Why Did God Order Sinners to Be Burned to Death?

In Leviticus 20:14 we read: “If a man takes a woman and her mother also, it is depravity; he and they shall be burned with fire, that there may be no depravity among you.” Leviticus 21:9 gives the same punishment for sexual immorality: “And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.” Critics of the Bible argue that these verses prove that the God of Scripture is a cruel tyrant who is unworthy of worship. If any nation today prescribed being burned to death for prostitution, we would say that nation is barbaric and levy sanctions against it. The Constitution forbids cruel and unusual punishment and no politician living today would ever advocate that we should burn criminals to death. Theological liberals evade the force of this argument by denying that these words come from God. They instead believe that these words reflect the beliefs of sinful Israel instead of Jesus. But Paul taught that all Scripture is breathed out by God, even if not all of it is binding on us today (2 Tim 3:16).

God gave this law to Israel for two reasons: as a deterrent so that no one would ever commit these sins and to paint a picture of hell which is what every sin deserves. The harsh laws of the ancient Near East were designed to keep people from ever thinking about breaking them. If the penalty is death for these sexual sins, then that severely limits the number of people who would dare break them. The law terrifies us because it shows us the penalty for breaking God’s law. The law of God is a reflection of his holiness and righteousness which cannot change. The law exposes us as sinners who stand under the sentence of God’s wrath (Rom 3:19-20). God’s law shows us our need of salvation. As Christians, we interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. These civil laws were designed specifically for national Israel living in their historical context as God’s chosen people. America is not God’s chosen people Israel. Because we are not Israel, the civil laws of Israel are not binding on us.

This command would be unjust if there is no future hell awaiting unrepentant sinners. A temporary fire which lasts for a moment is nothing compared to the eternal fire of hell. If a person has a moral objection to God’s command that certain heinous sins be punished with fire, then they certainly will have a problem with hell which is a fire that never ends. Liberals who do not believe that these commands come from God have no basis upon which to believe that the verses which teach on hell come from God either since hell is much worse than being burned to death. God commanded this penalty for certain types of sexual immorality because those who are sexually immoral will have their part in the lake of fire (Rev 21:8; 22:15).

But in an atheist universe, on what basis is it wrong to burn someone to death? There is no objective moral law binding on all people apart from God. Murder is wrong from a Christian perspective because murder is the taking of innocent human life and only God has the authority to take life. In order for life to be taken by the government, God must entrust the government with this authority and no government today is the same as Old Testament Israel. In order to say that it is wrong to burn someone to death, the atheist must borrow from the Christian worldview. It is only because people are made in the image of God that they have dignity and are distinct from animals. God’s Word alone provides an unchangeable basis for treating others the way we would want to be treated. Where God’s existence is denied, the government replaces God.

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