In answering the basic question posed by this article, we will first attempt to determine what guidelines the Bible provides regarding the types of offenses that are to be punished by some kind of capital punishment (i.e., an execution). Then, we consider information from secular sources that should be helpful in assessing the propriety of the death penalty for any type of offense.
Biblical Sources Regarding the Death Penalty
The following biblical passages advocate putting people to death for a wide variety of offences including murder, kidnapping, deadly negligence, idolatry, blasphemy of God’s name, working on the Sabbath day, seriously abusing a parent, sexual immorality, engaging in bestiality, and acting as a medium.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise.]
Exodus 21:12-14 applies the death penalty to anyone who premeditatedly kills a person by striking that person, as follows:
He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die.
Numbers 35:16-18 also pertains to putting to death a person who commits murder by striking another person, as follows:
[If a man strikes another man] with an iron implement, so that he dies, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he strikes him with a stone in the hand, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he strikes him with a wooden hand weapon, by which one could die, and he does die, he is a murderer; the murderer shall surely be put to death.
Numbers 35:20-21 likewise asserts that the death penalty is warranted when a person murders someone else by striking or pushing them. This passage asserts,
If [a man] pushes [another man] out of hatred or, while lying in wait, hurls something at him so that he dies, or in enmity he strikes him with his hand so that he dies, the one who struck him shall surely be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.
Exodus 21:16 advocates putting to death anyone who kidnaps another person, as follows:
He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.
Exodus 21:28-29, which pertains to putting to death a person whose negligence results in the death of someone, states,
If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, then the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted. But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.
Deuteronomy 17:2-5 indicates that anyone who worships gods other than the one true God should be stoned to death, as follows:
If there is found among you, within any of your gates which the Lord your God gives you, a man or a woman who has been wicked in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing His covenant, who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded, and it is told you, and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently. And if it is indeed true and certain that such an abomination has been committed in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has committed that wicked thing, and shall stone to death that man or woman with stones.
Deuteronomy 13:6-10 infers that anyone who attempts to entice another person to serve any god other than the one true God should be put to death. According to this passage,
If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers, of the gods of the people which are all around you, near to you or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth, you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. And you shall stone him with stones until he dies, because he sought to entice you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.
Blasphemy of God’s Name
Leviticus 24:16-17a makes it clear that blasphemy of God’s name is an offense worthy of death. This passage states,
And whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death.
Working on the Sabbath Day
Exodus 31:15 condemns to death anyone who works on the Sabbath day, declaring,
Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.
Exodus 35:2, which is worded similarly to Exodus 31:15, likewise condemns to death anyone who works on the Sabbath day.
Numbers 15:32-36 is a specific account regarding a man who was stoned to death because he worked on the Sabbath day. This passage states,
Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.
Seriously Abusing a Parent
Exodus 21:15, 17 sanctions putting to death a person who strikes or curses one of their parents, as follows:
[H]e who strikes his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. . . . And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.
Leviticus 20:9 likewise applies the death penalty to cursing a parent, asserting,
[E]veryone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother. His blood shall be upon him.
Leviticus 20:10-13 decrees that the death penalty be applied to four types of sexual immorality. According to this passage,
The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death. The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death. They have committed perversion. Their blood shall be upon them. If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.
Engaging in Bestiality
Leviticus 20:15-16 indicates that bestiality is a crime punishable by death, as follows:
If a man mates with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal. If a woman approaches any animal and mates with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood is upon them.
Acting as a Medium
Leviticus 20:27 advocates the death penalty for people who act as mediums through whom communications are thought to be sent to the living from the spirits of the dead. According to this verse of scripture,
A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.
Secular Sources Regarding the Death Penalty
An article on the website The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/13/us-death-sentences-executions-2017) reports that 23 people were executed and 39 sentenced to death in 2017 in the USA. There is no way of knowing how many of these people and the others in our country who are sentenced to death each year will subsequently be found innocent.
