Would Jesus Oppose the Death Penalty?
Scripture Passage: Matthew 5:17
While campaigning for the presidency, George W. Bush was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly pointed out that Bush had named Jesus Christ as his model political philosopher and suggested that this might be a contradiction with Bush’s own support of the death penalty. Bush replied, “I can’t justify the death penalty in terms of the New Testament. I’m going to justify it in terms of the law…” (from No Spin Zone by Bill O’Reilly, p. 102). O’Reilly then stated, “I don’t believe he [Jesus] would be embracing the death penalty if he were here today.” Bush: “We can both agree on this.”
In the same chapter of his book (v.104), O’Reilly states: “As for the death penalty, with all due respect to the president, you don’t have to put words into Jesus’ mouth to infer what he might have thought on the subject. Most theologians believe he considered all life sacred and, thus, would most likely oppose the death penalty. Also, since he was a victim of it, he may have a rooting interest in seeing it abolished.” O’Reilly also mentions that the pope agrees with him on this.
So, in the eyes of both proponents and opponents of the death penalty, the case is closed. Jesus would be against it. After all, most theologians agree.
But, I must protest. Most theologians, as usual, are wrong. Jesus did support the death penalty and He left a hearty biblical record proving the point. Jesus has been so remade by the modern world into a mix of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Tiny Tim that they cannot see the Jesus clearly portrayed in the Bible. Let us look at the record.
Consider this: the Mosaic Law very strongly supported the death penalty and Jesus never once disobeyed the law or taught against it. He said, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17). The law made numerous provisions for the death penalty. Jesus did not come to destroy these provisions but to fulfill them. As such, He would have supported the death penalty.
The Woman Taken in Adultery
But, you say, what about the women taken in the very act of adultery. This story is told in John 8:3-11. The scribes and Pharisees sought to find something against Jesus. Their method of operation was to ask a question or present a problem in which either solution would hurt Jesus (see several instances in Matthew 23). In this case, they presented the woman taken in adultery and reminded Jesus, “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” (v.5). If He upheld the law, the meek and lowly Jesus would be portrayed as cruel. If He made an exception to the law, He would be in favor of breaking the law. In either case, His bond with the people would be broken.
However, Jesus did the unexpected. He stooped down and wrote with His finger on the ground. What He wrote, we are not told. When the Pharisees insisted on an answer, He said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (v.7) and continued writing.
One interesting fact about this story: only the woman was brought. No man was accused. Yet, adultery is definitely a two-person sin. Is it possible that Jesus wrote Leviticus 20:10 on the ground? It says, “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” Notice, both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. Not one, but both.
At any rate, the consciences of the accusers began to accuse their own hearts. One by one, beginning with the eldest, they slipped away until no man was there to accuse the woman. With no accusers, there was no required penalty. Jesus had used the occasion to point out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees while at the same time showing His love to the unloved. He told the woman to go and sin no more.
Let Him Die the Death
This is a wonderful illustration of the grace of God, but it is not proof that Jesus opposed the death penalty. In fact, He made a direct statement of His support. Again, in dealing with the scribes and Pharisees, when they accused the disciples for not washing before eating, Jesus said,
“But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death.” Matthew 15:3-4
He then described (v.5-6) how the Pharisees allowed someone to hold back needed help for their parents by saying that it was a gift to God. This was the dedication of their possessions to the temple to be given at the time of their death. Of course, they could do anything they wanted with this gift until they died. But in the eyes of the Pharisees it freed them from their obligation to honor their mother and father by caring for them in their old age.
According the Jesus, the applicable commandment was that he who cursed his mother or father was required to die the death. However, the Pharisees had transgressed this commandment by their man-made traditions. This is not Jesus opposing the death penalty. This is Jesus requiring it.
As I Follow Christ
One more proof can be found in the ministry and message of the Apostle Paul. Paul told those to whom he ministered, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Paul was not sinless as His Saviour was. But he was meticulous in his service to God (see Philippians 3:4-6). And, according to his own testimony, he was careful to follow the life of Jesus Christ. Certainly, if Jesus had been opposed to the death penalty, then so would Paul have been.
However, Paul recognized the justice of the death penalty. When he was brought before the judgment seat of Festus, he said, “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die” (Acts 25:11). By this, Paul admitted that there were offenses worthy of death and that the government had the right to administer death in those cases.
He further states in Romans that the powers that be (government) are ordained by God. They act as ministers of God for good. He further warns, “But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil” (Romans 13:4). The powers that be bear the sword to execute wrath on those that do evil. What do you think these powers are going to do with the sword? Are they going to slap someone on the wrist with it? No. They are going to “execute wrath” by executing someone. They are going to administer the death penalty.
God Himself established the death penalty long before the law was given to Moses. He told Noah, “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man” (Genesis 9:5). This command has never been repealed. Not by the New Testament. Not by Paul. Not by Jesus Himself.
The Jesus of the Bible supported the death penalty. It was not His purpose for coming. Therefore, He said only a little about it. But He supported it nonetheless. When He returns to the earth the next time, His perspective will be different. Then, He will come as judge and will be executing the death penalty (see Revelation 19:11-15).
The Real Problem
The problem has nothing to do with the clarity of scripture. It has everything to do with the carnal preconceptions of man. Man wants a toothless Jesus. He wants the Jesus who suffers the little children to come but he rejects the Jesus who runs the moneychangers out of the temple with a whip. He wants a Jesus who will smile on his fornication and adultery, on his dishonesty and hypocrisy, with a boys-will-be-boys look. He does not want the Jesus who called the Pharisees a bunch of ugly names (see Matthew 23) or the One who talked about hell more than He talked about heaven.
In short, modern man wants, and so envisions, “another Jesus.” The Corinthians are warned against such teachers and preachers. “For if he that cometh preacheth another Jesus, whom we have not preached, or if ye receive another spirit, which ye have not received, or another gospel, which ye have not accepted, ye might well bear with him” (2 Corinthians 11:4). We should still warn believers of such false prophets today.
Jesus believed in the death penalty. It was established by God, codified by the law, supported by Jesus Himself and sustained by the Apostle Paul. Theologians have no biblical evidence against it. They only have their perception of another Jesus. May we never follow that other Jesus but ever remain faithful to the Jesus of the Holy Bible.