Can we reconcile pro-life with capital punishment?

I’ve enjoyed reading many articles on the web site RELEVANT. They usually offer helpful insights on very practical themes.

But a recent article titled, “What Being Pro-Life Means in Light of the Death Penalty” is an inadequate handling of an important subject.

The article is subtitled, “The sentencing of the Boston bomber brings up important questions of what it really means to be pro-life.”

The author endorsed a quote from NT Wright stating that, “you can’t reconcile being pro-life on abortion and pro-death on the death penalty.”

NT Wright (who is insightful on many subjects) is clearly wrong on this point. It is a surprisingly simplistic view of what the Bible teaches.

Both are pro-life positions

I wrote a newspaper column supporting the practice of capital punishment a number of years ago and a university professor in our town asked me how I would reconcile my pro-life position with my support for capital punishment. I answered by suggesting that opposing abortion and supporting the death penalty are both pro-life positions. Then I explained my answer.

The reason God ordained capital punishment was to support the sanity of life. Life is so precious (as made in the image of God) that if you murder another person, it will cost you your own life.

An enduring judicial principle

God did not merely ordain capitol punishment for Israel as something the Church can move on from. Instead, he ordained it for humanity as a judicial practice for life in the new world (Genesis 9:6).

It may seem strange that of all the things God could have focused on for Noah, he chose capital punishment as one of them. A primary reason for this is that God judged the world during the days of Noah partly because violence filled the earth. To restrain violence, God ordained a just punishment for murders. There is no reason to believe that this function of justice is no longer instituted by God.

A closer look

Have you seen the sticker that says, “Why do we kill people who kill people to show killing people is wrong?” This might sound reasonable but it actually suggests a false dilemma based on a false comparison.

Some killing is unjust and we call it “murder.” Other killing is justified and we call it “self-defense,” in some cases, and “just punishment” in others. We should not confuse these distinctions by equating them both as acts of murder.

When 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.

But wait. 

  • Isn’t this written for Old Testament times?
  • Are we not are commanded to love our enemies!
  • What about forgiveness?
  • How can we be pro-life and pro-capital punishment?

To avoid a lengthy post, I answer these questions in a post titled, “Is capital punishment mandated by God?”

One more concern – Eye for Eye

The author of the article on Relevant wrote, “I just don’t feel that we can continue to support the punitive, eye-for-an-eye system that most of us agree that Christ would denounce.”

We need to clearly understand that Jesus would not “denounce the eye-for-an-eye system.” This is like Jesus saying, “Hey, I know God required an eye for an eye but I want to scrap that idea for a better one.”

In the personal ethics for the followers of Jesus, eye for eye was rejected. But Jesus taught this (not because the OT teaching was archaic or cruel) but because of the way certain religious leaders were trying to use this judicial standard to justify personal revenge.

Eye for Eye was given as a judicial standard. It is a punishment that fits the crime policy. It was intended to restrain the unjust multiplication of evil or uneven retribution. It remains a primary principle of most just legal systems. To study this matter more closely, see: “An eye for an eye?

Steve Cornell

About Wisdomforlife

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

5 Responses to Can we reconcile pro-life with capital punishment?

  1. Black3Actual says:

    Good post, but could I offer a little something in addition to what you have written? We must also remember why God said to use capital punishment: so as to remove evil from among you. It is also why God constantly warns His people to separate their personal lives from the world: so that we do not open the door to evil in our lives lest in change us to its ways. Even Paul said that there comes a time when a believer must be put out of the Body of Christ — even if it means his death. In this way, maybe he will saved (even if as through fire) and not lost to continued sin.


    • You make a good point as an overall principle. One follow-up thought. I think the reference “to remove evil from among you” is in the context of laws to govern Israel. I refer to Genesis 9:6 because it was not given to the nation of Israel but to humanity. This weakens the notion that capital punishment was only an OT teaching limited to Israel as a nation.


      • Black3Actual says:

        Agreed. I am well aware that God’s Word tells us He wants mercy from us, and that mercy is a crucial part of justice (this is part of what Christ was trying to explain in the passage about the speck in our neighbor’s eye). At the same time, I have never thought the death penalty died with the OT. In fact, the Law remains (as in, God’s commands). Jesus said so. What has passed away is are the restrictions of the law of Moses. It was meant to teach that works cannot save us, and neither do sacrifices. Only faith can save us, and it has been that way since the beginning. But God’s laws of how we are to live have been constant since that same beginning. I think we see this even in the OT where we are told several times that God does not demand blood sacrifice and that we are saved by faith. So, as I understand Scripture, the death penalty is still available to us under God’s Law — IF we use it according to God’s Law.

        If I have any of this wrong, PLEASE, correct me. All I ask is you show me the Scriptures so that I may study them. Thanks for your willingness to serve 🙂


  2. NoOneKnows says:

    I am not sure I would go so far to say that God “ordained” the death penalty, though I do believe in the Mandate from Heaven and that does not necessarily require human intervention. But I do agree with you in that this is such a classic Saul Alinsky ‘lets keep conflict alive’ issue. To argue that to be pro-life is in conflict with supporting the death penalty is a fallible argument. How can the life of an innocent baby be argued on the same level of a criminal? A baby did nothing but exist. A baby did nothing “for” that existence and yet it is somehow justifiable that they are given the death penalty for the actions of another. A baby pays the price for no action on their part. A baby has no representation like a criminal is given so that due process can be exercised, and is discarded. But lets keep alive the adults who had a chance to live free and respect life and chose to take life. This is nothing but George Orwell double-talk meant to keep conflict alive because if society submitted to the view that criminals (who will enslave society with their will to remove human rights and have no respect for others right to live) are to be given the same, if not more, rights then a baby, those who support this view will have nothing more to complain about, right? Of course, until one of those criminals attack someone they care about, or them.


  3. Pauline says:

    Reblogged this on Uniquely Designed Individuals and commented:
    Much to ponder about …


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s