Murder, Capital Punishment, and War
The Sixth Commandment simply states “You shall not murder.” Only the criminally insane object to this prohibition.
But the simplicity of this commandment raises several important questions:
1) Whom shall you not murder? Does this apply to animals?
2) What constitutes murder? Is self-defense murder? Capital punishment? War?
Here is a quick look at the issue.
The Meaning of “Murder.”
First, the Hebrew verb used in Ex. 20:13 for “murder” (rāṣaḥ) needs to be unpacked.
rāṣaḥ is a technical term that refers specifically to ending the life of a person in a way that is contrary to God’s will (there are other Hebrew words that are often translated in the general sense of “kill”). Therefore, the verse could be translated as “You shall not unjustly cause someone to die, whether premeditated or not” (see also Ex. 21:12).
This includes planned, unsanctioned murder (vigilante justice, hate kills, etc.), self-murder (suicide), and being an accessory to murder (conspiring to kill) (2 Sam. 12:19). The verb does not include accidental killing (like crashing a car and killing your passenger) (Deut. 19:5), or self-defense (Ex. 22:2), but does include manslaughter (like driving drunk and killing another).
The verb is only used in regards to murdering humans (sorry, PETA sympathizers). This is because humans are uniquely created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) and are thus fundamentally superior to all other living beings. This does not mean that animals can or should be tortured, or that they don't have rights, just that they do not possess the inherent right to life that every humanbeing does.
All humans have the right to life because we equally share the image of God (regardless of race, age, or whether born or unborn), which has been denied throughout history as various people groups have been slaughtered because they were deemed “sub-human.” 19th century slave owners did this. The Nazis did this. Abortionists currently do this.
This brings us to capital punishment. Because of the value of human life, no person should ever be put to death, right?
It is precisely because all human life is valuable that there is a justifiably severe penalty for committing murder. God even included a stipulation for capital punishment in his covenant with Noah (Gen. 9:6), which came before he created the nation Israel through Abraham and gave the 10 commandments to Moses because the most heinous crime is killing those in the image of God.
In the Mosaic Law, God ordained that the Israelites put to death those who committed violations other than murder (Ex. 21:16, 22:19; Lev. 20:10, 20:13; Deut. 13:5, 22:24).
But God’s mercy is shown throughout the Old Testament. David should have been killed for Bathsheba-gate (2 Sam. 11:1-27) but God allows him to live because of the promise he has made to him. Also, the nation of Israel was notoriously adulterous and murderous, yet God did not A-bomb them into oblivion.
The Old Testament is filled with instances where God not only approves war for the Israelites, but fights for and through them (Ex. 14:13-14). Sometimes, this was a “Holy War” of conquest, such as Joshua and the Israelites taking over the promised land (Josh. 1:5-6). Othertimes, this is a “Just War,” as seen when the Judges defended the people against invading nations (Judges 11:14-27).
But to consider Israel to be a war-hungry culture is misguided. The Israelites did not glorify war, nor were they unusually cruel like neighboring Ancient Near Eastern nations (who were skilled artisans of torture). Good Israelite kings were actually acknowledged for being merciful in battle (1 Kings 20:31).
Israel was also not successful because of their military might, but rather God’s providence, so their reliance on military power is roundly condemned (Hos. 10:13). War was necessary at times, but peace was the ideal, and God alone had the right to initiate battle.
The New Testament and Our Context
So how does all of this apply to us? We must make some vital distinctions between the Ancient Israelites and our time and place in salvation history.
First, the Israelites lived in a theocracy. We, as Americans, do not. It is the state that has been given the authority to carry out God’s justice (Rom. 13:1-5), therefore the church does not possess the right to initiate war or capital punishment. It is abhorrently wrong for Christians to kill "sinners" in the name of God. There is no greater injustice than when "sinners" are persecuted by vigilante Christians who have been forgiven of those exact sins.
But aren’t we all guilty of murder in the sense that we’ve at least hated someone (Matt. 5:21-22)? Doesn’t that mean we deserve capital punishment because the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23)?
All sin is offensive to God and worthy of incurring his justice, but this does not mean that all sins are equal. Everybody deserves condemnation (Rom. 3:23), but this does not mean we deserve physical death at this moment through the hands of other people. Sin varies in degree and intensity, but certain sins (like murder and rape) deserve stricter punishment, even to the extent of capital punishment.
Let's look at a specific example: Was the U.S. Government right in killing Osama Bin Laden? If it is true that he was responsible for the deaths of thousands and that killing him could prevent more deaths, then yes. This was a necessary action. Had he not been guilty, it would have been a breach of justice. Now, does capital punishment deter crime? Who knows. Do people get wrongfully executed? Absolutely. Because of this, it is wiser to stray to the side of caution than to shoot first and ask questions later, in my opinion. God is the final judge.
The same goes for war. Holy Wars are not defensible (like the Crusades or Manifest Destiny), but there are times when war is necessary to defend the innocent and fight evil. Not everything the government does is right (also, the sky is blue), and not every war the U.S. has entered into has been warranted, but we shouldn't condemn all war as a result. Unfortunately, war is still a reality.
Now, should Christians desire to see people killed?
We might enjoy a good story of revenge (Braveheart, Kill Bill, Taken) but vengeance is for God alone (Rom. 12:19). We must not delight in the death of others (Ezek. 18:23), even as a result of a just war, but should rather see it as a reminder of the devastation caused by sin. One day, there will be no more death (Rev. 21:4). Until then, we offer forgiveness and mercy.
The Capital Punishment
Lastly, it should be pointed out that Jesus could have told Roman soldiers that war is wrong and that to follow him they had to quit the army, but he didn’t. Nor does Jesus decry the practice of capital punishment when he could have. This makes the situation of his death all the more remarkable, because
Jesus was a victim of wrongful capital punishment.
He didn't get a life sentence in prison - he was publicly executed in the most brutal method ever invented (crucifixion). Actually, Jesus himself created the means of capital punishment that he willingly chose to die through.
Not only was it brutal, but civil justice was abused by the Jewish leaders and the Romans because Jesus was an innocent man. However, God's justice was carried out because he suffered the death penalty for sin - ours.
If there is a silver lining to the topic of murder, it's that it reminds us of the guilt of our sin, the suffering of our savior, God's justice, and his mercy in sparing those who believe in Christ from eternal death.