Is the Death Penalty Contrary to Scripture?

by on August 30th, 2012

A few weeks ago (August 8, 2012), Jon Trott of Jesus People USA (JPUSA) uploaded a post to their Wilson Station blog titled “Big Government in Texas Executes Man with 61 IQ.” It began as a concise protest against the execution of Marvin Wilson for the 1992 murder of a police informant in Beaumont, TX. In its first six paragraphs Jon made a plausible prima facie case for the impropriety of Wilson’s execution, given his diminished mental capacities. But it was Jon’s final, seventh, paragraph that caught my attention:

We continue to call on Texas to stop such executions. As Christians, we see no reasonable or ethical argument for the execution of *any* prisoners. Our Lord died via execution. We resist the culture of retribution.

Yowza! How does one jump from protesting the execution of the mentally incompetent to declaring that it is the Christian position (“As Christians,” he wrote) to denounce all executions? Was Jon not aware of the fact that it was God Himself who established the first death penalty (Genesis 9:5-6)? Does he not realize that his remarks imply that in doing so God established an unethical “culture of retribution?”

So, a few days later, I posted a response:

So, when God established the death penalty with Noah, and then later reaffirmed it under the Law of Moses (which Paul said was “holy, just, and good”), He was creating a “culture of retribution” that the people of God should have resisted?

Jon’s response was swift, if not entirely to the point. You can read it here. In it, he begins by pointing out that we are not under a theocracy but a democracy—a point he seems to forget in his later arguments in favor of bringing our nation’s laws into line with (his interpretation of) Christian theology, which he claims is anti-death penalty. (Hmm. I wonder how you convince an entire electorate that running the government according to Jon’s preferred flavor of Christian teaching is not theocratic…?)

Jon didn’t like the way that, in his view, I was using the Mosaic Covenant, even though I had made it clear that I was actually appealing to the Noahic Covenant. Specifically: he didn’t think that God’s Old Testament commands could “simply translate” to New Testament ethics. He also argued that the idea of retribution is opposed to the idea of grace—without, however, explaining why our penal system should be based on such grace when it’s purpose is, after all, supposed to be, you know, penal (or so I’m told). And then he closed by appealing to the ever-present possibility that an innocent person (such as our Lord Himself) might be executed—without, however, noting the irony if our innocent Lord had not been executed, we’d be in quite a predicament, eternally speaking, that is. Jesus didn’t die in order to show us how bad capital punishment is; if that was the point of the cross, every single New Testament author somehow missed it.

Round Two
Well, you know me: I just can’t let these things go. I responded to Jon here.

I let him know that I thought the whole theocratic/democratic thing was a red herring, and then pointed out that if Old Testament commands do not translate into New Testament ethics it’s difficult to explain why both Jesus and Paul made such a big deal out of loving our neighbor as ourselves, since it was, after all, you know, an Old Testament command that they made the basis of, well, all New Testament ethics. Funny, that!

And not only did I not see the idea of retribution as a “problem,” but it seemed to be central to Paul’s explanation for why human government is designed to strike “terror” into the hearts of evildoers (Romans 13:3) and why it “does not bear the sword in vain” (13:4). Does “bear the sword” here mean simply carry it around so people can be impressed with how shiny and sharp it is? Obviously not. It is clearly a figure of speech signifying the government’s whole range of coercive power up to and including capital punishment. And, to top it all off, Paul says that if you oppose this power you’re opposing the God Who gave it.

You can read Jon’s response in round two here. He revisited the theocratic-vs.-democratic issue in an attempt to establish that since only God can ensure that only the guilty will be executed, therefore only a theocratic government should be trusted with executions. This was his segue into once again appealing to the possibility of innocent people being put to death, but then he added a non sequitir argument about “Big Government” which muddied the water a bit. And he proceeded to make some ambiguous remarks about democracy, following them up with the ever-popular “WWJE?” (“Who Would Jesus Execute?”) argument.

As for my reference to Romans 13:1-4, Jon found no way to make a “logical infererence” that Paul’s statement that a ruler “does not bear the sword in vain” can possibly support capital punishment. “To read capital punishment into the passage,” wrote Jon, “is unwarranted,” and even (brace yourselves here) “unutterably sad.”

