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Author Topic: Capital Punishment in the New Testament
Rakeesh
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The thread title says most of it, really. I was having a discussion to pass the lunch break with some co-workers of mine yesterday, and surprisingly I wasn't even the one to bring up politics or religion or anything else [Smile] . Somehow or other we meandered onto execution, and as we had just been discussing religion that got involved as well. I can't recall who exactly steered things this way, but biblical support for the death penalty was mentioned.

I questioned how much Christian support there is, exactly, for the death penalty. Obviously there's a lot of it in the Old Testament-I'm reading through the Old Testament, in fact-but I haven't read even a majority of the New Testament. So I cannot really say for certain that the woman was wrong when she said that the death penalty is permitted in the New Testament-I was unwilling to argue that particular point.

What I was discussing with her was that even if it is permitted-she claims to have read the entire New Testament more than once, but she could not remember even generally where this support was-there are other things in the New Testament that are not just permitted but encouraged, things such as mercy, forgiveness, patience, restraint, and avoiding bloodthirstiness.

As in many discussions of capital punishment, a host of real scumbags was brought up and thrown at me as an example of, "Well what about this guy?" as though I somehow approved of what that person did, or at least didn't think it was as bad as they did, just because I wasn't waiting in line to throw the switch so to speak. That's where I got the 'bloodthirsty vengeance' vibe from the discussion, and I think that in particular is a pretty unChristian (although certainly understandable) point of view.

Anyway, I'm about to start searching for what my thread title speaks about online, but there is such a number of biblically very well-versed people on Hatrack, that I thought it'd be foolish not to tap that resource as well.

I hesitated to post this since capital punishment is one of the half-dozen or so things that's almost certain to create a firestorm, but I think the topic is sufficiently narrow that perhaps we can avoid that. Please bear in mind that I'm asking for any New Testament support for execution, not whether or not execution is a desireable method for dealing with certain criminals. So, if you take up that question, any ensuing firestorms have nothing to do with me:)

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King of Men
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Well, I don't know. Off the top of my head, there's "Render unto Caesar", which you could interpret as letting the secular authority do whatever it likes on the subject. In a similar vein is the explicit support of slavery, and the part where Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world.

On the other hand, there's a bunch of forgiving your enemies, not stoning adulterers, and so on. And on the cross, Jesus says to one of the people being killed with him that they will dine in Heaven together, so clearly he doesn't think criminals are unworthy of paradise. (There again, this is Roman justice we're talking about; perhaps he wasn't feeling at his most charitable towards judges and police at that instant.)

In short, you can argue it either way, just like any other subject you'd care to find support for in the Bible. I think your best bet is to get a good leather-bound version with large print, and use it as a bludgeon.

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docmagik
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Paul makes a clear list of sins that warrant the death penalty in the first chapter of the Epistle of Romans.

I guess the case could be made he meant some kind of spiritual death, though.

The exact words are, "Who knowing the judgement of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them."

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Rakeesh
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Well after a quick search I've turned up a few references in support of capital punishment in the New Testament.

KJV, Romans says,
quote:
13:4
For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

13:5
Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

13:6
For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

13:7
Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Now to me obviously this includes capital punishment since that's one thing governments have historically done. But it is not a specific endorsement, either. And just by mentioning the 'sword', lethal force is not solely implied, either. Force and violence up to lethal force are implied, I think. But that's just my interpretation.

Acts 25:11
quote:
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.
But, again, this is not entirely an explicit support of capital punishment. This is in my opinion one good (obviously VERY good) man saying, "If I do wrong, I am willing to bear the penalty." This is not necessarily saying, "I agree with this penalty and Christ thought it was a good thing."
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Rakeesh
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Does worthy of death mean, "OK, Christ says it's fine to go ahead and kill them."
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docmagik
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I would rephrase that to be, "Christ says it's okay for them to be killed." I'm not allowed to do it, but if they've done something that the law of the land has decreed will result in their lives being ended, then they've created their own consequence.

Yes, society still accepts responsiblity for the death, but it's not my decision.

This is an important distiction. It is vital to Christianity that I forgive everyone. However, it is vital to a functional society that society does not forgive the unrepentant, and actually inflicts the punishment crimes warrant. So it is not vital for a goverment founded on Christian principles to practice the same type of Christianity as a Christian individual.

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King of Men
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But surely you are part of a secular society? You cannot simply absolve yourself of its acts like that! Society is not some independent creature with a will of its own, it is simply the emergent effect of all our individual decisions.

