Should Christians support the death penalty?

the-big-questions-quoteOn Wednesday, September 21, 2011, convicted murderer, Troy Davis (42) was pronounced dead at 11:08 p.m. ET, by lethal injection. Davis was convicted in 1991 for the 1989 murder of Savannah, Georgia, police officer, Mark MacPhail, who was shot to death while trying to protect a homeless man from attackers.

Davis’ sentence for the crime was widely protested, but after an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, justices rejected the case, and he received the death penalty.

The Warden announced that, “The court ordered execution of Troy Anthony Davis was carried out in accordance with the laws of the state of Georgia.”

Despite doubts raised about Davis’ guilt, MacPhail’s family maintained their belief that he committed the crime. But many voices opposing the death penalty used Davis’ case to further their agenda to end capital punishment. 

The sad and harsh reality of life in a fallen world requires the use of the death penalty to protect civilized society. If capital punishment is abused by inequities in due process, revisions in the judicial system must be vigorously sought. But we must not eliminate the penalty from our judicial system. 

Those who willfully take the life of another must forfeit their own lives. This is a punishment that fits the crime. It’s also a proven restraint against acts of homicide. Some killing is unjust and we call it “murder.” Other killing is just and we call this “self-defense” in some cases, and “just punishment” in others. We should not confuse these distinctions by equating them both as acts of murder.

What does Scripture teach?

Early in human history, God required capital punishment for premeditated murderers. He said, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God he made man.” (Genesis 9:6). The phrase “sheds man’s blood” is used as a euphemism for two kinds of putting to death. First, it’s used for an act of murder; secondly, for the just-punishment of a murderer. The act of murder is far different from just-punishment of a murderer. One action is criminal; the other a God-ordained function of government.

We cannot dismiss this teaching because it comes from the Old Testament. Some parts of the Old Testament are not directly applicable today (like the regulations given to guide Israel as a nation). But the requirement of Genesis 9:6 was not a law given to Israel in relation to their national identity. Instead, it was based on the way God created humans. Its backdrop appears to be the violence that provoked God’s judgment on humanity (see: Genesis 6). To restrain violence, God instituted a creation ordinance of capital punishment.

What about the teaching of Jesus?

Some wrongly conclude that Christ’s law of love in the New Testament rules out capital punishment. It’s argued that followers of Christ are commanded to love their enemies, not execute them (Matthew 5:38-45). Jesus clearly taught nonresistance and Christians are commanded to forgive as Christ forgave, so how could one reconcile capital punishment with Jesus? 

Simply stated, Jesus is not teaching about government response to lawbreakers. If applied to criminal justice, it would rule out all punishment and contradict the God-ordained role of government to punish evildoers (I Peter 2:14). Jesus is teaching about personal revenge, not civil justice. Jesus clearly supported civil authority and justice.

Those who think retributive justice contradicts forgiveness misunderstand forgiveness. When God forgives us, it’s not that he is being big-hearted to overlook our sin but because Jesus bore the death penalty for our sin (see: Romans 6:23). God’s justice required that sin be punished. God’s mercy moved Him to take our punishment for us.

The death of Jesus was an unjust execution of the perfectly innocent God-man ordained by our loving Creator on behalf of guilty sinners. He was executed in our place for our sins. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (II Corinthians 5:21).

Pro-life and Pro-capital punishment?

Occasionally I am asked how I reconcile my pro-life position with my support of capital punishment. I point out that both positions endorse the sanctity of life by opposing deliberate acts of homicide. Scripture emphasizes that life is precious because humans are made in God’s image. This was the basis for the death penalty when God required it (Genesis 9:6). 

Once again, some killing is unjust and we call it “murder.” Other killing is just and we call this “self-defense” in some cases, and “just punishment” in others.

There will never be a perfect system of government where humans are involved but, in a corrupt world, laws and law enforcement are necessary. We must work diligently to ensure equitable due process for all people. Yet we cannot afford to allow murderers to think that they will escape the justice of capital punishment.

Steve Cornell

 See also: Justice After Troy Davis (NYT, By )


About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
This entry was posted in Accountability, Capital Punishment, Death penalty. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Should Christians support the death penalty?

  1. Gene Ziesel says:

    Thanks for your biblical balance to the death penalty. Glad I get your posts!


  2. DebbieLynne says:

    Excellent explanation! Thank you for your clarity and faithfulness to Scripture.


  3. Dick Stone says:

    “There will never be a perfect system of government where humans are involved but, in a corrupt world, laws and law enforcement are necessary. We must work diligently to ensure equitable due process for all people. Yet we cannot afford to allow murderers to think that they will escape the justice of capital punishment.”

    Can I assume that if you were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die you would quite happily submit your arm for the needle, knowing that American civilized society is being justly served?

    Did not God tell Abraham that if one righteous man could be found in Sodom He would spare its destruction? How can we then, as a society, chance the death of innocent people?


