"Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of truth." — (Psalm 60:4)
"Lift ye up a banner upon the high mountain, exalt the voice unto them." — (Isaiah 13:2)
Devoted To The Defense Of The Church Against All Errors And Innovations
Vol.V No.III Pg.12-14,15a
October 1942

"The Law Of God On Capital Punishment"

M. C. Kurfees

In view of the very serious and startling crime situation in the United States, the author of this production was led, in the fall of 1924, to deliver a sermon to the Haldeman Avenue Church, Louisville, Ky., on "The Law of God on Capital Punishment." At that time, he had no thought of its publication beyond its oral delivery to the church and community; but the Louisville Christian Ministerial Association, composed of the ministers in Louisville and the surrounding region including southern Indiana, and which meets monthly in Louisville, having heard of the sermon, sent in a courteous and urgent request to put it in the form of a paper and read it before that body. The author gladly consented to do so and read it before them in their January meeting in 1925.

Since that time, there have been repeated and urgent requests from different persons to publish it in permanent form for general distribution, but numerous other duties have so monopolized the author's time that he could not consistently do so till now. In the meantime, the crime condition becoming more and more alarming in some parts of our country, he availed himself of a more extended study of the subject and hence, in its present form, though the position taken and defended is the same, it contains some quotations from authorities which were not used in the sermon as originally delivered. So far as the settlement of the question is concerned, the author appeals to and relies exclusively on the word of God, but the average reader will be interested in what different men and different countries have said and are saying on the subject, and hence some significant facts are given along these lines. It is hoped that the entire argument will be carefully studied, but the author takes occasion to urge all, into whose hands it may fall, to read and note with special care the reasons which God himself assigns for His law on Capital Punishment. The booklet is sent forth with the earnest prayer and hope that it may help to magnify His will and word.

That it is eminently important that man should know the law of God on all matters relating to human conduct, no right thinking student of the Bible will call in question. But it is not only a lamentable fact that there is today general and widespread ignorance of God's law along a number of vital and important lines, but this fact can be easily discovered and verified by conversing freely with the people in general along these lines.

One of the subjects on which this ignorance prevails to a large extent is, I humbly think, the law of God on Capital Punishment. It is true, however, that sometimes and in some instances it is not ignorance of God's law so much which leads to a disregard of its solemn and imperative demands as it is a mere misguided sympathy or sophomoric sentimentality.

In response to a most courteous and brotherly request from this ministerial body, I have prepared and now read to you on this occasion the present paper. I not only thank you for and highly appreciate this courtesy, but I shall endeavor, in every word in response to it, to speak in the fear of God and in respect and love for man. Please permit me to say also, at the very outset, that the conclusions to which I have arrived on the subject in hand and which are disclosed in this paper are not only the result of many years of devout and earnest study of the word of God, but, in view of the inexorable laws of logic governing premise and conclusion, I see not how properly to avoid these conclusions or to draw any other. Hence, the leading purpose of this paper and the only motive actuating its author in preparing and reading it is to present; in God's own words, God's law on capital punishment. This may be followed by some statements from men in high places, showing how they are impressed with that law. I shall do my best to make it an occasion, not of theological wrangling or acrimonious disputation, but rather one of calm, collected and dispassionate investigation—an investigation which, on the one hand, appeals for proof to the sacred record alone, and, on the other hand, to the serious and sober judgment of men.

By capital punishment, as the Latin origin of the term signifies, is meant punishment which takes the "head," and hence, the life of man; and in this connection, it means that his life, for what is regarded as a justifiable reason, is legally taken by the existing form of government under which he lives. That the subject may come before us in intelligible and logical form, I shall present it under a twofold division, namely, first, by presenting a citation of those passages of Holy Scripture which state, in specific terms, the divine law; and, secondly, by following this with some reflections on state laws on capital punishment. Hence let us now consider

