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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 03/09/2003

Exodus 20:13

Thou Shalt Not Kill

"You shall not murder" (NASB).


"We often treat violence," wrote Joy Davidman, "as a bad word, a thing shocking and unnatural, to be hidden from innocent children. . . . Very much, in fact, as the Victorians treated sex. No previous age has equaled our horror of killing; but, then, no previous age has ever killed so much." We in America spent many lives to stop Hitler's slaughter of the Jews, but we ignored genocide on an even greater scale by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Some people who march against capital punishment march for abortion rights, and vice versa. We are sure that the California Condor and the Sperm Whale should be saved from extinction, but unsure about whether to oppose infanticide and euthanasia in our own species. We are horrified by violence and in love with it. We are on this issue the most confused generation that has ever lived. Therefore, it is high time for a fresh look at the Sixth Commandment.


We must begin our discussion of the taking of life by reviewing the biblical basis for the meaning and value of life. And we must begin that task by realizing that many people speak about a reverence for life who mean different things indeed by that language. We must distinguish the biblical view of these matters from the humanist view.

Humanism, ironically, holds the human species as the highest being, value, and authority in existence, but often seems to hold the life of the individual human being very cheaply. How can this be? It is because Secular Humanism, in the absence of any real basis for moral values, lives off of capital it has borrowed--or stolen--from historic Christianity. It has picked up the respect for life inculcated by the Christian faith without the basis for holding that view that should accompany it. But what does respect for life mean in the abstract? Whose life? On what terms? Secular Humanism knows no authority above each individual human being who can give an answer to such questions. Therefore, they are inevitably answered by those in power, i.e., by the strong. Hence you get phrases like "quality of life," which are simply a way of justifying the convenience of the strong at the expense of the weak. It is not the weak and voiceless--like the unborn child--but the strong and vocal--the promiscuous couple--whose quality of life ends up being consulted. Abortion on demand, that wholesale slaughter of innocent victims, follows logically from this reverence for life divorced from any moral framework to give it meaning and direction.

The biblical view is very different. For Christians, reverence for life is not a primary value at all, but a derivative one. But the way it is derived ironically puts it higher for the Christian than it is in practice for the Humanist, who thinks of it as primary. You see, fundamentally Christians do not reverence life; they reverence God. For the Christian, nothing--not even human life--is valued for its own sake (for that would be idolatry, as we learned in our study of the First Commandment), but rather for the sake of how it relates to the God who is valued above all. Nothing has value or meaning in itself, but only in reference to God. This may sound less loving and compassionate, as if it makes other people means rather than ends, but ironically it actually gives them greater protection. How? That brings us to our main thesis for this study:


For the Christian, the fundamental fact about life is that it belongs to God. And because life belongs to God, it should only be given--or taken--on His terms. Let me repeat: Life belongs to God, and can therefore only lawfully be given or taken on His terms. As you will see, this principle governs not only this commandment, but also the next one--Thou shalt not commit adultery. They are tied together as one unbroken whole in the biblical view of life.

Everything belongs to God, of course, by right of creation. But this truth applies to life, and especially to human life, in a special way. Life is a powerful reflection of His nature: like Him (and because of Him) it is creative, powerful, resourceful. And because Man was created in His image, human life reflects His nature even more powerfully. Our Father in Heaven is in fact the Living God; in His Son was life, and life was the light of men; He came to give life, and to give it more abundantly.

That all life, and especially human life, is His peculiar property, not only flows logically from theology, but is explicitly taught by Scripture. He is the One "in whose hand is the life of every living being, and the breath of all mankind" (Job 12:10). "Behold," He claims, "all souls are mine, the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son; the soul that sins, it will die" (Ez. 18:4). Since life is God's peculiar property, it can lawfully only be given or taken on His terms. So the operative question becomes, "What are they?"


That it is not a simple matter of all killing being wrong (or all preservation of life being right) is proved by the choice of words. The Hebrew is more accurately translated by the NASB "murder" than by the KJV "kill." As in English, a distinction is made. Not all killing is murder. Murder is simply the unlawful taking of human life. In order to discern when killing is murder we have to pay attention to how the basic principle here was applied in the case laws based on it.

