Capital Punishment and Military Service

Does Scripture forbid capital punishment?  Can Christians serve as soldiers even if they have to kill people?  We’ll take on both of these hot potatoes this week since they’re related.

I am surprised to see how many Christians believe that they cannot be soldiers because soldiers kill and God said, “Thou shalt not kill”. The same argument is made against capital punishment.  But what was the sixth commandment forbidding?  I like the New King James Version’s rendering, “You shall not murder.”

This commandment meant that you did not have the right to take the law into your own hands and murder somebody.  It could not possibly have meant that no one was ever to kill anyone else for any reason.  In fact, the Law of Moses explicitly allowed a homeowner to kill a prowler who broke into his house at night. Since God doesn’t contradict himself, “thou shalt not kill” could not mean “thou shalt not ever take another life for any reason.” Otherwise the prowler law would contradict the sixth commandment.

You did not have the right to go and kill someone just because he stole your girlfriend or said nasty things about you. In fact, you didn’t have much in the way of rights to kill someone yourself.  However, the government was allowed to put people on trial and execute them for certain crimes on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  So the right to carry out capital punishment was definitely held by the government.

People should be glad we don’t live under the Law of Moses today, because you had to be executed for any of the following crimes:

Cursing your parents “He who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” – Exodus 21:17

Letting a dangerous animal run loose “But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to its owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death” – Exodus 21:29

Witchcraft “You shall not permit a sorceress to live” -- Exodus 22:18

Bestiality “Whoever lies with an animal shall surely be put to death” – Exodus 22:19

Sacrificing to idols “He who sacrifices to any god, except to the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed” – Exodus 22:20

Adultery (both parties!) “The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death” – Leviticus 20:10

(These should be enough to prove the point; this isn’t intended to be a complete list, because it isn’t.)  So we see that the same Law of Moses that said, “Thou shalt not kill” actually commanded capital punishment for certain crimes.  So we cannot say that God is against capital punishment.  As I think about this, I’m fantasizing about some movies they could have made back then.  In “Harry Potter and the Divine Oracles”, Harry and everyone else at Hogwarts is convicted of witchcraft and killed.  There is no sequel. In “Die Today”, James Bond and his latest fling are killed for their immoral acts. There is no sequel.  It is interesting how far society is from God’s standards and how it glorifies sin.

Now what about wartime killings? It is a crying shame that some of our servicemen risked their lives in Vietnam only to be jeered as “killers” when they came back.  Does God allow military killings in battle? Actually, He was known to command it in the Old Testament.  Furthermore, they were warned that if they did not kill all the inhabitants of Canaan, the Canaanites would be thorns in their eyes and pricks in their sides.  God Himself arranged for the killing of entire armies that opposed Israel.  For example, He drowned the Egyptian army in the Red Sea and killed a vast multitude that came against Israel later.  Saul lost his throne because he failed to kill King Agag when God commanded him to do so!  (Note that God wasn’t going to kill Agag for him.)

Someone may object that we live in the New Testament, and love (supposedly) would never kill anyone. Yet God is love, and He is going to kill plenty of people at the battle of Armageddon.  Can you be a soldier in the New Testament? In Luke 3:14, soldiers asked John the Baptist what they should do.  He said, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” He never said they could not be soldiers.  In fact, Jesus didn’t even teach that you couldn’t be armed to protect yourself; in Luke 22:36, He said, “He who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” Jesus never rebuked any of the Roman soldiers for what they did, and the first Gentile convert was a Roman officer named Cornelius. While murder is still condemned as an act of the flesh (Galatians 5:21 and elsewhere), the New Testament has no case of anyone being rebuked for being in the military.

God certainly doesn’t expect us to do without an army and just let any godless country that cares to waltz in and take over our country because we are convinced we can’t kill anyone in war. Thank God for – and pray for – our servicemen!  Freedom isn’t free, and they’re the ones who protect it.