Death Penalty

The latest controversy in Philippine politics today is the death penalty – thanks to GMA's "Easter gift" of commuting around 1,200 death penalty sentences to life imprisonment. On the one hand, you can hear sighs of relief over what is perceived as a welcome and long overdue development; on the other, you can hear the cries of disbelief from the families of victims of heinous crimes. This is a highly divisive issue – both from the political and theological points of view. I'm posting here the classic biblical texts that proponents of the death penalty usually invoke:

"Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man." (Gen 9:6)

"For he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."
(Rom 13:4)

Gen. 9:6 and Rom. 13:4 taken together may be understood as teaching that God, the giver of human life (and who therefore has the right to take it away when he pleases) has delegated to "man" (in this case, human government) the authority to take away life in appropriate cases (in cases where God's wrath – the penalty of death – is justly deserved). The sword is too striking a metaphor and that it refers to or at least includes the death penalty is difficult to miss.

Of course, on the opposite side of the fence are those who believe that whatever may be the force of these biblical texts they are nevertheless superseded by the "law of love and forgiveness". I understand these people as saying that "Yes, capital punishment is a legitimate governmental function in appropriate cases, but that is too low for a Christian. We are called to the nobler and higher task of loving and forgiving our enemies, of overcoming evil with good. Yes, 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,' is alright, but Christ superseded all that when he said, 'Love your enemies and do good.' "(Luke 6:35)

From a biblical and theological point of view, the question now is Which is Which? One factor to consider in resolving this issue is that the Apostle Paul, writing Romans 13, years after Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead, and with full awareness of the law of love and forgiveness which Christ taught, did not seem to see any conflict between this law of love and the death penalty as a legitimate governmental function to which Christians themselves should submit. It is also interesting that in the latter verses of the previous chapter (ch. 12) he makes mention of the need to leave place for God's wrath and not to avenge ourselves.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Nevertheless, he proceeds to write Romans 13 especially verse 4 above-mentioned without consciousness of inconsistency. And the reason for this, it seems, is that in Paul's mind to "leave room for God's wrath" allows for that wrath to be executed by human government as a proper agency or instrumentality of God's wrath. In other words, the law of love and forgiveness does not deprive God of his right to show wrath. But God can choose and has in fact chosen to exercise that right through the instrumentality of human government. What is not allowed is for private individuals to take divine justice into their own hands.

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