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Does the Author of Hebrews Condone Capital Punishment? A Response to Paul Copan (#12)

In his critique of Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG), Paul Copan argues that several New Testament authors condone capital punishment as directly willed by God. The most challenging for my thesis, in my estimation, is Hebrews 10:26-29, which reads:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace?

Copan argues that even if the laws requiring capital punishment “are not ideal, the textual indicators in both the OT and NT affirm they are God’s commandments.” In response, I will say three things.

First, I think it’s interesting the Copan grants that the laws requiring capital punishment were not ideal, for this means that these laws are the result of God accommodating the spiritual state of people at the time. Now, Copan holds that God expressly gave these accommodating laws while I hold that God, being non-coercive when he “inspires” authors, merely accommodated the author’s belief that God willed these commands, but our perspectives are not as far apart as they might initially seem. For we both accept that, given the spiritual state of his people at the time, God had to accept that these laws represent the best the Israelites at this time were capable of.

So our views are actually not that far apart. But I believe my view has several advantages over Copan’s. For one thing, my view doesn’t require us to imagine that Jesus ever actually commanded that children who were stubborn, lazy, drunkards, or who struck their parents be stoned to death (Deut 21:18-21; Ex 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9). Nor do we need to imagine Jesus commanding that gay people (Lev 20:13), fornicators (Deut 22:13-21; Lev 21:9), adulterers (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22), or a host of other groups of people be executed. On top of this, my view allows us to discern how these barbaric laws bear witness to the cross, for this view holds that in allowing these laws, God was stooping to bear the sin of his people and thereby taking on an ugly appearance that reflects the ugliness of that sin, just as he does on the cross.

Second, in this passage the author of Hebrews is simply drawing an analogy based on a fact. It is a fact that people were put to death for various offenses in the OT. Given this fact, this author is simply saying, “Although folks were put to death previously, people deserve much worse when they spurn Christ and profane the blood of the covenant and outrage the Spirit of grace.” This author does not say that people will receive what they deserve and he/she certainly does not prescribe capital punishment for anyone. I therefore see no warrant for reading into this author’s statement the theology that Copan reads into it. This is especially true in light of the fact that this author elsewhere says that the first covenant was not “faultless” and is now “obsolete” (Heb 8:7, 13).

Third, there is no reason to assume that everyone in the NT church integrated the radically new revelation of God in the crucified Christ with equal depth or with equal speed. So, if I felt I had to – viz. if I didn’t feel my explanation of this passage was compelling and thus concluded that this author did condone capital punishment and did believe it was directly willed by God — I would simply apply the cruciform hermeneutic to this passage. That is, since God is no more coercive when inspiring NT authors than he was when inspiring OT authors, I would simply conclude that God was in this passage stooping to accommodate this author’s culturally conditioned perspective.

I obviously don’t think this is necessary in Hebrews 10:26-29, but this option is available for those who don’t find my explanation compelling.

Photo credit: h.koppdelaney on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-ND

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