Capital Punishment: The Ghost of Babylon
The Child of Rome

Have you ever wondered why the U.S. Supreme Court building and other famous buildings in Washington D.C. are modeled after pagan temples in ancient Greece? What were the Founders thinking?

Some have suggested that the Founding Fathers undercut Biblical Law and Christian Theocracy as it had existed in this country since the Mayflower Compact, but the Puritans had also been big fans of classical philosophy and Roman Law. During the Middle Ages, it was never questioned that theologians and clergymen would have an opinion about the civil laws of the nation. It was always taken for granted that those who were trained in God's law would advise lawmakers on how to conform their legislation to God's juridical Blueprints. It is simply undeniable that religion (that is, Christianity) has in fact had a tremendous impact on law.[1] The theologians have long advised the legislators.

But what if the theologians were mistaken?

That possibility should surprise no one. When the Greeks were converted to Christianity, they did not immediately "put to death" the "old man," and the old man promptly brought all of his Roman Law philosophies into the Church, and (when the time was ripe) influenced civil law with his syncretistic thinking. Many pagan political practices were brought into Christian culture after being baptized with the best Biblical proof text that could be mustered.[2]

It will only take a few paragraphs to show you that capital punishment is an unBiblical product of Roman Law thinking.

Are you ready for a "paradigm shift?"

The Shedding of Blood: Law and Liturgy

From the time of the Apostles to the time of the Reformation, two religious groups have had a great influence on law: Jews and Catholics. The influence of Jews in the Early Church is evident in the pages of the New Testament. It was not a welcome influence in the mind of the Apostles.

Modern Jews admit that their liturgical emphasis came from their captivity in Babylon. Many Catholics will admit that as the Christian church was institutionalized, it picked up much of this Jewish liturgical thinking.

While the Reformers attempted to reform many things, they did not attempt to reform the civil law, that is, while they stripped many liturgies from the churches, they did not strip Babylonian-Roman liturgies from the law. An examination of two passages will show you how contradictory their thinking is on this point.

The first passage is one that will show the Reformation side of your thinking.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9 If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him: 2 Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain: 3 And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke; 4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley: 5 And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried: 6 And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley: 7 And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. 8 Be merciful, O LORD, unto thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel's charge. And the blood shall be forgiven them.

Now, tell me why this passage should not be literally obeyed in our day. I assume at this point that you are sympathetic with the Theocratic ideals of the Puritans, which we today call the "Theonomy" perspective. I assume that you won't say, "Well, the Old Testament is no longer valid. We're under grace, not law."

The correct answer is, we don't shed blood after Calvary. Jesus shed the last blood.

There was a system of liturgical sacrifices that were set up in the Old Covenant under the Levitical Priesthood. These ceremonial rituals were set forth as a response to the defiling effects of sin. In the New Covenant, however, Jesus is the "Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world" (John 1:29). The altar and the temple are gone (Rev. 21:22). The Book of Hebrews makes this clear.

Anyone proposing that we sacrifice a bleating lamb in church when a sin has been committed would be disobeying God's Law, even if he did so while citing passages from Exodus or Leviticus. The shedding of animal blood has no efficacy; Christ's blood alone cleanses us from our sins.

Therefore, when the police discover a murder, but cannot convict any suspect of the crime, we are not required to shed the blood of a heifer in order to cleanse the land of the innocent blood.

Some sins, however, were so offensive to God that a mere goat or lamb could not cleanse the land. Leviticus 20 lists a few crimes which were so heinous, that one who committed them had no recourse to the lambs, goats or bulls of the temple for liturgical cleansing of bloodguiltiness. We are repeatedly told, "He must bear his own blood." We call these "capital crimes."

Should there be a public liturgy for these crimes: "capital punishment?"

The institutional Christian church has long said yes. If you check the great historical creeds and confessions of the church you will find Numbers 35 is the basis for saying we should shed the blood of anyone we convict of a capital crime.

Numbers 35:30-34 Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die. 31 Moreover ye shall take no satisfaction for the life of a murderer, which is guilty of death: but he shall be surely put to death. 33 So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for blood it defileth the land: and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it. 34 Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the LORD dwell among the children of Israel.

Verse 33 literally says that "expiation" cannot be made without the shedding of blood. That's a theological term meaning "atonement." "Propitiation" is another theological term that is used.

If you are not consistently Protestant in your thinking, here is your position: If a murder is committed, but we cannot find the murderer, we are not obligated to shed the blood of an animal as commanded in Deut 21, because Christ is the Lamb of God, and no other blood is efficacious but Christ's. However, if we find the murderer, we must shed the murderer's blood in order to cleanse the land of bloodguiltiness.

Look at the Exposition of the Sixth Commandment ("Thou shalt not kill") in the Westminster Larger Catechism. You will find Numbers 35 cited as an exception to the rule against killing. Look at any theological defense of capital punishment and see if they do not cite Numbers 35. Yet Numbers 35 and Deut 21 are saying the same thing: there must be the shedding of blood to make atonement for the crime.

The thinking behind capital punishment did not come from the Bible, it came from Rome. The theologians used Biblical texts (Numbers 35, etc.) to retain "respectability" in the eyes of the emperors, who believed in using violence and vengeance to buttress their political power.

For Further Study
The Death Penalty Debate


(1) The best resource is Harold Berman: See Law and Revolution, 1972. Berman was long a professor of law at Harvard Law School.

(2) Those familiar with the work of Cornelius Van Til will nod their heads knowingly at this point. See his A Christian Theory of Knowledge, esp. ch. iv. "The Church Fathers," and ch. v, "From Sovereign Grace to Synergism." We need a book which discusses Christian lawyers in the same way Van Til discusses Christian theologians. We need a book which discusses Roman Law in the same way Van Til discusses Roman ("Catholic") theology.