Given the supreme confidence of Jon’s authoritative-sounding verdict on this passage, it is truly amazing how many commentators do, in fact, find some reference to capital punishment, or, a bit more broadly, at least some allusion to the state’s God-given authority to slay evildoers, in Romans 13 (cf. commentaries by John Calvin, Charles Hodge, F.F. Bruce, C.E.B. Cranfield, Douglas Moo, and John R.W. Stott). But never mind all those non-slacker Greek experts with their Ph.D.s, “The most one can explicitly say about the passage is that Paul means to underscore the role of government to punish criminal activity using force if necessary (‘the sword,),” wrote Jon, which begs the question: how does one use a sword to “punish criminal activity using force,” or even make a credible deterring threat of lethal force, without actually killing criminals every once in a while? Was there some kind of terrifying ancient punishment that involved giving papercuts with swords that we don’t know about? If Rome hadn’t used the sword to actually kill someone every once in a while, it’s somewhat doubtful that they would be very effective at “terrorizing” evildoers for very long. (I hear tell that, for all their faults, those evildoers can be pretty quick on the uptake!)

In any case, along the way Jon made a very provocative, if cryptic, statement: “God’s wrath itself is redemptive.” Somehow this was supposed to help distinguish between God’s wrath and that nasty, retributive, human brand of wrath. Now, Christian theologians tend to find the distinction between God’s wrath and man’s wrath elsewhere, as in, say, God’s opposition to sin versus man’s self-serving wrath. But not Jon. “Retributive justice is rooted in a terrible deception that flies in the face of Christian theology,” he writes. “Execution suggests that we can eradicate evil from the world by using violence.” …Of course, it would be nice if he explained the fact that, according to the New Testament, God Himself will ultimately eradicate evil—and evil people!—from the world by using, you know, violence…

Round Three
My response in round three of our comments was quite extensive, and can be read here.

I pointed out that if God only intended capital punishment to be administered under a theocracy because that is the only way it can be administered perfectly, then He kind of botched things up by first instituting it under Noah. Furthermore, if theocracy actually meant that God was directly in charge of society, then the book of Judges would read very differently. God knew that He was giving capital punishment to imperfect people, and He even knew that the death penalty itself could be used as a weapon of murder, and yet He did it anyway. If this bothers us, could it be that He knows something we don’t?

I also belabored the point that, to identify capital punishment as a feature of “Big Government” is to completely misconstrue the meaning of that term in the context of American politics. The opposite of “big government” is not “weak government,” but rather limited government. The U.S. Constitution is a paragon of strong, effective, but limited government, and it was written by men who not only took the death penalty for granted, but established a system in which the authority for capital punishment was shared between the states and the federal government.

I went on to point out the problems with the moral sliding-scale Jon proposes when he posits a God who can institute a death penalty in the Old Testament but then repeal it in the New Testament because it is “immoral.” I also chided him for arguing that Jesus would never execute anybody, which seems like a pretty silly statement to make in light of everything He told us about how He plans to wrap up human history. I made most of the same aforementioned points concerning his dismissal of the Romans 13 passage, and I took him to task for his backdoor approach to eliminating the true meaning of God’s wrath with his little “God’s wrath is redemptive” ditty. That probably sounds all deep and spiritual to people like Jon, but if God’s wrath is, in itself, redemptive, then what need is there for Christ’s redemption?

I actually went on and on at considerable length on these points (and maybe others), but I’m trying to keep my summary brief. So…

Jon’s response was interesting enough to keep my attention and prompt yet another comment from me. (You can read it here.) But in the midst of preparing it, it dawned on me that I was putting a lot of work into a topic that may be of interest to the broader apologetics and Christian discernment community. Besides, Don’s been pestering me for some time to contribute another blog post, so maybe I can be like Chuck Norris and kill two stones with one bird: reply to Jon in a post for Don.

