This is a long blog, so please persevere!
The first point to make is that God made each one of us in His image, that is we are each a unique human being that exists to be relationship with each other and, most importantly with God Himself, made possible through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, for we had become sinners in need of redemption because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. God does not see us as people from different races or backgrounds or status – we are all unique in His eyes. Many conflicts are due to people seeing others as inferior to themselves (eg the Nazis and the Jews or the Rwanda massacre by the Hutu and Tutsis or the Khmer Rouge genocide). (Acts 17:26a – And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.)
‘At the start of the story (of Man) is the tantalising phrase in Genesis 1, “God created man in his own image: In the image of God he created him.”
Of course, it does not occur in a vacuum. It is the climax of the entire creation narrative. The Earth, which was formless and empty (verse 1), was first given shape and was then filled: with good things, initially vegetation and then animal life.
Verse 26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created man in his own image, both male and female he created them.”
Two points of reference
In trying to understand what is implied here, I take it that there are two points of reference. Firstly, the Image of God marks us out from all other living creatures, which by implication are not made in the Image of God. Genetically, we may be almost identical to our nearest animal relative, the Chimpanzee, but spiritually we are poles apart. So, we will gain insight into understanding what the Image of God means, if we explore the differences between mankind and the rest of the animal kingdom.
The second point of reference is of course God himself, so we will also understand the meaning of being made in his image if we explore what he has revealed of himself – in nature, in scripture and most especially in Christ.
The image of God in man therefore distinguishes us from all other animals on the one hand and shows our family resemblance to our heavenly father on the other. I take it that the words ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ amount to the same thing. They are not referring to different categories but are intended to emphasise & clarify the central idea.
I believe this process leads us to focus on 6 distinctive characteristics of humanity. Firstly, we are…
Animals are wonderfully uncreative. They do not change the world they live in. The creativity we observe in them is instinctive. So birds build their nests but every year it has the same design. They never think to build on an extension, create a loft conversion or develop their skills. They just do the same old instinctive thing.
God on the other hand has been creative beyond anything we can comprehend. Both science and the Bible testify that the entire universe came into existence – out of nothing! Our knowledge of the expanding universe traces everything that exists, including time and space, back to an unimaginably small ‘singularity’ which came into existence from nothing. A humanist put to me recently that we have a straight choice – to believe in an eternal universe that has always existed or an eternal God who created a finite universe. He was wrong. We do not have that choice. The idea that the universe is an eternal static entity died in 1929 when Hubble observed the Red Shift – a Doppler effect in light from distant galaxies – which demonstrated that the universe is expanding. Atheists have being struggling to come to terms with this discovery ever since. We haven’t always had the universe. It began – apparently out of nothing, some 15 billion years ago. This is a major problem for atheists.
Now human creativity is of a different order from God’s, not least because we lack his astonishing power, intelligence and artistry. But nonetheless, we have original, creative ideas. Some time ago, I was responsible for winding up the estate of my late uncle, who designed the power plants for BP’s first North Sea oil rigs. Similar scientific and industrial adventures are everywhere to be found. When I went through his library of scientific and technical books, I realised the research and understanding of a vast array of people led to those particular North Sea adventures. This brings us to the second aspect of the image of God.
The mind that lies behind the creation is reflected, albeit in very small measure, in our capacity for understanding and rational thought. The psalmist wrote, “Do not be like the horse and mule which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle” (Ps 32:8–9). Human intelligence is unlike anything found in the animal kingdom. We ponder the meaning of our existence, the significance of our actions and the prospects of our destiny. Unlike animals, man is a thinker and capable of being instructed and growing in understanding. Religious beliefs which are anti-intellectual and belittle our need to study and learn, have failed to see the wonder of who we are. Approaches to evangelism which diminish the proper place of argument and persuasion diminish the humanity of the people we would reach. The extraordinary Mind behind the Universe has given us minds to enquire, to reason and, as Kepler put it, “To think God’s thoughts after him”. So the apostle Paul urges that we should be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” to discern the will of God (Romans 12:2).
But as the creation itself defies atheistic understanding, so too, human intelligence and self-consciousness also defies secular analysis. I am enormously excited by Peter S Williams’ book, I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning. Published by Damaris, it is full of good things that are essential to the subject at hand.
