How to Explain the Biblical Death Penalty


As both a Christian and a Democrat, I not only have to argue regularly with Republicans who see their party’s support of the wealthy as being one and the same as Christianity, but I also have to endure attacks from Democrats who hate religion, Christianity in particular. If fact, just a couple hours before I started this article, I had a Democrat reply to a comment I made on Facebook, saying that my Facebook page, “Rescuing Religion from Republicans,” inspired him to consider starting his own page called, “Rescuing Humanity from Religion.” My short response to him was that Stalin and Mao already tried abolishing religion in the former Soviet Union and Communist China, and it did nothing to lessen brutality. In fact, atheist Stalin killed 22 million people and atheist Mao killed 46 million, compared to Hitler’s 17 million; which proves that brutality does not come from religion, but from the very thing that the Bible tries to stop – the diabolic pride and mercilessness that causes brutality. And sometimes, God used the death penalty as a deterrent to merciless behavior.

Possibly the biggest factor that makes so many people question the goodness of Christianity, and especially the Bible, is the fact that, for ancient Israel, the Bible’s Mosaic Law imposed the death penalty for sins and crimes we consider to be minor. These biblical punishments have led many people, including Christians, to reject the Bible as the Word of God. Others simply reject the “brutal” Old Testament in favor of the “loving” New Testament. Being the scientifically-minded person that I am, I don’t believe in rejecting something just because I disagree with it. I would need anti-biblical evidence to outweigh pro-biblical evidence; and I have not found that to be the case. Thus, I have no choice but to look the death penalty straight in the eye and deal with it, asking “How can a loving God command the death penalty for crimes other than murder?”

First, I have to start with the American, but non-biblical, belief that the punishment must fit the crime. We’ve been raised to see it that way, but most people in world history have not been. Throughout history, many punishments have been more severe than the crime appears to be, because the punishment serves first and foremost as a deterrent. For example, Deuteronomy 19:20 says, regarding the punishment for the crime of perjury, “The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.” The death penalty was not intended to hurt the innocent, but to keep the innocent from becoming criminals. As long as people were fairly warned that violation of a given law brought death as a penalty, the person breaking that law was being treated fairly, because they knew as they planned to commit their crime that doing so would most likely result in their death. This is not the same as killing someone for supposedly being a witch (i.e., Salem) or for have different beliefs than the church (i.e., The Inquisition) – that’s brutality. The Bible imposed the death penalty for actual deeds.

Second, and more important, is that God realizes that death is not the only horrible thing one can do to a person. I’m not speaking of the death penalty as much as I am the crime of murder. We tend to think that murder is the only crime bad enough to be punished by death (if we believe it’s okay to have a death penalty at all). Murder is not the only thing that ruins life, however. Other crimes than ruin people’s lives without killing them, and they are just as bad. The Bible shares this view. For example, Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 says, “Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.” This passage tells us that a life of suffering in this world is worse than never having been born. It contradicts the common notion that death is the worst thing there is, by telling us that a life of suffering is the worst thing there is. The truth is that everybody dies eventually, but not everybody has to suffer oppression; and if we all obeyed the Bible’s laws, no one would suffer oppression.

So it makes sense that God would impose a death penalty for those who cause suffering. God cares about victims too much to allow those who ruin others’ lives to get away with it. If breaking the Sabbath oppresses people by creating a society in which much of the population has to work 7 days a week just to keep up with the competition, then life becomes oppressive and not worth living. God valued weekly rest for His people so much that He imposed the ultimate penalty for those would neglect human well-being. It’s not that He wanted to be brutal, but that He simply wouldn’t budge on His insistence that everyone have a weekly day of rest. Here in America, we go very light on the oppressors, and we think we’re kinder than God for doing so. But the truth might be that we have far less concern for victims who suffer at the hands of oppressors than God does.

Likewise, if adultery ruins lives, which it does, then it makes sense that God prescribed the death penalty to prevent people from imposing suffering on their spouses and children. As for men having sex with men, it too was adultery, since it appears that everyone was married in early Israel. The inheritance structure, in which a man inherited land from his family and then took a wife and had children to live off the land, required marriage in order to work. If the men didn’t marry, they would have hoarded the produce of the land to themselves, and the women would have been left destitute with no husband and no land to live off of. This might be why male homosexuality was punished by death, while female homosexuality gets no mention in the Mosaic Law.

Third, most Americans believe there are things worth dying for other than death. That’s why people stand up for causes (like labor and civil rights) in the face of violence, while others join the military. If nothing was worth dying for, we would simply let invading nations take us over without putting up a fight. We would let them work us like slaves and abuse us, because we think such suffering is nowhere near as bad as death is. The reason we fight back, however, is because we value freedom from oppression as much as life itself. Now, one might argue that this kind of death is different, because it’s good people voluntarily giving their lives to prevent abuse and oppression of others. But I would argue that if good people can give their lives (or even be drafted and forced to give up their lives) to protect people from oppression, why can’t the oppressors be forced to lose their lives to protect people from the very oppression they impose? God might find it kind of strange that in modern America we declare it good for an innocent person to die to prevent the suffering of others, while we declare it evil for a guilty person, who has already caused suffering, to die as a deterrent to other oppressors.

So, unlike many people, I don’t see the Old Testament as a book about a blood-thirsty, angry God. I see it as a book about a God who cared so much about the well-being of His people that He required strong sentences for those who would ruin life for others out of their own selfishness.

I realize that when it comes to some laws, like that of cursing your mother or father, the death penalty seems severe. Even I think so. But we also have to realize that we don’t know everything just because we live here and now and are, therefore, smarter than all other people in the history of the world. That’s an arrogance that author C.S. Lewis called “the snobbery of chronology.” There are probably a million ways of thinking in world history, and God’s laws were designed to be effective in the time and place in which they existed. It’s wrong for us to try to judge God’s laws by the standards of modern thought-trends.

Oh, and one more thing…the Bible never says that “children” are to be put to death for hitting or cursing their parents. It says, “He” who strikes his mother or father… It doesn’t even say “she.” That law was for adult men. The biblical law was for adults, just like our law is. So let’s not allow those who hate our faith to make this false accusation without correcting them.