After composing a considerable amount of text, I decided to leave most of it alone. It was written as a comment with a salutation, and I decided to leave that alone. All I really did was finish it, add some subheadings for ease-of-reading, and add this rather extensive introduction for the sake of those who don’t want to bother reading the complete discussion over on Wilson Station.

So what did Jon’s latest comments bring to the table that we both haven’t already kicked the stuffing out of, and that I thought was worth addressing?

1) Jon notes that a sizable gap separates his understanding Scripture from mine.
2) Jon portrays me as one who “supports” the death of innocent people.
3) Jon seems to think our disagreement is rooted in the fact that he interprets the Old Testament in light of the New (implying that I don’t follow the same method).
4) Jon believes that the passage about the woman taken in adultery in John 8:1-11 portrays Christ as abrogating the death penalty.
5) Jon once again repeats his mistaken assertion that the death penalty is all about the Law of Moses.
6) Jon asserts that the New Testament as a whole and the teachings of Jesus in particular “undermine” the very concept of retribution.

If I left anything off this list that I addressed in my response, which follows, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Meanwhile—

Welcome to Round Four!


Yes, you and I come from different traditions when it comes to interpreting Scripture. My tradition goes back at least to the 16th century Protestant Reformation. I stand in the confessionally-Reformed tradition of the Presbyterian denomination to which I belong.

Your tradition, on the other hand, goes back at least to the early-17th century Arminian and later-19th century Pietist traditions of the Covenant denomination to which you belong. Your arguments also betray some Anabaptist impulses, which trace back to the 16 century.

I think it becomes clear exactly how and why we seem to consistently veer into opposite directions when we examine the tenets of those two traditions, but we obviously do not have time for that here. Suffice it to say that, as shocking as the realization may repeatedly be, there is more than one view (or even two or three) on many issues under the big tent of evangelicalism. You are no doubt aware, in the meantime, that opposing the death penalty places you among a distinctly minority of people who actually call  themselves “evangelicals.” (I’m just sayin’…)

The Hermeneutical Argument
Now I wrote a lot of things in my previous post which, it appears, you believe can be swept aside by declaring that you (a) interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, and (b) interpret God’s character and commands through Jesus Christ.

As for (a): as big as the evangelical tent is, I can think of hardly anyone in it who reads the New Testament through the lens of the Old Testament rather than vice versa. Even Roman Catholic interpreters would claim to give priority to the New Testament, à la Augustine’s famous “Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo patet,” (usually rendered in paraphrase: “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed”). I claim to interpret Old Testament in light of the New just as forcefully as you do.

As for (b): this is as much a given as (a). Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God. All professing Christians acknowledge this. Thus I also claim to understand God’s character in the light of Jesus Christ just as forcefully as you do. Claiming these two well-nigh universal principles can hardly substitute as support for your case, unless you demonstrate that your position is more consistent with them than mine is, which you have yet to do.

Ultimately, this discussion is not about interpreting the Old through the New, or understanding God through Christ, but a failure on your part to make the proper biblical distinction (found in both Old and New Testaments) between the role of the state and the role of the church. This is where the true hermeneutical divide lies between us. As F.F. Bruce wrote in his commentary of Romans 13:4:

‘The sanction that the Bible, here and elsewhere, gives to the forcible restraint of evil puzzles many modern Christians because of its apparent contradiction of Christ’s way of love and His precept of non-resistance to evil. But this comes from failing to distinguish the preservation of the world from the salvation of the world.’

[Quoting A.R. Vidler in The Epistle to the Romans, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963), 238.]

The lesson of Genesis 6-8 is that evil is so virulent in the human heart that human society’s existence itself is in danger if murder is not avenged in kind. I’m sorry if that does not warm the cackles of your liberal heart, but God Himself will offer no similar apology, so you best be content with mine.

It is especially ironic that you should seek cover behind the standard hermeneutical principle of orthodox Christianity, not only because it is so universal, and thus I myself would claim to practice it, too, but because it makes it all-the-more difficult to understand how you can dismiss so arbitrarily and with such extreme prejudice such a clear New Testament passages as Romans 13 when it tells us that God has given the sword (a more-than-obvious metonymy for the power to execute criminals) to human governments so they may strike “terror” into the hearts of evildoers. It seems to me that for you it’s not simply a matter prioritizing the New over the Old—since I’ve given you a New Testament passage that, apparently, only you think does not apply to capital punishment—but prioritizing your favorite cherry-picked verses over all others.