He quotes Jerry Fodor, a leading philosopher of the mind saying, ‘Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.’ He quotes another authority, Ned Block as writing, “We have nothing worthy of being called a research programme, nor are there any substantive proposals about how to go about starting one” (p 322). Researchers are stumped by the very thing that drives them – they cannot understand their own understanding.
Philosopher J. Bubziszewski recalls the dilemma of self-understanding he experienced as an atheist:
‘My mind, I supposed, was nothing more than the activity of my brain, my brain nothing more than a computational device. Of course, we do not experience ourselves as machines, but I told myself that we are machines under a double curse – the illusion of being more than machines and the desire for the illusion to be true. How a machine could suffer such things as desires and illusions deeply troubled me. In fact, all the phenomena of consciousness troubled me. I was troubled by the redness of red, the deliberateness of choice, the preciousness of my loves, the sense I sometimes had of exerting my will against an inclination – I was even troubled by the experience of being troubled. I knew that I could not fit these things inside the theory that I was a machine, and I knew that the intuition that I was more than a machine made a better fit with reality. To get around this fact, I told myself that a machine is something that I know, whereas a soul is something that I do not know – conveniently forgetting that I experience myself, unlike machines, directly…In a sense, I thought I did not exist.’
Eventually, Budziszewski came to a realisation, “I had reached my conclusions not because of the data but in spite of it.”
Thirdly then, our capacity to appreciate beauty. Genesis 2:9, “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing to the eye.” God is not only the great artist who made a beautiful creation but has made us in his image so that we can appreciate beauty. We have a little seaside spot. And we sit there on sunny days and observe people arriving who have not been there before. They come round the path and stop. They look out over Christchurch Bay at the Isle of Wight and the Needles. They take a deep breath and say, ‘Wow’ and then stand there in silence. They often bring dogs. The dogs never do this. While their owners gasp, the dog, I have observed, is usually cocking his leg up over a nearby beach hut. Relief is experienced by dogs; beauty, awe and wonder are experienced by humans. There are three wonderful chapters on beauty in I Wish I Could Believe in Meaning.
Fourthly, we are moral. The creator God, the mind behind the universe, was the artist who designed a beautiful world and created mankind who could understand his moral character & purposes. Animals suffer from fear but as far as we can tell, they have no natural sense of guilt or awareness of good and evil choices. Yet our daily lives are dominated by such awareness. Human conscience is a major aspect of our humanity. We battle with evil within ourselves and witness it in others. We long for the good but find all too often that the good that we would do we don’t do, while the evil we know we should not do – we end up doing. Paul’s description of this dilemma in Romans 7 struck me with great force when I first read it in my late teens. The world is like that. Morality fits the facts and points us to an ultimate, absolute moral being. Yet without God, morality is merely an arbitrary code of mutually agreed manners for diners at the human lunch club, of no more significance than agreeing that we should not blow our noses at the table.
If we want to understand what people in general believe to be of central importance in their lives, we have only to read novels or watch Soap Operas. The dominant theme of human existence, reflected in stories the world over, is about relationships. In a word, Love. We may be confused as to what love is; we may reduce it to intense emotions or sexual functioning. We may keep love entrapped within the limits of the nuclear family. But life and love go together so closely that the breakdown of relationships is the single biggest cause of people wanting to commit suicide. We know in our souls that we were not made to live in isolation. “No man is an island.” But where does love come from? How do we discover what it is? Where are the deepest descriptions of it? Has the world found any better exposition of the meaning of love than in the life, teaching and passion of the Christ? No it has not; and Jesus was emphatic that loving our neighbour was the second commandment about love, not the first. As Augustine so powerfully expressed it: “You created us for yourself, O God, and our hearts will not rest until they find their rest in you.” Here is the relationship that fulfils and transcends all others. Here in Christ is the vision of love that elevates and redeems human life.
So man is incurably religious. Until the 20th century, every culture in human history has been dominated by belief in a God or gods. In the last century, atheism was imposed upon much of the world – across China, the Soviet Union and much of Europe. The overthrow of Communism and Nazism has led those oppressed people to return to their religious heritage. In the free world, where the demands of Christian belief have been cast aside by post-modernity, we have seen the enormous rise of superstitions such as astrology, spiritism and magical charms.
