ANSWER: The foundational text in the Bible that specifically allows for capital punishment appears right after the great Flood. It is stated LONG BEFORE ancient Israel received God's law at Mount Sinai.
6. Whoever sheds man's blood, his blood shall be shed by man (the first mention of capital punishment in Scripture) - for He made man in the image of God (Genesis 9:6, HBFV throughout)
The purpose of such an extreme punishment is to impose the same penalty on the murderer that they unrighteously meted out to others by taking their life. Of course, much like mercy can be perverted into condoning sin, justice can be twisted into revenge.
The concept of justice (criminal and civil) requires people to either recover back what they lost as recompense (meaning receiving back what was taken in the same or better condition as it was before the crime occurred), or that the perpetrator is punished to the same degree to which he or she injured others. Using human reason alone, and not Scripture, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804 A.D.) maintained that the legal taking of another person's life was a moral duty even if it did not deter a single other crime since it satisfies intrinsic justice.
Does it deter crime?
Interestingly enough, the Bible is very clear that death was an effective deterrent for capital crimes.
10. And you shall stone him with stones so that he dies because he has sought to drive you away from the LORD your God . . . 11. And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and SHALL DO NO MORE any such wickedness . . . (Deuteronomy 13:10 - 11, see also 21:21)
Secular social scientists could keep debating this matter of punishment back and forth, based on human reasoning alone, for many more years. Christians and Jews, however, are duty bound by what God says regarding ending the life of another person as an effective deterrent to crime.
Punishment by death in Israel
Ancient Israel, according to the Old Testament Biblical law, had a multitude of capital offenses. Under the old covenant, the "church" and the state were united. The duty of the government was to enforce the laws of the Torah against those who violated them.
For example, anyone who said people should worship other gods besides Jehovah were to receive the punishment of execution (Deuteronomy 13:5 - 15). Anyone who worked on the seventh day Sabbath (which runs from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset) were also executed (Exodus 31:14, 35:2; Numbers 15:32 - 36). Mediums and spiritists who tried to contact the dead were themselves made to die (Leviticus 20:6, 27). There were many specific sexual sins for which the most severe penalty was commanded (Leviticus 20:10 - 18). Today, of course, most people living in Western democracies would deem the imposition of these laws to be religious persecution. However, under God's political and religious system, ultimate truth is clear. He is the Creator and therefore has the right to command us to live a certain way.
Since the end of the old covenant system (Hebrews 8:6 - 8, 13, 9:9 - 10), however, there has been a separation of church and state as far as God is concerned. Contrary to any claims they may make, NO human government today is specifically God's government, nor can it truly claim to be implementing his will on earth for humanity. The Eternal still, however, uses human governments, to maintain law and order and to carry out the punishment of death where justified.
1. Let everyone be subject to the higher authorities because there is no authority except from God; and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God; 2. So then, the one who sets himself against the authority is resisting the ordinance of God . . . (Romans 13:1 - 2)
Note that Paul wrote this when he was a citizen of the Roman Empire, which had a government that formally upheld pagan, idolatrous practices (such as worshiping the emperors). Nevertheless, Christians were told to obey the Empire, so long as it did not tell them to violate God's law (cf. Acts 5:29). Furthermore, the Romans were empowered to impose death on criminals (verses 3 - 4). Human governments today do have the power and right to take a person's life for murder, even though they are not a theocracy based solely on God's laws.
True Christians should not participate in imposing laws on criminals, such as by being executioners, policemen, prosecuting attorneys, and judges, since they should be pacifists who turn the cheek (see Matthew 5:38 - 48). It is the job of unbelievers in the world to maintain law and order since a Christians' primary citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
In conclusion, the God of the Bible believes in and practices capital punishment. As the Creator of life, He may also take it, whether directly or through human governments he empowers to carry out His will regarding various crimes.
Answered by Eric Snow
One of BibleStudy.org's Email Evangelists