Sin and Crime

A sin is any thought or action that is prohibited by God. A crime is defined as a breach of a rule or law for which a punishment may be prescribed by a governing authority. The English word crime come the Latin word "crimen" and Greek word "krino" meaning judge. In this article, I use the word crime for any breach of a law that is punishable by judges.

Biblical law distinguishes between crime and sin. Judges do not deal with all sin. They are limited to dealing with crimes.

According to the Old Testament, only a few sins are also crimes. For example, coveting is listed as a sin in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:17), but there is no punishment specified for coveting. Although coveting is a sin, it is not a crime. The obvious reason for this is that it would be impossible to prove to a judge that a person is coveting. No one can testify that another person is coveting, because we cannot see into another person's mind.

This places a clear limit on the power of judges. They can only punish actions. They must not attempt to control our thoughts. Judges are not required to eliminate all sin, as this would be impossible. Their role is limited to punishing the few sins that really disrupt the functioning of society.

Theft is specified as a sin in the Ten Commandments, but in this case the bible also specifies a punishment. This means that theft is both a sin and a crime (Ex 22:1-4). Once a man acts on his coveting and steals from his neighbour, judges have authority to act against him. His actions are visible, so witnesses can observe and testify against him. This provides judges with a basis for dealing with theft.

Crimes are a small subset of all of sins. They can be identified by determining whether biblical law specifies a remedy or penalty. If a sanction is specified, the sin is the crime. If there is no sanction, the sin is not a crime.

Human judges have no authority to deal with sins that are not specified to be a crime, because God has reserved them for himself. He can see into people's hearts, so he is best placed to deal with them.

The surprising truth is that God has specified only two types of sin for which remedy or punishment can be imposed by a human court.

In a biblical system of justice, judges are limited to dealing with the two types of activity.

Penalties for Crime

The Bible specifies the penalties that judges must apply for each crime. These penalties are still relevant in the modern world. The most surprising thing is that there are not prisons are not mentioned.

Prisons have no place in God's justice system. There are no prisons in biblical law, so it is not surprising that prisons do not work. They put criminals together in one place and cut them off from the rest of society for long periods of time. Prisoners will learn to hate society, so they are unlikely to be reformed. There is no biblical basis for locking people up as a punishment for crime.

Sometimes a person accused of murder may need to be kept safe from people seeking revenge. The leaders of a community are required to protect the accused person until a fair trial can be held.

They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that a person accused of murder may not die before he stands trial before the assembly (Num 35:12).

Innocent blood puts a curse on the land. A person accused of murder should be kept safe until they have received a fair trial.


The basic principle in biblical law is that a person who is convicted of a crime must make restitution to the victim of their crime. For example, the penalty for theft is four or fivefold restitution to the victim.

If a man steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep (Ex 22:1).

The thief must pay his victim four times the value of what he has sold. The compensation beyond the value of what was stolen makes up for the cost of tracking down the thief. It also acts as a deterrent against theft. A thief will not get caught every time, so if he only had to pay back what was stolen, he might decide to risk the crime, knowing that when if he gets caught, he can just give back the stolen goods. The fourfold repayment reduces the economic benefits of theft.

An ox gets additional restitution because it can be used to pull a heavy load. It is a capital good that can be used to produce a stream of income into the future, so is more valuable to its owner than a sheep. Stealing an ox makes the owner less productive for the lifetime of the oxen. Using a modern example, the theft of a carpenters tools (his capital goods) costs him more than the theft of something he has made. This is why additional restitution is required. Biblical law requires fivefold restitution for the any capital goods that are stolen.

This is very different from the modern system of fines and imprisonment. All fines get paid to the state, so the victim gets nothing. If the criminal is sent to prison, innocent citizens pay the cost and the victim still misses out, which is very unfair. In the biblical system the victim gets compensated for their loss.


The compensation a victim of crimes receives will be sufficient to pay for the cost of tracking down the criminal. This gives power to the victim. In the modern system, the victim of theft has to rely on the police to track down the criminal. If theft is not a priority for the police, nothing will happen. Under the Old Testament system, the victim can pay someone to track down the criminal knowing that his compensation will pay the cost. The victim can decide what action should be taken.

People with detective skills could track down criminals on the condition that they only get paid if they get a conviction. Provided they get a conviction for about half of the crimes they investigate, they will be able to recover their costs from their clients.