Now, back in Roman times, that's different. It's not as though the emperors were democratically elected, even if the forms of the Republic were preserved. It was perhaps not unreasonable for your average citizen to wash his hands of what the state did. But I do think it is unreasonable today.

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littlemissattitude
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quote:
Originally posted by Rakeesh:
Does worthy of death mean, "OK, Christ says it's fine to go ahead and kill them."

This is where I am. I fully realize and agree that there are people who do such heinous things that they deserve to die for them. However, I don't think that necessarily means that society should go ahead and off people just because they deserve it.
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opiejudy
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I look at this two ways. If you are looking at it biblically, as I am probably not the best person to do, you have the old testament which states an eye for an eye and basically says that yes you need to find a punishment fitting the crime. If you read the new testament there is a lot there about forgiveness and that is something to be taken into consideration.

Personally I think that the death penalty is immoral, I find it not my right or priviledge to take someone elses life no matter the circumstances. of ocurse that leads to another point brought about by the original poster "waht about this person" or even what if someone were to harm one of my children. thsi question is proprosed to me all the time as an opponent of the death penalty. Here is my answer: I am a human being if someone wree to hurt my children I would absolutely have the same feelings any other person would, I would want them dead. This still does not change my position. Me giving into human emotion and wanting someone dead does that make that decision any more or less moral. I am of the opinion that it is not my right or priviledge to take anothers life. Will that stop me from doing it if someone ever hurt my chidlren, I hope I never have to find out, but no matter what emotion at that point overtakes me, it certainly makes the death penalty still immoral in myeyes. I never claimed to always do waht was right.

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docmagik
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KoM, I wasn't absolving myself.

I said I don't think it neccesarily follows logically that Christ wanted governments to be a certain way simply because he wanted people to live thier individual lives that way.

If a government were to turn the other cheek, and forgive until 7 times 70, there would be no recourse for the law abiders.

Christ counseled individuals not to judge, but aknowledged government judges as part of his parables. He wasn't arguing that all earthly judgements should be eliminated, and neither should all earthly punishment.

For example, it would be a sin for me to take you and stick you in a room in my house for any length of time against your will, no matter what you may have done. However, no one would argue that it was a sin for the government to do it. I would not need to personally feel guilty of kidnapping or hostage taking if my society used imprisonment as punishment for crimes.

Similarly, it does not necessarily follow that a nation taking the life of one who has proven himself willing to kill another is the same as when that person killed another simply because he wanted to.

I'm not saying it can't follow--I respect that others disagree with me, and many have good points. I'm just saying it doesn't have to.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that it doesn't matter whether or not the society is secular. I'm saying that even if it was an entirely Christian society it's not a given, or even neccesarily logical, that the government should have the same guiding standards as individuals.

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Xaposert
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I have to say that I disagree with attempts to base broad ethical claims on brief quotes from the Bible. I think it's not unlike how one of the Michael Moores of the world might take one line from Bush's speech out of context to make it sound like he's saying something he is not. I suspect you can find something in the Bible that you can interpret in some way to support almost anything you want.

Having said that, I think if you look at the overall message and story of the New Testament, I don't think Christ's teachings are very consistent with the death penalty. He generally offers a message of love, mercy, and forgiveness, rather than telling followers to take justice through violence. Futhermore, his story is fundamentally one that is about a death sentence gone wrong. I can't think of any incident that would cast doubt on the value of the death penalty more than making the mistake of giving the death penalty to God's morally perfect human equivalent.

However, the Old Testament certainly seems to contradict some of this.

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Irregardless
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quote:
Originally posted by Xaposert:
Having said that, I think if you look at the overall message and story of the New Testament, I don't think Christ's teachings are very consistent with the death penalty. He generally offers a message of love, mercy, and forgiveness, rather than telling followers to take justice through violence.

Using this logic, one can also say that Christ's teachings aren't very consistent with imprisonment.
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Bob_Scopatz
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Irregardless...

Are you saying that they are? Or is your point merely that it is possible to put words into Jesus' mouth when, in fact, we don't really have a record of him explicitly talking about a specific topic of our choice?

