My Thoughts on Government and the Taking of Life (1): Capital Punishment and Corporal Punishment

Our Lord through His inspired apostle commanded the saints in Rome to bless their persecutors and repay no one evil for evil; they were commanded to live peaceably with all as much as depended on them and not avenge themselves when wrong was done to them (Rom. 12:14, 17-21).  Recognizing that we live in a sin-filled world, it is likely that Christians at times will suffer wrongdoing at the hands of others despite doing everything they can to live peaceably with them and treat them benevolently.  When persecution and hardship enters our lives because of the mistreatment of others, we can easily focus on the bad things that happen to us as Job did (Job 3, 7, 9-10, 14, 16-17, 19, 21, 23-24, 29-31).  As a result, Satan can easily tempt us to seek personal vengeance against the ones who harm us rather than waiting on the vengeance of the Lord upon the evildoer when He returns in glory (2 Thess. 1:7-9).  

It is likely for this reason that God inspired Paul to then mention the role of governmental authorities as His instrument to execute wrath upon the evildoer (Rom. 13:1-7).  Christians harmed at the hands of evildoers who were given the promise, “‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19) can therefore look to the governmental authorities of their countries as “God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4).  It is for this reason that the government “does not bear the sword in vain” against the evildoer (Rom. 13:4).  Let us take a moment to consider the ramifications of this biblical principle and some questions commonly asked about them.

The question of whether governmental corporal punishment (such as flogging, caning, or putting someone in the stocks) and capital punishment (the death penalty by various means of execution such as lethal injection, hanging, or firing squad) is morally and biblically right exists in the minds of many, and understandably so.  As we examine this question from the biblical perspective that governmental authorities “do not bear the sword in vain,” let us remember that swords are weapons.  Weapons are used to hurt people and take their lives.  By saying governmental authorities do not bear these weapons “in vain” within the context of being an avenger of God to execute wrath upon those who practice evil (Rom. 13:4), God shows that governmental authorities have the right to hurt and take the lives of those who are wicked without it being held against them as sin, since sin is ultimately the most vain and meaningless act in which one can involve themselves (Rom. 6:23; Rev. 21:8).  Thus, we must not consider corporal or capital punishment to be inherently sinful.  The likelihood of one’s life being forfeit or one experiencing significant pain at the hands of the government as a direct result of doing wrong can be a powerful motivator to do right (Rom. 13:3-4).

We see this when we notice that God did not allow anyone to take the life of the first murderer, Cain (Gen. 4:8-15).  This may have been a factor in the increasing wickedness of Cain’s descendants (Gen. 4:16-24), culminating in the universal evil of mankind which brought on the global flood (Gen. 6:5-7).  Perhaps the Lord allowed this and recorded it in Scripture to show us the value of capital punishment (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:11), especially when one considers that ever since the completion of the flood God has either directly commanded capital punishment or allowed it to take place. 

After the flood, the Lord gave to Noah and his descendants a directive which was directly the opposite of what he had said to Cain (Gen. 9:4-6). This directive for capital punishment for the crime of willful murder was carried over into the Mosaic law, and it was the punishment for various other sins as well (Ex. 21:12-17, 20-25, 28-32; Lev. 24:10-23; Num. 35:15-34).  It is likely for this reason Jesus restrained Peter from using violence to prevent His arrest by saying, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52; cf. Luke 22:49-51).  Jesus wanted His prophecy, “Of those whom You gave Me I have lost none,” to be fulfilled (John 18:8-9).  Peter’s use of the sword to attempt to kill Malchus and the others arresting Jesus put him in danger of both committing the sin of murder and being killed himself within the parameters of Mosaic law; thus, Jesus restrained him (John 18:10-11).

As a side note, some believe Christ’s statement to Peter that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” is proof that God desires that no one, including Christians, ever engage in any sort of violent behavior under any circumstances for any reason. Such a view, however, contradicts what we’ve just seen from Scripture that God both allowed and directed His people to take the lives of others for certain reasons and under certain circumstances. The Lord is never the source of sin. What He does and directs others to do is always right and just (Ps. 19:8; 33:4; 7:9). He tempts no one to do evil (James 1:13). What he directed Israel, and the patriarchs before them, to do in these matters was recorded in Old Testament Scripture as an example to us who live in the Christian era and to instruct us (1 Cor. 10:11; Rom. 15:4).

Some would reply to this that it seems to them that New Testament Christians like to “pick and choose” which parts of the Old Testament to emulate. Some would also say that God’s allowance of violent behavior from His people in the Old Testament was meant to be temporary, as part of His design to bring us progressively to the completeness of the revelation of Himself and His will for us. Therefore, they would say, while God directed violence in certain circumstances from His people in the Old Testament, He would expect the opposite from His followers in the new covenant because He has given us the complete revelation of His will.