The ultimate image-bearer
All these themes then challenge our humanity and ask us if we are really alive? Are we creative, thinking, artistic, moral, relational beings, who hunger after God? Are we growing on all fronts? Are we well-balanced individuals, giving proper attention to each area?
Now an image is but a reflection of the original. Sometimes the image may be hazy and distorted. But it does not exist on its own. Beyond the image is the reality. The Image of God in us not only helps us to see who we really are, but also reveals God to us. But we are not left searching through a haze to find hints and images of the One who made us. For the Christian testimony is that the one in whose image we are made, has come among us and revealed himself. “No-one has ever seen God, but God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).
Paul wrote: ‘[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created…For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him…’ (Colossians 1:15–19)
It is therefore not a coincidence that these major themes are themselves the best evidences for God. The argument from Creation, from Intelligence, from Beauty, from Morality, from Love, from our intrinsic Hunger for God and of course from the person of Christ himself in his teaching, deeds, character, claims, death and resurrection are the major lines of argument for the existence of God. Poor Darwin, and poor Dawkins. The explanatory power of the Theory of Evolution, professing so much, can actually explain so very little about us, and has almost nothing of value to say on any of these issues, which remain fundamentally, the stuff of life.’
Now that we can see that each one of us is special in God’s eyes, we now need to look at what Scripture says about the death penalty by looking at Jesus’s statement regard the Law.
When it comes to look at the laws (or commandments) in the Bible, there is a very long list of over 1,500. But, when it comes to deciding if God meant us to obey all of them, there are many opinions. A helpful starter is found in the following article.
The Fulfilment of the Law
Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore, anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
How Did Jesus Christ Fulfil the Law and the Prophets?
As Mediator of the New Covenant, Jesus emphasized the spiritual intent and purpose of the Law and the Prophets. Throughout the Bible, there is a contrast between the physical and the spiritual. The apostle Paul wrote that the physical comes first, then the spiritual (I Cor. 15:45-47). The first man, Adam, came from the earth and was physical. The second Adam, Jesus Christ, came from heaven and is spiritual. Likewise, the Old Covenant was physical, and has been superseded by the New Covenant, which is spiritual. God established the Old Covenant with the children of Israel by proclaiming the Ten Commandments from the top of Mount Sinai. The event was so terrifying to the people that they pleaded with Moses to no longer have God speak directly to them (Ex. 20:18-19). Because the children of Israel were fearful of God’s voice and power, Moses stood as mediator between God and the people to bring them God’s spoken words. Moses went to the top of Sinai to meet with God, where he received the statutes, judgments and other laws to deliver to the children of Israel. Moses was considered lawgiver and mediator of the Old Covenant (Ex. 20-24). Moses’ office as mediator and lawgiver was a physical type of the coming spiritual Lawgiver, Jesus Christ. When the children of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land, God gave this prophecy of the coming Messiah: “And the LORD said to me, ‘They have spoken well what they have spoken [that they wanted Moses to speak to them, instead of God]. I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, one like you [Moses], and will put My words in His mouth. And He shall speak to them all that I shall command Him. And it shall come to pass, whatever man will not hearken to My words which He shall speak in My name, I will require it of him’ ” (Deut. 18:17-19). This prophecy of the coming Messiah reveals that those who reject the words of Christ will be held accountable by God on the day of judgment. During His ministry, Jesus confirmed that He was that Prophet and that His words are the standard by which all will be judged: “But if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects Me and does not receive My words has one who judges him; the word which I have spoken, that shall judge him in the last day. For I have not spoken from Myself; but the Father, Who sent Me, gave Me commandment Himself, what I should say and what I should speak” (John 12:47-49). Obviously, the spiritual office of Jesus far overshadows the physical office of Moses. Christ was God manifested in the flesh—the Lord God of the Old Testament Who had established the Old Covenant with the children of Israel. His death ended the Old Covenant with its “administration of death,” and established the New Covenant which offers the gift of eternal life (II Cor. 3:6-11). Unlike the Old Covenant, which required obedience only to the letter of the Law, the New Covenant is based on obedience to the spiritual intent of the Law. For this reason, Christ came as the spiritual Lawgiver to amplify and magnify the laws of God: “The LORD is well pleased for His righteousness’ sake; He will magnify the Law and make it glorious” (Isa. 42:21). The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry reveal that God requires obedience to His commandments not only in the letter of the Law, but in the spirit of the Law as well. Throughout His ministry, Jesus taught repentance from sin—which is clearly defined as the transgression of the laws of God (I John 3:4). In spite of Jesus’ clear teachings which magnify the laws and commandments of God, most professing Christians have been taught that Christ came to abolish the laws of God. Jesus, however, emphatically denounced this idea: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfil. For truly I say to you, until the heaven and the earth shall pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the Law until everything has been fulfilled” (Matt. 5:17-18).
