Lately, I have been stuck on a story in the Bible. Though I have known the story since I was a kid, something about it has recently made me feel unsettled. It’s the story of the woman who was caught in adultery. According to the law that was given directly by God, she deserved the death penalty (Leviticus 20:10). However, we see Jesus boldly standing against the judges in defense of the woman and fighting for her life. Was Jesus contradicting the law that He himself wrote? Is Jesus pro the death penalty? Are Christians supporting the death penalty following the footsteps of the pharisees who wanted her dead?
Let’s take a look at the text in John 8:
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus,’Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.‘ 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’
11 ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.'”
How then can we settle what we learn in the old testament to what we learn in the new testament through Jesus’ teachings?
The Old Testament law commanded the death penalty for various acts including murder (Exodus 21:12), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), being a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:5), prostitution and rape (Deuteronomy 22:24).
We simply can’t ignore the old testament and say that it is no longer relevant because by doing so, we are saying that God has changed His mind and His Character which is contradictory to what the Bible says about Him being the same always.
I believe that the old testament is still a pathway for us to assess our shortcomings and the standard of the law. It is a reminder of the importance of the law and the price of breaking it.
The good news is that Jesus didn’t leave it there; He came and died for us so that we no longer have to pay the price required for the laws we have broken. He came and made it very clear that both the adulterer woman and the pharisees (legal judges) deserve the death penalty and that no one has the right to take another’s life. He made it clear that it is Him and Him alone that can decide on what should be done and in this case, He chose not to condemn her.
As a follower of Christ, I believe that it is impossible to believe that God wants us to use the law to choose when someone else should be put to death. I simply can’t throw a stone on someone who deserves to die when I, myself, have also broken the law in one way or another.
I have researched several sources to see what theologians and scholars believe on the matter and I could not find any solid scriptural arguments supporting the death penalty. The only verse I have seen in several weak arguments in support of the death penalty is Romans 13:1, “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”. However, this verse is simply stating the importance of abiding to authorities and there is nothing about it that approves of us humans having the authority to put others to death.
It saddens me that most republicans supports the death penalty because most Christians associate themselves with republicans; there is simply so much parallelism between that and the belief system that the pharisees followed.
Christians and Republicans are boldly vocal about their stand against abortion; in which I applause. Do we believe that a life is a life no matter how small or how bad it can be? If we stand for life, we must stand with both the weak (unborn children) and the broken (criminals). If we believe that Jesus’ love is unconditional, How dare do we end someone’s life under the name of justice?
Christians are called to fight for every human’s right to live; whether that human was an unborn child or an evil criminal. It’s not our job to determine when someone’s last day on earth should be.
One argument that is used to support the death penalty is that keeping a criminals alive is a waste of resources. However, life is so precious to measure it by money, especially if we claim to be followers of Christ.
The thief that died on the cross next to Jesus had the opportunity to repent and meet Jesus right before his death. Judges and humans like us pointed fingers at the thief and said, “this guy deserves the death penalty” but God saw him with the eyes of mercy and thought, “It’s not too late, this one is mine”. Shouldn’t we also look with the same eyes of mercy, even towards the most evil criminals, and say, “It’s never too late” and let God be the one that appoints the day that person’s life ends?
Going back to the story of the woman caught in adultery, I leave you with a question:
Is it our job to find a way to reach those who deserve the death penalty and bring to them the good news like Jesus did with the woman and the thief or is it our job to determine who broke the law and demand for them the death penalty?
“Mercy triumphs over judgement” James 2:13
What’s your thoughts? Have you thought about this before? Comment below!
– Johnny Youssef
Addition: Based on several great points made by few people, here is my response to Romans 13:2-5
“2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
I believe that this verse is simply stating that “If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then there would be no reason to fear even death laws”. I don’t think that it is saying that, as believers, we should support death laws. You have to look at the context of the Romans ruling at the time and the apostle is telling people that they shouldn’t fear if they aren’t doing anything wrong. Otherwise, Do you believe that the Nazi government had the right to kill and we as Christians shouldn’t stand against their death penatliesthat were considered “just” in their own eyes? What about Saudi Arabia laws that kill people caught in adultery, should we still support those…after all, they are following the rules of the OT? What about Kenya laws that support the death penalty for people caught in homosexual acts? Should we blindly agree to them based on believing that the Old Testament laws are still to be applied given Romans 13:3-4?
2- The argument that says that Jesus didn’t approve of her death because they were tricking Him into disobeying the Roman law and because the man involved in the act wasn’t exposed with her per Moses Law are the reasons why Jesus didn’t support stoning her, then whoever says that believe that if they would have followed Moses Law, Jesus would have APPROVED of her being stoned.
3- If you look at Romans 13:3-4, you ALSO have to support the stoning of children disobeying parents, kidnappers, rapists, and false prophets (that’s a lot of televangelists). However, my guess is most of you would not like to see that. But why not? If you don’t think that Jesus came to complete the law in a way where we no longer have to kill those who break it, then you should apply that belief on all of the above crimes; You can’t pick and choose which crimes deserve the death penalty based on what is culturally accepted.
So in conclusion, I personally believe that Jesus completed the law by his death on the cross. I strongly disagree that Jesus would have approved of her stoning if they “would have played by the rules”. His reaction to her goes way further than “I got you out because I found a loophole”, His reaction was “I do not condemn you to death even though you deserve it…you are free from the law…now I invite you to know me so that you are free from sin”. I refuse to stand in support of a death penalty to a murderer in the U.S, an adulterer in Saudi Arabia, and a homosexual in Kenya. I believe that the sanctity of human life is way greater and higher and it’s not for me to touch. Yes for punishment, and yes for prison – But not for the death penalty. If one believes in the death penalty based on the OT, then it should be applied for ALL cases in ALL cultures.