Several years back, I was talking to a friend who asked me why the Bible supports the death penalty in the Old Testament (Numbers 35:16-17), while Jesus states in the New Testament that we need to forgive and even love our enemies (Matthew 5:44-45; Matthew 6:14-15).
To him it appeared like a contradiction. How could Jesus exhortation to forgive in any way support the death penalty? It was a valid observation.
Two recent media stories may help explain what appears to be a Bible contradiction.
According to Religion News Service, the Rabbi of Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue is calling for mercy for a mass shooter who killed 11 members of the congregation in a murderous antisemitic attack on October 27, 2018.
The media are reporting that the social media accounts of the alleged killer, Robert Bowers, had several anti Jewish statements in some instances referring to Jews as “filthy evil.” Bowers pleaded not guilty to the mass murder.
In a letter sent to the state’s attorney general, Rabbi Johnathan Perlman and his wife Beth Kissileff are asking that the state not pursue the death penalty for the alleged killer. And according to reports, one of Bowers attorneys said they would consider a guilty plea if the death penalty is removed.
In a column written for the Jerusalem Post, Kissileff added that they no longer take the Old Testament literally when it comes to its call for the death penalty.
So in this story we see a sincere push to remove the death penalty for a mass murderer.
The second story involves Manny Pacquiao a professional boxer, who is also a Christian, and as well a politician (Senator) in the Philippines. Pacquiao has recently revealed his support for the Philippines to reinstate the death penalty for first degree murder.
After pressure from the Roman Catholic church, the Philippines removed the death penalty 2006.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Pacquiao said:
“Having read the Bible on a regular basis, I am convinced that God is not just a God of mercy, but He is also a God of justice.”
So how do we resolve the apparent conflict between the Old Testament call for the death penalty for first degree murder and Jesus’s call to forgive.
Well, I think the answer is simply this. The Old Testament law reflected the law of a nation. God instituted the death penalty for first degree murder because of the value of the human life. The government has to bring justice.
Now before you start throwing out those verses that seem to imply the law included the death penalty for such things as rape and adultery, in fact it didn’t. For a full explanation of that read: Eye for an eye means you love your neighbour as yourself.
Jesus on the other hand was not addressing governments, the Lord was speaking to the individual and our response to horrific crimes. In these situations we are required to forgive, but the government must still continue to seek justice.
The removal of the death penalty actually devalues human life, not increase it as some suggest. Take the case of Bowers. He is 46 years old. If the courts sentence him to life imprisonment, and he lives another 40 years, the lives of those 11 murdered people will be devalued to just 3.6 years each.
Is Bowers’ life more valuable than those he senselessly murdered?
Or what about the case of Kimberly Proctor then 18, a Canadian girl who in 2010 was lured to an isolated location where she was raped and tortured for several hours by two male classmates aged 16 and 17. After they were done, they murdered Kimberly, kept her body in a freezer overnight and then tried to burn her body the next day. They were sentenced to a life sentence with no eligibility for parole for ten years.
Last year, eight years into their sentence, the two murderers started applying for parole.
In an interview with the National Post, Kimberly’s father said:
How much is Kimberly’s life worth?
I believe God values human life and if a person takes it from another in a premeditated fashion, then they must pay the ultimate penalty.
Life in our society is increasingly being devalued. Babies are called fetuses to justify their death. People are finding it easy to kill and it’s my opinion this is part of a general devaluation of human life we are witnessing in society today.