How Did Jesus Fulfil the Law?
To comprehend how Jesus fulfilled the Law, we must first understand the meaning of the word fulfil, translated in Matthew 5:17 from the Greek verb pleeroo. Depending on the context, pleeroo is understood as either 1) fulfil (do, carry out); 2) bring to full expression, i.e., show forth the true spiritual meaning; or 3) fill up, as in “to complete” (Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament). As our spiritual Lawgiver, Christ fulfilled the Law of God by bringing it to its full expression, thus revealing its complete spiritual meaning and intent. He “filled the Law to the full” by teaching obedience in the spirit of the Law. That is how He magnified the laws and commandments of God and made them honourable. To fulfil the Law of God by amplifying its meaning and application is the exact opposite of abolishing the Law. If Jesus had come to abolish the laws of God, He would not have magnified and expanded their meaning, making them even more binding. Jesus taught His disciples the spiritual meaning and application of every one of God’s laws and commandments. For example, He magnified the Sixth Commandment by showing that murder begins in the heart and is rooted in hatred and anger (Matt. 5:21-22). The spiritual amplification of the Sixth Commandment extends far beyond the letter of the Law, which judges only physical acts of violence. Under the New Covenant, hatred in one’s heart is judged as murder (1 John 3:15). This spiritual standard also applies to hatred for an enemy (verses 43-44). Christ also taught the spiritual meaning and application of the Seventh Commandment. “You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you [as the spiritual Lawgiver], everyone who looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Jesus made the Seventh Commandment far more binding than did the letter of the Law. Thus, every individual is held accountable for his or her adulterous thoughts, even if no physical act is committed. A thorough study of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew 5-7, will show that Jesus revealed the full spiritual meaning of all the commandments of God.
Jesus Brought the Physical Rituals of the Law to Completion: A second meaning of pleeroo—translated “to fulfil” in Matthew 5:17—is “to complete,” or “bring to completion.” Christ came to bring the entire system of animal sacrifices, temple rituals and laws for the Aaronic priesthood to completion. Through His death, Jesus ended the Old Covenant, which had imposed a system of ritual laws on the children of Israel. In its place, He established the New Covenant, replacing the old requirements of the Law with a higher spiritual application. The sacrificial laws were brought to completion through the superior sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Jesus as the “Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” superseded and replaced all the animal sacrifices and other physical rituals and ceremonies that were performed at the Temple of God in Jerusalem. The apostle Paul confirms the consummation of the sacrificial and ritual system through the one perfect sacrifice of Christ (Heb. 10:5-12). With the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the priesthood of Aaron and the Levites came to an end as well. Thus, a physical priesthood was no longer required because Christ was serving as High Priest in heaven, making intercession for the saints before God the Father. In the same way, the spiritual Temple in heaven has superseded the physical Temple that was on earth. Under the New Covenant, true believers have direct access through prayer to the heavenly throne of God the Father. Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, where He carries out His spiritual work as High Priest (Heb. 10:16-22).
Physical Circumcision Brought to Completion: With the end of the Old Covenant, the requirement for circumcision of the flesh was superseded by spiritual circumcision of the heart. The apostle Paul makes this clear: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is external in the flesh; rather, he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God” (Rom. 2:28-29). Spiritual circumcision brings conversion of the mind and heart, which physical circumcision in the flesh cannot accomplish. To be circumcised in the heart, a person must repent of his or her sins and be baptized by full immersion in water. The act of baptism is a type of circumcision because the sins of the flesh are removed. Then, through the laying on of hands, the believer receives the Holy Spirit, converting the heart and mind. The apostle Paul describes the spiritual circumcision that takes place at baptism: “For in Him [Jesus Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, Who is the Head of all principality and power in Whom you have also been circumcised with the circumcision not made by hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, by which you have also been raised with Him through the inner working of God, Who raised Him from the dead. For you, who were once dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has now made alive with Him, having forgiven all your trespasses” (Col. 2:9-13).
