The Merciful Death Penalty

iStock.com/© Thomas Moens

The Merciful Death Penalty

How could a loving God advocate capital punishment?
From the August 2000 Trumpet Print Edition

The Old Testament of the Bible speaks with perfect plainness on the issue of capital punishment: “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death” (Exodus 21:12).

Genesis 9:6 and Leviticus 24:17 also give full authority to those sitting in judgment to execute a murderer. Deuteronomy 19:11-13 commands unsparing punishment for such a killer: “…deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee.”

Strong words, those. The God of the Old Testament clearly favored the death penalty.

About 7 out of 10 Americans favor the death penalty, too. But that number is beginning to decline. Recent events are casting doubts in many people’s minds.

First there was the report released in June showing high rates of judicial error among death-sentence appeal cases. A subsequent moratorium on executions by the Illinois governor propelled the issue into the national spotlight, where it was taken up in force by the overwhelmingly anti-death-penalty news media. It reared its head in the presidential race, and was compounded by two death-row cases in Texas, the state in which the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, is governor. In one case, Mr. Bush, a self-proclaimed “compassionate conservative,” granted a reprieve to a convicted murderer. The second man was executed, amid a flurry of protests.

In the growing national debate, death-penalty advocates are being made to look heartless and uncompassionate. But let’s ask this fundamental question: Is the God of the Old Testament heartless and uncompassionate?

The Bible says that God is a God of love (1 John 4:8). So why would a God of love allow the death penalty? How could a loving God actually command putting someone to death?

As we will see, when the death penalty is understood from God’s vantage point, it is one of the greatest acts of love there can be toward society—and the condemned criminal.

First let’s answer this question: Does God really favor the death penalty? In the Old Testament, yes, but what about the New Testament?

God of the Old Testament

Many people believe that in the “Christian” era, the death penalty no longer should be enforced, saying that the grace of Jesus Christ does away with the need to execute criminals. That is an error! The one who became Jesus Christ is the author of the death penalty in the Old Testament.

The first chapter of the book of John tells us about the prehistory of God, at a time prior to Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him [the Word]; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The Word made the universe, and then the one who was the Word became the Son of God, Jesus Christ (verse 14). That is why it says in Ephesians 3:9 that God “created all things by Jesus Christ.” Space is not sufficient in this article to quote all the scriptures related to this subject, but please study such verses as Colossians 1:12-13, 15-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; Hebrews 7; John 1:18; 5:37 and 1 John 4:12, which show that Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament.

This is a very important point in our study of the death penalty. The one who became Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament who demanded death for murderers! Hebrews 13:8 tells us, “Jesus Christ [is] the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Furthermore, that same unchanging Jesus Christ said in Matthew 26:52, “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” Likewise, Jesus Christ inspired the Apostle John (Revelation 1:1) to write in Revelation 13:10, “he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword.”

By the authority of God the Father, Jesus Christ is the author and originator of the death penalty. He bolsters His words in the Old Testament with clear statements of support in the New Testament.

Old Testament authority to execute murderers is placed into the hands of men, as shown in the above-quoted scriptures. In the New Testament book of Romans, God reaffirms that authority: “Let every soul be subject unto the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist [speaking of man’s governments and courts] are appointed by God…. For he [a government or court official] is God’s minister [“servant” or “magistrate” in some translations] to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:1-4; New King James Version).

The God of love tells us in such scriptures as Hebrews 12:5-6 that for our own good those who commit wrong must be corrected. Correction is the God-given means to prevent crime and other problems. Using strong correction forces change in criminals convicted of lesser offenses and eliminates entirely the threat of those convicted of violent crimes such as murder.

As the Plain Truth magazine stated in 1961, “Punishment, when meted out in the proper manner, and at the proper time, is one of the greatest blessings a human being—at any age—can receive!” The reason is that if we do not receive correction, we will proceed on a course to our own destruction (Proverbs 14:12). Through correction, God can steer us in the path toward a happy, fulfilled life.

As will be shown later in this article, that sound wisdom even applies to the death penalty.

“Mitigating Circumstances”

Many people reject God’s clear commandments involving implementation of the death penalty. And though the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, Americans have demonstrated a fear to sternly correct evildoers, and are vacillating in their determination to use the God-given option of executing people for horrible wrongs. As the late fbi Director J. Edgar Hoover once stated about our modern permissive society, we have “substituted indulgence for discipline.” The result is that our prisons are full to overflowing and our society is inundated in violent crime.

Too often, we indulge the weaknesses of criminals. The liberal element in our society constantly seeks to explain away evil deeds by reason of “mitigating circumstances” that supposedly justify a lesser or softer sentence. Claims of parental abuse, mental instability and racial injustice have all been used to acquit clearly guilty individuals.

