Paul said before Festus in Acts 25:11, “For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die: but if there be none of these things whereof these accuse me, no man may deliver me unto them. I appeal unto Caesar.” While Paul had not committed any crime that warranted capital punishment, he maintained that if he had committed such a crime he would not try to get out of it, but would receive death as a just punishment.
Obviously, there are many crimes a man may commit that do not deserve his death, but the Bible does teach the fact that some crimes do warrant the death penalty. Under the law of Moses, God instructed for various punishments to fit various crimes. Some crimes necessitated a fine (Exodus 21:19), other crimes caused those who perpetrated them to be “worthy to be beaten” (Deuteronomy 25:2); however, there were certain crimes that were so serious that those responsible for such acts were considered “worthy of death” (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:6; 21:22).
We are no longer under the Old Testament, and there are many differences between governments today and the theocracy that once was in place in Israel. However, the New Testament does speak of those who are “worthy of death” (Acts 25:11; Romans 1:32); moreover, it prescribes government “a revenger to execute wrath” upon the evildoer, that “beareth not the sword in vain” (Romans 13:4). What would “the sword” mean here but the carrying out of capital punishment?
The three purposes of punishment in general are restraint (to keep others from doing this crime), reformation (to cause people to do better and not continue committing the crime), and retribution (because the perpetrator deserves punishment). While the Bible certainly teaches restraint and reformation, the most fundamental of these three purposes is retribution. Yes, it is important to deter others from committing crimes; yes, it is important to try to reform individuals to do better. However, what we often miss in today’s society is the principle of retribution: that punishment is deserved.
Even though he was uninspired, the penitent thief on the cross even recognized this fundamental Bible truth:
“And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.” Luke 23:39-41
This malefactor did not try to blame someone else for his crime. He did not act like a victim. While in the midst of suffering the pain of crucifixion, he recognized that this was being done “justly” to him and the other malefactor for both were receiving the “due reward” for their deeds.