Are human beings legally permitted to kill other human beings? Is this revenge or justice? Humanity is divided on such questions. What does the Bible say? And where is the church on the subject? Some answers on the occasion of the “World Day Against the Death Penalty” on 10 October.
More than two thirds of all countries in the world have abolished the death penalty, or at least put a halt to its application. And the number is increasing year by year—on the one hand. But on the other hand: in 2022 the number of executions around the world rose to its highest level in five years. So say the reports from human rights organisations. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt lead the way in executions, but are followed—albeit at a significant distance—by the USA.
Not immune to error
Both governmental and non-governmental agencies around the world are campaigning against the death penalty: the “World Coalition Against the Death Penalty”—which has now grown into an alliance of 180 human rights groups and Christian organisations—has been active as of 2002. As of the year 2007, the European Union has commemorated the “Day against the death penalty”. And in the same year, the United Nations put forth a resolution calling for a global halt to executions.
“The death penalty is inhumane and degrading treatment, and constitutes a violation of human dignity,” stated the Council of Europe to explain the reasoning behind its commitment. “It is not intended to deter crime. No legal system is immune to error, which can result in the execution of innocent people.”
Moses and the prohibition against killing
From a Christian perspective, the matter seems quite clear at first glance. After all, in the King James Version of the Bible, the Fifth Commandment states: “Thou shalt not kill.” But the matter is not quite as simple as that because the Hebrew term used here is razach, not harag.
- The term razach is otherwise only found in reference to unlawful killing, intentional murder, or unintentional manslaughter—and always only in reference to human beings.
- The word harag is used primarily in reference to the killing of people in battle and war, killing by a death sentence, when God kills, or when an animal is killed.
So it is that the Catechism of the New Apostolic Church comes to the following conclusion: “The literal translation of this commandment from the original Hebrew text is: ‘You shall not murder!’ In its original meaning, the Fifth Commandment forbade the unauthorised, unlawful shedding of innocent blood which was damaging to the community. It did not refer to military service or the death penalty” (CNAC 18.104.22.168).
Jesus and the prohibition against killing
And then Jesus Christ came along and put the Fifth Commandment into even sharper relief: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgement.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5: 21–22)
“Thus He did not confine the observance of this commandment to its literal fulfilment, but also took into account the individual’s inner attitude,” explains the Catechism (CNAC 22.214.171.124). In other words, it is no longer the act itself that counts for Christ, but rather the impulse to do it in the first place. And accordingly, we read as follows in 1 John 3: 15: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer.”
And Jesus also practised what He preached: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first”—it was with these words that He prevented the death penalty from being carried out on the adulteress.
The prohibition against killing today
And what about the prohibition against killing today? “Life is given by God. God alone is the Lord of life and death,” emphasises the New Apostolic Church (CNAC 126.96.36.199). “Therefore no human being is entitled to terminate a human life.”
“Thus the death penalty is a violation of the divine order,” supplements the Catechism in Questions and Answers (CNAC–QA 339): “In addition, the New Apostolic Church does not recognise the death penalty as a suitable deterrent or means of community protection.”
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