I consider myself to be a "Theonomist." See here.
I used to be a strong defender of capital punishment. No longer. Here's why.
Argument in a Nutshell
As a Theonomist, I was familiar with the division of Old Testament laws into three categories: "Moral," "Judicial," and "Ceremonial."
In the "Moral" category are laws like "Thou shalt not kill."
In the "Judicial" category (the lines are fuzzy and can be disputed by many theologians) might be laws like
In the "Ceremonial" category are laws requiring the shedding of blood to make atonement.
I now believe that "capital punishment" is a "ceremonial" law. "Capital punishment" is really a liturgical shedding of blood to make atonement. (Actually, I reject the "threefold division of the law." Here's why there is no such thing as "judicial law" in the Old Testament.)
Homicide with Nobody to Execute
Let's begin with Deuteronomy 21:1-9. This is case where someone has obviously been murdered (as opposed to a "natural" death), but there is no suspect to arrest, charge, try, and convict.
Deuteronomy 21:1-9 required the tribal elders to shed the blood of a heifer in order to atone for the shedding of innocent blood, following the directions of the priests:
In The Annulment of the Dietary Laws, I.C.E. Position Paper No. 2, November 1984, Gary North writes:
The Cleansing of the Land
Since Christ's death and resurrection, the whole earth has been permanently cleansed of the death-curse it labored under as a result of Adam's fall. That release was established definitively at Calvary, and is being progressively revealed over time. The whole creation looks forward to the final release at the end of time (Rom. 8:19-23). This is one aspect of the release granted to the Church and to mankind in general by Christ.
Nobody advocates the literal application of Deuteronomy 21 after the Cross. Christian theologians for 2000 years have rightly concluded that in our day only the blood of Christ can provide such atonement in cases of an unsolved homicide. Yet they persist in requiring the shedding of the criminal's blood when the homicide is "solved."
The Origin of "Capital Punishment"
Defenders of Capital Punishment usually begin with Noah. The verses are fairly well-known:
Noah was not "the State." Noah was the family priest. When Noah got off the ark,
These offerings propitiated the wrath of God. Nobody believes that the commands to offer burnt offerings (which God evidently gave to Noah or to Noah's forefathers, though that act of lawgiving is not recorded for us in the Bible) are obligatory in our day, after the work of Christ on the Cross. But theologians still believe that the shedding of blood commanded in the next chapter (ch. 9) are still obligatory.
(On Noah and the origin of "the State," see John Frame's Theology of the State:
Frame sees "capital punishment" as belonging to the "judicial" category rather than the "ceremonial" category. My point here is simply to expand on the claim that no "civil magistrate" is required to obey the commands in Genesis 9.)
The Purpose of "Capital Punishment"
The primary purpose of the ritual shedding of the blood of those who shed innocent blood is not said by the Bible to be "sending a message" to criminals.
Undeniably, killing animals and shedding their blood can cause fear:
Smaller sins could be atoned for through the temple sacrifices: lambs, turtledoves, etc., but some crimes were so serious that atonement could not be made in any other way than by the shedding of the blood of the criminal himself:
All the "pragmatic" arguments in defense of maintaining the temple sacrifices -- how it "sends a message" and reduces crime by showing that society takes sin seriously -- are outweighed by the fact that such rituals, if performed today, would show that society does not take the work of Christ on the Cross seriously.
The Bible does not say to "execute" people by lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber, or any other bloodless method man may devise to kill another human being. What the Bible very specifically required under the Old Covenant was the shedding of the murderer's blood, to make atonement.
Shedding blood in cases of murder (Genesis 9, Numbers 35) or unsolved murder (Deuteronomy 21) or other "capital" crimes (Leviticus 20), after Christ shed His blood, violates the book of Hebrews, and shows that society does not take the blood of Christ seriously.
That's my Theonomic argument against "Capital Punishment."
That "capital punishment" is actually part of the "ceremonial law" is suggested by the role played by the Levitical priests, even in areas that many would consider "judicial" or "civil":
I don't think there's some deeper reason why I came to reject capital punishment, e.g., that I'm "soft" on crime or don't care about sin or justice.
It could be argued that I needed to find a way around Biblical verses that seemed to require capital punishment because those verses were inconsistent with my movement away from "the State" and toward "anarcho-capitalism." This is not the case, because I see no Biblical reason why capital punishment could not be administered by "patriarchs" (heads of households) in a stateless society ("Patriarchy"). See here.
Psychoanalyzing Everyone Else
Suppose we lived in a society where Old Testament temple sacrifices are still carried out. Lots of animals constantly having their blood shed to make atonement and propitiate the wrath of God. Suppose I called for the termination of all these animal sacrifices based on the book of Hebrews. Suppose there was great public outcry against my proposal:
I appreciate these concerns. I'm all about "sending messages." I want to eradicate crime. I don't propose eliminating capital punishment in a way that "sends a message" that crime is OK. In my vision, capital punishment will only be eliminated by a society that has a fervent dedication to God's Standard of justice and to abolishing all crime. [More on "sending a message."]