I. Passages of Holy Scripture which Specifically State God's Law on Capital Punishment.

1. Passages cited. Such a statement of that law, both in the Old Testament and in the New, with some general references to it, is found in the following passages: "And surely your blood, the blood of your lives, will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it; and at the hand of man, even at the hand of every man's brother, will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man." Gen. 9:5,6. "Thou shalt not kill." Ex. 20:13. "He that smiteth a man, so that he dieth, shall surely be put to death." Ex 21:12. "And if an ox gore a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be surely stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox was wont to gore in time past, and it hath been testified to its owner, and he hath not kept it in, but hath killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death." Ex. 21:28,29. "Moreover, ye shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer, that is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. And ye shall take no ransom for him that is fled to his city of refuge, that he may come again to dwell in the land until the death of the priest. So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for the blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it." Num. 35:31-33. "Thou shalt not kill." Deut. 5: 17. "And behold, one came to him and said, Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, why asketh thou me concerning that which is good? One there is who is good; but if thou wouldest enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto him, Which? And Jesus said, Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness, honor thy father and thy mother; and, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Matt. 19:16-19. "And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and made trial of him, saying, Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And he said unto him, What is written in the law? How readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right. This do, and thou shalt live." Luke 10:25-28. "Owe no man anything, save to love one another; for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not covet, and if here be any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, namely, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbor; love therefore is the fulfillment of the law." Rom. 13:8-10. "How be it, if ye fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well; but if ye have respect of persons ye commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou dost not commit adultery, but killest, thou art become a transgressor of the law." James 2:8-11.

2. Love. Let us note the very prominent and significant place here assigned to love. It is the one great and universal antidote against all wrong. Not only is it true that neither murder nor any other crime would ever be committed if love were properly enthroned, but it is here distinctly declared that it comprehensively covers the entire ground of human obligation, "He that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law." The word "neighbor" here is an imperfect translation of the term used by Paul. It literally reads: "He that loveth the other (ton heteron) hath fulfilled the law." That is, anybody and everybody, whether in one part of the world or another, is to be the object of our love.

3. Three Statements Selected. Now, from these plain and unequivocal passages, I select three statements which succinctly and incontrovertibly set forth God's law on murder:

(1) "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made he man."

(2) "He that smiteth a man so that he dieth shall surely be put to death."

(3) "Ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are; for blood, it polluteth the land; and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it."

And we may add here that the vital principles underlying these legal enactments existed long before the "thunders and lightnings" pealed from the smoky summit of Mt. Sinai and when, at the divine presence, "the whole mount quaked greatly" and "the voice of the trumpet waxed louder and louder"; but on this momentous occasion, these principles were embodied in specific legal form.

II. The Law Contained in These Passages.

1. The divine law on murder is universal in its application. Now, let it be carefully observed here, first of all, that there is not even the remotest intimation of anything in these inspired declarations that is local, national, racial, or temporal. They apply equally to all places, all nations, all races and all times. They were not spoken of the Jews in particular nor of any other nation in particular, but of mankind in general as found in all nations, in all ages and at all times. Neither is there the slightest intimation that they will not be in force as long as mankind exists on the earth.

2. The force of the reasons assigned for the divine law. Moreover, the reasons which God himself assigns for this law are of a nature that makes them coexistent with man. They certainly should appeal seriously to all thoughtful persons. These reasons are: (1) that man is "made in the image of God"; (2) that "no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein but by the blood of him that shed it."

3. The reasons assigned for the divine law examined in detail. That we may see their solemn import, let us now examine these reasons. (1) The first is stated in these words: "For in the image of God made he man." Is that reason any less true today than it was when first uttered? Most assuredly it is not. In other words, is it not just as true now as it ever has been that man is created "in the image of God"? Most assuredly it is. Hence, the very same identical reason which God himself assigned for the law on capital punishment exists today with all the force it had when he first assigned it. In my humble judgment, no living man can answer this argument. It is simply unanswerable, standing on the sacred page as an impregnable rock. Hence, according to God's own specific declaration, as long as it is a fact that man is in the divine image, that long will this law on capital punishment be in force. (2) In like manner, let us look at the second reason for God's law on murder. It is stated in these words: "No expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it." Here again let us inquire, was that statement true when God first uttered it, but is not true now? If so, why so? Is it not just as true now as it was when God first said it that "no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein but by the blood of him that shed it"? If not, why not? Whoever says it is not assumes the logical obligation to tell why it is not. Here again, in my humble judgment, no such reason can be found in the whole universe of God because of the fact that it does not exist.