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BlackBlade
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There is that one story in The Acts, where the members of the church are commanded to have all things "in common" and 2 people hold back the money they got from a land sale I believe. Peter approaches the man and says something to the effect "we know what you have done, why have you held back this money" and the man dies on the spot, his wife is then rolls up and peter says something like "The men who have buried your husband will also carry you out" and the woman dies on the spot. I am not sure exactly how they die the scriptures are vague. It seems just as unlikely that they died of sheer embarassment, as that God zapped them both. Read the reference for yourself,
Acts 5:1-11

This is the only clear cut case I can see of people commiting sin and dying as a result in the NT. As a personal feeling I cannot envision the Christians who formed the church when Jesus left as being without a death penalty. I would think a principle of that sort with how ancient it was would require some sort of specific commandment to abolish. Such a commandment does not exist as far as I can tell.

I can think of alot of stories of Jesus and others in the NT that you could use to imply that he would be for capital punishment. But I dont really care to imply, as you could construe them to imply alot of other things.

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Occasional
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You also have to understand that the New Testament, like most Scripture, is only a very tiny miniscule taste of what was said and taught. Almost none of them have a question and answer section on policy and procedure. However, I do believe that the NT accepts the reality and necessity of government, including the death penalty and even slavery (most people recognize a difference between accepting a reality and endorsement). It also seems clear to me that it doesn't ask us to change or even get involved with government.

Most of the NT, including what Jesus Christ says, seems to indicate that governments should be left alone and even respected. Despite Christ's rather revolutionary teachings, his theme on government seems to be non-interference. Instead, the NT asks us to change ourselves and let the world do what it wants.

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David Azureal
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Wow, having just joined this forum, I have to state right off the bat that I'm pretty well amazed to find a forum like this, in which there exists a topic broaching Christianity, and yet maintaining such a high degree of civility. In short, you guys rock; now down to the dirty stuff.
I think one has to look at it all in context. The Bible states in many areas-in fact it seems to be an overriding theme-that a true believer shall always need to maintain obedience. Obedience towards God, obedience towards one's elders, especially one's parents. But also, obedience towards the Government underwhich one lives. This is because, in context, therefore hypothetically, the true believer trusts, KNOWS that this government, and others, exists only because God has made it happen. Therefore, we can glean from this that whether the Government is secularly driven, religiously driven, and in that vein not necessarily Christian but possibly Pagan, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, etc., then one is to assume that the law exists for a reason inside of God's plan. It's been beaten into most people's heads like that of a dead horse, that God uses any and every type of person in his judgement. He uses the just, the evil, the neutral(or as close too), and even your neighbor two houses down who just doesn't care-as long as he gets his chicken wings.
So, with this (long winded thought) in mind, we have to realize that the Bible is showing the extent to which God's judgement reaches. Even if the Government is corrupt and bound to fall to pieces, or has some weird ways of looking at things, it all happens for a reason, a purpose.
Maybe what I'm saying is wrong, I can only hope I know the truth, and maybe it means that I'm making punishment, law, all that stuff, take a back burner to the whole idea of merely being obedient for the sake, but I think one thing is clear and overriding.
What that is, is that the Bible isn't telling us to just act like sheep and follow whatever anyone with a varying degree of seconds added to their biological clock tells us, it is telling us that in trusting in God, we have to trust that the people put in positions of power, whether it be your mother, father, brother, uncle, president, judge, etc., are put there for a reason. If, under the terms in the Bible, they are good, they may be moved from that position as part of their destiny or someone else's, or for the same reason even if they're evil, then it stands to reason that obviously God has put this law into effect for a reason.
But I know, this may make skeptics out of some people who didn't know this, as to the validity and sanity of the wisdom in the Bible, but there's another aspect to that. Under our law, American law, for example (because obviously it isn't 'our' law to some of the people here), you have the right to petition those very laws you are told to live by. You have the right and the oppurtunities, providing for in the constitution, to find a LEGAL way to change the law. That could mean banning the death penalty on a statewide or national level; but then, that's how the government works, right?
In that same context, if a parent is treating their child in a way against the law, then even when the abused child is or isn't being obedient, that parent will be taken out of their position of power over that child.
I've digressed, in all probability, but I think my point, and what this comes down to (the death penalty and such), is that the Bible remains particularly vague in that area (or doesn't and I'm full of hot air) so that it is understood that obedience to God and his plan is placed above all else in our list of priorities.
Obviously a lot of people would dissagree, but you must understand, IN CONTEXT, the meanings of the verses of Bible.
Just as it is incredibly easy to go searching for fallacies, contradictions, or immoral preachings in the Bible, it is also just that easy to take what it says, the history behind it, and the examples it provides, out of context.
One of the posters was right, and this was a tactic that Michael Moore used. What came of it? We didn't suddenly believe everything he tried to pass off as anything but intellectually parallel to Mcdonalds. It seems almost ironic, in a fashion, that one has to do a lot of research and hard thinking into what verses in the Bible mean, to really read and comprehend it. I personally have a really conflicted idea on it at this point. But erm...I guess that's all I have to say, without a fancy conclusion.