The Lord of Retribution
If retribution is a bad thing, and if we inevitably entangle ourselves in some evil “culture of retribution” by allowing any principles of retributive justice to stand, then anyone paying half-attention to the words of Christ in the gospels will immediately notice a major problem. No one had more to say about retributive justice than Jesus. In a day when people tend to view Christ as the ultimate pacifist, and equate bringing the kingdom of God to earth with some kind of universal non-violent amnesty program extending even to the unrepentant, it should sober those peole to realize that no one did more than Jesus to dispel their way of thinking. It is He Who informs us that, for an untold multitude of people, encountering the kingdom of God will be an exceedingly violent, retributive, and unhappy event.

“‘The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ‘”

[Matthew 13:41-42, ESV]

“‘And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating.’”

[Luke 12:47-48a, ESV]

“‘And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’”

[Matthew 10:28, ESV]

“‘You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?’”

[Matthew 23:33, ESV]

“‘For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.’”

[Matthew 7:2, ESV]

We all know that, in His first coming, Jesus came not to judge, but to save. We also know that the civil laws and penalties of Israel have not been transferred to either the church or the world as a whole. On the other hand, neither did the first coming of Christ abrogate the command God gave to all humanity through Noah establishing capital punishment for murder. Nor did it (as the classic 19th century theological liberals imagined) replace the “Old Testament God of wrath” with a “New Testament God of love.” According to Jesus and His apostles, the wrath of God remains very real, indeed (John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 2:5; 3:5; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6), and nowhere do we find it diverted from individual sins and refocused merely on the institutionalized sins of the powerful. Recognizing all this, it is difficult to take seriously any procedure that builds the kind of profile of “God’s character” that you have, since it depends on ignoring the bulk of Jesus’ words that have bearing on it.

It is equally difficult to take seriously arguments that misrepresent the position of one’s opponent. Nowhere did I “support the death of some innocents in the pursuit of making sure the guilty are killed by the state.” I simply said that, in a world of sinners, it is as inevitable that the death penalty itself will be used as a weapon of murder as it that stones, knives, guns, automobiles, electric shocks, or just about anything you can think of will be used as weapons of murder. Should we now ban automobiles because they’ve been used to deliberately kill people? To say that I support the death of some innocents by affirming the state’s right to capital punishment is as absurd as saying that you, Jon, support the death of some innocents by affirming the right of people to drive cars.

The Hypocrisy of Death Penalty Opposition
Your caricature of my position as “support[ing] the death of some innocents” is a blade that cuts more than one way. Are you willing to empty all prisons because of the possibility (nay—probability!) that there are innocent people doing time in them? If not, you need to give some thought to the hypocrisy involved in that inherent inconsistency.

Some years ago I heard an interview with the former chief executioner of Algeria—the last person to serve in that position under Algeria’s French colonial government—being interviewed on NPR. He informed the audience that when he worked in that position, many Algerians complained to him that they didn’t think it was fair to simply take the life of a murderer. They thought it was far greater punishment for him to spend a few decades rotting in a prison cell before dying. So if we can grant at least some validity to that point, it raises the question: “How are life sentences without the possibility of parole not also a form of retribution?” How is taking away a person’s freedom for the rest of his or her natural life and confining him to a barren prison cell—a sort of living death, if you will—any less part of a “culture of retribution” than capital punishment?

Can you imagine how a person who knows he is innocent must feel to also know that he will spend the rest of his life incarcerated for a crime he did not commit? It must be the ultimate nightmare, and yet I have reason to believe you’d be offended if I announced that you “support” inflicting the anguish of lifelong incarceration on potentially innocent people. And yet I also tend to believe you probably wouldn’t be in favor of emptying all prison cells of convicted murderers simply to ensure that no innocent people were in any of them. That is, however, at least in part, the logic you are using here.

