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Q&A #142 - Capital punishment -- Response to Larry King Live discussion
by Robert Nguyen Cramer (version 220.127.116.11)
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
In your September 29, 2004, Larry King Live program, The Rev. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. stated:
I do support Capital Punishment, because the scripture is so clear about it. Now, I want it applied in a fair and just way. But there's no doubt "The Bible" in the Old and New Testaments, not only allows but mandates capital punishment, because it affirms the fact that the willful taking of human life is the violation of God's law, God's plan, and is to murder one who is made in the image of God.
Mohler's statement was both textually and historically incomplete and incorrect. Viewers should not be left with such religious misinformation that is all too prevalent about Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and most other religions.
Regarding Old Testament law and pre-Christian Jewish practices, capital punishment was advocated for certain acts that were forbidden in the Torah. Those misdeeds, however, included much more than just murder (Exo 21:12). They also included, but were not limited to, touching Mount Sinai (Exo 19:12), cursing a parent (Exo 21:17), hitting a parent (Exo 21:15), kidnapping someone and selling him into slavery (Exo 21:16), having not properly restained one's bull that gores someone to death after one had been previously warned to keep the bull penned up (Exo 21:29), practicing witchcraft (Exo 22:18), sodomy with an animal (Exo 22:19), sacrificing to another god (Exo 22:20), working on the sabbath day (Exo 31:14,15; 35:2), adultery (Lev 20:10), incest (Lev 20:11,12), homosexuality (Lev 20:13), marrying both a woman and her mother (Lev 20:14), contempt for a judge or for a priest (Deu 17:12).
Regarding New Testament teachings and early Christian practices, all early Christian writers and leaders were consistent in their rejection not only of capital punishment but also their rejection of committing any type of violence against the enemies of oneself, of one's family, of one's religion, or of one's nation. This included a complete repudiation of participating in armed combat of any sort. In 248 A.D. the prominent early Christian apologetic Origin wrote to the Roman official Celsus, who had mocked Christians for their consistent practice of refusing to serve in the military. Origin wrote (Ante-Nicene Fathers [ANF], volume 4, pages 667-668):
Our prayers defeat all demons who stir up war. Those demons also lead persons to violate their oaths and to disturb the peace. Accordingly, in this way, we are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs when we join self-denying exercises to our righteous prayers and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures and not to be led away by them. So none fight better for the king than we do. Indeed, we do not fight under him even if he demands it. Yet, we fight on his behalf, forming a special army -- an army of godliness -- by offering our prayers to God.
Virtually identical views on this subject from many other early Christian writers can be found at http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/war.htm.
Regarding capital punishment specifically, here are some additional quotes:
Jesus (Mat 5:38,39): "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But now I tell you: do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too."
Athenagoras (written in 175 A.D., ANF 2:147): "We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly... We consider that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him. Therefore, we have sworn away from such spectacles. We do not even look on, lest we might contract guilt and pollution. So how can we put people to death?"
Origen (written in 248 A.D., ANF 4:618): "Christians could not slay their enemies. Nor could they condemn those who had broken the Law to be burned or stoned, as Moses commands."
Cyprian (written in 250 A.D., ANF 5:351): "Christians do not attack their assailants in return, for it is not lawful for the innocent to kill even the guilty."
Modern biblical scholars' views related to capital punishment are provided at http://www.bibletexts.com/qa/qa097.htm.
It should be noted that early Christian teachings changed radically following Constantine's cooption of Christianity, which began in 313 A.D. For more details, see http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/313ad.htm.
For a more comprehensive
view of what early Christians taught and practiced -- in contrast to what is
commonly taught as Christian values today -- see http://www.bibletexts.com/terms/genuine-christianity.htm.
Scholars from major seminaries, such as Chicago Theological Seminary
Harvard Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, Graduate Theological Union, and Union Theological Seminary, are well aware of the facts above, even though unfortunately those facts and the truly Christian theology behind them rarely trickle out to Christian congregations in sermons.
Since 313 A.D. there has been in the West a long history of bad theology leading to bad governmental policies. In the case of Christianity, an accurate representation of early Christian history and of New Testament and other early Christian writings is very much needed to help correct non-authentic theologies and the ill-effects they produce locally, nationally, and internationally.
Copyright 1996-2004 Robert Nguyen Cramer