Would Jesus support the death penalty?

That is the question posed by Jonathan Merritt in an article in The Atlantic in 2014. It’s an interesting question, and it is reminiscent of the question, “What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)?” that was so often asked in the 1990s.

Although it’s pretty clear from the get-go where he stands, Merritt answers his own question outright about halfway through the article, “Though I can’t say for certain, I have a feeling that the executed first-century teacher would not support the death penalty or want his followers to.”

He cites, a number of things including a plea by Mother Theresa to a governor in 1990 to, “do what Jesus would do.”

And lest we appeal to explicit passages in the Old Testament, Merritt cuts us off at the pass by saying, “Christians who support the death penalty often cite passages from the Old Testament that allowed for capital punishment. But Jesus told his followers not to observe the Jewish law that allowed for retributive justice: ‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.'”

Furthermore, Merritt appeals to our desire to belong by citing a statistic that only 5% of Americans believe that Jesus would support the death penalty.

I’ll address a number of points here, but first, isn’t the question all wrong?

It’s almost as if we’re asking, “What would Jesus think about this…. if he were still alive?”

I know that many people who identify as Christians do not take Christianity literally, at least not all of it. The Creation Story? A metaphor. The Exodus? Unsubstantiated and ridiculous. Jesus walking on water? Come on. His resurrection? I mean, he was a good teacher, but…

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he said,

But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. – 1 Corinthians 15:13-19 (ESV)

Guys, Jesus is alive. We don’t have to ask what he would have supported. What does he support? What does he want? What does he command? And, of course, what has he commanded? Because we can look back at what is written in the word of God, the Bible, and find out.

Merritt contends that Jesus told his followers not to observe the law, but I say that is a misrepresentation of what Jesus said. Here is the passage in its entirety:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. – Matthew 5:38-42 (ESV)

Jesus did not tell his followers not to observe the law. He told them not to take vengeance, which is nothing new! Later, in Matthew 22:39 Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 when he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, that quote is part of a larger passage (Leviticus 19:17-18), which says,

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Again, nothing new. Back in Matthew 5, Jesus says nothing about people no longer being under the law, or that the law does not apply to them. In fact, in the very same chapter, Jesus says,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. – Matthew 5:17-18 (ESV)

The law, the Old Testament, did not come from a different God. It came from our God! From Jesus! I’ll be the first to say that there are parts of it that we don’t fully understand, and parts that were quite clearly written with the the cultural and societal challenges the ancient Jews faced in mind, but plenty of parts are quite clear, and easily applicable to everyone. Here are a few examples:

Genesis 9:6 – Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.

Leviticus 24:17 – Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.

Exodus 20:13 – You shall not murder (no punishment listed here, just a simple command from God).

Exodus 21:12 – Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.

Numbers 35:30-31 – If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.

That is what Jesus said about the death penalty.

But, to be honest, I’m not writing this because I’m especially passionate about the death penalty. I’m writing this because I’m passionate about Jesus. I’ve noticed a trend (though it’s really nothing new) where people try to bend God’s word, the Bible, to their own will, to support their own agendas. Jesus was a socialist. Jesus was a capitalist. Jesus would have been a Democrat. Jesus would have been a Republican.

Far be it from me to opine on God’s will about government (though the one’s He established biblically included a theocracy and a theocratic monarchy), but I will highlight one of the closest things to a political statement Jesus ever made:

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. – Mark 12:13-17 (ESV)

Pro tax? Anti tax? Whatever. Others may interpret this differently, but essentially it was a non-answer. It was a well-worded non-answer and the point is, we should be focused on other things. Our belief in Christ should shape our worldview, not the other way around.

Using the scripture to support one’s own will (outside of God’s) is nothing new. There are plenty of examples to be had, but I’d like to point out one of the most poignant. In Matthew chapter 4 Jesus went out into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days, and then he was tempted by Satan. Verses 5 and 6 say,

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

And here’s the part of the Bible where Satan quotes Psalms 91:11,12:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

The scriptures have been written to serve God’s purpose and to further God’s will – not our own. When we try to make it about our will, we’re not only sinning against God, we’re literally mimicking Satan.

It’s funny how complex, nuanced, and even abstract discussions about theology can be, but it’s amazing how simple core of the gospel is:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. – John 3:16-18 (ESV)

We can discuss how, what, why, and a million other things all day, but ultimately our gospel is that simple.

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

 

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