State Monopoly

God's law gives judges responsibility for punishing crime. The modern state has rebelled against God's law. It demands a monopoly over justice, but refuses to provide justice for its citizens. Taxpayer money is spent on a variety of causes that buy popularity, but justice is neglected. The police refuse to investigate many thefts, because the amount stolen is too small. The state knows what is should do, but refuses to do it. It knows what is should not do, and does that (shades of Romans 7:21-24). Biblical law gives citizens control over justice.

Petty crime is a serious problem in many societies, because most police forces do not have the resources to investigate minor crimes. The problem with this is that most criminals start off small when they are young, and then move on to more serious crimes as they get away with it. Petty crime needs to be "nipped in the bud" to prevent an escalating cycle of crime.

The biblical restitution model provides a good solution to this problem. Young people convicted of petty theft could have a compulsory automatic payment attached to their bank account for the fourfold restitution. They would quickly learn that crime does not pay.

Bonded Employment

For the biblical system of restitution to function effectively, a process will be needed for people who cannot afford to pay the required restitution. If poor people are not required to make restitution, they could commit crime with impunity. The biblical solution to the problem of the poor thief is the "restitution loan". If the convicted thief owns property, they would probably need to sell something to make restitution. If the person does not own property, they would have to find someone, hopefully a family member or neighbour from their Ten or Hundred, who will lend them the money to make restitution.

In exchange for this loan, the criminal would become a "bonded employee" of the lender. While under the bond, the criminal would be provided money to cover food and shelter, but the rest of their earnings would go towards repaying the loan (Ex 22:3). The bonded employee would be under travel restrictions and would not be able to travel far from their place of work. An electronic tracking device may be needed to ensure that they do not escape to avoid payment. The criminal would probably have to promise good behaviour to the person making the loan. This should assist with the rehabilitation of the criminal.

Strict rules would apply to the treatment of "bonded employees". If they are mistreated, they could go before a judge and claim their freedom as compensation (Ex 21:26,27; Deut 15:12-18).

The length of the bond would depend on the amount stolen and the size of the restitution. If the items stolen were valuable, the restitution might be quite a large amount, so the criminal might lose their freedom for several years. The thief would be giving the lender a mortgage over their life. The bible teaches that "a borrower is a slave of the lender" (Prov 22:7), so the penalty for theft will be a slave-like life.

The length of the bond would also depend on productive capacity of the criminal. Unlike a charity loan to someone who falls into poverty, the debt would not be cancelled after seven years (Ex 21:2), so a thief with a bad attitude might be under bond for a long time.

The thief would have an incentive to work hard and increase his skills. By becoming more productive to his employer, he might be able negotiate an earlier release from the bond. Developing good work habits and increasing his earning power would make the thief less likely to offend in the future.

Bonded employment is a new concept for many Christians, but it is very similar to modern social welfare systems. The state gives poor people sufficient money for food and shelter, but in return it takes control over its beneficiaries and puts limits on their lives. It can make them go to work, and if they earn more than a certain amount, it can take it off them. This is a form of "state slavery". Under the biblical system of justice, convicted thieves will face a similar lack of freedom, but they will be bonded to relatives or people from their local community who know them, rather than an impersonal government department.


The restitution principle also applies to assault. The person who assaults another must pay compensation to his victim for any injuries or damage to property caused by the assault. A practical example is given in the following verses.

If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible, if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed (Ex 21:18-19).

The person who assaults another must compensate his victim for any income lost as a result of the crime. If the violent man refuses to pay, the victim could also claim the cost of obtaining compensation. The fairness of this solution contrasts dramatically with our modern system, where victims of assault get very little help and if they try to get financial compensation most of the benefit goes to their lawyers.

An Eye for an Eye

The expression "an eye for an eye" is well known, but it is totally misunderstood. Almost everyone assumes that the law requires physical vengeance for personal injuries. Even Christians assume that the Old Testament literally requires "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", because they have never bothered to check what the law actually requires. An examination of Exodus 21:23-25 shows that it purpose is almost totally opposite to this popular view.

If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Ex 21:22-25).

The passage specifies financial compensation for the loss of the baby and not physical vengeance. The context is a situation where two men fighting have hit a pregnant woman and she gives premature birth. The mother is entitled to the financial compensation demanded by her husband and approved by the court. "An eye for an eye" is nothing more than a principle for deciding the value of the economic restitution a criminal should make to their victim of an assault.

