Is it allowed to beat a thief to death?

Last updated on February 22, 2021

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We are sinners saved by God’s grace. “But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God had the right to beat us to death, but instead He let His Son die so that we might live. What a tremendous love!

Loving sinners

If God loves sinners so much, it is clear what our calling is. We should love sinners as well, and always be ready to share the Gospel with them. If Christ died for sinners, it can hardly be a Christian thing to do to kill sinners. Our first duty to thieves is to love them and to seek to share the Gospel with them.

Defending

This does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves. Some Christians take Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to mean that. Jesus said: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:39-40). However, the more likely explanation is that we should not be in a fighting mood. If others want to fight about small things, well, let them have it. We keep our peace.

This does not mean that a Christian may not defend himself, or his family. So when a thief enters you house, you have the right to resist him. You may defend your family and your property. In extreme cases that may lead to the death of the thief, without that a Christian needs to feel guilty about that (Exodus 22:2).

Do not avenge yourself

But when we lead a Spirit-filled life, we will not cross the line from defending to taking revenge. To remind us of that, let us listen to what the Lord tells us through the apostle Paul in Romans 12:19-21:

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay”, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Legal punishment

In Romans 13:3-4, Paul speaks about rulers as the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer”. He stresses that “he does not bear the sword in vain”, and encourages his readers to do what is good, so that they don’t have to fear the one who is in authority. So instead of personal vengeance, we should seek righteousness by letting the authorities execute legal punishment — which might include putting a thief in jail. That way, society as a whole seeks to stop evil and to further righteousness. This is fully according to God’s will (see e.g. Exodus 22:2-4, Deuteronomy 17:8-13). In Jeremiah’s prophecies, God even promises a Messiah who will do exactly that: “he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33:15).

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