The Bible in a Changing World
Good News Magazine
May 1976
Volume: Vol XXV, No. 5
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The Bible in a Changing World


   Debate still goes on over use of the death penalty for certain criminal offenses.
   The earliest biblical sanction for execution of murderers is found in God's instructions to Noah just following the flood: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image" (Gen. 9:6).
   Under the theocracy of ancient Israel, capital punishment was carried out for a variety of crimes, including murder, kidnapping, and rape (see Ex. 21:12, 16 and Deut. 22:13-29).
   In the New Testament, Christ and Paul recognized the power of government to use capital punishment. In Romans, chapter 13, the apostle Paul wrote: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.... For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.... If you do wrong, be afraid, for he [the ruler] does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer" (verses 1- 4). "The sword" in this case probably refers to the Roman short sword, used to execute Roman citizens. Some commentators write that "the sword" is spoken of here as a symbol of the ruler's authority.
   In any case, the sword symbolizes the magistrate's power to punish criminals. A sword can be used to threaten, but it is usually to hurt or kill. In Acts 25:11, Paul again gave his approval to justly deserved capital punishment by saying: "If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death...." And Christ acknowledged that Pilate's authority to crucify was given him "from above" (John 19:11). So the Bible shows that God allows human rulers and governments to execute those who commit serious crimes.
   But God doesn't consider capital punishment to be the "final answer" to crime. This is aptly illustrated in the case of the woman brought before Christ who had been caught in the act of adultery. "Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?" her accusers demanded to know (John 8:5). "... Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, 'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.' And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' She said, 'No one, Lord.' And Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again'" (verses 6-11).
   Christ didn't condone the crime. He advised her not to repeat the offense. But, in this context, He recognized the hypocrisy in those who demanded the death penalty.
   A criminal is ultimately responsible for his deed. But in ways subtle and sometimes flagrant, society is often an accomplice. The whole question of crime and punishments, causes and remedies, is a complex Gordian knot. The ultimate solution is spiritual — a change of heart and behavior on the part of all — criminals and law-abiding citizens alike.


   ... is, in the long run, death (Rom. 6:23) for the guilty. But there is a price paid by the innocent here and now in this lifetime. And that price is rising far faster than the inflation index. Last year $65 billion in crimes against personal property and business were committed in the United States.
   Organized crime had the biggest take ever last year — over $40 billion in gambling, narcotics, hijacked goods, loan sharking, etc. Crimes against property and business totaled $25 billion. It cost society $15 billion in taxes to support police, prisons and courts, and $6.5 billion in the form of higher prices for businesses to maintain their own private crime-fighting programs — guards and surveillance equipment.
   The total value of cash and property involved in British thefts last year exceed 86 million. In Canada, thefts over $200 increased 24.1 percent in 1974 to nearly 80,000.
   What is significant about these crimes against personal property is that many of these criminals are middle-class folks and white-collar executives. The common idea has been that it is primarily the poor who steal out of desperate need. But more and more are doing it out of sheer greed!
   Theoretically, as the standard of living increases, crimes against property should decline; supposedly more and more people are able to meet their basic needs legitimately. But in real life this theory is breaking down. There are as many as 500,000 "career" criminals in the United States alone, and many of them are pulling down incomes ranging from $15,000 to $165,000 or more — and all tax free.
   A growing number of people just don't know the meaning of the word "enough." "From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain" (Jer. 6:13). It's bad enough that there is so much legitimate avarice. But now inflation-battered innocent people must pay the price for crime with increased costs in goods and services and higher taxes. According to one estimate, the bill came to $951 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. last year.

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Good News MagazineMay 1976Vol XXV, No. 5