Courts will decide compensation to be paid, by determining the economic value of an eye. It would try to assess the value of the income and enjoyment lost through the lack of an eye. This is a bit like the lump-sum compensation provided by some accident insurance schemes, where the loss of an arm was worth more than the loss of an eye. An "eye for an eye" means that a person who loses an eye will receive compensation for the loss of any eye. If the victim loses the use of their leg, the criminal will have to pay compensation for the loss of that limb.

Most English translations put the word "but" at the beginning of Exodus 21:23 to make it sound like a different principle from what precedes it, but there is no "but" in the original Hebrew. The verse refers to financial compensation. Using it to justify physical revenge is only possible if Moses' words are taken out of context.


Jesus also dealt with this issue in the Sermon on the Mount. In his time, the "eye for and eye" principle was being used as an excuse for physical revenge. Jesus made a twofold response. First he reminded the people that the common understanding was different from what God had said. The popular meaning was a distortion of God's words to Moses (Matt 5:38). Secondly, Jesus raised the standard required for his disciples. He reminded them that the common saying that you should "love your neighbour and hate your enemy" was also twisting God's standards Matt 5:43, Lev 19:18). We must bless those who harm us.

"An eye for an eye" is not a rule for personal behaviour, but a principle to be applied in a court of law. If someone gives me a black eye, I should not immediately hit him back, but should "turn the other cheek". However, if a person is assaulted and loses their eye, they are entitled to compensation for that loss. The court should use the principle of an "eye for an eye" to determine the amount of economic compensation that the violent person should pay to the person that injured them. A Christian might choose not to take the compensation, but sometimes they might need it to live on.


The biblical penalty for murder is death. Some crimes to be so serious, that death is the only just penalty.

Anyone who strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death. However, if he does not do it intentionally, but God lets it happen, he is to flee to a place I will designate. But if a man schemes and kills another man deliberately, take him away from my altar and put him to death (Ex 21:12-14).

Intentionally and deliberately killing another person is such a serious crime that the death penalty is required by the law. We were created in the image of God, so killing a person is like striking at the image of God. The family of the murdered man who is robbed of all the income he would have earned during the rest of his life, so murder is a very costly crime.

The death penalty provides a strong deterrent for murder, but this is not its primary purpose. The basic reason for the death penalty is that justice requires it. A human life is so valuable that deliberately destroying a life deserves the ultimate sanction. Justice requires that a penalty for a crime is equal to the crime.

The law distinguishes between murder and manslaughter. The death penalty only applies where the murder is planned in advance. If the death is accidental, God has allowed it to happen (Ex 21:13). Murder has not occurred, so the death penalty is not required. Num 35 16-24; Deut 19:4-7 give some examples.

Many Christians feel uneasy about the death penalty, believing it is cruel and harsh. However, we should be careful about standing in judgement on God's word. If he says that some murders are serious enough to require the death penalty, we should be careful about saying he is wrong. When men and women decide what is good and evil, they have taken the place of God. Before rejecting the death penalty, we should understand the way it should be applied. This is quite different from modern practices.

Hardness of Heart Principle

In addition to murder, the law also specifies the death penalty for adultery. However, the hardness of heart principle means that the death penalty should not be enforced for these crimes. Here is how this principle works. Although adultery was listed as a crime in the Ten Commandments, this law was never enforced by Moses.

Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning (Matt 19:8).

Moses did not enforce the law against adultery, because the people's hearts were hard. There were so many people committing adultery that applying biblical sanctions would have been unacceptable. God does not want his law to be enforced on a society that is opposed to it. If a law is constantly disobeyed, the authority of the entire law will be undermined. If adultery were widespread, a law against it would be a joke. Better to put the law on hold until society has changed.

If a law is being ignored, judges should stop enforcing that law. This is what Moses did. Instead of undermining respect for God's law by failing to enforce a law against the adultery that the people did not want, he chose not to enforce it. In a society, where relationship breakdowns are widespread and accepted as normal by most of society, enforcing a law against them would be impossible. The laws against adultery should be taken "off line" due to "hardness of heart" (cf Matt 19:8).

In a Christian society adultery should be very rare, so this penalty would seldom be enforced. Public disapproval would mean that adultery would never occur in public, so the required three independent witnesses would not be available. The death penalty is specified for adultery to remind us of the strength of God's disapproval for it, but it should never need to be enforced.