  4. Dick Stone says:

    In my country, Canada, where the death penalty was abolished in 1976, there have been many “wrongfully convicted” cases that have garnered much media attention, so I submit that the NYT author’s argument that innocents would not get the advocacy that those on death row do is rather hollow. His other argument that death is better than life in horrible prison conditions is disingenuous. Has he taken a poll of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment and asked them whether they would have preferred the death penalty? Mr. Cornell, I submit that these arguments are just another attempt to rationalize revenge killing by the state and give secular support to what seems to be, fundamentally, a religious argument on your part.


    • Is every form of justice a type of revenge by the state? If not, why? The murderer kills an innocent person; the state punishes a guilty person. If we start to confuse these actions, where will we stop?


  5. Dick Stone says:

    I would suggest that capital punishment is indeed revenge by the state, on behalf of victims families and a violent society. You well know that many families of murder victims want the blood of the murderer to be spilled. And of course there are those who are much more forgiving and don’t desire the death of the murderer, to which the state may acquiesce.

    Also, the argument that capital punishment deters crime is tenuous at best. Again using my country as an example, it is interesting to note that the removal of capital punishment from the Canadian Criminal Code in 1976 has not led to an increase in the murder rate in Canada. In fact, Statistics Canada reports that the murder rate has generally been declining since the mid-’70s. In 2009, the national murder rate in Canada was 1.81 homicides per 100,000 population, compared to the mid-1970s when it was around 3.0.

    Since its inception Canada, like the U.S. has been considered a “Christian nation”, though less overtly so, and far less Fundamentalistic. Perhaps there is a correlation here that needs to be more closely examined?

    Finally, again I ask you, are you prepared to die if falsely convicted, in the name of the grand ideal of “justice”?


    • Your question works off a cynically articulated premise that you assume to be the point. It is not. The goal should always be to only convict based on evidence beyond doubt. You also superficially project on the State a motivation that rarely stands behind the judicial process. Why couldn’t we say that many families of murder victims want justice against the one who murdered their loved ones. What would you want? But to assume that the judicial process simply carries out the revenge wished for by families is a bit of misguided projection. And you didn’t answer my question: Is every form of justice a type of revenge by the state? If not, why?


  6. Dick Stone says:

    To answer your question I would say that, yes, every form of justice is a type of revenge by the state. The mere presence of Punitive Justice in society as opposed to Restorative Justice gives credence to defining American (and Canadian) justice as containing an element of vengeance.

    Restorative Justice is defined as: “… a broad term which encompasses a growing social movement to institutionalize peaceful approaches to harm, problem-solving and violations of legal and human rights. These range from international peacemaking tribunals such as the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission to innovations within the criminal and juvenile justice systems, schools, social services and communities. Rather than privileging the law, professionals and the state, restorative resolutions engage those who are harmed, wrongdoers and their affected communities in search of solutions that promote repair, reconciliation and the rebuilding of relationships. Restorative justice seeks to build partnerships to reestablish mutual responsibility for constructive responses to wrongdoing within our communities. Restorative approaches seek a balanced approach to the needs of the victim, wrongdoer and community through processes that preserve the safety and dignity of all”. (from Wikipedia)

    Retributive Justice is defined as: “A theory of justice that considers that punishment, if proportionate, is a morally acceptable response to crime, with an eye to the satisfaction and psychological benefits it can bestow to the aggrieved party, its intimates and society.” (from Wikipedia)

    When evil is perpetrated on us we, both personally and as a society have this deep desire for retribution — that thief stole my car and has hurt me financially, and violated me personally. It’s only fair that he repay me by spending time in prison, and he not be allowed to continue in his life of crime. On the surface the latter seems justified: we can’t have thieves running around violating people, but the former is a form of vengeance. He violated me: he needs to suffer. Secular justice is not just about protecting society from evil, it is also about retribution, it is about that deep-seated desire for payback. And the state is more than happy to comply.

    You are correct, my cynically articulated premise is not the point, but it certainly is a point. Of course there are other points involved in the issue, some much more important. However, it is a significant point in that many innocent people throughout history have been falsely convicted and executed. You cannot just sweep this under the carpet.

    I find it interesting that you refuse to answer my question. In the current justice system, I completely agree that the goal should always be to only convict based on evidence beyond doubt – convictions to do with any sort of crime, not just murder, but because humans run the justice system in this world, mistakes (and in some cases, corruption) will always happen, even in the most rigorous circumstances. I will try one more time: even if the system were to be so well implemented that wrongful convictions were virtually eliminated, would you still be prepared to die for the cause of “justice” if you were that one in a million that was falsely convicted? Are you so secure in your belief that the state must take the life of murderers that you would sacrifice yourself for such a position? (I will take another refusal to answer as a NO.)


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