We only need to think a little further to realize that all judicial sentences for crimes, whether they consist of fines, community service, prison sentences, or whatever, are forms of retribution. If we must abolish capital punishment because it is based on a principle of retribution, then we must also abolish every other criminal and civil penalty on the same basis.

Reviewing the Standard Arguments
As I see it, the standard secular case against capital punishment is based on two main propositions:

1) Muderers (or any other criminals for that matter) are not worthy of death.

2) Governments do not have the moral authority to put anyone to death.

3) The death penalty is contrary to the kind of society we want to have.

From your remarks I would gather that you disagree with the first point. You have indicated that we are all worthy of death. But it’s worth dwelling on this first point for just a minute, because when people say that murderers are not worthy of death, our natural question should be, “Why not?” According to God, the reason murderers are to be put to death is given right along with the command to execute them: “for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6). There is something especially egregious about killing an image-bearer of God that makes it tantamount to deicide. Decades ago Francis Schaeffer pointed out that the secular movement against capital punishment is founded in no small part on a denial of man as created in God’s image.

But fortunately, you and I agree with the Bible that murderers are at least deserving of death, even though we disagree over whether it is now proper to execute them. I would disagree, however, with your statement, “ALL sins are worthy of death,” since by that statement you blur the distinction between civil penalties for crimes and divine penalties for sins.

On the one hand, it’s true that the Mosaic Law expanded the number of sins eligible for capital punishment to include things such as adultery and rape. (It is decidedly not clear, however, that the phrase “cut off” in the Old Testament is always a reference to capital punishment) The reason for this difference between the Noahic and Mosaic prescriptions lies in the fact that the Noahic institution of the death penalty applies to all mankind, while the Mosaic prescription reflected the special covenant relationship between God and Israel.

On the other hand, all sins were worthy of death before God during the Mosaic period, but not all sins carried the death penalty. In other words: not all sins were treated like crimes, and not even all crimes were punished equally. The thief, for example, was not executed, but rather required to make restitution. This is because the purpose of civil law, along with its penalties, is not to precisely mirror the relationship between God and man (if it were, we’d all be dead!), but to establish and maintain civil order.

But it’s worth pausing here to note something that the vast majority of Christians take for granted: the civil laws of Israel do not apply to the church, nor to they apply to the Gentile nations. Since this is the case, it is impossible to make a biblical case for the death penalty today for cases of adultery. And yet you keep coming back over and over to the Mosaic death penalty for adultery as if it somehow undermined the death penalty for murder. It simply doesn’t wash. It does not logically follow that if we execute murderers on the authority of the Scripture we must also execute adulterers, because, in the first case we’re dealing with a penalty that was established with all humanity through Noah, while in the second case we’re dealing with a penalty that was  established only with ethnic Israel through Moses. The death penalty for murder was designed to safeguard civil order. The death penalty for adultery was designed as a token of ethnic Israel’s special relationship to God.

In any event, I think you would agree that, if we abrogate the death penalty for murder, it is not because the murderer does not deserve to die. As for the second and third secular arguments, however, it seems you would fully support them. And to buttress point two, it seems to me that you would add the following:

4) Any biblical authority for capital punishment was abrogated in the New Testament.

I trust this statement fairly summarizes the point you are trying to make along this line. If not, let me know.

Of course, you have no direct evidence for this statement. There is no place in the New Testament to which you can point where you can say, “There! Jesus (or one of the Apostles) overturned the death penalty for all crimes, including the crime for which it was first established: murder! (Gen. 9:5-6).”

So instead, you have to pile up a collection of verses and somehow make them sound as though they are, at best, inconsistent with capital punishment. And that you have done with such passages as John 8:1-11, 1:16-17; 13:34; 15:12, 17; Romans 12:17-21; and 1 Peter 3:9. Out of this whole assortment, however, the only one that even mentions the death penalty is the John 8:1-11 passage. None of the other verses are directed at how governments should operate; they are all directed at Christians and seek to direct individual Christian behavior. Even the verses you cite about vengeance have to do with seeking one’s own personal vengeance, not public justice for crimes. To tie the hands of public justice with the same ethic of non-vengeance that binds individual Christians is to give evildoers free rein in society. As Solomon wrote: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11).