In the first place, killing in self defense, or even in defense of one's property, which would include killing in a just war, is not murder. In Ex. 22:2-3 we get a rather curious provision. If a thief is caught in the act, and is struck so that he dies, there is no blood guilt incurred; but if the sun has risen on him, there is. This may sound confusing until we remember that it assumes that the burglary happened (as most do) at night. If at that moment the felon is struck and ends up dying, he was killed in self defense. But if you hunt him down the next morning and kill him, it is no longer self defense, but vengeance, which is not permitted. Then he must be apprehended and made to make restitution instead. In war, the same principles would apply, only to organized nations instead of individuals. One is not encouraged to try to kill burglars or aggressors, but one has a right to defend one's home, and if the intruder dies in such a circumstance, it is on his own head; he had no business putting you in the position where your home had to be defended.

Jesus' words about turning the other cheek in Mat. 5:39 might sound like a contradiction to this interpretation, as if the Mosaic law of justice had been superceded by New Testament love. But two passages from the New Testament itself rule out that reading. The first is John the Baptist's counsel to the soldiers in Lk. 3:14. If pacifism were indeed the consistent teaching of the New Testament, he would have had to tell them to resign their commissions. He does not. Even more conclusive is 2 Tim. 2:3-4, where Paul tells Timothy to be a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Some of the most important teaching in the Bible comes to us as metaphor or simile, starting with the parables of Jesus. The biblical writers do not use their metaphors carelessly. That which is inherently evil cannot be a metaphor for good. So if Paul were a pacifist, this would be about like telling Timothy to be a good prostitute for Jesus. The one is no more inconceivable than the other. This clues us into the fact that hyperbole, exaggeration for effect, is also a figure of speech employed in Scripture. What Jesus was telling us is that we should bend over backwards to avoid trouble, that we should not be belligerent people. He was not contradicting Scripture but using hyperbole. One of the most basic principles of hermeneutics is that no passage of Scripture should be interpreted in such a way as to make it contradict another passage. A little knowledge of the whole counsel of God, a little knowledge of the way figurative language works, and a little common sense could help us avoid that mistake here.

Another kind of killing that is not murder is Capital Punishment, at least in principle. This is established in Gen. 9:6, where our creation in God's image is made the basis of the death penalty. Because we are the image of God, murder is a crime so serious that nothing less than the death of the murderer could be a symbolically adequate response. This is confirmed by Paul, who in Rom. 13:4 tells us that the state does not bear the sword in vain. To murder, many would add rape as a capital crime, for it is, if it were possible, an even greater and more profound assault on personhood than murder itself. In the Old Testament, incest, cursing one's parents, blasphemy, and incorrigible rebellion were also capital crimes. Most Christians would think that such offenses were appropriately so punished in the special kind of nation ancient Israel was, a divinely ordained theocracy, but not in a secular state such as we live in today. But we should take note of how serious such offenses were considered to be spiritually, even if we do not want a secular state imposing them in a pluralistic society.

Is this inhumane? The irony is that capital punishment was imposed, not because life was cheap, but because it was valued so highly. The human soul is so highly valued by God that nothing less could be an appropriate punishment for the person who unlawfully usurps His sovereignty over its life and death. And if we want to argue which of the two systems of criminal justice was more humane, we need to compare them as wholes. There was no incarceration in the Old Testament. None. The criminal either was put to work to make restitution to his victims, or he was executed. The great majority made restitution. This is an act which upholds the criminals' own dignity as human beings, causes them to identify with their victims in realizing the cost to them of the injury done by the crime, and hence has the best chance of truly reforming them. Only those who were a clear and present danger to society or who had already demonstrated their incorrigibility were executed. Is it really more humane to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars each to send criminals to dehumanizing institutions that function primarily as graduate schools for criminal behavior? Think about it.

