Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Death Penalty: WWJD?

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.
"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin."

--John 8:1-11

I had better things to do than watch, but the GOP/You Tube presidential wannabe gabfest earlier this week apparently included a snarky question regarding the death penalty. Presumably a young bible student, some kid from Tennessee asked former Arkansas head honcho Mike Huckabee about the death penalty. You know the evangelical lingo, right? What Would Jesus Drive? What Would Jesus Buy? Blah, blah, blah. Well, this fellow tossed a hand grenade into the mix and asked, "What Would Jesus Do about the death penalty"?

Here is the transcript of the question and Huckabee’s non-answer:

Tyler Overman: Hi. This is Tyler Overman from Memphis, Tennessee. And I have a quick question for those of you who would call yourselves Christian conservatives. The death penalty, what would Jesus do?

Cooper: Governor Huckabee?

Huckabee: You know, one of the toughest challenges that I ever faced as a governor was carrying out the death penalty. I did it more than any other governor ever had to do it in my state. As I look on this stage, I'm pretty sure that I'm the only person on this stage that's ever had to actually do it.

Let me tell you, it was the toughest decision I ever made as a human-being. I read every page of every document of every case that ever came before me, because it was the one decision that came to my desk that, once I made it, was irrevocable.

Every other decision, somebody else could go back and overturn, could fix if it was a mistake. That was one that was irrevocable.

I believe there is a place for a death penalty. Some crimes are so heinous, so horrible that the only response that we, as a civilized nation, have for a most uncivil action is not only to try to deter that person from ever committing that crime again, but also as a warning to others that some crimes truly are beyond any other capacity for us to fix.


Now, having said that, there are those who say, "How can you be pro-life and believe in the death penalty?"

Because there's a real difference between the process of adjudication, where a person is deemed guilty after a thorough judicial process and is put to death by all of us, as citizens, under a law, as opposed to an individual making a decision to terminate a life that has never been deemed guilty because the life never was given a chance to even exist.

Cooper: Governor?

Huckabee: That's the fundamental difference.


Cooper: I do have to though press the question, which -- the question was, from the viewer was? What would Jesus do? Would Jesus support the death penalty?

Huckabee: Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson. That's what Jesus would do.

The passage I quoted at the top is frequently cited by death penalty opponents and antinomians to posit that Jesus "tempered" the law with "love" or demonstrated the importance of "love" rather than the harshness of the law.

But Jesus came not abrogate the law, rather He came to fulfill it; to free His people from the yoke of the law as a death sentence, and to liberate them to the law as a source of holiness, righteousness and sanctification. "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. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17-20).

Had the incident with the woman taken in adultery been a repudiation of the law, the Pharisees would have been able to charge and condemn Jesus with lawlessness. The purpose of the incident was to embarrass Jesus, but the Pharisees left confounded because Jesus confirmed rather than denied the law.

The Pharisees took the woman in the act of adultery and brought her before Jesus. They obviously had police powers or the support of the regime and could compel not only her compliance but also require Jesus to preside over the hearing.

Our Lord was seemingly in a bind. Adultery was common and not typically punished as prescribed by the law. What would He do? To ask for a full enforcement of the law, the death penalty, would invite hostility. But denying the death penalty would lay Jesus open to the charge of hypocrisy and lawlessness. The trap had been set: "'In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?' They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him" (v. 5-6)

What was the response? "But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger" (v. 6). What was Jesus doing? He was reviving the trial by bitter water from Numbers 5. The ordeal was intended to provide either vindication of innocence or conviction of guilt. Read the passage:

12 "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'If a man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 13 by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 14 and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure- 15 then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder offering to draw attention to guilt.

16 " 'The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the LORD. 17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, "If no other man has slept with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. 20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband"- 21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse of the oath-"may the LORD cause your people to curse and denounce you when he causes your thigh to waste away and your abdomen to swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away."
" 'Then the woman is to say, "Amen. So be it."

23 " 'The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. 24 He shall have the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water will enter her and cause bitter suffering. 25 The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the LORD and bring it to the altar. 26 The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. 27 If she has defiled herself and been unfaithful to her husband, then when she is made to drink the water that brings a curse, it will go into her and cause bitter suffering; her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away, and she will become accursed among her people. 28 If, however, the woman has not defiled herself and is free from impurity, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.

The incident in question occurs in the temple (John 8:2). Thus the temple dust met the requirements of the law and Jesus, by his actions, places every accuser on trial. The scribes and Pharisess had brought the charge against the woman and Jesus had turned the tables by placing them in the husband’s category by invoking Numbers 5and writing in the dust.

When Jesus says, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her" (v. 7), he is not referring to sin generically, but to the sin of adultery specifically. Obviously all men are sinners, and such a general statement would make law courts impossible. Rather, Jesus is saying that men who are guilty of a crime are not free to condemn the crime. In effect, Jesus is confirming the death penalty by demanding that honest witnesses step forward to condemn the woman.

Rather than condemning the death penalty, Jesus is reproving Phariseeism and exposing their sin. Not only had they denied a biblical pattern and doctrine of salvation, they had also become perverters of the law. Though professing to be champions of the law they had become its enemies by subverting it with the traditions of men. Christ, thus, was not denying the law or weakening its strictures, but restoring it.


Anonymous said...

This is a great post. Thanks for it.

Unknown said...

One problem here is that the whole passage is questionable as to its original place in the canon.

Anonymous said...

I've seen that as well... the pericopae adulterae as a later addition to Scripture.

Anonymous said...

Wow great post. Jack... So what parts of the bible should we go by?

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, my pastor preached on this passage recently. I live near a well-known Baptist seminary and the church is heavily influenced by it. In any case, my pastor argued that the passage should not be considered part of the canon. I'm unsure personally, though I am aware it was not part of the earliest texts available.

I think that capital punishment can be defended from other parts of Scripture, though it is an issue I seldom write or think about. I chose the particular passage given that it seems to me one that is used nefariously. I was just looking to correct those perceptions.

I should also say that me understanding of the passage was shaped, in part, by read R. J. Rushdoony's comments about it in Institutes of Biblical Law.

Lee Shelton said...

All have sinned, and the wages of sin is death. Because God's moral law is still in effect, adultery is just as sinful today as it was under the Old Covenant.

But the moral law doesn't mean that we are required as a society to enforce specific civil penalties. I would say that in this passage Jesus was "confirming the death penalty" not as a legal prescription for a particular crime, but as God's just punishment for sin. Yes, the woman was guilty and deserved to die. So did those gathered there. So do we all.

Anonymous said...

I could be wrong, but I think it is useful to point out that the woman's accusers were not lawful civil authorities appointed for the execution of judicial process.


Certainly, the canonicity of any particular book, passage, or verse of Scripture is always open for reasonable discussion. Martin Luther et. al. were not "out of bounds" for questioning the canonicity of, say, Hebrews, John, or Revelation.

Anonymous said...


I’m not arguing that stoning is prescribed for adultery, nor am I arguing necessarily for a Theonomic sort of penology.

I am arguing that those who use this passage to argue that Jesus issued a blanket prohibition of capital punishment are being disingenuous.

Clearly, your interpretation of the passage is correct as far as it goes. You are examining the passage and gleaning what is says about God’s wrath, judgment and salvation as it applies to individuals. I am looking at what the passage says about social ethics. I think both can be, and are, correct.


The Pharisees had, if not direct authority to carry out executions at least the influence to make it happen.

Lee Shelton said...


I definitely agree. Those who see this as a prohibition of capital punishment miss the point. Typically, they are the ones who only like to focus on the "positive" teachings of Jesus.

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