Science has even rushed to the aid of lawbreakers by trying to uncover genetic and biochemical predisposition to violent behavior. “Evidence Found for a Possible ‘Aggression’ Gene,” blared a 1993 headline in the journal Science. Some sociobiologists claim that “impulsivity,” a trait presumably caused by bad brain chemistry or bad genes, is enough to give someone the inclination to lead a life of crime.

That is the whining, indulgent nonsense that is preventing deterrence of crime today. We shouldn’t be trying to “understand” criminals, we should be harshly punishing them with retribution so severe that they never want to commit crime again!

And in the case of intentional murder, for reasons we will see later, that severe punishment should be death.

So says our great God, who understands human nature and tells us in Jeremiah 17:9 that our natures are deceitful and desperately wicked. And in Romans 6:23 we are told that the “wages of sin is death”—not separation from God—but death, the absence of life.

Mankind continually makes excuses for his wrong behavior and, in particular, has done so concerning crimes deserving the death penalty in the last 40 years. When will we learn that there are no mitigating circumstances, justifications or excuses for crime and lawlessness? There are reasons why people do things, but those reasons cannot be allowed to become excuses for which they are given leniency. History repeatedly shows that when a society indulges its criminals with leniency, that society will drift into anarchy and total collapse!

Discipline Promptly

In Proverbs 19:18, God gives us the principle that applies to disobedient children, juvenile delinquents or hardened criminals. We are told, “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying” (Proverbs 19:18). There comes a point for an undisciplined child when there is no (or very little) hope of correcting bad behavior. Often, a delinquent—and finally a hardened criminal—will result because the parents were too soft during their child’s early years, when they had the greatest hope of curbing the child’s self-centered and destructive ways.

As parents and as a society, we are not to “spare for his crying” by lessening the punishment. Proverbs 13:24 admonishes us, “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly” (nkjv). For the good of society and the individual, swift, stern justice must be meted out when wrongs are brought to light.

Ecclesiastes 8:11 tells us the importance of swift punishment when it says, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” How clear and wise! When wrongdoing is not immediately punished, then all or almost all of the deterrent value to any subsequent punishment is lost!

As for determining a person’s guilt, there is only one biblical rule: “Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses; but one witness is not sufficient testimony against a person for the death penalty” (Numbers 35:30; nkjv). Deuteronomy 17:6 agrees: “Whoever is worthy of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses, but he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness” (nkjv). In God’s eyes, repeated reprieves and appeals—and now, insistence upon dna testing to verify guilt—should not be necessary for death-row inmates.

If mankind would only receive instruction from the word of God instead of doing what seems humanly right.

As pointed out above, without swift punishment, any hope of dissuading others from committing similar crimes is lost or greatly diminished. Ezra 7:26 guides us toward speedy response to crime by stating, “And whosoever will not do the law of thy God, and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily upon him, whether it be unto death, or to banishment, or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment.”

The criminal mind does not respect authority. The only thing such a person respects is equal or stronger force! And when that strong force is used immediately to severely punish an offender, it makes others of like mind think twice before acting likewise.

However, once again, the liberal element in our society says there is little deterrent value in punishments such as the death penalty. They have a point—but only because of how hesitant our courts are to use the death penalty!

The Deterrence Factor

No sane man or woman wants to put another person to death. It is understandable to have a certain degree of pity for someone who is going to die, even if he or she deserves to die.

But it is the seemingly interminable delays of 10 to 18 years that are taking the much-needed deterrent value out of the death penalty! The death penalty, once carried out, is as humanly irreversible as the murder itself, and therefore great care must be taken in implementing the death penalty. But human justice will always be flawed to a degree, and we cannot stop the wheels of justice or remove the deterrent value of the death penalty simply because we may make a mistake! To do so is to make a far greater mistake!

People who commit crimes are promised a fair trial—not a perfect trial. Yet so many of the habeas corpus appeals (many of which amount to little more than stalling tactics) are procedural and/or frivolous in nature, nit-picking the court over minor imperfections in court procedure. Flawed humans will make mistakes. But that must not stop us from following God’s plain commands! A swift death penalty was intended by our Creator to deter or restrain additional people from committing the sin of murder. To stop or delay the death penalty because the courts are afraid of making a mistake is direct disobedience to God and His laws!

Many a career criminal has already proven he cannot “make it” in normal society; and if he murders, rapes, robs and commits general mayhem, so what? He knows he’ll be provided food and shelter for the rest of his life so that he never has to work again! Why should he fear to kill? Even though he probably murdered unmercifully, the “merciful” liberals will see to it that his life is spared so that the taxpayers can support him for the next 20, 40 or 60 years in a prison environment where he is “somebody”—a “man among men” so to speak!

We must not get softer on crime, we must get tougher!