God hates adultery. We were created in the image of God, so a man and a woman "becoming one flesh" is the best representation of the image of God. From this it follows that adultery is an insult to the image of God. Just as he hates divorce because it mars his image, he hates the effect that they have on families and the structure of society. Adultery is treason against the Kingdom of God. The death penalty reminds us of the seriousness of adultery, but God's mercy prevents it from being applied.


An important aspect of biblical mercy is the ransom principle. A person sentenced to death can pay a ransom to have their sentence commuted. The first reference to financial compensation for crime in Exodus 21:22-25, includes "life", so financial compensation is appropriate where a life has been taken. In a world without state social welfare, this provides financial sustenance for the victim's family. The law allows a convicted criminal to pay a ransom to the victim's family as an alternative to the death penalty (Num 35:31). In many cases, the victims of the crime will prefer a ransom, as they would benefit economically, whereas the criminal's death would bring them no benefit.

The court would decide the value of the ransom in agreement with the victims of the crime (or their family). The value of the ransom should approximate the discounted value of the victim's future earnings. The wife of murdered man should be given the discounted value of the income that her husband would have provided her during the rest of his working life. Some criminals would want to die, but most would prefer to make restitution to the family of their victim.

If the criminal cannot afford the required ransom, they could borrow the ransom from their family or someone in their community. They would need to sell themselves as a "bonded employee" to a person who can pay the ransom. To get the loan, a criminal would have to demonstrate repentance, which would be good for society.

The ransom is an instrument of mercy, but it is not an easy option. The seven-year limit for charity loans does not apply to someone borrowing to pay a ransom in lieu of a death penalty, so the murderer still be getting a life sentence. The difference is that but they could pay for their crime while living at home and working for the person who paid their ransom. They would not be able to travel away from their place of work, but at least they would not be locked up. This is more merciful than the modern practice of imprisoning people for life.

Brutal Murder

Evil men who are a risk to society would not be allowed to pay a ransom for their freedom.

Do not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer, who deserves to die. He must surely be put to death (Num 35:31).
A ransom must not be accepted for a really serious murder that "deserves death". This confirms the view that some murders are so awful that the murderer "deserves to die", but a ransom is sufficient for less horrendous murder and manslaughter.

The subject of the command in Num 35:31, which is the murderer, is qualified, so it does not apply to all murderers. It does not ome out in the English translations, but the qualification uses the Hebrew word "rasha", which means "wicked". I infer this to mean that no ransom is allowable for murderers that are staunch in their wickedness. This makes sense to me. Some murderers are so evil and incorrigible that the death penalty is the only realistic solution.

A serial killer or serial rapist who is unrepentant would continue to be a danger to his community if the was allowed to pay restitution. He could not be locked up in prison, so the death penalty was the way to protect the community from a dangerous community. Just as a sheepdog that develops a habit of worrying sheep has to be put down, a person who becomes so evil that they murder several people, may need to be killed to protect the community from harm. This is probably more merciful than locking them up and throwing away the key for thirty years.


In biblical times, the stoning was the most common method for enforcing the death penalty (Lev 24:23), but it is a technology, not a principle. Stoning is not mandatory, but can be replaced by any technology that achieves the same result. The stoning technology had several benefits for the administration of justice. Death would generally be quick, so suffering was minimised. A hit on the head would quickly render the criminal unconscious. The other benefit is that nobody would know which stone actually killed the criminal, so no individual is responsible for the criminal's death. At least twenty representatives of the community would be involved, so the death penalty would be the action of the entire community.

Several principles about the application of the death penalty can be derived.

Limited Use

Many people feel that the death penalty is not appropriate in the modern world.Three different factors that limit the use of the death penalty mitigate against these concerns about the death penalty.

1. Mercy over Judgment

Mercy should always triumph over judgement (Jam 5:13). For the death penalty to be implemented, a group of witnesses, judges and community leaders would each have to be willing to enforce it. If just one judge or witness were squeamish, the death penalty would be commuted. This would make the death penalty quite rare. The crime would have to be sufficiently horrendous to overcome their revulsion towards the death penalty. They could not pretend that it was not happening, but would have to look the murderer in the eye.

