'Bible's Teaching on Capital Punishment is Right and Sound'

Dwayne Hastings | Baptist Press News Service | Friday, July 26, 2002

'Bible's Teaching on Capital Punishment is Right and Sound'

The person guilty of the brutal slaying of a Stanton, Calif., youngster deserves the death penalty, said Richard Land, host of "Richard Land Live!" Land urged listeners to call his July 20 program to express their views on charging the person responsible for the molestation and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion with the death penalty.

Listeners obliged Land, taking advantage of the program's nationwide toll-free phone lines to offer their views -- pro and con -- on the death penalty. "Richard Land Live!" is a caller-driven, midday talk program that airs each Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. (Eastern) over the Salem Radio Network.

If Alejandro Avila, the 27-year-old man charged in Runnion's murder, is convicted, he should be sentenced to death, said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "That is one of the reasons why God instituted civil government in the first place -- to execute justice against people who take the life of another human being in a wanton and premeditated way."

The Bible's teaching on capital punishment is right and sound, Land declared.

"I believe in capital punishment because I believe the Bible teaches that capital punishment is biblical," Land said, looking to Romans 13, which he said provides an important treatise on the role of the civil magistrate.

The 13th chapter of Romans is very clear, Land said. "The word for sword in verse 4 is the word used for a specific kind of sword used to perform capital punishment, which was done by decapitation, on Roman citizens at the time of the writing of the Book of Romans," he explained.

Men and women, boys and girls are made in the image of God, he said. "When you take another human being's life, you have imposed upon and invaded a prerogative that only God has."

Several callers to the program, signaling their mistrust of the government, expressed concern about giving the state to right to decide who to execute and who to spare.

"The apostle Paul made clear in Romans 13 that God delegates to the civil magistrate the right to punish those who do evil," Land responded. "While I often don't like what government does, God set forth this as one of government's roles, [to] punish those who do evil and reward those who do right."

Capital punishment is the only fitting way to testify to society's horror and revulsion at the actions of the person who committed a crime such as Samantha Runnion's murder, Land said. "It gives fitting testimony to the sanctity of human life which allegedly this man has violated."

The Bible does not condone private vengeance, Land noted. "When someone seeks to harm us, we are to turn the other cheek. If someone kills a member of my family, I do not have the right to exact justice on my own, but I do have the right to expect the state to mete out swift and sure justice."

Several callers expressed concern about innocent people being convicted and then executed.

"I don't think that happens very often in the United States," Land said. "There have been some who have been convicted but not executed, and with DNA evidence now being used, I think it will be very unlikely to execute the wrong person."

Simple justice for a wanton and premeditated killing is to forfeit the guilty person's life, Land said, insisting the death penalty must be applied equitably and justly.

"If we are going to support capital punishment, we need to work to remove the inequities that are historically part of our justice system," he said.

Stressing that every person who is murdered is an innocent victim, Land said during the past 15 years more than 800 innocent people were murdered by convicted murderers who had been paroled from prison.

Because of California law, Land said the person eventually convicted in Samantha Runnion's murder could spend up to 15 years in prison before a death sentence might be carried out. "We have a judicial system that is out of control," Land said. "It is time for us to stage a voters' revolt and express grassroots outrage that the courts be more responsive to the people. They should be more concerned about the rights of the victims than the privileges of perpetrators."

Some callers to Richard Land Live! suggested the Ten Commandments' prohibition on killing is violated when capital punishment sentences are carried out.

Land disagreed, explaining the Hebrew word in the Sixth Commandment most often translated as "kill" is best translated as "murder."

The Ten Commandments are commandments to individuals, Land said. "I don't believe we have the right to decide on our own if someone else should be put to death. If you are a person of faith, you have to try to deal with what the Bible teaches about government's role in punishing evil."

God delegates to the civil magistrate the right to authorize lethal justice, he continued, noting the government exercises this authority in providing for armed forces to defend a nation, as well as executing such justice upon those who are convicted of a capital crime.

Cliff, a caller who said he works in law enforcement, agreed the death penalty had a place in society, but asked Land why, in John 8, Jesus spared the woman in adultery and instead turned on her accusers. Ancient law held that a person who engaged in adultery must be put to death, according to Leviticus 20:10.

"This was mob violence; this was not a court of law," Land explained. "There is no justification anywhere in the Bible for people taking the law into their own hands. If this woman was indeed adulterous, then she deserved a hearing in a court of law and not to be subject to such mob violence. ... Only the government has the right to punish evil and reward good with the use of force, including lethal force."

While insisting adultery is wrong, Land also noted it is not a capital offense under the new covenant that Jesus introduced as a replacement for the Mosiac covenant.

The death penalty is more than a deterrent to crime; the threat of a death sentence can prompt an uncooperative criminal to start cooperating, Land said. Zacarias Moussaoui, often called the 12th hijacker as the only individual charged in the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks, has made plain his desire to plead guilty in order to save his life. Moussaoui claims to have pre-knowledge about the attacks on the United States, and if his life is spared, he is promising to aid authorities in their investigations.

"Moussaoui's plea reflects a practical reason for keeping the death penalty as an option to be used in prosecution by the civil magistrate," Land explained. "Moussaoui would rather cooperate than be put to death."

The specter of capital punishment looming over a condemned criminal can draw out a cooperative spirit that otherwise might not be forthcoming, he said.

See also: Christians Wrestle with Views on Capital Punishment -- A look back at how some Christians responded to the execution of Timothy McVeigh.