Human Justice

Does God endorse the death penalty? This question elicits passionate responses from both sides of the debate. Reaching a consensus on this question is improbable but it is worthwhile to discuss since God is the judge of all the earth.

The first distinction to be made is that individual Christians should generally not take justice into their own hands, especially if it only affects them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would argue that there are times when individuals need to take justice into their own hands for the sake of other people, however, that is a more complex discussion which is not the purpose of this article. Jesus tells us, "do not resists the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matt. 5:39)." It is clear that when injustice is done to us we should not seek revenge or retaliate but love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). However, God does give authority to the government. Paul speaking about the government puts it this way, "for he is the servant of God, and avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom. 13:4)." God has given the government the sword, capital punishment (See Acts 25:11),  to carry out His justice on earth (Rom. 13:4).

The government has the responsibility to carry out God's justice on earth, but should Christians ever seek the death penalty? It is one thing to forgive someone who has wronged you, but it is another thing to forgive someone who has wronged someone else. The victim of a murder does not have the opportunity for a second chance, so why should the criminal be given a second chance. Our justice system should be geared towards the victim and not the criminal. Essentially the victim receives a double penalty by losing their life and not having justice done. As Christians we should always ensure justice is done for others but not for ourselves. "Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy (Proverbs 31:8-9)."

What happens if an innocent person is put to death? In our human frailties it is possible that we make mistakes, but that does not stop us from making decisions. A parent disciplines their children even though it is possible they could be wrong. Even if injustice is carried out on earth God is still sovereign and just and will set things right. Anyone who is put to death on earth has two eternal destinies, Heaven or Hell. If they are destined for Heaven then being put to death is better since they will be in Heaven. "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which shall I choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better." If they are destined for Hell then being put to death is better since they will no longer heap up punishment on earth by continuing in their sin. As Paul says, "because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed (Rom. 2:5). Even in death an innocent person receives a gracious reward.

If the Roman government did not support capital punishment and crucify Jesus, who was innocent, we would still be destined for Hell. God uses even the worst of our decisions for His glory and our good.

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