The book of Proverbs states, “When the scorner is punished, the simple is made wise,” and “Smite a scorner, and the simple will beware” (Proverbs 21:11; 19:25). People can learn vicariously from the experiences of others!

Even after 11 years of appeals, when convicted murderer Charles Troy Coleman was finally executed in September of 1990, the deterrent effect of the death penalty was clearly seen and reported in the news. On September 10, the day of Coleman’s execution, the Daily Oklahoman quoted fellow condemned murderer Howard Marquez as saying, “I felt the fear. I felt fear for my life.” Another death row inmate, Robert Grady Johnson, one of two men convicted of cold-bloodedly killing four people in the 1984 Geronimo Bank massacre, said after Coleman’s death by injection, “Several people here are saying, ‘I don’t have a chance. I’m going to be up there (in the death chamber) too.’” Johnson further said, “People here are scared to death.”

The deterrent effect of the death penalty is muted because of current practices. But even basic understanding of human nature tells us that, if administered properly, the death penalty would have a significant deterrent effect!

The Missing Dimension

Again, why does God command the death penalty? Why would a loving God allow a convicted murderer to be executed and supposedly end his chance to repent and change?

The answer to these questions is plainly revealed in your Bible as being the resurrection of the dead. All unconverted sinners will be raised alive from the grave while Christ is ruling the Earth, and then they will be given a chance to learn and change.

The pagan teaching of an ever-burning hellfire to which most professing Christians today would condemn the executed murderer is nowhere found in your Bible!

Hebrews 6:1-2 shows that the resurrection is one of the foundational doctrines taught by your Bible. And it is the knowledge of the resurrection that gives us God’s mind and understanding about the death penalty.

There are several references in the Old Testament to the resurrection, but only the Prophet Daniel begins to hint that there might be more than one resurrection. Daniel wrote, “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). In the New Testament, Jesus Christ said, “… the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation [judgment]” (John 5:28-29).

In Acts 24:15, the Apostle Paul plainly stated “that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust.” Paul wrote at length regarding the resurrections in 1 Corinthians 15.

The simple truth of your Bible is that there will be three resurrections (Revelation 20:4-15). The first will be at Christ’s return to Earth (1 Corinthians 15:22-23) when He will resurrect to eternal spirit life those who have received God’s Holy Spirit in order to belong to Christ (Romans 8:9) and who have overcome and endured in God’s ways and held fast to God’s truth (Revelation 3:11-12; 21:7).

The second resurrection will occur 1000 years after Christ’s return (Revelation 20:11-12). Those in this resurrection will be given human physical bodies once again. For the first time, they will receive the opportunity to understand God’s precious truth and put it into practice in their lives (Isaiah 30:20-21) so that they, too, can be added to the spirit-composed family of God (Ephesians 3:14-15).

This second resurrection is the missing dimension and key to understanding how a God of love can be in favor of a death penalty.

The third resurrection will also be a resurrection to physical life, but the end result of this resurrection will be eternal death, complete cessation of life—not spending an eternity boiling and bubbling in an ever-burning hellfire, but death. These individuals understood God’s truth and ways but rejected them, through either rebellion or weakness (Hebrews 10:26-27; Revelation 20:13-15; 21:8). God will mercifully impose an eternal death penalty upon them to prevent the creation of another ever-living, wretchedly miserable murderer like Satan the devil (John 8:44).

To understand how the death penalty can be a blessing, one must have God’s perspective on human life. Human death means nothing to God except a temporary sleep (1 Corinthians 15:51-55), because God can resurrect humans from the grave! If we understand the resurrections, then we can see how the death penalty is one of the greatest acts of love there can be—even toward the condemned criminal!

Imposing and carrying out the death penalty stops the example of lawlessness in society which can corrupt other human beings into the same wrong ways of violence and murder. Swiftly carrying out the death penalty also prevents the murderer from continuing in a downward spiral of ever-deepening rebellion against God’s law. The longer such a person is allowed to live, the more deeply entrenched will become their evil habits and twisted and corrupted human nature, all of which must be changed when the person is resurrected to physical life in the second resurrection!

The merciful God will even resurrect Attila the Hun and Adolf Hitler, along with every serial killer and mass murderer who has ever lived! Once resurrected, all those who did not receive the truth of God in their brief human life (the vast majority) will have their first opportunity to have an open mind and receive God’s truth!

Every human being only gets one opportunity to respond to God’s truth! Just because a person has lived does not mean they understood God’s truth. They will receive their one opportunity in the second resurrection!

That is how the death penalty can be implemented in love! It deters others in this life from committing offenses worthy of the death penalty. And it prevents a murderer or violent career criminal from continuing in his wrong and worsening ways and more firmly establishing habits which must be broken when he has his opportunity to receive God’s truth.

How beautiful is the pure truth of the merciful God!