Most judges and witnesses would choose mercy, especially if the criminal was willing to pay a ransom. If there were any doubt about guilt or any extenuating circumstances, they would refuse to implement the death penalty to avoid being guilty of killing an innocent person. If a criminal has repented and made peace with God, they would prefer a ransom to a death penalty. God's justice leaves room for mercy.

On the other hand, some murders are so horrendous, that a death penalty seems to be the only just penalty. A person who sadistically kills several people or tortures and kills children seems to deserve a harsh penalty. Some repeat offenders are so incorrigible, that society may need to be protected from them. Locking them up for a lifetime is cruel and costly, so the death penalty might be a kinder solution. I suspect that in these situations, a community would be willing to implement a life sentence. They would also be unwilling to accept a ransom.

2. Youth Rate

Another aspect of biblical mercy is that a youth must not be executed for a capital crime without the consent of both his parents. Parents have the power to override the judges and veto a death penalty. If they are willing to take responsibility for his discipline, he shall not be put to death.

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard." Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death (Deut 21:18-21).

The context for this passage is the death penalty for murder. If a young man is so stubborn and rebellious that his mother and father give up all hope for him, he should be put to death, before he does more harm to society. If his parents believe that there is hope for the youth, he must be given another chance (see also Ex 20:12,12; 21:15,17).

3. Opportunity to Flee

The entire community was required to stone the offender, so this penalty was easy to escape.

The whole assembly must stone him with stones outside the camp (Num 15:35).

If every person in the community was carrying a stone, the offender could flee. The offender would be able to run faster and get away, because the other people were carrying stones. The offender would not be able to Return to their community, so they would be in exile forever. In practice, stoning will usually translate into exclusion from the community. The person would only be put to death, if they stayed and faced their accusers.

Image of God

This combination of death penalty and ransoms will only work effectively in a Christian society. The reason that we can exercise the death penalty is that we are made in the image of God.

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God has God made man (Gen 9:6).

The ability to make wise judgements is something that we inherit from God. When a society turns away from God, the image of God is lost, and with that goes the wisdom to make wise judgement. Without the presence of God in their lives the jury may lack the mercy that many situations require. Without the love of God in our hearts, the desire for revenge might overcome us. Justice functions best when the image of God is restored in man through the work of the cross.

Perfect Justice

A common concern about the death penalty is that innocent people might be put to death. This concern is based on the frequent mistakes of modern courts. They often rely on dodgy witnesses and circumstantial evidence when making decisions. Often new evidence comes to light that proves an earlier decision wrong. Human systems of justice will always be imperfect.

Christians know that perfect justice is impossible here on earth, but we also know that everyone will receive perfect justice on the last day when we appear before God's court. In this context, the death penalty is not a cruel punishment, but a referral to a higher court that provides perfect justice.

Human justice is never final, so judges in a biblical system of justice can apply a much higher standard of proof than modern courts. A person will only be convicted of a capital crime if there are three independent, innocent witnesses. Convictions for murder will be rare, as most murders will not be witnessed by three innocent people and circumstantial evidence will not be allowable. Criminals will we frequently escape justice while on earth, but they will still receive their just deserts in eternity.

In a few rare cases, innocent people will receive the death penalty due to miscarriage of justice. However, a person arriving at the last judgement having paid the penalty for a murder committed by another person will get a very sympathetic hearing. Jesus might say, "The same thing happened to me". Being referred to a higher court that provides perfect justice will be better than being imprisoned for twenty years for a crime you did not commit.

Rare Penalty

The adoption of all these principles will make the death penalty very rare in a Christian society.

The Bible imposes a number of requirements that will make the death penalty vey rare. All of the following conditions must be met before the death penalty can be imposed.

The fleeing criminal would lose the protection and privileges that come through being part of a tribe or community. He might find it difficult to find another tribe or community to participate in and might end up living among other outlaws. This would be dangerous as someone might seek revenge by paying someone to kill him.

Most situations where the death penalty is imposed in America will fail to meet one of these conditions. If these conditions were imposed in America, the death penalty would almost disappear. The Bible is much more merciful than American justice. People who assume that the Old Testament is harsh do not understand it.

The death penalty would generally only be applied for particularly brutal murders. This demonstrates the holiness and mercy of God. While his holiness demands serious penalties for serious sins, his mercy has put in place a process that ensures many people do not receive the full penalty that their crimes deserves. This does not matter, as everyone will get full justice in the age to come. A society that become harsh and applies the death penalty ruthlessly has forgotten the mercy of God.

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