Furthermore, at the risk of redundancy: is not every punishment for every crime, whether it be a fine or a prison sentence, a form of retribution? Of course it is! So according to your logic, if any and all retribution is inherently wrong, there can be no dispensing of civil justice whatsoever now that Christ has come!

To say that it is a notorious example of ripping texts out of their contexts to seek to build a case against capital punishment out of them is almost an understatement. The best you can say about those verses would go something like, “These verses teach me to be loving and forgiving, not seeking personal vengeance, and yet if I were to be public magistrate, while they wouldn’t keep me from seeking all kinds of retribution for crimes along the lines of fines and prison sentences, they would make it difficult for me to impose retribution in the form of the death penalty.”

John 8 and the Woman Taken in Adultery
“But,” you may demur, “Did not Jesus abrogate the death penalty in John 8?” The short answer is, “Of course not!” The long answer is—well, longer.

The John 8 passage of the woman caught in adultery has been distorted in multiple ways over the generations, and some of those distortions arise from the misinterpretation of Christ’s phrase “without sin.” But to focus on this phrase before taking full account of the fact that this passage must be understood against the backdrop of the procedures under the Mosaic Law is to get off on the wrong foot entirely. We must also take full account of the fact that Jesus’ words were in response to a trap that He obviously knew was being set for Him. His opponents were striving to at least discredit Him and, if possible, secure His death.

With these things in mind, it will soon become clear that “without sin” is not some kind of free-floating reference to sinlessness; if it were, it would have undermined any and all penalties under Mosaic Law—despite the fact that God had specifically commanded them—simply because no one is sinless. This, in turn, raises a question: if personal sinlessness in all things is a prerequisite for carrying out legal penalties, why is that not mentioned in the Law? If it is sinful for a sinful human being (e.g., a judge) to inflict a legal penalty on another human being for committing a specific sin, why did not the Law either prohibit it or prescribe a penalty or (at least a) sacrifice for it? Why would God command  His people to carry out penalties (and very forcefully, I might add) that they were automatically ineligible to carry out because they could only be carried out by sinless people?

The answers to these questions lies in the distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws within the Mosaic Covenant. The civil laws were not designed to teach the people about God’s forgiveness, but rather to maintain order and purity among God’s people. It was specifically in the ceremonial laws (the tabernacle/temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system) that the people learned that they were all morally culpable before God and in need of His forgiveness. Prior to the coming of Christ, the ceremonial laws formally mediated God’s forgiveness to His people via atoning sacrifices. Now those sacrifices had a two-fold purpose: they not only temporarily covered the sins of individual sinners (until Christ’s death finally covered them), but restored those sinners to fellowship with their people (just as confession of sin based on faith in Christ’s sacrifice does today; 1 John 1:7-9).

But there were some sins for which no sacrifice could be offered (e.g., murder and adultery). As Christ made clear, it was not because eternal forgiveness was not ultimately available for those sins (Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:28), but it was already clear under the Law that eternal forgiveness was a separate matter from temporal forgiveness. The former did not automatically translate into the latter. For example: even “unintentional sins” committed with respect to Levitical worship system itself required both a sacrifice (for forgiveness from God) and a 20 percent fine of restitution to be paid to the priest (thus restoring fellowship; Leviticus 5:14-16).

Now, while Christ was  ”born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law,” (Galatians 4:4-5), in John 8 that redemption had not yet been accomplished. Both Jesus and all the Jews of His time were still “under the law.” The time had not yet come when the Apostle Paul could quote the words of Deuteronomy, “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13, ESV), which was originally a clear reference to the death penalty (Deuteronomy 13:5; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21, 22, 24), and commute the sentence to excommunication from a local church.

