informal essays

What Does The Bible Say About The Death Penalty?

The death penalty has received much attention in 2014. A botched execution in Oklahoma earlier this year reinvigorated both sides of the debate. According to Gallup polls, support for capital punishment in the United States has fallen from around 80% in the 90’s to around 60% now. A new movement has seen its abolishment in a handful of states in the last few years, leaving 32 with legal (though often rare) executions.

One of those is my home state of Missouri, which earlier this month executed its tenth convicted criminal – a record for the state that tied it with the much larger state of Texas for the most deaths in 2014.

I decided I opposed the death penalty after reading Preston Sprinkle’s Fight last year. With this year’s renewed attention, I read articles by Christians supporting the death penalty and found much I disagreed with. I read articles opposing but I found they did not address the strongest objections from the other side. So I thought it worthwhile to review my position, to seek out the best arguments against it, to determine if and why I still oppose it, and to attempt a defense of that position.

Christians living in modern democracies face an inherent challenge in applying Biblical ethics to the death penalty and many other political issues. We cite Old Testament verses which often refer to punishment for laws directly given by God to God’s people before the fulfillment of Jesus Christ. We cite New Testament verses which often refer to punishment for laws set by ungodly governments to God’s people after the fulfillment of Jesus Christ. We try to apply both of these different government-citizen dynamics to a modern context with yet a third dynamic, with laws set partially by God’s people for ourselves and others. We actually have influence in giving the laws and setting the punishments for them, as opposed to just responding to them. The challenges of these unique political relationships exist on top of the standard Biblical interpretational challenges of time and cultural differences, language translations, etc.

Thus it should be no surprise that Christians who hold the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God can come to different conclusions on political issues. Some cases remain clear – or at least parts of them – but in other cases there are no easy answers, as almost any passage that assumes one government-citizen dynamic has weaknesses in application to a different dynamic. We must caution our biases against too cleverly dismissing the context of an opposing passage as a result of these weaknesses when we might not apply the same rigorous skepticism to a supporting passage.

With that introduction, I am ready to address the question: Should Christians support or oppose their governments having the power to kill citizens who have been convicted of certain crimes?

Genesis 9:6

The most commonly cited verse in support of capital punishment is Genesis 9:6, in which God tells Noah after the flood,

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

This straightforward declaration of capital punishment was greatly expanded under the Mosaic covenant, but since the declaration precedes that, and since the reason given for the declaration transcends it (man made in God’s image), many Christians believe it still applies.

It could be debated whether this passage is prescriptive (giving a command to punish murder with death) or merely descriptive (observing that people who murder will tend to be killed by other people). It certainly could be more prescriptive (ex. “You shall shed his blood” rather than “by man shall his blood be shed”), but given the context of the surrounding verses as well as the coming expansion under the Mosaic covenant, I think a prescriptive reading makes more sense, and that’s why supporters believe it justifies the death penalty – at least for murder.

What is fascinating, though, is that in spite of how absolute this passage sounds, the Bible is full of stories where the rule is not applied. Going back to the very first murder, God accepted Cain’s plea for mercy from man’s retaliation for his killing of Abel (an interesting precedent*). A few verses later, Lamech boasts that he “killed a man for wounding me,” but there are no consequences mentioned for Lamech’s bloodshed (Genesis 4).

After the Noahic covenant, two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, slaughter all the men in a nearby village for what one man did to their sister (Genesis 34). By man Simeon and Levi’s blood is not shed. Moses kills a man for beating a slave and has to flee Egypt. God not only spares his life but brings him back as a conquering hero. God apparently almost kills him, not for murder, but for failing to circumcise his son, and he is forbidden from the Promised Land, again not for murder, but for an act of disobedience.

The Mosaic covenant established the death penalty for murder and sundry other sins. Among these was prostitution, yet a couple of them are in the line of Christ. So is David, who committed adultery compounded with murder, yet he did not pay with his life.

Of course, the Bible also records the death penalty in action. Phinehas is commended for spearing an immoral couple apparently in the act of intercourse (Numbers 25). Ehud executes a wicked, obese king (Judges 3), and he is far from the only lethal judge.

In a moment pivotal to his loss of the kingdom, Saul spares the king of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15). Samuel graphically “hacked Agag to pieces” after an explanation that is remarkably reminiscent of the Noahic retaliation principle: “As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.” (If you were looking for a passage that not only supports capital punishment but offers explicit disapproval of failing to apply it, you couldn’t ask for a better example. On the other hand, this was disobedience of a direct command, not of a general death-penalty law.)

Regardless, we have repeated examples of the Noahic principle not being followed between creation and Noah, between Noah and the Mosaic law, and between the Mosaic law and Jesus Christ.