Objection: "So what do we do with murderers?"
Let's start with logic.
That question -- and it's a worthy question -- is logically distinct from the argument I've raised above. It's a completely separate question.
Some members of our hypothetical ritual sacrificing society above, upon hearing of a proposal to eliminate animal sacrifices to atone for theft, might ask, "Well, what are you going to do with thieves if you don't sacrifice any animals? Just let thieves run rampant?"
My argument here is that shedding blood to atone for theft or murder denies the efficacy of Christ's blood. We shouldn't do it any more.
In the case of thieves, even the Old Testament required restitution from thieves (even though it also required ceremonial acts for atonement).
Even if we don't know what to do with murderers, we should still stop the ritual/ceremonial shedding of blood. The resultant demand to "Do something about murderers" will result in a quest for creative solutions. As long as we think we're OK just shedding their blood, there will be no demand for better alternatives, and they will not be proposed, debated, and implemented.
I have started a conversation on the question "What do we do with murderers" here.
How to "Send a Message"
"But if we abolish 'capital punishment,' won't that send a message to criminals that our society does not value life?"
It might seem a trite response to this criticism to say that killing cannot send the message that killing is wrong. Intentionally killing a murderer by executing him may not be the most effective way to send the message that life -- including that of the murderer -- has value.
So let's look at the idea of society "sending a message."
Since I was born, a group of people calling themselves "the government of the United States" has not only failed to send a good message to criminals about murder, it has been sending the wrong message in a most powerful way. It has created a "culture of death" through war and legalized abortion. And it creates a culture of death by banning God from the "Public Square."
“All those who hate Me love death.” (Proverbs 8:36)
During the 20th century, "private sector" homicides accounted for approximately 8.5 million murders worldwide. During that same century, "the State" -- which boasts of its purpose as protecting life against murderers and invaders -- murdered approximately 250-500 million people. Whichever estimate you accept, half the total represents governments murdering "their own" people to advance socialist programs at home, and half are the murder of people of other nations in war. "Over 60 million people were killed" in World War II alone. And whichever estimate you accept, "the State" is at least 25 times more deadly than the "criminals" from which it purports to protect us.
Clearly, "governments" send the message that life is not as important as maintaining power.
More than 10,000 people were intentionally killed by criminals last year in America. But during the 20th century, governments intentionally killed more than 10,000 people every day, each and every single day of the year, over the course of 100 years.
Abolishing the State could not possibly increase the number of murders that occur each year.
If nobody believed in "government," millions of people would not put on a uniform and kill millions of people. It is belief in the moral legitimacy of "the State" that causes ordinary people like you to wear a uniform and follow orders to kill people you don't even know, and have never done anything to harm you or even threaten you. Private sector crime knows nothing of this "government uniform" phenomenon. There is no reason to believe that people would start doing this if we abolished capital punishment and "the State."
Eliminating "capital punishment" is part of my agenda to eliminate entirely the institution we call "the State."
This is why all governments -- eventually -- ban the Bible.
The United States bans the Bible from its "public" schools because the Bible ultimately undercuts the authority of the government. (Not that many in government are "epistemologically self-conscious" about this; the actions of most people are not well thought out.)
The government of the United States, through its Supreme Court, has said that a public school teacher cannot get in front of the students and, acting in her official capacity as a government-hired teacher, say these words, as if these words were actually, learnably true:
"God says you should not kill other people."
Or even more incorrect politically:
"The Bible says you should not kill other people."
Implicit in these simple statements is the claim that God exists, and that students have a moral obligation to listen to what God says, and obey Him. This is why the Supreme Court prohibited public schools from posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. Even a privately paid-for copy of the Ten Commandments with this disclaimer cannot hang in a public school classroom:
The Court explained,
It should be noted that an "appropriate study" of "comparative religion" etc., means examining ancient religions as irrelevant artifacts, and critiquing them from the perspective of the modern religion of Secular Humanism. The Court says you can tear down Christianity from a secularist perspective in a public school classroom, but you cannot endorse or promote it.
Notice also the distinction between "private devotion" and public ("state") objectives. The message being sent here is that you can be apply the commandments of Christ to your "private" life and still be a good citizen. But you may not apply the teachings of Christ to government or the "public sector." If you refrain from murder as a matter of "private devotion," that's fine, but if your Christianity forbids you in your capacity as a citizen of the State from voting for a mass murderer like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or from wearing a uniform and killing enemies of the State, then your Christianity has exceeded its proper bounds. Most church-going Christians agree with this thinking. Christianity is for your private life, but not your life as a citizen, and not your government.
To quote a Supreme Court Justice in another case, Christianity and the institution of systematic killing ("the State") are "on a collision course." The more people who follow Christianity, the fewer people can be recruited for imperialist murders.
We need to send a message that killing is wrong. Not just the thousands that "criminals" kill, but the millions, and tens of millions, and hundreds of millions of people that "governments" kill.
But our argument against capital punishment on this webpage is not about
"sending a message." It is about accurately interpreting the message
that God has already sent.