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Occasional
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"I think one has to look at it all in context."

Can someone explain this to me? I have heard this time and time again when it comes to Scriptures, and always in the same way. It is used as a blunt instrument to attack opposing viewpoints. Yet, all that is ever shown as proof is more proof text. I don't believe in the theory of scriptural context. There is not enough available information to form assumptions about meanings.

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zgator
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quote:
The Bible states in many areas-in fact it seems to be an overriding theme-that a true believer shall always need to maintain obedience. Obedience towards God, obedience towards one's elders, especially one's parents. But also, obedience towards the Government underwhich one lives.
I don't agree. The Bible tells us, I believe in one of Paul's letters, to obey our government unless they are requiring us to do something that is against God's law. If you do so, however, you have to be prepared to face the consequences of that act or whatever punishment that government has decided for that crime.
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MrSquicky
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Paul's wholehearted support for a panglossian divine right of kings has been widely disputed, especially in the past few centuries.

Most often it is lumped in with his more mysoginistic statements as being a limited ideal, based on fitting in with the times and political/social climate he was writing in. Others have pointed out that it speaks against free will and presumes to know the mind of God (i.e. assuming God does strictly control the governance of countries, there's no reason to believe that God expects no other reaction than submission to these governments. It's also entirely possible that God may have put things in place so that people rebel against them or for a mutlitude of other reasons that we perhaps cannot even comprehend.) It's also illuminating to note that, for much of it's early history (and in other places at other times), Christianity was considered illegal by the recognized governments of the countries it was practiced in, so it's not like this was held as an overridingly strong precept.

I was always a red letter Christian, so it honestly didn't bother me all that much. Paul said a lot of things that, while they may make sense in the context he was writing, I never found to fit with a more universal or contemporaneously relevant form of Christianity.

That being said, even from a red-letter perspective, there's no explicit condemation of capital punishment per se in the New Testament. There's also enough "Follow the laws of the land." stuff that you could say that, given that capital punishment were the law of the land, it would have biblical support.

There's a few caveats to this. The first is, with the advent of populist government beyond anything that was conceived of in Biblical times, the citizens are not merely subjects to the laws, but also the determiners of them. As such, it's not merely a question of obeying the laws about the death penalty, but also determining whether the death penalty should be part of the laws or not. Even the most authoritarian sects of Christianity aren't going to say that you are prohibited from working to change laws you feel are not correct.

Second, more important than the concrete fact of the death penalty being okay or not is the attitudes towards the death penalty. The fundamental rule of Christian behavior is love towards others, even your enemies. Justifying capital punishment through hatred (a la the "what about if person did x, y, and z terrible things") is never okay in Christian morality.

One theory of punishment is that it is only truely just if those carrying out the punishment can look at the person they are punishing as a human being akin to themselves. This is, perhaps, an impossible ideal to strive towards, but that doesn't mean that openly accepting hatred as rationale for punishment is ever consistent with Christian morals.

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MrSquicky
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As an aside, back when I was a Christian, I read the whole Bible through (though admittedly I skipped most of the begets) at least once a year and the New Testament (particularly the red letter sections) considerably more than that. Before I had my crisis of faith around 14 or so, I was planning on learning Greek so as to better understand it. Is this really such a rare thing?
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BlackBlade
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quote:
Originally posted by MrSquicky:
As an aside, back when I was a Christian, I read the whole Bible through (though admittedly I skipped most of the begets) at least once a year and the New Testament (particularly the red letter sections) considerably more than that. Before I had my crisis of faith around 14 or so, I was planning on learning Greek so as to better understand it. Is this really such a rare thing?

meh not really, many people when the reach their teenage years start to question everything. Values are redefined and religions are adopted and discarded. Learning the bible in hebrew or greek will give you a slightly better picture of what is being said, but I do not think it will convert anybody.
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MrSquicky
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err...not so much what I meant. I mean about not reading the Bible at all. I don't understand how that can be considered acceptable. But then again, my background was one that considered reading the Bible for yourself very important.
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BlackBlade
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Not quite sure what you mean. I would wager MOST Christians do not read their bible an adequate amount. Though I do not think there is some sort of Bible quiz at the pearly gates, I do think if the God of the Bible is the one true God, he would expect us to be well aquainted with his book and any other writings he sees fit to give us.
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zgator
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hmmm...I believe I was wrong. The only thing I can find from Paul says to obey the authorities with no exceptions. My interpretation must be coming from pairing that with what Jesus said about giving Ceasar what is Caesars and God what is God's.