Capital punishment then is humane, right, and good if carried out fairly and equitably. And for us today, that is the rub. Christians are required by Scripture to be in favor of capital punishment in principle. When it is administered rightly, the state is not murdering the murderer nor stooping to his level; it is really upholding the value of the life he took. Whether Christians should support or oppose the version of it actually practiced by our courts today is less clear. Whether it is administered fairly--how fair is fair enough in an imperfect world?--whether it even can be administered fairly in our system and society--these are questions, not of ethical principle, but of fact and prudence, and people are going to come to different judgments about them. But if the Church could just get--and teach--the principles correctly and with clarity, that would be a step in the right direction.

So far we have looked at some examples of killing that are not murder. Now we must look at some controversial items that are included as murder. The first of those is abortion. Unfortunately, no biblical passage deals with this contemporary controversy directly, though the Old Testament does impose sanctions for involuntarily causing a premature birth by one's irresponsible behavior (Ex. 21:22-23). But biological science makes it clear that we are fully human from conception, and Luke 1:41-45 makes it clear that unborn children are considered persons, for they are even capable of responding in some mysterious way to the Holy Spirit. Only the most unreal of radical feminists could seriously consider the unborn child an intruder or an aggressor (though some actually do use this kind of language!). So the premeditated killing of these innocent victims is no different from the same act if performed after birth. There is no point after conception for their recognition as citizens with full rights to life that is not purely arbitrary.

Another act that counts as murder is suicide. If God owns all life, then I have no more right to terminate my own than anyone else's. Either way I am usurping His sovereignty. Suicide is ultimately an act of selfishness. It is very different from risking one's life in a noble cause, or even laying it down for someone else. Nor does this require us to use any and every excessive and dehumanizing means to prolong the natural process of death. Turning off a machine can be a responsible choice, for it still allows God the ultimate decision. "Active" Euthanasia, on the other hand, is much more problematic, and in such cases euthanasia is often a euphemism for suicide.

What then of slow suicide? I mean such things as smoking, the use of illegal drugs, gluttony, etc. Are we not simply disguising the act of suicide in such matters by using a slower process? If we killed someone else slowly rather than quickly, people would think the act more heinous. Why should we not apply the same principle to ourselves? It is something to think about.

And then there is National Suicide. In Deut. 28:15, 25, 28-29, 63, God asks Israel to make a choice between life and death--life if they follow His law, death if they do not. The nation that gives life to those God wants killed and gives death to those He wants to live; the nation that refuses to order its laws according to the Law of God; the nation that turns away from the God who is the source of life; that nation seeks death and is committing social and cultural suicide.

Finally, there is what we might call "Inward Murder." According to Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, God considers hating our brother in our heart to be cut out of the same moral cloth as murder itself. This the state does not and should not punish, for it is incompetent to judge it--Cop looketh on the outward appearance. But God sees the heart. Therefore, envy, resentment, bitterness, and anger should be rooted out of our hearts, lest we be considered murderers within by One who can and does judge such things.


What then have we learned? Respect for life must flow from respect for God. On any other basis, it degenerates into a mere disguise for power-hunger and oppression, and becomes a cultural death wish. God owns all life, and it can therefore lawfully only be given or taken on His terms. Therefore, both our original marchers were acting consistently. The Humanist out of a false and unordered compassion wants to spare criminals from justice and spare mothers from responsibility for the consequences of their lifestyle choices; so he opposes capital punishment and supports abortion. The Christian out of a true and lawful love seeks life on God's terms, and so wants to protect the innocent and oppressed and punish the wicked; so he supports capital punishment if it can be carried out equitably and opposes abortion. Both seem to be inconsistent if we are looking simply at life, for they both seem arbtrarily to want to give it to some bu not to others; but actually, both are acting consistently in accordance with the deeper principles that flow from their world views, which inform the meaning they give to life. Which of them shall we be? We can either take a clear stand for Christ and His Law, or we can contribute to the national suicide going on around us. May God help us choose life on His terms, so that He may grant it more abundantly.

Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 01/27/2003