I'll define capital punishment as “that social institution whereby a government punishes a certain crime by putting the offender to death.” The assumed circumstances are that a crime really has been committed, a certain person is known to be guilty, and the verdict and execution is carried out fairly, by a recognized and responsible government.
The issue is not “Is capital punishment always right?” No one maintains that capital punishment is right for every crime, or when carried out by just anyone. When it is mistakenly carried out against the innocent it is horribly wrong. The real issue should be phrased, “Is capital punishment ever right, and if so in what cases?”
This is an ethical problem that will never be resolved by mere human opinion. There are thinking people, including many Christians, on both sides of the fence, and a great many straddling it. But the morality of capital punishment, as well as that of any ethical issue, must be ultimately measured by the teaching of the Word of God.
In Genesis 9:6, capital punishment is clearly instituted by the Creator. It was anarchy, rampant crime, violence and immorality that brought about God's judgment by the flood. Just after the flood, God ordained the institution of capital punishment in order to keep crime in check, and protect society from further divine judgment. A person guilty of murder was to be put to death. Hence, in at least this one case, God delegated to man His sacred prerogative over life and death.
Under Mosaic law, the parameters of capital punishment were greatly broadened. The law advocated capital punishment not only for murder, but for kidnapping, incest, homosexuality, beastiality, adultery, fornication, witchcraft, false prophecy, attack or injury to parents, grave insult to parents, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, Sabbath breaking, the intrusion of an alien into a sacred place or office, and owning an animal that killed a human being, if the owner knew it to be dangerous. The manner of execution, such as stoning, is sometimes mentioned, but not always.
If we do no more than simply read the Old Testament, it is obvious that capital punishment was once a divine institution. The only question left to us is whether or not it remains a divine institution today, in our own society.
First of all, let me ask if we are obliged to exercise the death penalty for those crimes specified under the Mosaic law. I would say “not necessarily,” for at least two reasons. First of all, the law was a covenant with Israel, a very special nation. Israel was a theocracy, meaning that it was in a unique way under the rule of God. God granted Israel certain privileges and responsibilities He has never granted to any other nation. Secondly, the Mosaic law was fulfilled in Christ. Though the principles continue to abide, some of the specific regulations have been superseded. We are not bound to offer the sacrifices and keep the Sabbath. Likewise, it is questionable whether we are bound to execute those guilty of all the crimes mentioned above (though admittedly it would make our society a lot less crowded!)
Are we likewise not bound to follow the teaching of Genesis 9:6 that requires capital punishment for those guilty of murder? To answer this all-important question, we must consider the context of that command. It is given to the ancestors of not just one nation, people, or group, but all mankind. It is not a covenant with Israel, for that nation did not even come into existence until hundreds of years later. Furthermore, there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that this injunction was temporary or restricted to one particular government. It was a command given to all human government of all nations, and there is absolutely nothing in Scripture that ever rescinds it.
In the New Testament, Romans 13:1-7 indicates clearly that human government is still ordained by God, after the law, just as it was in the days of Noah, before the law. The passage indicates that the criminal should be afraid of the state, because it brings judgment upon the one who practices evil, and “does not bear the sword for nothing.” The “sword” is commonly understood to be a metaphorical reference to the practice of capital punishment. As the state was obligated to practice capital punishment of murders before the law, the same is said to be true after the law.
The Word of God seems to clearly indicate that capital punishment should be enacted upon those who are proven guilty of murder. Whether or not this includes murder other than the first degree is difficult to determine, but certainly it does include first degree murder. While I have suggested we are not bound to exercise the death penalty for all crimes under the Mosaic law, this does not mean we could or should do so. Perhaps there are other crimes of a violent nature that might warrant the death penalty in certain cases, particularly involving repeated offenders. Whether this is true or not, the fact remains that the state is not simply free to carry out the death penalty in cases of first degree murder, but it is obligated to do so. This is true both in terms of obedience to God, and in protection of society itself. For capital punishment, in essence, is radical surgery designed to rid society of its worst malignancies.
I have heard many objections to the concept and practice of capital punishment. “It is barbaric and inhumane,” “it is contrary to the love of God,” “it shows a low regard for human life,” “only God has the right to take a human life,” “it takes away the criminal's chance to reform or repent,” “it is not a deterrent to crime,” and even “criminals are not responsible for their behavior.”
While most of these objections are sincere, each of them can be biblically and logically answered. The same is true of objections cited from Scripture, such as the command “thou shalt not kill,” and Jesus' stopping the mob from executing the adulterous woman. “Turn the other cheek,” “recompense no man evil for evil,” and “avenge not yourselves” may appear to be inconsistent with the idea of capital punishment. But when properly understood, as coexisting with Genesis 9:6 before the Mosaic Law and Romans 13:1-7 after the Mosaic Law, I do not believe they are.