[12]   Society (3): Sanctions for Crime & Capital Punishment

STORY: In 1983, Karla Faye Tucker and Daniel Garrett took drugs for 3 days without stop. They broke into a home in Texas and used a hammer and a pickax to kill a man and a woman. They were caught and sentenced to death. While in prison, Garrett died of liver disease and Tucker heard the gospel and became a born again Christian and a model prisoner. After exhausting all appeals, she was finally executed on Feb 2, 1998 by lethal injection. Her execution reignited the debate on capital punishment, particularly among Christians.

The famous evangelist Billy Graham was interviewed on TV the day after the execution. He said that he believed that Tucker is a sister in Christ and that she is now in heaven. But he also said that the death penalty was proper and just. Now, what do you think?


Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976 (in fact no executions since 1962). In the US, capital punishment is still practised in 38 states.

Capital punishment has been abolished de jure or de facto (in law and in effect) by 111 nations and is still imposed in 83 others. The countries with the highest number of executions are: China, Iran, Russia, United States.

Polls consistently show that 65-75% of Canadians and Americans support capital punishment.

53.  What are the objectives of sanctions for crime? What is the Biblical position?

a.   Common types of sanctions of criminal behaviour are: prison, probation, fine, compensation, restitution.

b.   In industrialized western democracies, the objectives of sanctions of crime include:

(1)  retribution (punishment, denunciation):

o        to bear and pay for the harm done to the victim and the society

o        to impose sanctions justly deserved

o        to impose punishment proportional to the crime committed

o        to denounce the criminal and impress on them that crimes are unacceptable in the society

(2)  social protection (separation, risk reduction):

o        to protect the society by separating the criminals from the general population

o        to reduce the risk of criminal victimization

(3)  reduction of recidivism or reoffending (incapacitation):

o        to incarcerate the criminals so that they have no more capacity to commit more crimes

(4)  deterrence:

o        to deter potential criminals to commit crimes when they observe the effect of the sanction

(5)  rehabilitation:

o        to provide an environment for the criminals to adopt new habits away from crime so that they can live a new life and turn in a new direction

o        to receive new skills for future employment after release

c.   In the Bible, the explicit objective of sanctions is retribution. But the primary objective in present justice system is rehabilitation, something not found in the Bible. It is based on the perverted belief that the criminal is only sick (as a result of family background or social environment), not guilty. In other words, the society is responsible for the crime, not the criminal.

54.  In the Old Testament, what are the crimes that deserve death penalty?

a.   In the OT, there were 18 offences punishable by death penalty:

(1)  Offences against the person [4 types]:  premeditated murder (Lev 24:17), kidnapping (Ex 21:16), human sacrifice (Lev 20:2-5), false witness in a case involving a capital offence (Dt 19:16-20)

(2)  Sexual offences [6 types]:  adultery (Lev 20:10), homosexuality (Lev 20:13), incest (Lev 20:11), rape of a betrothed virgin (Dt 22:25), bestiality (Ex 22:19), unchastity (Dt 22:20-21)

(3)  Offences against authority [3 types]:  striking or cursing parents (Ex 21:15), persistent disobedience to parents and authorities (Dt 21:18-21), lawlessness (Dt 17:12)

(4)  Offences against God [5 types]:  blasphemy (Lev 24:13-14), idolatry (Ex 22:20), witchcraft of divination and magic (Ex 22:18), false prophesying (Dt 13:1-10), profaning the Sabbath (Ex 35:2)

b.   Premeditated murder is the most serious crime of all because man is made in the image of God so murder is an outrage against God (Gen 9:6). Old Testament laws permit a “ransom” or a “substitute” payment for all crimes listed above with the exception of murder (Nu 35:31).

·         Notice that the 6th commandment does not refer generally to all killings. The Hebrew word was correctly translated as “murder” in modern English translations. Premeditated murder is not the same as killings in accidents or in the case of self-defence or killing combatants during a war.

c.   Why is the Old Testament standard not enforced today?

·         Ancient Israel was a theocratic state (under the direct government of God) and the governments today are not. Therefore the laws given to Moses for the nation of Israel apply only to that nation. They are not even applied to the civil government of Israel today.

·         However, death penalty for murder is still applicable because the command was given to Noah who at that time represented the whole human race and was before the laws of Moses.

55.  What are the arguments for and against capital punishment today?

(4= stronger argument)



a.   Old Testament laws do not apply to the present (Heb 10:1).

Old Testament supports death penalty
Death penalty for murder is a commandment to the whole human race through Noah. 4

b.  The Bible teaches mercy: Jesus forgave the adulterous woman (Jn 7:53-8:11).

New Testament supports death penalty
Ac 25:11  Paul accepts that some crimes still deserve death penalty. 4

“Without sin” (Jn 8:7) does not mean complete sinlessness BUT sinless according to Dt 22:22-24 which stipulates that both the man and the woman are subject to death penalty. Yet the crowd did not bring the man.

c.   Violation of the 6th commandment
Death penalty is premeditated and deliberate murder.

Ro 13:4  Paul affirms the authority of the government to impose death penalty. The word “sword” in Greek refers to the sword worn by superior magistrates who had the authority to inflict death penalty. The 6th commandment (given to individuals) is not violated because execution is done by the state. 4

d.  Revenge is not Biblical
The Bible teaches against personal hatred and revenge (Ro 12:19).

Death penalty is retribution, not revenge; it is the satisfaction of justice or the restoration of disturbed moral balance. Even God’s plan of salvation is based on divine standards of retributive justice. To God, sin and crime are inherently worthy of punishment. Because God does not disregard the standard of justice, He sent His Son to substitute for us. 4

e.   Past evidences show there is very little deterrence. Statistical studies conclude that one execution will deter 1 to 8 murders. 4

Deterrence to other murders
It will deter other murders; at least deterring repeat killings. The deterrence effect is probably much stronger if the punishment is certain and swift.

f.   Death penalty is often discriminatory
It is often discriminatory against racial minorities and the poor.

This minor unfairness does not justify abolishing the proper system of justice and the courts are trying to guard against discrimination.

g.   Risk of executing innocent person
There are examples from history. A US study found that 68% of the 5,760 capital cases in 23 years had prejudicial errors.

Death penalty should only be permitted if there is practically without doubt. In the US study, only 313 were executed. The “errors” were mostly procedural or administrative problems, not that the accused were innocent. Only in 5 cases were the offenders found to be innocent of the capital offence (insufficient evidence). There is no proof that any innocent person was executed.

h.  Rehabilitation of murderers
Murderers might accept Christ later.

Justice should not be withheld by a remote possibility. 4

·         VERDICT:  Capital punishment is supported by a correct interpretation of the Bible while rational arguments are inconclusive.

·         Note that only the first four arguments above are based on the interpretation of the Bible. The other four arguments are rational arguments based on human reasoning.

·         The best rational argument against it is the possibility of executing innocent people. This can be remedied if execution is done only for cases with certainty (that is, more than circumstantial evidence). Such examples include: (a) mass murderer Olson who in 1982 led the police to burial sites of 10 of his victims, thereby obtaining $10,000 for each body/skeleton found; and (b) the 2 Washington snipers who randomly shot 13 people, killing 10, in 2002 (Muhammad who got death penalty and Malvo who got life imprisonment).

·         If capital punishment is abolished, all mass murderers will be protected from their deserved punishment and injustice will permeate. The law allowing capital punishment should not be abolished so that it can still be applied for extreme cases.