Tithing Transferred Under the New Covenant: Under the Old Covenant, God gave authority to the priests and Levites to collect tithes and offerings from the children of Israel. Under the New Covenant, there is no priesthood of men—only the one High Priest, Jesus Christ, Who is “a High Priest forever after the order of Melchisedec” (Heb. 6:20). The apostle Paul explains that Melchisedec was Priest of God at Jerusalem in the days of Abraham. In describing how Abraham paid tithes to Melchisedec, Paul reveals that He was the one Who later came to earth as Jesus Christ (Heb. 7:5-13). As Paul reiterates, the entire Levitical priesthood has been superseded by Jesus. However, there is still a need to teach the true worship of God and to preach and publish the Word of God. Through His Church, Christ has provided a ministry that is able to teach the Word of God and to preach the gospel to the world. Christ has also provided a way to support the ministry. Under the New Covenant, the authority to receive tithes and offerings has been transferred from the Levitical priesthood to the ministry of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul makes this very clear: “Don’t you know that those who are labouring in the sacred things of the temple live of the things of the temple, and those who are ministering at the altar are partakers with the altar? In the same way also, the Lord did command that those who preach the gospel are to live of the gospel” (I Cor. 9:13-14).
How Did Christ Fulfil the Prophets?
During Jesus’ life in the flesh, all the Old Testament prophecies concerning His first coming were fulfilled. These prophecies included His miraculous conception and birth from the virgin Mary, the flight to Egypt to escape Herod, the return to Galilee and dwelling in Nazareth, the announcing of His ministry by John the Baptist, the healings and mighty works during His ministry, the preaching of the Gospel throughout the land of Judea and Galilee, the persecution and suffering that followed, His death by crucifixion, the place of His burial, and the time of the resurrection. Many of the prophecies that were fulfilled concern His suffering and death on the Passover day. Although nearly two thousand years have passed since these prophecies were completed, the many prophecies in both the Old and New Testaments about Christ’s second coming have yet to be fulfilled. To be sure, every prophecy in the Word of God will be fulfilled in its set time as determined by God the Father (Acts 1:7). Jesus did not abolish a single prophecy or even a single word of the Old Testament. Again, Jesus said concerning the Scriptures: “For truly I say to you, until the heaven and the earth shall pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the Law until everything has been fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18).
The Spirit and Intent of the Law and the Prophets
The purpose of the Law and the Prophets and all the writings of the Old Testament is to teach people to love, worship and obey God, and Him alone. Christ revealed the spirit and intent of the Law and the Prophets when He was asked by a scribe to name the “greatest” commandment. Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment; and the second one is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:35-40). And again, “Therefore, everything that you would have men do to you, so also do to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
Under the New Covenant, true worship and love toward God is made possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which enables the believer to reverence God and obey Him from the heart. Through deep faith in Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the believer learns to obey every command of God in the full spirit and intent of the Law, as magnified by Jesus Christ. This is the manner in which every true believer will keep the laws and commandments of God, because he or she loves God the Father and Jesus Christ with all the heart, mind, soul and strength.
Thinking further about this, hear are a few more thoughts:
The Old Testament
Life was harsh for the Hebrews in early Old Testament history. They had just been freed from slavery in Egypt, and wandered in the desert for 40 years. When they finally reached the promised land they had to fight almost constantly to take and hold it. There were few options for dealing with offenders in a society that moved frequently and struggled just to survive. The penalty for most crimes was either death, beating or banishment from the tribe.
