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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Acts 5, Ananias, Sapphira, and Capital Punishment 

One of the Christian criticisms of the death penalty is based upon exalting the Ten Commandments (specifically, "Thou shalt not kill") over other parts of the Old Testament (in which Moses and other Old Testament leaders did a lot of killing). The underlying argument is that the Old Testament is archaic and irrelevant, while the New Testament and Christ's "new" commandments supersede the practices of the Jewish nation.

That got me wondering about the New Testament. Are there examples in the New Testament where a human institution, rather than God, condemned someone to death for their crimes? Let's look at the first 11 verses of Acts 5:

Acts 5:1-11 (New International Version)

New International Version (NIV)
Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

Acts 5

Ananias and Sapphira

1Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.

3Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God."

5When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?"
"Yes," she said, "that is the price."

9Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also."

10At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

First off, it's worthwhile to point out that the point of a supernatural miraculous event is not the event itself, but what happened afterwards. Jesus didn't heal Lazarus just because he liked him; Jesus healed Lazarus so that those around Lazarus would believe. (In addition, the episode paved the way for his own crucifixion and resurrection.) Similarly, the point of the Ananias and Sapphira episode was the fear and reverence that is cited in verse 11.

But is this a case where the human church pronounced a sentence of death, or was the sentence of death pronounced by God without any human action whatsoever? Religioustolerance.org says that God did the killing, but notes that Peter emphasized their sins before their deaths:

God killed individuals because they engaged in various transgressions in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). However, there was only one instance in the Christian Scriptures:

For lying about Church donations: Acts 5:1 to 11 describe how a couple, Ananias and Sapphira sold an piece of real estate. They gave part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full proceeds from the sale. Peter interpreted their act as lying to the Holy Ghost. God killed Ananias on the spot. Three hours later, Sapphira repeated the lie to Peter. He cursed her and God killed her immediately. Members of the church were understandably terrified.

Avery Cardinal Dulles believes the early Christians supported the death penalty, but isn't clear on whether humans administer it:

The early Christians evidently had nothing against the death penalty. They approve of the divine punishment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira when they are rebuked by Peter for their fraudulent action (Acts 5:1–11). The Letter to the Hebrews makes an argument from the fact that “a man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses” (10:28). Paul repeatedly refers to the connection between sin and death. He writes to the Romans, with an apparent reference to the death penalty, that the magistrate who holds authority “does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.

Kimberly Goins believes that Peter did not pronounce the death sentence, but merely acknoledged the sin:

In Wednesday's issue of The Crimson White, Marlin Caddell wrote a piece about the death penalty....

I disagree with Caddell's use of biblical references to condone capital punishment. For instance, he made reference to a story in the book of Acts about the Holy Spirit striking down Ananias and Sapphira for lying. He claimed that this example supports his argument that capital punishment is biblically sound.

In actuality, the example he used does not support his claim. In that story, God is the one who actually judged Ananias and Sapphira's act as heinous and punished them accordingly. He is the one who chose to take away their lives.

Other humans had no role in the punishment inflicted upon Ananias and Sapphira, therefore, this is not a justification for capital punishment.

Let's see what Caddell said:

Also, the Holy Spirit struck down Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts for lying. So, capital punishment is not biblically unsound.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily indicate that humans should do the job. But the Catholic Encyclopedia casts Peter in the role of judge:

Among the crowd of Apostles and disciples who, after Christ's Ascension into Heaven from Mount Olivet, returned to Jerusalem to await the fulfilment of His promise to send the Holy Ghost, Peter is immediately conspicuous as the leader of all, and is henceforth constantly recognized as the head of the original Christian community in Jerusalem....

When Ananias and Sapphira attempt to deceive the Apostles and the people Peter appears as judge of their action, and God executes the sentence of punishment passed by the Apostle by causing the sudden death of the two guilty parties (ibid., v, 1-11).

"OK," you may say, "this proves that Pope Benedict or Jerry Falwell has the authority to impose the death sentence, but can a secular government do so?"

A question for another time...

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

My view on the text? Peter simply exposed the formerly secret sin of the couple. God wouldn't be taken advantage of and used the couple to serve as an example. Remember the casulties of secret sin when Joshua had to confront Achan's sin? Whether Peter knew or not the text doesn't reveal.

As to the death penalty in general? Just a few lines might feed the discussion.

Gen. 9:6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. [unless you don't see rainbows, or rely on God's promise not flood the earth in mass, that meat is alright to eat, and that blood was to be avoided in the NT Church then you can't dismiss this]

Acts 25:11 If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. [Paul wasn't objectionable to the death penalty if he had been guilty of a punishable offense, he should be aware of Christ's teachings that touched on this]

Rom. 13:4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. [NT passage that fits in with what we have already been shown.]
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