Furthermore, in John 8 we are in very Jewish territory. John 8:1-11 is presented as a Jewish discussion in which appeal is being made to a rabbi for a ruling on a specific application of the Mosaic Law. We know this because they address Him as a rabbi in John 8:4:

“…they said to him, ‘Teacher [didaskalos/διδάσκαλος = rabboni/rabbi], this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’” [ESV]

Now, these kinds of discussions with rabbis took place all the time. What made this one more than a bit unusual was the decidedly non-hypothetical nature of the question, in light of the actual presence of an accused adulteress at the scene. Most of the similar discussions as we find them in the Talmud are purely hypothetical in nature. And while there were disagreements among ancient rabbis and factions (or “schools”) among their pupils, the belligerent manner in which these scribes and Pharisees appealed for their legal ruling was also unusual. But apart from these considerations, Christ’s enemies were approaching Him in the manner any rabbinic disciple would in search of a ruling on the law—also known as “halakah.” (The rulings, or halakah, of prominent rabbis from around the time of Christ can be found in the Mishnah.)

“The First Stone”
The portion of Christ’s response that makes it clear that He was ruling properly—i.e., based on the Mosaic Law—is not the phrase “without sin,” but rather the phrase “the first stone.” The scribes, especially, would have recognized both it and its contexts immediately. It is said that many of them had the entire Pentateuch committed to memory. Those contexts, in turn, would have provided the basis for understanding the whole of Christ’s halakah, or ruling.

So you can’t understand Christ’s phrase “without sin” in John 8:7 without first understanding the phrase “the first stone” in the same verse. And you can’t understand Jesus’ response, with His reference to “the first stone” apart from the Mosaic background of that reference:

The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

[Deuteronomy 17:7, ESV; cf. 13:9; Leviticus 24:14]

So as soon as Jesus referred to “the first stone,” it would have been evident that he was addressing those who claimed to witness the adultery. They were the only ones qualified under the Mosaic Law to cast the first stone. Only then could the word translated, “without sin” be fully appreciated, because, as every scribe and Pharisee would undoubtedly know, witnessing a crime was not the only qualification. The witness also had to have a minimum level of integrity:

“‘You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.’”

[Exodus 23:1, ESV]

And the Law had specific procedures for investigating malicious witnesses (Deuteronomy 19:16-19). So any attentive scribe or Pharisee in this situation would have realized the direction in which Jesus was heading when He said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7), and if any malicious intent on their part could be demonstrated in this matter, they realized they were in big trouble!

The essence of John 8:7 is not found in some theoretical abrogation of the death penalty. The men surrounding the adulteress did not drop their stones because they suddenly realized that—hey! Jesus is right!: only completely sinless people are qualified to carry out an execution! Not only would that have been an extraordinarily unlikely act for a group of people so determined to build a case against Jesus, but it would have flown in the face of all rabbinic legal precedent. If they really thought Jesus was trying to abrogate the death penalty on such grounds, they would have simply called in other rabbis to overrule Him. Thus they would have out-maneuvered Jesus and He would have fallen into their trap by showing He was unqualified to rule on the Law.

No, only one thing explains why the men dropped their stones. Jesus had them! He had them under the terms of the very Law they were trying to use to trip Him up!

The essence of John 8:7 is found in the fact that Jesus was calling out the witnesses under the very terms Moses had laid down. Grammatically, His words constituted a command. The final verb is in the Greek imperative mood, and the final clause can thus be rendered: “Cast the first stone!” It is a literal command to stone the woman! By saying this, Jesus avoided the lower jaw-bone, if you will, of the trap they had set for Him: He upheld the Law. They could not deny that Jesus affirmed that adulteresses were to be stoned. And neither can anyone today.

But the trap also had an upper jaw-bone: the Romans did not allow the Jewish religious authorities to sentence people to death. The Romans reserved capital punishment completely to themselves and Jesus would have risked immediate arrest once word got back to them that He had unambiguously commanded a group of men to stone an adulteress.

So, to avoid the other part of the trap, Jesus invoked the part of the Law that put the focus on the integrity of the witnesses. Under the provisions of Deuteronomy 19:16-19, witnesses were to be cross-examined with the understanding that if they gave their testimony out of malice, they would be subject to the same penalty as the person they witnessed against.

