Is the death penalty wrong, or does the Bible support it?
The idea of capital punishment is simple: some crimes, such as premeditated murder, are so egregious to society that justice requires the death penalty—taking the offender’s life. Most Americans support capital punishment; thirty-two states currently practice it.1
However, most industrialized nations in the modern world have outlawed capital punishment.2 They believe it to be immoral, impractical, ineffective, and inequitable in the way it is carried out. Currently the top five countries with the most death penalty executions are China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.3
Naturally, people of faith are curious to know how their beliefs should inform their view on capital punishment. For Christians, the most important question is whether the Bible supports the practice. Does the Bible suggest that God encourages or condones the modern state’s use of the death penalty? Or is there good reason to think the teachings of the Bible challenge its current practice?
For Capital Punishment
There are many passages in the Bible that could relate to the debate about the death penalty. For the sake of time and space, let’s explore three of the most important that seem to indicate the Bible has a positive view of capital punishment.
First, there is the covenant God made with Noah. After God destroyed the world by flood (whether this story is historically true or legend is not our concern here), he reaffirmed to Noah his mandate for humans to “be fruitful and multiply.”4 He also committed never to destroy life on earth by such a great flood again.5 But God did include a provision for addressing human sin—particularly all the murder and bloodshed that had led to the flood to begin with. He said to Noah: “From each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.’”6
In this, God seems to say: “Human life is so precious that only God should give and take it. Thus, when one human being murders another, I allow humans to punish the offender by taking his or her life in return.” Some believe this passage is descriptive of the way humans retaliate and shed blood, not prescriptive for what God desires. But a second part of the Bible can be taken as evidence that God really did have the death penalty in mind.
In the laws that God gave to Moses to order Israelite society, the principle of “eye for eye” played a significant role.7 This meant that whatever harm someone did to you should be done back to them as a measure of retributive justice. This principle extended to life as well—“you are to take life for life.”8 Thus the death penalty was prescribed for the offense of murder.9 Other capital crimes—those considered egregious to society and God—included adultery, blasphemy, and sacrificing to foreign gods.10
As it relates to the debate today, few people believe that the laws of a modern nation like the United States should be based on ancient Israelite law. But the very fact that God utilized capital punishment in the Israelite legal system implies the practice itself is not inherently immoral.
Finally, an important New Testament passage also appears to support the death penalty. In a lengthy letter written by the Apostle Paul to Christians in Rome, he gave them practical instruction about their relationship with the government (which was often hostile to Christianity):
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.11
While Paul does not explicitly mention the death penalty, he clearly instructs Christians to submit to government authorities because God establishes human authority. That includes the prerogative to punish evil with “the sword.” It was widely known that the Roman Empire used methods of execution for capital crimes. It’s difficult to interpret Paul’s writing as anything other than a tacit endorsement of Rome’s use of the death penalty to punish certain crimes.
Against Capital Punishment
But the case isn’t as closed as the previous passages make it out to be. Everyone seems to agree that the Old Testament condoned the use of capital punishment in Israel’s laws and practice. But many believe this was a concession by God specifically for that time and context. If Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s character and will, the argument goes, then shouldn’t we look to his teaching and example for supreme guidance on this issue?
Jesus seemed to take a revolutionary perspective on offenses between humans. In regard to sins like adultery and murder, he suggested that anger and lust were just as condemnable.12 Jesus taught that when someone hurts you, revenge is not the answer. The Old Testament principle of “eye for an eye” should be set aside; love and forgiveness should prevail.13
When a woman caught in the very act of a capital offense was brought before Jesus, he challenged the crowd gathered to stone her (as the Law of Moses instructed) if anyone there was himself sinless.14 “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he stated clearly.15 While Jesus did not excuse her transgression—in fact he told her to “leave [her] life of sin”—neither did he condemn her to death.16
Jesus’ own death raises substantial questions for any Christian. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all portray Jesus as an innocent victim of unjust capital punishment at the hands of both Jewish leaders and Roman authorities. While early Christians interpreted the event as part of God’s plan and believed that God could bring redemption from such a horrible injustice, it nevertheless identifies Jesus with the “underside” of capital punishment.17 Jesus’ own attitude toward those who were killing him unjustly was simple: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”18
Finally, many readers of Paul’s writings suggest that his instruction in Romans 12 is more important for this debate than what he said in Romans 13:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. . . . Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.19
Each person will have to draw his or her own conclusions about what the Bible teaches regarding the death penalty. Of course, one should not ignore other arguments about its effectiveness, implementation, practicality, cost, and how it fits into a larger theory of justice for society. But for Christians, the Bible can and should play an important role in this debate.