With a number of high-profile murder cases in the news lately, the issue of capital punishment has once again become a very hot topic. In our own state, Nathan Dunlap, who was convicted of murdering four people at an Aurora Chuck E. Cheese in 1993, faces death by lethal injection the week of August 18. He has appealed to the governor for clemency.
The death penalty has long elicited strong opinions. There are many who believe that not executing convicted murderers is a denial of justice. On the other side, there are many who believe that executing murderers is basically government-sanctioned murder, and should have no place in civilized society. Among those who oppose capital punishment are Christians who believe that execution is a violation of God’s will. They often cite the Fifth Commandment, which was translated in the familiar King James Version as “Thou shalt not kill.” Thus killing a killer would only be compounding the sin, and further diminishing the sanctity of human life.
So what does the Bible really say about capital punishment? First of all, we need to understand that the King James translation of the Fifth Commandment is not necessarily the clearest and most accurate. The Hebrew language, like English, has more than one word for killing. A more literal translation of the Fifth Commandment is, “You shall not murder.”
But that still doesn’t answer the question of whether or not capital punishment is permitted by God. Genesis 9:6 states, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” This verse certainly isn’t sanctioning vigilante justice or personal revenge. Far from it. Such action is explicitly forbidden by God in passages like Romans 12:19, which says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
The next chapter of Romans is perhaps the most revealing section of the Bible when it comes to how Christians should respond to the death penalty. In that chapter, St. Paul makes it clear that the government acts as God’s agent, and therefore has the right, even the responsibility to carry out justice by punishing those who do evil. And such punishment can include taking the evil-doer’s life. Paul states, “(The government) does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
That doesn’t mean that Christians can’t be in support of mercy and clemency for inmates on death row. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Christians ought to take a perverse delight in the execution of murderers
But it is clear that Christians cannot legitimately state that the execution of convicted murderers is a violation of scripture. It is not.
This much we should all agree on: Life is a precious gift from God. The taking of life, whether it be of an innocent victim at the hands of a murderer, or a murderer at the hands of an executioner, is always cause for deep sorrow.
Brent Merten is pastor of Mountain Valley Lutheran Church in Eagle