. First, the death penalty for murder is not even the issue in this particular passage of scripture. The death penalty for adultery was required of the nation of Israel, while the death penalty for murder was required of all people--the U.S. does not execute adulterers. As J.P. Holding points out,
Because the Romans held the rule of life and death and the right to implement capital punishment, this was a challenge to Jesus to commit sedition. If he had said, "Go ahead," he would have been arrested. By itself this offers no injunction against capital punishment, since it was not really an option; moreover, Jesus' reply indicates, "If we are to enforce it this time, some of you are next." The constraints of Roman power were acknowledged -- though capital punishment itself was not thereby repudiated.2
Second, Jesus is God. He has the authority to remove consequences of sins whenever He sees fit to do so. He did so in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament. The fact that Jesus removed consequences for sin does not mean we have the authority to do so. You may choose to pardon crimes committed against yourself, but you can never pardon crimes committed against someone else.

Bob Enyart notes:
The prohibition of personal vengeance has precedence in the Old Testament. "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge but you shall love your neighbor as yourself "(Lev.19:18). No one could successfully argue that the prohibition of vengeance in the Old Testament negated the death penalty then. And no one can successfully argue the same today.3
Jesus invented the death penalty, and He approves of it today. He said, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire." (Matthew 5:21-22). What Jesus is saying here is that just as execution is the required punishment for murder (as commanded in the Old Testament), those who speak hostile words to others and have hatred in their hearts will suffer eternity in hell. Not only does Jesus fail to condemn the civil authorities for executing murderers, He defines a much more serious, eternal punishment for those who hate and verbally attack others.4

Some have said that Jesus abolished the Mosaic Law. Not only is this untrue, it is also irrelevant. The death penalty for murder was given before the Law and even before the existence of the nation of Israel. It was a universal mandate given by God. As Chuck Colson has explained,
It is because humans are created in the image of God that capital punishment for premeditated murder was a perpetual obligation. The full range of biblical data weighs in its favor. This is the one crime in the Bible for which no restitution was possible (Numbers 35:31,33). The Noahic covenant recorded in Genesis 9 ("Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. "Gen 9:6) antedates Israel and the Mosaic code; it transcends Old Testament Law, per se, and mirrors ethical legislation that is binding for all cultures and eras. The sanctity of human life is rooted in the universal creation ethic and thus retains its force in society. The Christian community is called upon to articulate standards of biblical justice, even when this may be unpopular. Capital justice is part of that non-negotiable standard. Society should execute capital offenders to balance the scales of moral judgement. 5
What would Jesus do? He would encourage us to do as He commanded us to do in Genesis.

1. Pavlischek, Keith J. Just War Theory and Terrorism: Applying the Ancient Doctrine to the Current Conundrum.

2. Holding, J.P. The Bible and Capital Punishment .

3. Enyart, Bob. God and the Death Penalty.

4. Sharp, Dudley. Death Penalty and Sentencing Information.

5. Colson, Charles. "Capital Punishment: A Personal Statement"