The Bible and the Death Penalty

I’m curious. How do you handle what the Bible teaches with regard to the death penalty?

It’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, the Old Testament clearly supports the death penalty at a number of points. Particularly, passages like Exodus 21:12 ff. and Leviticus 20 are important for this discussion.

In each passage, the Bible decrees the sentence of death for a number of various offenses. Some of those crimes we would consider heinous (like premeditated murder), others we likely would not (like adultery). Still, the Bible doesn’t flinch in condemning each instance to death.

However, for as clear as those passages are, there are as many others that urge us to mercy and forgiveness. Often, in this vein, we point to Jesus’ response when the woman caught in adultery is brought to Him.

We think of the story of Cain and Abel. One cannot help but notice that the first murderer is exiled, not condemned to death. God Himself hesitates to employ the death penalty here.

Likewise, the Bible (both OT & NT) is full of the teaching to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. After all, if God has forgiven us so much, how can we not forgive one another? What’s more, Jesus suggests, God will forgive us as we’ve already forgiven others. (Yikes!)

In addition, there is the early church’s stance on pacifism. Likely, today that would include an opposition to the death penalty.

These are the two tensions found within the Bible itself. On the one hand, justice. On the other, mercy and forgiveness.

How do you reconcile the two?

Should we as Christians oppose the death penalty? Or should we endorse some measure of its use as the Old Testament does?

I’m curious to hear your response.

One caveat before I turn it over to you. For me, the Bible is the Word of God. If you want me to take your answer seriously, please treat it that way.

In other words, please don’t use the ‘that was then, this is now’ type of argument. The Bible (OT included) is a very complex, nuanced, and sophisticated book which deserves to be taken seriously. Arguments that devalue the Bible or discount the OT as primitive and archaic do not help me.

That said, I look forward to your comments. How do you reconcile what the Bible says about the death penalty? As a Christian, should I oppose it or support it?


7 responses to “The Bible and the Death Penalty

  • John Meunier

    I don’t have a complete answer. The relationship between the law of the OT and NT has confused greater minds than mine.

    Romans 13 suggests there is room for rulers to use “the sword” in carrying out their God ordained responsibilities. I don’t know if that includes capital punishment.

    Of course, the eschatalogical hope is for a new earth in which no police, prisons, or death penalty is needed.

    • Lauren

      John, I’m with you. The relationship between the OT and NT is very complex at times.

      I think your observation from Romans 13 is very helpful to the discussion. I’m not sure what the limits of that might be myself.

      As for your comment below, I suppose I was asking for it. 🙂

      Thanks as always for your reply.

  • John Meunier

    I had to fight the urge not to say, “that was then…”

  • Dudley Sharp

    All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

    “Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars”

    Christianity and the death penalty

    Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty,

    Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For 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. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” (p. 116). ” . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none. It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect.” (p. 111-113) Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

    God/Jesus: ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.’ Matthew 15:4 full context (NAB)

    • Lauren

      Dudley, thanks for the insightful comments. I’ll have to check out the links.

      I’m familiar with Genesis 9, and I agree that its implications to this discussion are significant. Especially helpful is its connection between the death penalty and the Image of God, thereby asserting the sanctity of human life.

      However, I suspect there are those that will contend that Jesus fulfilled the Noahic covenant through His death on the Cross.

      Thanks again for your reply.

  • Dudley Sharp

    As there is no biblical or theological support for the Passion somehow doing away with the death penalty, one may inquire where that supposed contension came from.

    In fact, the teaching is that the Noahic covenant is for all people and all times.

  • steven

    I must ask Mr. Sharp, if it is beneficial to the soul and the salvation of a condemned man to have a date set for his death, then why not extend that to all of us for our benefit? My, it would make one think. Perhaps a lottery when one comes of age.
    I do believe scripture favors mercy, and some recalcitrant sinners may walk defiantly to the gallows whose hearts may soften later in life.
    “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator” certainly calls us to not make His decisions for Him.

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