Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed a bill that would have repealed the death penalty in Nebraska. Good for him.
The repeal bill passed with a veto-proof majority, but constituent calls over the weekend may have gotten enough minds right to sustain the governor’s veto.
Some lawmakers who voted for repeal argued wrongly that abolishing the death penalty was the “conservative” thing to do, and others cited “religious” reasons for their opposition.
But in point of fact opposing capital punishment is neither conservative nor is it “religious,” if your definition of “religious” is “rooted and grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.”
If our thinking about capital punishment is to be guided by a biblical worldview, as it should be, then there is no good reason to oppose the death penalty and many good reasons to support it.
Here, in sum, is why capital punishment is both biblical and conservative.
1. God himself authorized the use of the death penalty. In Genesis 9:5-6 we read, “For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning…from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
It’s hard to get much clearer than that. Capital punishment is God’s idea, and he has delegated his authority to man to carry it out.
It’s worth noting that capital punishment had been banned prior to the flood, and the result was total societal breakdown, utter chaos, and a descent into such madness, wickedness, and violence that God was forced to wipe out humanity through the flood and start over.
2. The Ten Commandments prohibit murder, not capital punishment. Some Christians have been confused by the King James version of the Bible and its potentially misleading translation of the sixth commandment. The KJV translates it, “Thou shalt not kill,” as if God were prohibiting killing of every kind.
But the best translation of the Hebrew verb is not “kill” but “murder,” which is the word all modern translations use. The text should be translated as the English Standard Version has it, “You shall not murder.” So the prohibition is against the taking of innocent human life, not against the taking of all life under all circumstances.
The prohibition against murder is found in Exodus 20. The very next chapter, in which the Ten Commandments are applied to society at large, requires capital punishment for no less than five criminal offenses (including, by the way, the kind of slavery practiced in America). It is logically and rationally impossible to treat the sixth commandment as a prohibition against the death penalty. If it were, God himself would be the biggest and most immediate offender.
The rest of the Old Testament, indeed the entire Bible, makes clear that there are at least three circumstances under which the taking of human life is morally permissible: as punishment for a heinous crime, in a just war, and in self-defense.
3. The death penalty is reaffirmed in the New Testament. In Romans 13, Paul makes it explicitly clear that God has delegated his authority to civil government to administer justice. Civil government is his “servant,” his “minister,” to carry out the sacred and God-like duty of punishing criminal behavior.
Civil government is God’s idea. Conservatives are not at all opposed to government itself or to the idea of government. (We are, however, firmly and vigorously opposed to unjust, out-of-control, bloated, tyrannical, and unconstitutional government.)
Government has a valid purpose in God’s economy, and that purpose is justice – to punish those who infringe on our God-given rights to life, liberty, and property. It is the authority of civil government to punish criminal behavior that serves as a check on vigilante justice in which each man otherwise would take the law into his own hands.
Paul makes it clear that the authority God has delegated to civil government includes the authority to pursue just war and to execute criminals in the administration of justice. Civil government, the apostle says, “does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). The sword is an instrument of lethal force. It was used to kill the enemy in war abroad and to execute criminals at home.
Some argue against the death penalty on the grounds that it is so expensive to put a criminal to death. But this is an artificial and unnecessary cost, created by judicial activism and an endless appeals process.
Justice, even in death penalty cases, can be swift and sure. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865. The perpetrators had all been identified, apprehended, tried, sentenced, and hung by the neck until dead by July 7, 1865, just 83 days later.
Bottom line: capital punishment is biblical, it is conservative, it is necessary, and it is quintessentially American. It is a tool God has given to us for our own good, in order that we may establish a society that is orderly, peaceful and just.
Our national pledge includes “justice for all,” including the loved ones of murder victims. Let’s make sure they get the justice that is their due.
(Unless otherwise noted, the opinions expressed are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Family Association or American Family Radio.)
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