Question: There was a recent New York Times Magazine article about conman Paul Skalnik and how his false testimonies sent dozens to jail and 4 people to death row. In Florida, where death sentencing was/is popular, there have been 29 death-row inmates exonerated by the time of the article’s publication. There was also a study that estimated 1 in 25, 4.1 percent, of inmates sentenced to death are innocent. Even if the state kills one innocent person, isn’t that too much? As Christians who talk about killing innocent babies, how can we then go and support capital punishment when there are many instances where the judicial system have been wrong?
I am frequently asked this question both by fellow Christians as well as non-Christians. The short answer is that the Bible clearly authorizes and teaches capital punishment. During the Mosaic Covenant capital punishment was mandated for a variety of offenses. However, the death penalty both pre-dates and post-dates the Mosaic Law and Covenant. As far back as Genesis, God told Noah, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man” (Gen. 9:6). Here, God reveals the foundational reason why capital punishment is appropriate at least for the murder of a fellow human being — each of is us created in God’s image, and thus human life must be uniquely reverenced in comparison to the respect due the rest of creation.
The New Testament also affirms the government’s right to employ capital punishment as one of the options available to fulfill their divinely ordained responsibilities. The Apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, speaking of the civil magistrate, declares, “For he is the minister of God to thee for good, but if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Rom. 13:4). The use of the word “sword” in verse four is a reference to the sword used to execute Roman citizens found guilty of a capital crime.
For nearly two millennia now, this passage has been seen by most Christian faith traditions both as authorizing governmental authority and authorizing their right to use lethal force to punish evil doers, domestically through the criminal justice system and internationally through the military in “just war” conflicts with other nations.
But what about Jesus’ commands to love and forgive your enemies? Just the other day I was discussing this issue with a Christian colleague who immediately objected to my reference to the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, responding, “Well, capital punishment may meet the standards of Holy Scripture, but it doesn’t survive an encounter with the supreme ‘love ethic’ of Jesus who commanded us ‘to love and forgive our enemies.'”
I responded that there was no conflict. He was making the mistake of succumbing to the “red letter” fallacy of elevating the “very words of Jesus” above the rest of the New Testament. As one of my other colleagues once said, “All the words of the New Testament are important, but the very words of Jesus take precedent.” Such logic mistakenly has led many Christians to set up a false dichotomy between Jesus and the Apostles Paul, John, and Peter in the rest of the New Testament.
In fact, if you really give the “very words” of Jesus precedence, then you will reject all such false dichotomies. In the Gospel of John, Jesus preparing His disciples for His departure into Heaven after the Resurrection, says, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever; even the spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him, but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (John 14:16-17 emphasis added).
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Richard Land