Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

Using the Old Testament to Support the Death Penalty? Then Don’t Skip This Verse:

The often overlooked caveat to capital punishment in the Old Testament

When it comes to Christians in America who passionately affirm and support our nation’s use of the death penalty, it always comes back to quoting the Old Testament to justify their position.

Modern arguments don’t tend to sway them. Somehow, it doesn’t seem relevant that the death penalty fails to act as any sort of true deterrent most of the time. Pointing out that the death penalty is actually more expensive than incarceration for life doesn’t go very far; nor does pointing out that a life-sentence– in many ways taking away their life– satisfies both justice and a need to keep a community safe. Raising issue with the way the death penalty in America is disproportionately used to execute the poor and people of color– usually in former slave states no less– doesn’t seem to be that compelling of an objection, either.

And sadly, even quoting the teachings of Jesus is something that is consistently outright dismissed– usually resulting in an attempt to thump Jesus with the Bible itself by quoting the Old Testament almost as a way of giving a rebuttal to Jesus himself.

If one is going to insist on using the Old Testament law as the MOAA (Mother Of All Arguments), and if one is going to plug their ears in order to ignore all other passages or arguments simply to respond with, “But God’s law never changes” or “Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it,” fine: Let’s at least insist you stop ignoring that one tricky verse and start applying the Old Testament law as it was established:

“But never put a person to death on the testimony of only one witness. There must always be two or three witnesses.”

Deuteronomy 17:6

If one wants to use affirmation and faithfulness to the Old Testament law on capital punishment as the basis of their argument, one cannot just take the “idea of it” and ignore what the law actually was. Instead, if you claim your position is to uphold a “timeless law” that God established, you must also accept that the Old Testament’s entire premise of capital punishment was one which prohibited using it in circumstantial cases– or even cases where there was only one eyewitness who saw the crime happen.

While many people, including myself, view much of these laws as better reflecting the mindset of Bronze Age goat herders than the heart of God, even their law placed a very high threshold on the use of capital punishment. It was a law that completely ruled out circumstantial cases, and a law that recognized what scientists now know as far as the unreliability of eyewitness testimony– even when such witnesses are acting in good faith.

So, yes, certainly Old Testament law established and sanctioned capital punishment, but it placed a very high bar on the use of it– allowing it only in cases where there were at least 2-3 eyewitnesses who saw the crime happen.

As a follower of Jesus, I fight to disrupt death and overthrow the death penalty in America in order to be faithful to the example of Jesus, and be a witness to redemption and resurrection. However, even ancient Old Testament laws would be a net-improvement on America’s death penalty system and would drastically reduce the number of people killed by the state. People like Larry Swearingen who was executed last night in Texas.

Not a single eyewitness saw Swearingen commit the murder he was executed for– and there’s a compelling reason for that: He was most likely locked up in jail for unpaid parking tickets when the murder occurred. In fact, a total of nine medical examiners have testified that the time of death was at a time when he had already been in jail for an entire week.

None of that mattered last night in a state that often uses the motto of “God’s Country”, and today Larry Swearingen is dead even though there is tremendous doubt over his guilt.

I want to stop that from ever happening again. As a Christian, no matter your flavor, I would hope you would too.

My challenge to you, my fellow Christian– you support it because of the Old Testament?

At least be faithful and consistent to the law as it was established, and demand that no person ever be put to death unless there are a minimum of 2-3 eyewitnesses who saw the crime happen with their own two eyes.

That threshold alone would be a massive improvement to the version of capital punishment in America that would both reduce executions tremendously as well as help prevent innocent people from dying in a state death chamber.

Plus, if you’re going to go with the argument of “the Bible says in the Old Testament”, then at least uphold what it actually *does* say on the issue– and stop ignoring that inconvenient verse that goes along with it.

Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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  5. And then there is 17:6 which says the witnesses who accuse someone must be the ones to begin the execution…that is the part that always gets me. The witnesses are declaring on penalty of death that the accused is without a question guilty… By beginning the execution they are solemnly swearing the action is righteous and correct. None of what we see today is biblical death penalty.

  6. Reading the available information, I believe it is more likely than not that Swearingen did commit the murder for which he was executed.

    But as to the bible verse there is no mystery. One person can say anything. Without backup it was not acceptable. Just think of the damage one woman did to Justice Kavanaugh based entirely on her owm memories. She had no one at the party who would back up her story. Yet we were to believe her because she was a woman. Preposterous. This is why the OT verse requires backup

    In the case of murder without witnesses today we have forensic evidence to take the place of a “person.” If the forensic evidence exists and the body is found that is sufficient unless the suspect has a solid alibi.

  7. I did a while back look at some of the context of the OT legal system, and there simply isn’t any comparison with how modern law works.
    Apparently, all OT law is private law regulating the conduct of private revenge. Its function was to replace and regulate revenge killings and vendettas. It’s function was not particularly to mandate the death penalty but more to set out the circumstances that the victim or their family could demand it.
    Even then, other than in the case of premeditated murder, the court would always set a fine / compensation the guilty party could pay in lieu of the penalty actually being applied.
    Jesus’s own teaching (in the story of the adulterous woman) was that such revenge should never be demanded, even if permitted by law, except by anyone who themselves is “without sin” (I.e. no one at all).

  8. The main problem with the death penalty is that justice has nothing to do with it. Over here in the UK, the phrase ‘American Justice’ is seen as an oxymoron. It’s more about lawyers wanting to win their cases, another scalp on their belt. It’s about politicians and governors wanting camera time where they do a staged presentation usually waving a bit of paper. And then being on vacation at the same time as the prisoner is hoping for a last-minute reprieve. The death row inmates are simply pawns in their power games. It isn’t right and its perpetrators are proper sick. I’m so glad that we don’t have the death penalty over here.

  9. The other OT information that people refuse to acknowledge is the fact that when God had the opportunity to preside over a murder case (Cain and Abel) instead of putting Cain to death, he was removed from the lands and people that he loved. That was the punishment God decreed for a murderer.

  10. One of the reasons death penalties were stopped for awhile was the rate of innocent people who are put to death.

  11. I agree whole heartily that there should be two or three witnesses.

    I find myself thinking, though, as to what is your stance is on abortion ?

  12. Ben, as much as I believe in commercial advertising rather than fee based membership, this blog has exceeded the balance of message content and necessary marketing. I am old, I cannot continue to try focusing on your message when the screen bounces up and down with ads jumping in and out.

    With no feedback on my email I am blind to any replies to my comments. I don’t mind working at sharing but it becomes too much when I have to check every past comment for replies.

    As to this article, if “Christians” don’t know exactly what sums up all scripture, as well as all scripture hangs on, in their heart and mind of spirit, then they don’t know Jesus the Christ in them and they in him. They are disciples of their translated version of scripture but not of the perfect will of the one heavenly Father of God.

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