4. Human sentiment and the divine law on murder. I am fully aware that when we come to consider the different nations of man and their legal enactments on murder, we shall find, as in all other things submitted to man for decision, that human sentiment fluctuates and is marked by various and ever-changing turns. A few illustrations will suffice. For example, many years ago, in Belgium, as given in the American Statistical Association, Vol. IX, pages 307 and 308, we have this statement:

"From early in the reign of Leopold I until 1835, capital sentences were systematically commuted to life imprisonment with hard labor. This, no doubt, was due to the influence which in matters of severe punishments the first queen of the Belgians, Marie Louise, wife of Leopold I, exercised over her husband and her son, the present King. Her attention had been drawn to the cases of several persons who had been beheaded for crimes of which they were subsequently proved innocent. It was at the same time brought to the notice of both the King and his legal advisers that such miscarriages of justice were by no means rare either in Belgium or elsewhere. Moreover, it was found that capital executions were not necessary to the preservation of life and property in Belgium. Judicial statistics for the period of clemency preceding 1835 showed that grave crimes had actually decreased. But in 1834 the number of capital crimes and condemnations abruptly rose and the advocates of the death penalty immediately ascribed this augmentation of grave criminality to the inactivity of the scaffold."

This fluctuating and vacillating sentiment was illustrated some years ago in our own country as shown by the following statement from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 17, page 187:

"In at least six states there has been recent active discussion of the death penalty for murder. In Kansas and Colorado it is proposed to introduce capital punishment. In these two states, lynchings have given the opportunity to believers in capital punishment to say that if the law had been operative the lynchings would not have occurred. In Massachusetts and New York, on the other hand, there is a movement which in Massachusetts at least has strong backing to abolish the death penalty. The Governor of Kansas is reported to have said that the lynchings in that State will almost certainly result in a return to capital punishment. The Attorney General of Massachusetts insists that the punishment of murder by death does not tend to prevent or diminish that crime, and that the infliction of the death penalty is not in accord with present civilization; that it is a relic of barbarisms which the community must certainly outgrow, as it has already outgrown the rack, the whipping post and the stake. In Wisconsin a bill has been introduced providing capital punishment for certain degrees of homicide. In Maine, also, where capital punishment was abolished in 1887, there is pending a bill to re-establish it."

Here, I grant most freely and gladly that the community may very properly and should outgrow "the rack, the whipping post and the stake" or any other form of cruelty devised by man, but it cannot properly outgrow a law of God made for all mankind and for all ages. Moreover, God's law on capital punishment is not, like the rack, whipping post and stake, to punish and make men suffer, but to rid society of them. He does not say treat them cruelly and this should never be done. God says put them to death. The sentiment of communities is sometimes against God's law on different matters, but we should always, nevertheless, stand by the latter. Moreover, in the realm of morality, principles are unchangeable and do not vary with the changing sentiment of men.

Hence, the importance of teaching to the youth of our land God's own law on murder and even teaching it in the schools of our country was emphasized some years ago in a speech on "The Death Penalty," delivered by Dr. George B. Cheever in a debate with Wendell Philips and others and reprinted in Vol. 133 of the North American Review. From this memorable speech, I quote the following statement:

"And the more effectively God's law and a future final retribution are denied or obscured in the murderer's consciousness by his never having heard of these truths in the common schools through which he graduated, and by the legal and social habit of denying the authority of the Scriptures and of God over both government and people (a habit which the exclusion of positive religion from the state, its constitutions and its schools, fosters from childhood), the more rational and righteous it appears, in his own view, to take care only of himself, no matter what becomes of others. He has never been taught that God requires murder to be punished by death, much less that there is an endless retribution, in another world, for crimes unrepented of in this. Had the state done its duty in his education, he would never have been a murderer. It is moral assassination by the state to have let him grow up in such brutality. A law so benevolent and illuminating as that of God against murder, with its very reason grounded in the immortality of man and his accountability to God, and his obligation of love to his fellow man in God's image, binds the government to teach its whole meaning, and to proclaim it with all the light thrown upon it from God's successive revelations from the preceding broadening down through ages, and from the final teachings of Christ. Government, in assuming the authority to punish, is bound to flash the whole lightning of the state to the uttermost depths of society, till its divine meaning penetrates the entire mass."

And we may add here, that as long as murderers in any degree, and especially such as are savagely brutal, atrocious, villainous, fiendish and diabolical, accounts of which so often meet our gaze in the daily press, are allowed to escape the divinely imposed penalty for their crime, just that long will murder, in some measure, be encouraged and will most likely increase. Lax execution of the laws is a great defect in our country.

