How should Christians think about the appropriate use of the death penalty? Is the execution of one guilty of murder a divinely mandated function of human government?
God established an ordinance to deal with murders very early in human history. God said, “If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands. For God made human beings in his own image” (Genesis 9:6, NLT).
Genesis 9:6 seems to mandate capital punishment for acts of homicide (see also, Romans 13:1-5). Do those who execute murderers serve the cause of justice required of government? Should Christians endorse capital punishment of murderers?
The actions of police or military in taking human life offer the deepest challenge to one’s understanding of the role of government. How does love for enemies, forgiveness of offenders and turning the other cheek apply to just punishments by human governments?
Addressing these matters has become increasingly complicated as the world has become more of an international community. Widespread sophisticated communications and proliferation of lethal long-range weaponry require expanded roles of governments beyond national boundaries. Neighbor love also compels people of goodwill to act on behalf of helpless victims of international crime.
But what does the Bible teach about these concerns and how should the seemingly conflicting goals be understood and applied?
A false dilemma based on a false comparison:
Understanding God’s will on these matters must begin with a scene from the earliest days of history. As a provision for dealing with the violence that filled the earth (see: Genesis 6:11-13), God required of Noah capital punishment for 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 euphemistically for two different kinds of death. The first is an act of murder; the second, a just-punishment of the murderer (this is what military and government are called to do). We must not equate these actions.
The cliché about killing people to show that it’s wrong to kill people creates a false dilemma based on a false comparison. I think it is best not to use the term “killed” to describe what the authorities do to murderers. They execute or punish murderers.
An act of murder is far different from just-punishment of a murderer. One action is criminal; the other, a God-ordained function of government.
But isn’t this written for Old Testament times?
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 Israel to guide them as a nation) but the requirement of Genesis 9:6 will always be applicable to humanity. It was not a law given to Israel in relation to their national identity. Instead, it was issued based on the way God created humans. Its backdrop is the violence that provoked God’s judgment on humanity (see: Genesis 6). As a means to halt unrestrained violence, God instituted a creation ordinance of capital punishment. It was not based on a limited cultural circumstances and it is reaffirmed in the New Testament (see: Romans 13:1-4).
But we are commanded to love our enemies!
Some wrongly conclude that Christ’s law of love rules out capital punishment. But Jesus was not teaching about a government response to lawbreakers. If his words were 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 was teaching about the personal responses of his followers — forbidding revenge. He was not dealing with matters of civil justice. Christians can serve with a clear conscience in law enforcement — even in executing retributive justice — because their actions in these functions are not matters of personal revenge.
But what about forgiveness?
Those who think retributive justice contradicts forgiveness have misunderstood forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is only available because Jesus took the retributive justice our sin deserved (Romans 3:23-26; II Corinthians 5:18-21). When God forgives us, it’s not because he is feeling big-hearted enough to overlook our sin but because Jesus bore the death penalty for our sin.
But how can we be pro-life and pro-capital punishment?
Occasionally I am asked how I reconcile my pro-life position with my support of capital punishment. I answer by showing how both positions (pro-life and pro-capital punishment) 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.
When capital punishment is wrongly applied or abused by inequities in due process, revisions in the judicial system must be made without eliminating the death penalty.
Sadly, the death penalty is needed to protect civilized society. Elimination of it could lead barbaric anarchy. Those who willfully take the life of another must face the punishment of losing their own lives. Some killing is unjust and we call it “murder.” Other killing is just and this we might call “self-defense” in some cases, and “just punishment” in others.