Recent events in Indonesia, with the execution of two men caught for drug trafficking, have caused many to speak out with their views on the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment.

There are two things that bother me when it comes to this issue.

  1. Christians (often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment to be right and call for its reintroduction and application to all crimes touched on by Old Testament law.
  2. Christians (also often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment as evil, primitive and barbaric, with no place in modern society.

Let me start with the second first. Such a view casts moral judgement on the principle of capital punishment by calling it wrong.

Straight away this view has a problem because it runs up against the God of the Bible who not only commands and upholds the death penalty in Old Testament Israel, but who Himself actually practices the death penalty. ‘The wages of sin is death.’ (Romans 6:23) ‘The day you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Genesis 2:17) ‘The soul that sins shall die.’ (Ezekiel 18:20). Death is a fitting penalty for all who defy God and defame HIs glory. The punishment fits the crime. Any attempt to overthrow the eternally valuable Creator of all things deserves the fitting penalty of exclusion from His favour for eternity. Death is not merely the ceasing of animation of our physical bodies, nor the termination of existence, but existing under the curse of God, with all the blessings of ‘common grace’ removed. Death is ultimately God getting the justice that He deserves, and so He is perfectly within His eternal rights to see that justice is served.

For this reason – the eternal worth of His glory – God delegates to human beings, creatures made in His image to rule over creation, to be defenders of that glory by administering justice in creation. And so Genesis 9:5-6 he states:

‘…for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and 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.’

The primary thing at stake here is the image of God, before it is the bearers of the image. This is not primarily a defence of the worth or value of human life, but a defence of the glory of God, which is supposed to be accurately portrayed and worshipped by all creatures under humanity’s headship. The logic here is that any person (or animal) who attacks the bearer of the image is essentially attacking God, and so forfeits their own right to live. This exempts their executioner from the same crime, because what is happening here is not revenge or retribution, but justice. Crimes in Old Testament Israel that were punishable by death all in some way can be traced back to this offence of attacking or defiling the image of God.

(If you think that makes God out to be selfish – in that He is only concerned with His own honour – that concern is answered by a Trinitarian understanding of God; but we don’t have time to go into that here. Wait for a future post in which I will address that.)

So, as I mentioned at the start, if we declare the death penalty in principle to be wrong, evil or barbaric, we risk being guilty of the heresy of Marcionism – the view that the god of the Old Testament was an angry, spiteful god who was replaced by the nice, loving tolerant God of Jesus and the New Testament. Or at least they portray God, who was angry and malicious in the Old, having been pacified by gentle, meek, pacifist Jesus.

We also risk cultural arrogance – assuming that somehow we today are more intelligent, morally astute, or just ‘better’ than those who came before us or who still practice capital punishment, because we have somehow ‘grown up’. That’s a very Western, arrogant stance to take.

Not only that, but we as Christians risk caving in to pressure from the world to conform to its values and principles, largely in the name of being liked by the world. Just because the world – using the rhetoric of compassion – declares something to be wrong and unjust, does not automatically mean that it is. We should be seeking to, ‘take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:5), not accepting unquestionably every thought and making look like obedience to Christ.

So what about the second view? You may think that in light of all I have just said I would be an advocate of that view. I have just shown Biblically that capital punishment is right, right?

Not so fast. This second view, that we should insist and expect our governments to apply capital punishment can tend to overlook a significant shift that took place in the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. In the Old, God’s chosen people constituted a national, political entity. The Kingdom of God was expressed in the people of Israel, defined by their ethnic, political, and religious distinction from all the nations around them. All this was preparation for the coming of the Messiah, and when He came, personified in Jesus, a momentous shift occurred. Jesus stood before the representative of one of the most powerful human empires and declared ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ (John 18:36) This statement signifies the change that would happen with the establishment of the New Covenant. No longer would any one nation be God’s representatives and mediators of His promises; the Kingdom of God was now being opened up to people from every tribe and tongue and nation, and its citizens will be defined as all those who declare, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ regardless of their earthly location or allegiance.

What this means is that Christians have no place to insist that secular national governments and rulers act as if they are administrators of God’s Kingdom. That place is reserved – and filled – by the risen Jesus. To try to get Old Testament Israel’s laws introduced as the foundation of secular government not only ignores the reality of Biblical fulfilment (that fact that Jesus’ arrival means that many of Israel’s ceremonial and civil laws are now obsolete and done away with), but also gives to that government a level of responsibility that God has not given it. Christians are nowhere called to lobby or campaign for change to worldly governments’ policy or practice, but rather to pray for, pay tax to, and honour their rulers, and by doing so honour God who instituted them (Romans 13:1-7). This implies living with laws that we do not necessarily agree with, or see as unrighteous.

This works both ways on this issue. Both sides can insist that their view is based on Biblical, Christian principles; one on the truth of the Bible, and the other on Jesus’ principles of compassion. Yet insisting that our government conform to either of these is still expecting the kingdoms of this world to adjust and conform to make themselves out to be the kingdom of God. And the Bible is clear: the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over all creation will not be made manifest by the kingdoms of the world conforming to His rule, but by their eventual fall and replacement by His rule:

‘…there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ (Revelation 11:15)

What happened in Indonesia in the execution of two Australian drug traffickers was a indeed great tragedy, but not because the Indonesian government has no right to enforce capital punishment on those who commit crimes it sees worthy of death. It was a tragedy because it highlights the fact that we live in a fallen world as fallen people in which death reigns – even before any executions have taken place. The fate of these two young men who faced the justice system of an earthly ruler should be reminder to all people that we all stand accountable before a much greater, infinitely more just, Ruler of our souls, who will never be unfair or mistaken in His verdict and sentence upon us. This is the Ruler who, in the face of our certain death, stepped down into our situation, placed himself into our chains and stood in the prison cell in our place. This Ruler faced the execution squad for the crime of treason that we are guilty of, and ensured that through faith we may receive not justice, but mercy. In the cross the Father’s justice was satisfied, as the blood of the true Image of God was shed in the place of the one’s who had taken the image and defaced and defiled it. Now this Ruler stands as our Judge – a judge who is ready to pardon death-row sinners on the basis of His own self sacrifice.

In His goodness and mercy, God brought these two Australian men to know and trust in this truth before they died.

Will you also believe and trust?

Advertisements

Make a comment...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s