5. Harmony of the Decalogue and the divine law on murder. The claim sometimes made that capital punishment for murder is forbidden by the sixth commandment of the Decalogue, which says "Thou shalt not kill," is easily met by the fact that such a claim makes God squarely contradict himself. Assuredly he would not give specific directions in a number of places in his Word to put men to death for crimes, and then in Decalogue, forbid it to be done. I think we shall see that there is no conflict here at all. Let it be observed here, first of all, that there are different kinds of killing mentioned in the Bible, and when it is done unawares or unwittingly, the protection of the slayer is distinctly provided for and he must not be put to death. See Numbers 35:9-15; Deut. 19:1-10. Again, there are at least seven different Hebrew words used in the Hebrew Bible and at least that many Greek words used in the Greek New Testament, all substantially meaning, in some sense, to kill; and while, so far as I have ever been able to see, the facts in neither Testament warrant the conclusion that the idea of murder inheres in any one of these words in either language to the exclusion of the others, it is, nevertheless, a fact that in each Testament one particular word in each language is ordinarily used when murder is the idea to be conveyed. That word in the Hebrew language is the word used in the Decalogue, in the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill" which, strictly rendered, means, "Thou shalt not commit murder"; or, as stated by Brown, Driver and Briggs, murder, slay, with premeditation"; and the corresponding word in the Greek language is the word used in the Greek New Testament where the sixth commandment of the Decalogue is quoted: They both forbid killing when it is murder, but they do not forbid it when it is the legal execution of a murderer, distinctly provided for elsewhere in the Word of God.

6. Comparison of the case as it exists in different countries. That the reader may further see the crime situation in our own country with its lax execution of the laws in comparison with the situation in other countries, I here give a list of significant quotations from leading newspapers and other sources of authority on the question. It will be seen that some of these are speaking out with no uncertain sound in favor of the divine law. From the facile pen of Dr. S. Parks Cadman, of New York, in the Christian Herald of May 29, 1926, in "A Searching Discussion of the Crime Problem," we have this statement:

"The heavy indictment stands against the United States that it is the most criminal nation in Christendom. It is useless to deny a condition that facts demonstrate, and which imperils the general welfare and safety. Side by side with a large majority of our citizens who desire the abolition of injustice, oppression, needless poverty and war, is a growing and brazen body of armed and desperate criminals who have become the scandal and the inward menace of the nation.... It is necessary to understand the magnitude and the difficulty of America's crime problem. Few respectable and lawful Christian people do understand the problem. They lament its symptoms and are amazed at its consequences, but seem impotent to arrest its causes... One of these causes is law itself... Laws can become so burdensome as to defeat their own intent by their sheer number or triviality. The ancient saying that "the more laws a democracy has, the more corrupt it is," applies to the present condition. There are more than 100,000 statutes of various degrees of significance or insignificance upon the legislative codes of our State and Federal governments. These statutes are not known in their entirety to the most learned legal authorities in the land. How then can they be known to the layman in matters of the law? The second cause of crime is the bad nature and weak administration of criminal law. The larger percentage of murderers in this Republic escape the prescribed penalty for their deed, and other hardened offenders evade legal punishment in ratio. Of course justice should be blended with mercy, but it ceases to be either just or merciful when it indirectly encourages lawlessness and crime. One criminal advocate, who has an unenviable record in this respect, asserts that the death penalty need not be suffered by any murderer who has sufficient wealth to employ clever counsel his defense. In nearly every county, city and state of the Union is some notorious practitioner, who can be relied upon to beat the hangman's rope of its lawful prey. ,. . During the coming year at least 9,000 to 10,000 people will be murdered in his country. Its burglaries and other forms of robbery and illicit depredation cost it the staggering total of nearly ten billions of dollars annually. Four billions of this incredible mount can be charged off to losses from crime alone; the balance to the expense of maintenance for police, criminal courts, prisons and places of detention. The annual crime loss and penalties paid for criminal operations in the United States during 1923 was three times the amount of the national budget or that year."

* * * * *

From the official records of Louisville, Ky., the following figures were handed to me. From September 1, 1925, to August 31, 1926, there were 58 murders in Louisville. Of this number: 2 were executed; 4 sent up for life; 12 sent up for 2 to 15 years; 40 either found not guilty or dismissed by the grand jury, or were not apprehended, a few not yet tried when these figures were submitted.

