Having sold our house in Bolton to David and Lesley Moore, we had moved with our four children across the Pennines. Three years later I paid a rare visit to what had been our home church back there and was invited by the pastor to say a few words on the subject of capital punishment that had been debated in the House of Commons a few days earlier.
Roy Hattersley, a Member of Parliament who had been raised a Methodist, speaking on BBC Radio Four on the day before the debate declared the death penalty to be ‘immoral and basically unchristian’. My comment on his theology was: ‘He ought to have consulted God’s Book before claiming to speak on his behalf.’ But he was in safe company. The Church of England Synod on that same day voted 407 to 36 on a motion deploring the reintroduction of capital punishment. Bishop Michael of St German reckoned: to kill those who killed is to usurp a right belonging to God alone – the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London being of the same opinion.
That Sunday I quoted Genesis 9:6 (here I use The New Living Translation): ‘If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands. For God made human beings in his image’. This fundamental statement precedes the law given to Moses on Sinai – some aspects of that were fulfilled in Christ’s death and resurrection and therefore became ‘surplus to requirements’ so to speak. I also added Romans 13:4 (here again I use the NLT): ‘The authorities are God’s servants, sent for our good . . . [who] have the power to punish. . . They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong.’
The law of Moses
In the law given to Moses, capital punishment was required for:
- Murder (Numbers 35:17-18, 21).
- Sexual offences, including adultery, incest, rape and homosexual intercourse (see Deuteronomy 22:13-21 and Leviticus 20:1-16, 27).
- Witchcraft (Leviticus 20:27).
- Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16).
- Gross defiance of parental authority (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
All this contrasts with the 200 capital offences detailed in English law in the early nineteenth century, which included trivial theft and common assault! The death penalty was originally designated for gross outrages against:
- the human person; 2. the family; and 3. God himself.
Retribution and justice
These were the issues at stake. The question of ‘deterrence’ by ‘making an example’ of the offender was not the reason for such laws. ‘The Lord loves justice’ (Psalm 37:28), indeed ‘the Lord is a God of justice’ (Isaiah 30:18, English Standard Version). According to Paul in Romans 1:28-32, ‘murder . . . hate[red] of God, [and] insolen[ce] . . . [against] parents – those who do such things deserve to die.’
David Moore’s assassination
Here’s my reason for mentioning David Moore who had purchased our house. He was murdered within a few weeks of my remarks to his church. On the weekend before his death, while playing cricket with some church members, David was heard to say that he was so interested in the wonders of heaven that he would be happy to go there at any time! In my statement at his funeral service I had to be careful about what details I could mention as the pending court case was still sub judice. After the trial it all became public knowledge months later.
David sold insurance policies. The assassins had noticed, when he called at their home to tell them of policies on offer, how much he resembled the man of the house. The clients then decided to take out a life insurance, murder David and dumped his body beside a motorway in the Lake District, while the assassin escaped abroad so that his widow could claim a generous life insurance payment for his death.
David’s body was retrieved and now was the day of his funeral. I concluded my message with these three points:
- Whatever person or persons murdered David Moore deserved to hang for their fiendish perversion and this brutish waste of human life. ‘Indeed, you will surely go to hell for it, since ‘murderers [have] their fate in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death’ (Revelation 21:8).
- We are all virtual murderers. ‘There is not a person in this room, who has reached the age of accountability,’ I preached, ‘who doesn’t deserve the same: “You must not murder”. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment. But I say [said Jesus] if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to . . . the fires of hell’ (Matthew 5:21-22).’
- The royal pardon. ‘Mercy triumphs over judgment’ (James 2:13, New International Version), because of The Capital Punishment of the innocent Son of God at Calvary. Pontius Pilate who judged at his trial, the repentant thief crucified beside him on Golgotha, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him, all testified emphatically that Jesus was perfectly innocent. ‘Father, forgive them.’ he prayed while suspended on his cross. Now it is for us to plead guilty and receive his royal pardon.