The Old Testament Law prescribed the death penalty for an extensive list of crimes including:
- Murder (Exodus 21:12-14; Leviticus 24:17,21)
- Attacking or cursing a parent (Exodus 21:15,17)
- Disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
- Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)
- Failure to confine a dangerous animal, resulting in death (Exodus 21:28-29)
- Witchcraft and sorcery (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 13:5, 1 Samuel 28:9)
- Human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5)
- Sex with an animal (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:16)
- Doing work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14, 35:2, Numbers 15:32-36)
- Incest (Leviticus 18:6-18, 20:11-12,14,17,19-21)
- Adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22)
- Homosexual acts (Leviticus 20:13)
- Prostitution by a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9)
- Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14,16, 23)
- False prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:20)
- Perjury in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16-19)
- Refusing to obey a decision of a judge or priest (Deuteronomy 17:12)
- False claim of a woman’s virginity at time of marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
The New Testament
The New Testament does not have any specific teachings about capital punishment. However, the Old Testament ideas of punishment became secondary to Jesus’ message of love and redemption. Both reward and punishment are seen as properly taking place in eternity, rather than in this life.
Jesus said His mission was not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20). However, He and His apostles greatly modified our understanding of God’s intentions. Love is the principle that must guide all our actions (Matthew 5:43-48, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28, Romans 13:9-10, Galatians 5:14). Christians are bound by Jesus’ commands to “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40). We are no longer bound by the harsh Old Testament Law (John 1:16-17, Romans 8:1-3, 1 Corinthians 9:20-21).
Jesus flatly rejected the Old Testament principle of taking equal revenge for a wrong done (Matthew 5:38-41, Luke 9:52-56). He also said that we are all sinners and do not have the right to pass judgment on one another (Matthew 7:1-5). In the case of a woman caught in adultery (a capital offense), Jesus said to those who wanted to stone her to death,
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (NRSV, John 8:7-11)
Arguments For and Against Capital Punishment
Christians, and our churches, are divided on the issue of whether capital punishment is right or wrong.
Some proponents of capital punishment see it as mandated by the Old Testament Law. However, Christians are no longer bound by the legal code of Old Testament Law. The argument of a Biblical mandate for capital punishment is also contradicted by the fact that many of the capital crimes in the Old Testament are considered relatively minor today. Very few people in the Christian world would support capital punishment for such things as doing work on the Sabbath, false prophecy or making false statements about a woman’s virginity.
Many proponents of capital punishment interpret the phrase, “authority does not bear the sword in vain!” in Romans 13:1-5 as New Testament authority for capital punishment. However, the point of this passage is that Christians must not use their freedom from the Old Testament religious Law as an excuse to violate the civil law. We must obey civil authority, which is instituted by God, because of fear of punishment as well as conscience (verse 5).
Opponents of capital punishment see it as exactly the kind of revenge and human judgment that Jesus and His apostles so often warned against. They believe the principles set forth by Jesus and the apostles restrict punishment to only that which is necessary to protect society (i.e., humane confinement of offenders).
Opponents of capital punishment also point out that Jesus taught great principles for us to apply in our lives, rather than specific laws. Thus, his failure to specifically condemn slavery, capital punishment and many other evils should not be interpreted as approval of those things. They see the mercy He showed to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) as His rejection of capital punishment. However, Jesus never specifically repudiated capital punishment.
Some opponents of capital punishment see a prohibition against capital punishment in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill” in the King James Version). The original Hebrew word ratsach, translated as “kill” or “murder” could refer to either killing in general or unlawful killing (murder). However, most experts think this is not a prohibition against capital punishment because the death penalty is specifically authorized elsewhere in the Old Testament.
Here’s why I think Jesus People should be leading the charge on this issue:
1. Most attempts to make a biblical case for the support of capital punishment are arguments primarily based on Old Testament law, and that’s a poor way to do Christian theology.
