Does God have the right to tell us what to do? Well, does He?
In the last part of our series we looked at how God commanded the human race to take the life of a person who murdered another person. We also saw how God expanded that centuries later in the legal code He gave to Moses for Israel (The Law of Moses).
A 2019 Gallup poll showed that a majority of Americans preferred life imprisonment with no possibility of parole over the death penalty for murder (60% to 36%). That was a change from previous years where a majority preferred the death penalty for convicted murderers.
Many people and groups of people believe the death penalty is not just. They believe it’s just wrong. Here are three examples:
All people have the right to live, and we all have the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. These are human rights that people have, regardless of whether they have been convicted of crimes. The death penalty violates these basic rights. The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Amnesty opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception – regardless of who is accused, the nature or circumstances of the crime, guilt or innocence or method of execution. Amnesty International believes than the death penalty should be abolished, once and for all.Amnesty International USA
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that the existence of the death penalty is acting as a deterrent for violent crimes, so why do we even keep it around? It has absolutely no purpose, and pointless things need to be removed.Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
The American Civil Liberties Union believes the death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law. Furthermore, we believe that the state should not give itself the right to kill human beings – especially when it kills with premeditation and ceremony, in the name of the law or in the name of its people, and when it does so in an arbitrary and discriminatory fashion.
Capital punishment is an intolerable denial of civil liberties and is inconsistent with the fundamental values of our democratic system. The death penalty is uncivilized in theory and unfair and inequitable in practice. Through litigation, legislation, and advocacy against this barbaric and brutal institution, we strive to prevent executions and seek the abolition of capital punishment.The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
What we see here are statements of opinion based on human ideas of justice. God established the death penalty thousands of years ago based on Divine Justice. We will look deeper into the Bible to see if God removed the death penalty at some later time in history, but let’s look at why He established it in the first place.
A Violent World
What we find in Genesis 6 is a violent world:
The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth.Genesis 6:11-13
We read earlier in the chapter that people were disobedient to God, wicked with evil intent in the thoughts of their hearts. They were violent and corrupt and God determined to destroy them. Humanity’s injustice met Divine Justice. Fortunately, Divine Justice included mercy and God saved Noah and his family from the catastrophic Flood.
Once the Flood waters subsided and Noah and his family stepped off the Ark, Noah set up an altar and made offerings of worship to God .. something that had been missing from the previous civilization of humans. God was pleased and promised not to destroy the earth with water again. God also gave Noah and his family the death penalty to use when appropriate. Why?
Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.Genesis 9:6
The pre-Flood human civilization had no respect for each other. Every thought of their heart was evil and wicked. They were selfish and wanted what they wanted when they wanted it. Anyone who got in their way would be eliminated in one way or another. That led to violence against each other. God wanted humans in the post-Flood civilization to respect each other. He knew that “the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21), so He instituted the death penalty to emphasize the importance of every individual – “For in the image of God He made man.”
The ACLU wrote that “we believe that the state should not give itself the right to kill human beings.” That’s their opinion, but it’s not based on fact. The fact is that God gave the state the right to take the life of humans who murder other humans.
Amnesty International wrote that “The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” That’s their opinion, but it’s not based on fact. What pre-Flood humans were doing to each other was cruel, inhuman and degrading. What God did was just and merciful. He brought a wicked, violence-prone civilization to an end and established a new civilization with rules that would help deal with future wickedness and violence.
As we mentioned in our last study, it wasn’t long before humans were disobeying God again and Divine Justice confused the language of the people and dispersed them many directions to fill the world. Even though the languages were confounded and family groups moved across the world, we find the death penalty used in ancient civilizations. Families, tribes and kingdom understood the importance of human life and took it more seriously than pre-Flood families.
Human rights is a much-discussed topic around the world today and has been for a long time. Amnesty International mentioned rights they believe humans have including:
- the right to live
- the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment
Amnesty International then wrote that “These are human rights that people have, regardless of whether they have been convicted of crimes. The death penalty violates these basic rights.” The organization has made a truth claim. Is it true? Do people have the right to live if they have committed pre-meditated murder? What about someone who rapes, then murders a child? What about someone who tortures and murders another person? Do they have the right to live, the right to be free from the death penalty?
I spent decades as a journalist covering murders and trials of people accused of murder. I interviewed mothers and fathers who lost their children to murder. I interviewed husbands who lost their wives and wives who lost their husbands to murder. I interviewed so many people who were victimized by the cruelty of a murderer. Most believed the death penalty was not cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. They believed the murder of their loved one was cruel, inhuman and degrading. They wanted justice and most believed the death penalty was just.
I also interviewed people who had been convicted of murder. Some were on death row. Some told me they deserved their punishment, though most didn’t want to die. Some of the murderers on death row had been there for more than ten years, some longer than 20 or 30 years. The reason for the long delay in carrying out the death penalty was because of lengthy legal delays. Those legal delays were based on human rights legislation to protect the criminals. However, the families of the victims kept asking why they couldn’t get justice for their murdered loved one. They asked about their rights.
Victims of crime do have rights. The United States has the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (18 U.S.C. § 3771.) and individual states also have laws to protect victims. Many states have also adopted amendments to their state constitutions concerning victims’ rights. Though those rights often include the “right to restitution from the offender,” there are no specific provisions concerning the death penalty being a promised restitution from the offender.
The issue of human rights is more than just one side, the side of the convicted. There’s also the human rights side of victim rights. That’s often overlooked in discussions about human rights. How can we know what’s true about human rights? Look to the Creator of humans for answers.
What about God’s rights? He created the heavens and the earth. He created humans. Doesn’t He have rights about what He owns? God owns the universe and everything in it. What about His rights?
We quoted this Bible verse in the first part of our series:
For I proclaim the name of the Lord: Ascribe greatness to our God. He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, A God of truth and without injustice; Righteous and upright is He.DEUTERONOMY 32:3-4
All of God’s ways are justice .. all of them .. not some of them .. not most of them .. all His ways are justice. He is a God of truth and without injustice. He is righteous and upright. Any rights that humans have come from their Creator. That’s why it’s important we get the issue of justice and injustice correct. It’s not a question of human rights OR God’s rights. The issue is that human rights come FROM God’s rights. God tells us what’s right and wrong, what’s just and unjust. It’s based on His eternal nature and attributes.
We’ll look at what God’s people think about the death penalty and human rights vs. God’s rights in the next part of our series, God’s Justice: How It Works.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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