Retribution and Redemption
Last month, Pope Francis expressed his opinion that the death penalty is unacceptable in all cases. At the same time as he took his public stand, a series of popular opinions circulated online about whether or not the death penalty was to be viewed as valid as a Christian position. The better part of those who were vocal on the Twittersphere, also rushed to state unequivocally that they believe that the death penalty is always an illegitimate form of justice. The prevalent opinion was that the death penalty is, in fact, an inhumane form of civil punishment that the church ought not support. In response to these assertions, some raised appropriate questions concerning how accepted definitions of justice are formed. However, as I watched this unfold, one thought constantly reentered my thinking--namely, why did God sanction the death penalty as a principle of retribution against murder in the anti-diluvian revelation? The burden of proof, it seems to me, is on those who reject the death penalty to explain the purpose of the death penalty as a Divinely sanctioned form of retribution in Genesis 9:5-6.
When we approach this subject, we have to first recognize that the death penalty has its origin in God's dealings with Noah and those who stepped off of the Ark with him. Immediately after the flood, God said:
"For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image."
Since there is nothing arbitrary about God's revelation, and since we must seek to understand each and every thing that He breathed out in Scripture in context, we must seek to understand the reason why God made this declaration as soon as Noah and those with him stepped onto the newly created world.
The first important exegetical consideration concerns that which transpired leading up to the flood. In Genesis 6:11-13, we read, "Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, 'I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them.'" In one very real sense, we can say that the flood was itself a Divinely appointed typological cosmic death penalty. The Apostle Peter draws out the typology when he explained that the flood was a type of the final judgment (2 Peter 3:5-7). Without wishing to get into debates over global or local flood theories, the point is that God destroyed allflesh from the face of the earth on account of the violence that filled the earth. The depravity of man was so extensive after the table of nations (Gen. 10) that the Lord brought the pre-diluvian world to an end in this watery judgment.
The second important exegetical consideration is that which regards the heart of man before and after the flood. In Genesis 6:5-7 we read, "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually...So the Lord said, "I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens." The depravity of the hearts of men is what precipitated the retributive floodwaters. However, in Genesis 8:21, immediately after Noah sacrificed an acceptable sin offering to the Lord, we read, "Lord said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done." Here, God makes a starkly different response to the problem of depravity in the human heart. After all, the flood waters could cleanse the earth externally but could never cleanse what was inside the human heart.
The third important exegetical consideration comes in connection with these first two considerations. In the place of a worldwide judgment, God instituted the death penalty. Knowing that men would continue to act out the depravity of their hearts in murderous ways, God purposed to give a restraining grace to humanity on the whole. God had just entered into covenant with Noah and with all of creation--securing the stage of redemption--and promising His mercy to every subsequent generation of mankind. If one of Noah's descendants had decided to go on a murder spree, the human race and the promise of the coming Redeemer (Gen. 3:15) would have been eradicated. Jesus was in the loins of Noah, so to speak. The nations were also in the loins of Noah. Noah stood as a second Adam, the head of a newly created humanity standing in a typical new creation--though far from being the consummated new heavens and new earth. In order to secure the populating of the earth and to accommodate the goal of bringing about the nations out of which He would redeem His elect, the Lord established the death penalty.
This is, of course, not the only redemptive-historical rationale for the death penalty. The Apostle Paul tied together the importance of the death penalty in Israel's civil law when he appealed to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 in his theological significance of Christ's death. In Galatians 3:13, Paul cited Deut. 21:23, stating, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree." The hanging of an individual who had committed a crime worthy of death was followed by the public display of the retribution of God. Jesus was treated as the disobedient and rebellious son--as a glutton and drunkard (Matt. 11:19)--and hung on a tree so that we might escape the final retribution of God on judgment day. In short, if there were no death penalty, there would be no redemption. If Christ had not died a criminal's death on the cross, we would suffer the just punishment of our sins for all of eternity. As the answer to Heidelberg 38 explains, "Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so he freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us." The restraining factor of the death penalty ultimately moved to the redeeming factor. As the death penalty served the populating of the nations, so it further served the accomplishment of the atonement.
While arguments can and will be made either for or against the continuation of the death penalty, these explanations as to its origin and purposes should never be lost on us. To reject or forget them will inevitably lead us to the place where we will ultimately be unable to explain the divine insistence on retributive justice and the history of the work of redemption Scripture.
*This first appeared at Reformation21.