Squicky, I think you are in the minority regarding your study of the Bible. I haven't known very many people who have studied the Bible in depth, at least not at a young age. Most people I know haven't even read it all the way through. I read it through years ago, but have only recently really started to search deeper.

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Mabus
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zgator, there is a passage in Acts--I don't recall exactly where, but in the first few chapters--in which two of the apostles are accosted by the temple guard for preaching and taken before the Sanhedrin. The apostles are ordered to stop preaching, but they refuse, saying that they must "obey God rather than man"--ie, ignore human laws where they contradict divine law.
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opiejudy
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quote:
Originally posted by BlackBlade:
Not quite sure what you mean. I would wager MOST Christians do not read their bible an adequate amount. Though I do not think there is some sort of Bible quiz at the pearly gates, I do think if the God of the Bible is the one true God, he would expect us to be well aquainted with his book and any other writings he sees fit to give us.

I took the perosn saying that not reading the bible is unacceptable, to be more of a how od youg et through life thing. The bible is an integral part of life. Whether you believe or you dont. If you believe it certainly it is your guide. If you don't believe, how do you know what you dont believe if you haven't read it? On top of that because here in the USA we are predominently christian society, there are jokes, innuendos and conversations that you would not "get" or be able to participate in without at least some knowledge of the bible. If you think about it you run into some christian reference quite a bit throughout the day. At least that is my experience and I am a non-christian.
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MrSquicky
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That's not what I meant at all. I certainly didn't mean to say that non-Christians need to read the Bible (although I do agree that it opens up viewpoints to many important cultural and arty things).

It was more I don't understand how a Christian can think it's acceptable that they've never read the Bible. For that matter, I always a little amazed when, for example, some one announces that they're reading though the Bible and others respond as if this is something remarkable. It's really not that big a book and it's arguably supposed to be the most important book in a Christian's life. I don't get the idea that it's okay to not have read it or even to read it once and then you're done.

[ April 05, 2006, 01:15 AM: Message edited by: MrSquicky ]

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"I don't get the idea that it's okay to not have read it or even to read it once and then you're done."

That is what preachers are for. Seriously, a majority of Christians who think like that do so because they believe strongly in what they are taught from the pulpit. Why read the Bible when someone else can do that for you? Of course there are some who just can't read. With today's technology that shouldn't be an excuse.

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Or, there are some who can't get through (or can only get through once) all the begats, and the Laws, and the wars.

I haven't read it all the way through more than once, but I don't necessarily think that's the best way to get what you need out of it. I do look into it for the answers to questions, and I research it by topic - so there are some parts I know a lot better than others, some parts I have memorized, and some parts I would swear they've added since I read it last. [Smile]

As for the death penalty, I don't understand why some people try to take the New Testament apart from the Old, and discount the Old almost entirely. They're both from the same God. If Jesus was the Son of God, and that same God gave the laws in the Old Testament, then what's said in the Old Testament applies too.

Of course, Jesus did say that some of the laws were fulfilled - the Mosaic law of sacrifices that He gave to the children of Israel was fulfilled with His death and resurrection, and wasn't necessary anymore. And He also indicated that some of the ways the laws (as given to Moses) were being interpreted and added to in His day (by the current leaders) were not right. But that doesn't do away with the validity of the whole Old Testament.

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KoM,

Unfortunately I don't have much constructive to say about the Bible's approach to slavery, and in fact I don't honestly know much about it yet. I'm still reading, after all. But as for the bit about Caesar, all that means is that so long as your nation permits capital punishment for some crimes, then we should...permit our nation to permit it, basically.

But that's not an endorsement of every little thing the nation does, especially in a representative government where such things can change.

I generally think that the 3+ passages I've found in the NT that permit capital punishment (without praising it) should be much less important to any Christian than the many more times the values of peace, mercy, restraint, love, and forgiveness are taught.

One other thing, thanks for your participation in this thread. Since I regularly bark at you for your arguing methods in religious discussions, it's only equitible that I remark when I don't disapprove. As in this thread where your input is relevant, courteous, and useful. So, that's what I'm doing here. A bit pretentious, I know, but there you go:) (The leather-bound tome bit has been considered, but I think I'd keel over of irony before ever actually striking her)

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