Several truths are overlooked by these views, however. Namely, a study of the “entirety of Your Word which is truth” (Ps. 119:160a) shows that divine directives and principles which existed both before the Law Of Moses during the time of the patriarchs, during the Mosaic period, and afterwards in the new covenant are universal in nature, applying to all ages of mankind. What we are discussing, as is shown in these series of articles, is an example of such a divine directive and principle. Thus, it is not “picking and choosing” from the Old Testament to recognize that these types of directives are found in the New Testament also. The fact that Jesus, as the Word (Deity), had earlier allowed the taking of life with the sword under certain circumstances in both the Patriarchal and Mosaic ages, and would afterwards in the Christian age also allow it under certain circumstances, shows us that this is indeed part of God bringing us progressively to the completeness of the revelation of Himself and His will for us. When all is said and done and one has studied the complete revelation of God in Scripture, it is clear that He has always allowed and even directed violent behavior towards wrongdoers in certain circumstances, and He continues to do so today.

We see this as we come back to Paul’s letter to Rome after the establishment of the new covenant following Jesus’ death and resurrection, and observe that under Christ’s law governmental authorities are allowed by God to use capital punishment as a deterrent and punishment for crimes committed by wicked people (Rom. 13:4).  While under arrest himself and making his defense, Paul acknowledged to the Roman governor Festus the inherent legitimacy of capital punishment by stating, “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death” (Acts 25:11a).  This shows us that while God outlaws murder, He does not outlaw the taking of the lives of evildoers by governmental authorities as punishment for their crimes. Thus, He differentiates between murder and capital punishment. 

Concerning corporal punishment, God commanded it under the Law of Moses in the form of flogging with no more than forty blows was the prescribed punishment for the convicted guilty party in a dispute between individuals (Deut. 25:1-3).  During New Testament times, Pilate scourged Jesus in a vain effort to punish Him in a way short of death and thus appease the Jewish leaders (John 19:1-5; cf. Luke 23:13-16, 21-24).  The apostles were also beaten by the Jewish high council in a meaningless effort to silence their preaching of Christ (Acts 5:40-42).  For the same reason Paul received the Deuteronomy punishment five times, in addition to being beaten with rods three times (2 Cor. 11:24-25).  One of those three times was when he and Silas were unjustly arrested in Philippi, beaten with rods, and then placed in the stocks in jail; this event led to the conversion of their jailer (Acts 16:22-34).  Upon his arrest in Jerusalem, Paul would have been flogged by the Roman soldiers as a method of interrogation had he not chosen then to exercise his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:23-29).

Granted, the above examples which involved innocent men like Jesus and the apostles show that governmental rulers can misuse their right to exercise corporal and capital punishment, and some do. Herod did (Mark 6:14-29), as did another Herod (Acts 12:1-3). King Saul did (1 Sam. 19:11-17). So did Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-2; 21:1-16).  Reports exist today of those who have been treated brutally without just cause by tyrannical governments, those whose lives have been taken by the government via the death penalty who were later proven to be innocent, as well as those whom various governments executed not because of a proven conviction of wrongdoing but simply because they were enemies of a tyrannical state.  Yet these misuses of power do not change the fact that God authorized in His Word governmental authorities to exercise corporal and capital punishment as ways to avenge wrongs done by evildoers (Rom. 13:4).

God’s allowance of the government to “not bear the sword in vain” would also apply to policemen and soldiers using their weapons to defend themselves or civilians under their care against evildoers who attack them, even to the point of taking the life of their assailant.  Paul recognized this when, upon being informed by his nephew of an assassination plot against him by more than forty Jews and the Jewish high council, asked a centurion to take his nephew to the commander of the Roman garrison and inform him of the plot, resulting in the commander calling for “two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen” to guard Paul’s life as they brought him to Felix the governor (Acts 23:12-33).  An educated and wise man, Paul knew that informing the Roman commander of the plot against his life would result in an armed bodyguard.  He knew that if he was then attacked, this armed bodyguard of soldiers would use lethal force to protect him.  This apostle was trying to convert his captors to Christ (Phil. 1:12-13; Acts 24:24-26; 25:13-26:29; 28:16, 30-31) and had as a high priority to do nothing that would hinder the gospel or place a stumbling block on anyone’s path to heaven (Rom. 14:13; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 9:19-27; 11:1). Anet yet, he still called upon his governmental captors to be ready to take the lives of evildoers trying to murder him if necessary.  This shows that he recognized that the divine authority given to governments to “not bear the sword in vain” applies in situations calling upon governmental authorities to use lethal force to defend themselves and civilians under their care. The fact that he was willing to indirectly use these violent means if necessary to defend himself shows that there is nothing inherently sinful about an individual Christian using violent force to defend themselves when attacked by those who would seek to take their life or the life of their loved ones.

This brings us to the often-controversial question of whether governments have a divine right to wage war. Lord willing, we will study this question in the next article which I plan to publish tomorrow. I hope this study is beneficial to all who read it.

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