Yes, Jesus! Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! If the Noahic principle always had cracks in it, Jesus seems to force those cracks wide open while turning the whole thing upside down.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment

Wait a minute. Is Jesus expanding the scope here? It almost sounds like he is suggesting that anyone who even gets angry might deserve to die. But whose is doing the judging here? Jesus continues…

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil…

Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5)

That’s radical. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure the persecution of first century Jews involved bloodshed. And Jesus is telling them not to seek retaliation, but to love and pray for their assailants? Some supporters counter that Jesus’ words are merely limiting personal vengeance, not the response of authorities. This may technically be true, but Jesus also seemed uninterested in personally appealing to authorities for that vengeance. Jesus did not add “Pray that the authorities will kill your enemies.” Or “Pray that your persecutors will be deterred from killing you.” Just love them. Wow.

John 8 famously tells of the woman caught in adultery, and is a favorite story of opponents. I’ve read more than one supporting article countering that Jesus was not sparing the death penalty here but was actually upholding the proper application of it because the Pharisees did not have the required number of witnesses. I’ve read a lot of theories about this story, but that claim feels like a stretch to me, considering that is not what Jesus said. One could perhaps argue Jesus was even elevating the death penalty standard higher than Moses – only to be applied by “him who is without sin”!

(Does this complete the Sermon on the Mount? It’s not just murderers, but all of us who deserve judgment, but we are not to give that judgment ourselves, we are simply to love and pray, because the only one who is to judge is God himself, the only one without sin? Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord? Or is that too much conflating of earthly and eternal consequences? Or, since the earliest manuscripts apparently do not contain the story of the adulteress, perhaps we should not make too much of it either way?)

When Jesus was arrested, he rebuked Peter for his swordsmanship: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:33) It’s a rather descriptive take on the Noahic principle, with an emphasis not on the giving of the judgment but on avoiding the giving and receiving ends altogether. On the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) The only record of death for the brutal murderers of the Savior himself is that of Judas, whose remorse led to suicide.

Is it possible that the shedding of Jesus’ blood totally fulfilled the Law’s requirement for bloodshed for all murders for all time?

Maybe we need to unpack capital punishment’s second most popular passage.

Romans 13

Ok, some supporters say. For the sake of argument, let’s say Jesus’ love and forgiveness overrides all the Old Testament stuff. It doesn’t matter. Paul clinches it as an ongoing principle for governments in Romans 13.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment… If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

This passage speaks very directly to the government’s use of the sword to execute God’s wrath on evildoers. It is such a strong support of using the death penalty that many opposing articles I see ignore it altogether. (Unfortunately, this leaves their happy depictions of Jesus’ love wide open for easy compartmentalization and dismissal.)

I think a straightforward reading of this passage (assuming that government “bears the sword” to kill criminals, and not, say, for sword-swallowing tricks) forces one to conclude that the death penalty cannot be categorically rejected as inherently impermissible. But let us be careful not to read this passage as stronger in its support than it is. It does not say, “If God appoints you as the government, you should bear the sword.” It does not even say, “Governments should bear the sword as the best way they could be governing.” It simply says that when governments use the sword, it is not in vain because they are ordained by God to execute his wrath on sin.

This makes a difference because the passage states that God appoints all authorities even though we know that all authorities do not honor God with their actions, especially the authorities over the first century church! God can still use wicked authorities for his purposes. He used the swords of the Babylonians and Assyrians to execute his wrath on the wayward Israelites. But that doesn’t mean God wants us to act like Babylonians or Assyrians.

I think of Jesus’ decree to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” (Matthew 22:21) Both Jesus and Paul speak of paying taxes to a government that almost certainly was spending some of it on very unholy things. God ordained all of that and wanted his people to submit to it, but does that mean if you became Caesar he would want you to spend your taxes that way?

What if the death penalty is, in some sense, “permissible”? But what if it’s not “beneficial”?

The Evangelism Mandate

I find it remarkable how many discussions about the death penalty end with no thought given to the salvation of the condemned. Surely no discussion is complete without weighing our commandment to make disciples of all men (Matthew 28).

Peter says God does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Even the Old Testament prophets gave glimpses of this: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declared the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) Now we are the “ministers of reconciliation” called to “go into all the world to preach the gospel” as Christ “draws all people” to himself. If a criminal is in custody but has not yet reached repentance, should we cut off any future opportunity? Many will never repent, but who are we to determine who might?

Maybe you think that sounds unrealistic; maybe you think the testimony of Jeffrey Dahmer is an unreliable outlier. But Paul knew this better than anyone. Stephen was martyred and did not declare, “Lord, make sure the authorities properly execute them,” but, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) This echoing of Jesus’ words at his death suggests that Jesus’ words were not a one-time act of clemency related to the propitiation, but an ongoing principle for his followers.

Here’s what I find amazing. After Stephen’s prayer for forgiveness, Saul, who had “consented to his death,” was radically saved by Jesus not two chapters later. Yes, the self-proclaimed “chief of sinners” who must have been worthy of the death penalty himself, was not only forgiven but transformed into a powerful apostle responsible for writing over half the New Testament (continuing that tradition of ex-convict sacred authors Moses and David*). Should we not pray the same for every serial killer?

