A Biblical Perspective on Crime and Punishment

by Larry Cernik

Deuteronomy 7:11, "Thou shalt therefore keep the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which I command thee this day, to do them."

Deuteronomy 11:1, "Therefore thou shalt love the LORD thy God, and keep his charge, and his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments, alway."

John 14:15,21 "If ye love me, keep my commandments. He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him."

It is probably safe to state categorically that no true Christian would deny the necessity of loving the Lord our God. It is so emphatically stated and restated throughout the entire Bible as to be readily recognized. No one would question the necessity of personal piety and purity as being necessary before the Lord. Our personal and public conduct is to be beyond reproach. Our affections are to be pre-eminently set upon Him. We are to subject our attitudes and actions entirely to His revealed will.

No Christian would debate these basic assertions. None would argue in order to justify lying, beating our wives, or stealing the neighbor's car. All would agree that these actions are strictly prohibited by the Word of God. However, what happens when we begin to move from a discussion of personal discipline to public policy in dealing with such infractions is quite another matter. If you want to get involved in a very stimulating discussion, bring up the topic of crime and punishment. It will become apparent very quickly how Bible-oriented those involved in the discussion really are.

There are three basic principles involved in the debate of crime and punishment from a biblical perspective. First, we should not define something as criminal which the Law of God does not. One of my favorite examples in illustrating this is the contemporary propensity to legislate concerning so-called "hate crimes." While hate is certainly a sin which will be adjudicated by the Supreme Judge Himself, it is not in and of itself a criminal act subject to divinely prescribed civil punishments.

However, once a person acts out their hatred by committing some action against the object of their hatred, evidenced by tangible harm, they have indeed committed a crime. It is the deed which is punishable, and the case must then be brought before the court for the just sentence to be carried out. This is only one example of many that might be cited to show that our culture has exceeded the mandates and definitions of the Bible in determining what is actually criminal, and what is not. Again, I believe that we must be very careful not to define some act as criminal, and bring civil sanctions against a person, which is not clearly shown to be such by commandment, statute, or principals derived from the Scriptures.

Second, we must also be sure that the parameters of punishment are those advocated by God. How otherwise are we to determine whether the punishment fits the criminal act or not? If we do not appeal to the objective standard of God's laws, then the entire discussion devolves into a disagreement over differing parties' opinions.

Here are a few examples of misguided punishment that I hear frequently. One is the example of some Muslim countries which cut off a person's hand for stealing. This is frequently cited as an application of law which discourages theft. While the effect may be desirable, the question remains as to whether it is in fact just. What about the caning of Michael Faye in Singapore? Many people reacted strongly either for or against the punishment carried out by the government for his vandalism. It is obvious that neither of these punishments is derived from the Bible as the one is an unwarranted mutilation, while the beating is not that which is prescribed in the Law. In both cases, the perpetrator should be required to repay the victim according to the proportion of the crime (theft or damage) committed.

While the biblical principle of "eye for an eye" is commonly misconstrued and ridiculed, it is the basic principle to be applied in determining punishments which are not expressly enumerated in the Law itself. Again, we must be sure to adequately punish criminals, but, just as certain, we must be sure not to exceed the level of punishment prescribed by God. Are we wiser than He?

I also notice a complete absence in the Law of God of any institution which could be likened to our present prison system. This, I believe, is because punishment is to be suffered by the criminal, not the law-keepers. Under our current penal system, the law-abiding citizens are punished by requiring them to financially support those who are incarcerated.

Third, we are to be faithful in seeing divine justice implemented in our civil affairs. Note the content of the passages cited at the beginning of this article. If we are to be faithful, and truly demonstrate our love for God, then we must keep all of His commandments. This necessarily includes administering His judgments (punishments). This may make us uncomfortable at certain points. Though this be the case, we are in no wise excused from obeying God's commandments based on our feelings. We are to advocate and implement God's judgments where we are able, despite our emotions concerning them. While this may seem to us to be an unusual manner in which to love God, it is precisely what we are commanded to do.

What are the dangers if we are negligent in obeying God in these matters? First, any action (or perhaps thought or opinion) may be arbitrarily determined to be criminal. Remember, it becomes a battle between your opinion and mine if we do not accept the objective standard of the Law of God. This requires us to consent that murder, adultery, sodomy, and the like are criminal, and must be addressed by the appropriate divinely ordained punishment. If we fail in this area of obedience, we will soon find ourselves (as we presently do to some degree in this country) rewarding criminals, and punishing the innocent.

Second, we must insist on the application of the punishment ordained by God, and not diminish or add to it. This requires that we humble ourselves before the Lord, confess that He is right, and abandon our own feelings and opinions. We should not be willing to condone punishments which exceed those levied in the Bible. This results in cruelty, abuse, and tyrannical terror. Likewise, we should not advocate punishments, which would diminish the biblical punishments, as this would only encourage the unlawful. We should reject all unbiblical forms of punishment, regardless of their alleged effectiveness. Only those proven guilty should be punished, not the innocent.

Third, if we fail in these matters, we will witness a slide into anarchy or totalitarianism. If we abandon the biblical precepts, it will result either in a contorted, inconsistent application of justice, or give whatever faction is able to procure adequate political power the opportunity to formulate law based on the current sentiment of their coalition.

Moreover, it is not our prerogative to determine if the punishments indicated in the Law of God are acceptable or not. This is merely because God is God, and we are not. We cannot sit in judgment of His decrees. Neither is He obligated to justify them to us. If He has determined that a certain act is to be punishable in a certain manner, then it is our obligation to see it accomplished consistently, without partiality, and without a moralistic pity. We must not rely on our own feelings or opinions regarding these matters.

Deuteronomy 19:21, "And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."

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