Get frustrated when someone challenges you on an argument you’re making from the Old Testament when they ask you if you eat shell fish, or are wearing a cotton and polyester blend? You should — they’re correctly pointing out that most theological arguments based on Old Testament verses require cherry picking and inconsistency. As Christians in 2014, we are part of the New Testament church, not ancient Israel. Lifting a few of the Laws of Moses while ignoring the vast majority of the rest is inconsistent at best and hypocritical at worst. Most who use this tactic also ignore the whole of OT teaching on the issue by conveniently forgetting that capital punishment could not be applied without two eye witnesses (Deut 17:6), and forgetting that even bankers were considered detestable and ordered to be put to death (Ez 18:13). However, if one insists on building a case for supporting executions from the Old Testament, we find an inconvenient truth (sorry, Al) in the teachings of Jesus:
2. Jesus overturned the Old Testament law that allowed retributive violence.
I remember learning about the death penalty as a child and the first thing I was taught was that the Bible says “an eye for an eye.” This principle of an eye for an eye (something that many scholars believe at the time was designed to reduce violence by limiting it to a proportional response) is called the “Lex Talionis.” What I find most peculiar with this argument, was that I was never taught that Jesus very explicitly went on the record in telling his followers to no longer obey the Lex Talionis:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42
So yes, it is true the Old Testament allowed capital punishment and retributive violence. Jesus however, weighed in as disagreeing with this principle — or at a minimum, instructing that it should no longer be observed. Therefore, it is not possible to argue a Christian case in support of the death penalty while citing passages from the Hebrew scriptures, because this will put one at odds with Jesus himself.
3. During his ministry, Jesus publicly thwarted an execution.
Let’s be honest: if you were to say “he who is without sin may cast the first stone” even the most ardent atheist would know what you were referencing: the fact that Jesus stopped an execution. Conservatives will break with literalism when it comes to this passage and will argue that it doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. But why not just take the teachings of Jesus at face value? The fact that Jesus stopped an execution is completely in line will all of his other prohibitions against the use of violence. When Jesus said “he who is without sin may cast the first stone” he was teaching that while death may seem just, and even at times be just, there isn’t anyone alive who is worthy to tie the noose around their neck. Therefore, even if siding with the rationale that death is a just punishment in some cases, we arrive at the difficult truth that — according to Jesus — neither you or I are perfect enough to serve in the role of executioner.
4. Jesus teaches that it is better to show mercy and compassion than to obey the law.
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” Matthew 12:7
Another time Jesus uses this same quote to tell off the conservatives when they criticize him for having unsavory friends, telling them: “go and learn what this means — I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
In a variety of circumstances, we see that God values mercy and compassion above all else — which means we should be people who value mercy above all else. After all, mercy seems to be God’s love language.
5. The application of the death penalty in America is unjustly used and applied.
There are a variety of reasons why the death penalty in America is unjustly applied, and chief among them is race. In fact, Texas is preparing for the likely execution of a man named Duane Buck, who was literally sentenced to death for being black. At his sentencing hearing, prosecutors argued that he would be a further threat to society because he was black. Also, we know that poverty is a chief factor in ultimately receiving the death sentence since quality of defense plays a significant role in the outcome of a trial. This means that the death penalty is something that specifically targets poor people and minorities — the people groups Scripture calls us to defend and speak up for. Finally, with new technologies such as DNA testing we’ve found that our system of justice wasn’t as reliable as we thought: since 1973 there have been 122 death row inmates who have been freed after wrongful conviction.
I am reminded of Jesus’ words above– had we understood what it means to love mercy and not sacrifice, we wouldn’t have condemned the innocent.
As people of Jesus, we simply can’t embrace a practice and system that is literally killing innocent people and disproportionately affecting the weak and voiceless.
Yes, the issue of capital punishment is a complex one, and there are many other arguments to be had. While this can be a complex debate if speaking only from our identities as American citizens, this issue should not be complex for Jesus followers. Jesus overturned the old laws that permitted the use of retributive (and all other forms) of violence. It simply is not possible to simultaneously follow the one who forbade violence while participating, condoning, or supporting it in any form.
Now is the time for us to band together on this issue. Public support is waning. Drug companies are refusing to participate. States are abolishing the practice. And most importantly, evangelical Christians are beginning to wake up on the issue of violence and are being primed to become followers of the nonviolent Christ. But yet, as we speak, some states are moving in the opposite direction — trying to revive firing squads, gas chambers, and the electric chair . Now is the time to teach people that following Jesus means a life of nonviolence.
And, if nothing else, remember that Jesus was the victim of an unjust trial and was unjustly executed as a result. For his followers to support this same system would be worthy of a mention by Alanis Morissette (’cause wouldn’t that be ironic?)
Please join me in speaking out against the use of capital punishment and join me in inviting people to follow the nonviolent Jesus!