According to another website, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/2017YrEnd, “There were five more exonerations from death row in the United States in 2017, bringing the total to 161 men and women exonerated since 1973. . . .” In other words, an average of approximately four people per year in the USA have been exonerated from death row since 1973. This raises the question as to how many of those who have been executed were innocent. It is tragic enough for a person to spend many years in prison for a crime that they did not commit, but it is arguably worse for a person to be executed for a crime if they are innocent of that crime.
Furthermore, in his highly acclaimed book entitled Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, an American lawyer, social justice activist, founder/executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and a clinical professor at New York University School of Law, indicates that many hundreds, if not several thousand, people may deserve to be exonerated.
On page 16 of his book, he states,
Scores of innocent people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death and nearly executed. Hundreds more have been released after being proved innocent of noncapital crimes through DNA testing. Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.
Then, on page 17 Stevenson says,
[One case in particular] “taught me about our system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions. [That case] taught me how our system traumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemn irresponsibly – not just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even the victims of crime.
Following the exoneration of the man alluded to on page 17 who had been convicted of a murder he did not commit and whom Stevenson had helped to exonerate, Stevenson states on pages 224-225,
I thought about how certain it was that hundreds, maybe thousands, of other people were just as innocent as [his client] but would never get the help they need.
Subsequently, on page 227, Stevenson declares,
The number of death row prisoners in Alabama for whom we’d won relief reached one hundred. We had created a new community of formerly condemned prisoners in Alabama who had been illegally convicted or sentenced and received new trials or sentencing hearings. Most never returned to death row.
With regard to what Stevenson states on page 227, it seems likely that if there were 100 such cases in Alabama alone, there may have been several thousand such cases throughout the entire nation that could have qualified for new trials or sentencing hearings during that same period.
It is possible to conclude from the foregoing information that either all the offenses that have been mentioned in this article should be punished by execution or none of them should be punished by execution. However, our society has chosen a compromising approach.
On the one hand, the Old Testament scriptures we have cited indicate that the death penalty is the decreed way to deal with all the offenses that we have mentioned in this article. In other words, the Old Testament indicates that our society should not make any distinction in the punishment for those offenses. In other words, the death penalty should be administered without regard to what our society perceives as differences in the seriousness of the offenses that we have mentioned.
The distinctions made by our society as to which of the previously mentioned offenses should be – or not be – punished by execution are secular distinctions, not biblical distinctions. Nevertheless, a majority of the people in our society, including many Christians, believe that murder and certain other heinous offenses are much more serious than most of the other offenses and, therefore, these offenses should be punished by execution in many, if not most, cases.
On the other hand, it can be argued with regard to this matter, as well as to other matters, that unless a biblical command that is found in the Old Testament is reaffirmed in the New Testament, it is no longer valid. If this viewpoint is valid, then perhaps there should not be a death penalty for any offense, because the New Testament does not reaffirm the decree to put someone to death for any of the previously mentioned Old Testament offenses – not even murder. Likewise, it is questionable if the death penalty is justifiable for any offense if the Old Testament laws have been superseded by New Testament standards that advocate love, mercy, and grace for everyone, as many Christians believe. Thus, a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is arguably sufficient retribution for murder and other heinous offenses.
Perhaps, the strongest argument against capital punishment is that there should be little doubt that the death penalty has been administered in cases in which the person who was put to death was innocent of the crime for which they were found guilty. The fact that many people have been exonerated before they were put to death suggests that it is reasonable to assume that it is probable that many other people have been put to death before they could be exonerated.
In any case, people who seek the death penalty for any offense should at least examine their motive for doing so. Their motive may be revenge rather than justice, whereas God does not want us to take revenge. Romans 12:19 asserts, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, . . . for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” [For a discussion of relevant considerations in this regard, click on “Judging, Anger, and Forgiveness.”]
We conclude that the manner in which the death penalty is imposed in this country is not consistent with either the Old Testament or the New Testament, nor is it consistent with a judicial system that supposedly seeks justice for everyone, especially for those who are truly innocent of the offense for which they are accused. Certainly, innocent people will still be convicted of offenses of which they are not guilty, because our judicial system is not perfect, but if capital punishment is abolished, these people can still have life – and hope that they will be exonerated before they die.