We run our website the way we wished the whole internet worked: we provide high quality original content with no ads. We are funded by your direct support for ReKnew and our vision. Please consider supporting this project.

death

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

Related Reading

Benefit of the Doubt Is Here!

Benefit of the Doubt is finally here and you should definitely get yourself a copy! Frank Viola interviewed Greg about the book recently and you can read it over on Frank’s blog Beyond Evangelical. In fact, Frank is so enthusiastic about the book that he added it to his Best 100 Christian Books Ever Written list. Wow. Also,…

What Kind of God Did Jesus Reveal?

The ReKnew Manifesto exists to encourage believers and skeptics alike to re-think things they thought they already knew – hence our name, Re-Knew. I am currently working through the theology of the Manifesto in a series of posts that began a couple of months ago. Over the last few posts, we have been looking at the…

Be the Change Now

Ghandi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” It’s a profoundly Kingdom teaching. It seems to me, however, that few people adopt Ghandi’s philosophy. It’s far easier to focus our attention on how others should change. It’s far easier to spend our energy assigning blame for the problems of society…

Podcast: Can We Still Take Comfort in the Old Testament?

Greg considers the Old Testament revelations that are consistent with Christ crucified.  http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0199.mp3

How Are We To Love the Soldiers of ISIS?

Over the last several weeks I’ve received some form of this question almost every day. In some cases the question is asked rhetorically, as though the very question exposes the absurdity of suggesting we are to love this terroristic group. Other times the question is asked with a pragmatic twist. One person recently said to…

Reflections on the Supremacy of Christ (Part 1)

In my previous post I argued that the Bible tells a story in which the culminating event – the coming of Christ – reframes everything that preceded it. Though it is all inspired, not everything in it should carry equal weight for us. Rather, everything leading up to Christ, including the portraits of God, must…