I searched for arguments against the salvation argument and found a good one:

capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God.

Hmm. That sounds good, but that logic alone could be used to justify a lot of things, and I’m still thinking through how I feel about containing it within the context of capital punishment.

Flawed Execution

The many flaws of our capital punishment system seem to be agreed upon by supporters and opponents alike. We have a growing history of exonerations and wrongful executions. We have severe racial and economic disparities in executions for equivalent crimes (while some claim racial disparity in every step of the criminal justice system, capital punishment is one that is practically undisputed; even conservative supporting theologian Albert Mohler agrees). We have no clear evidence that the death penalty deters crime. Some even say the entire process costs more than life imprisonment.

Supporters say these problems need to be corrected as best we can; they do not mean the system must be rejected. This is valid in theory, but these calls tend to come at the end of articles with some handwaving that does not seem to appreciate the difficulties involved nor offer specific ideas for improvement (to be fair, perhaps they’re out there and I haven’t seen them).

Here’s my concern: trying to correct one flaw seems doomed to worsen another. Many supporters like to blame the lack of deterrence on the lengthy (and costly) appeals process, saying swifter executions would be more effective. There’s even a verse to back it up: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil.” (Ecclesiastes 8:11) But since many people have been exonerated while waiting for execution, surely a hastier system would increase the number of false executions, and I could easily prooftext up some verses about how terrible that would be. A system run by fallen people is always going to be faulty; if it is not beneficial, perhaps we should simply remove it.

Some Objections

This leads to a common objection: the entire criminal justice system will never be perfect. If we must remove the death penalty because it cannot be purified, don’t we have to get rid of everything else too? A similar objection comes from appealing to Jesus’ words; if love and forgiveness means we don’t kill people, doesn’t it mean we can’t imprison them either?

To which I say: Absolutely not. We are to love our enemies, but the Bible says in at least three places that the Lord disciplines those he loves. (Prison ministry, anyone?) Cain was a vagabond; Simeon and Levi received a curse from their father; David’s infant son died. Sparing death does not mean sparing all consequences – just the most physically and spiritually irreversible consequences.

The rest of the justice system has clear benefits that persist in spite of the inevitable flaws. Someone truly dangerous to society is no more a threat serving a lifetime in prison than dead, but if his verdict proves faulty in the future (perhaps due to improved race relations or new technologies) at least the living man can be released. Nor does imprisonment limit the evangelism mandate.

Unlike what I’ve seen on the death penalty, there are plenty of good ideas out there for improving other aspects of our justice system (I’m pleased to see conservatives joining that conversation.) So, yes, I think one can consistently call for eliminating the death penalty while striving for the best we can get with the rest.

Some accuse opponents of downplaying the horrible crimes committed by many criminals on death row. I think this is a valid complaint, but I also think many supporters like to maximize the distance between these criminals’ sins and their own. We all deserve death, yet none of us are beyond the reach of God’s grace. Neither of these truths alone helps us decide whether or not it’s beneficial to manually hasten that death for some.

I also want to address a couple of minor verses that are said to support the death penalty. Some say Jesus clearly supported the death penalty because when he talked to the Pharisees he quoted “Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die” (Matthew 15). Some say Paul clearly supported the death penalty because when he was tried before Festus, he said, “If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.” (Acts 25)

I think both of these passages are subject to the differences in the government-citizen dynamics I mentioned earlier. Jesus is referring not to Christians in government but to the Old Testament Law, and I don’t think supporters actually think Jesus wants us to keep the death penalty for parental cursing. Similarly, just because Paul said he was willing to die if he had done something deserving of death under the Roman laws for which he was undergoing a Roman trial, that doesn’t mean we should put people to death under our laws. I think the context is limited because Paul clearly does not think he deserves death in this context, but it seems likely to me that he did deserve death under the Noahic context, where he is the “chief of sinners” who “persecuted this Way to the death” (Acts 22),  yet neither God nor Paul seem to notice a lack of justice regarding that. (Perhaps you could argue that none of those verses mean Paul literally killed anyone and so was never deserving of death under the Noahic principle?)

I think I am starting to stake out a position where even if the death penalty is an option God gives us, it was never required absolutely, is no longer required at all, and Jesus’ love, Jesus’ evangelism mandate, and the inherent fallibility of our application all give us better reasons to reject it.

Some of the above ideas came from things I’ve read from Preston Sprinkle and Shane Claiborne (particularly the asterisked parentheticals); others are things I’ve put together myself. Some of it may be problematic. I’ve read a lot of robust theological pontificating about the critical justice of preserving the value of human life by killing those who take human life, and part of me is afraid I’ve become too biased in the other direction to fairly evaluate it, but I just don’t see how that vision of justice can be so categorically true when the Bible itself is so full of exceptions to it, even before Jesus seemed to turn everything around. I take responsibility for any theological errors or biases, and I welcome corrections or questions. Thanks for reading.