So why, then, did the men, one by one, drop the stones? Because they knew that their testimony would not stand up under close scrutiny. There were already some obvious inconsistencies in their case. The Law required the stoning of both parties to the adultery. Where was the man? It was also required that the actual act of adultery be witnessed before the death penalty could be used—a notoriously difficult thing to pull off given the exceedingly private nature of the sin. How did they so conveniently manage to find such a sinner, in the act, and while Jesus was in town, only to lose her paramour? There was already plenty of evidence, right at the scene of the trial, for some kind of collusion among the witnesses that may have even amounted to some kind of participation in the crime itself.

As D.A. Carson comments on the phrase, “the first stone”:

This is a direct reference to Deuteronomy 13:9; 17:7 (cf. Lv. 24:14)—the witnesses of a crime must be the first to throw the stones, and they must not be participants in the crime itself. Jesus’ saying does not mean that the authorities must be paragons of sinless perfection before th death sentence can be properly meted out, nor does it mean that one must be free even from lust before one can legitimately condemn adultery (even though lust and adultery belong to the same genus, Mt. 5:28). It means, rather, that they must not be guilty of this particular sin.

[The Gospel According to John, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 336.]

John 8:1-11 cannot be set on the same level as when Jesus issued His famous “You have heard that it was said…But I say to you…” rulings in Matthew 5:21-48. In that passage Jesus was giving rulings on the law—correcting misrepresentations of the Law that were common among the rabbis of His day—while not applying those rulings to specific cases. But here, Jesus is not making a statement about the Law, but a statement about the woman. He effectively convicted her of adultery on the basis of the eyewitness testimony, and technically endorsed the death penalty for her, while simultaneously calling into question the witnesses’ qualifications to carry out their biblical roles as executioners, thus implying their own eligibility for the death penalty!

Once the men dropped the stones and left (John 8:9), the woman’s legal problems were over, and the trap set for Jesus had failed. Technically, under the Law, the woman now had the legal standing of “righteous,” humanly speaking, because whatever conviction that Jesus, as a rabbi, may have upheld was obtained through malicious and illegal means. Once her new legal standing is thus established, Jesus says to her, “Neither do I condemn you,” thus mediating God’s forgiveness to her in addition to her technical legal standing, and He added the kind of admonition we find directed to Christians in the New Testament epistles: “go, and from now on sin no more” (8:11). In saying this, He was not implying a requirement of absolute sinlessness any more than when He previously used the phrase, “without sin.” He was simply commanding Her to repent of the specific sin that had brought her before Him.

The fact that Jesus did not condemn the woman to death did nothing to abrogate the universal death penalty for murder any more than God’s earlier protection of Cain (Genesis 4:15) or his commutation of King David’s sentence (2 Samuel 12:13) had nullified it. The death penalty was instituted long after Cain died. And after he himself was pardoned, David himself made sure that his son Solomon enforced it for treasonous offenses committed during David’s reign (1 Kings 2:5-9). The One Who instituted capital punishment is free to suspend it, and He did so in David’s case.

Yes, Jon, you and I truly do have very different ways of reading the Scriptures. I prefer mine and I’m sure you prefer yours.

It appears to me that, in your estimation, I do not give sufficient weight to a particular, universal “non-retribution” principle that you find writ large in Scripture. In my estimation, however, there is no such universal principle. While it is easily established that Christians are forbidden from taking personal retribution, it is easily equal to establish that governments are actually commanded to take civil retribution, and that one day God Himself will take final retribution.

In my estimation, the root cause of our differences is not a difference of opinion concerning the priority of the New Testament over the Old, but rather a difference concerning whether it is proper to use one prominent biblical theme cancel out another equally-prominent theme. I believe that you have refrained from taking into account “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) by selecting a preferred grid—call it the grid of “grace,” or “love,” or whatever—by which to sift Scripture, and this grid automatically sifts out the proper understanding of those passages on retribution that are contrary to your position. This is a danger we all share, and one to which I believe you’ve succumbed on this topic.

And that’s where I’ll leave it for the moment.

One response to “Is the Death Penalty Contrary to Scripture? ”

  1. cdlight says:

    Short but very sweet: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.” Gen. 9:6 Before Moses, before the Law.

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