* * *

Hence, according to all the facts and figures now before us, we are face to face with the appalling and significant situation that where there is one murder in all England and Wales to every 100,000 of the population, there are ten and sometimes more than ten in the United States; and that in Philadelphia, in 1923, with a population of about 2,000,000, there were 54 more homicides than in the whole Dominion of Canada with a population of about 10,000,000! Then, added to this is the equally significant and increasing crime record in Chicago in which city alone, as we have seen from the different authorities quoted, there were in 1918, 222 homicides; in 1921 there were 352; in 1923 there were 389; in 1924 there were 509; and in 1925 there were 562! That is certainly a ghastly and shocking record. And in Philadelphia there were thirteen murders the first nine days of May, 1926! Or, as viewed from another angle, in all England and Wales with a population only a little less than half the population of the United States, there were in 1923, as already cited from the Literary Digest, 200 deaths from homicide, but about 10,000 at the same time in the United States! Thus, as revealed in the Digest quotation and previously stated, the figures present the ratio of about four murders per million of the population in England and Wales, and 102 per million in a majority of the large cities of the United States. The situation in this country is not only alarming but the vast difference between it and the situation in England should wake up our citizens to the perils of the hour.

But why such difference between the murder record here and in England? The reason is found largely in the fact, already quoted from the New International Encyclopedia, that "in the United States where murder is punished by death with comparative infrequency the crime is far more common than in England where conviction for murder is usually followed by execution."

That is what tells the story. Of course lack of child training in the home and elsewhere is, no doubt, the primary source of all wrong, but next to it, lax execution of the laws and particularly the lack of enforcing God's law on murder is, if not the primary, at least one of the leading factors in the whole crime situation in the United States. If the murderer knew when tempted to commit the terrible deed that, if he does it, his own life, as God's law distinctly and imperatively requires, will be the unfailing penalty, then in probably ninety-nine cases out of every one hundred, he would be restrained from the fearful act. God's law is always best for men and when civil governments properly recognize this fact, it becomes a deterrent to crime.

Beyond all question, if crime in all its multifarious degrees and phases, were promptly met and properly punished, improvement in the situation would soon become general all over the country. Hence, a most serious responsibility rests upon the courts and upon all persons legally empowered to bring criminals to justice; and Christians as well as all other citizens share in this responsibility and should, within the limit of proper conduct, exert all possible influence, both from the pulpit and from the pew to aid in the effort to check the deplorable

7. Christian modification of the Mosaic Law. It is a significant fact that when the Lord placed his own teaching in Matt. 5:38, against the ancient law recorded in Ex. 21:23-25, which required "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe," he confined his modification of that law to the point of personal resentment in returning evil for evil. Paul teaches the same thing when he says: "Render to no man evil for evil" and "Avenge not yourselves . . . for it is written Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord." Rom. 12:17, 19; Deut. 32:35. Again, concerning "brother going to law with brother," he said: "Why not rather take wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?" 1 Cor. 6:7. Hence, if a man smites his fellow man, the latter must not smite him in return. Yea, if he smites him to death, neither a member of his own family nor anybody else is permitted personally to take vengeance upon him for his crime, but Paul distinctly says: "The powers that be are ordained of God," and that they are "a minister of God, and avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil." Rom. 13:1, 4. This should help us to appreciate the fact that, when Christ died on the cross, while the entire ceremonial law was, by that tragic and momentous event, taken out of the way or, as Paul expresses it, Christ "abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances" (Eph. 2: 15); and "having blotted the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us; and he hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross" (Col. 2: 14); nevertheless the entire Decalogue is reincorporated in the New Testament and is in full force under Christianity, with the single exception that the fourth Commandment enjoining the keeping of the seventh day holy is modified by the revelation that, as to the sanctity or holiness of days under Christ, men, as set forth in the Roman epistle, may "esteem every day alike." See Rom. 14:5.

Finally, in the light of all the facts now before us, it seems clear and conclusive that the question here presented is not to be settled by either the philosophies or the sympathies of men, but by the word of God; and hence, I respectfully suggest in closing that, since the fact that man is created "in the image of God" remains today, so far as we have any means of knowing, precisely as it ever has remained unchanged, and since the additional fact that "no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it," remains equally unchanged, the conclusion is simply inevitable that God's law on capital punishment is still in force and will remain so while man as man remains on the earth; and it well becomes us as children of God, striving to follow divine wisdom and leadership, to ponder these facts in the fear of God.