Often in the debate over abortion, Christians are accused of being hypocrites for opposing abortion but supporting the death penalty. Even among those who claim the name of Christ, there are many who believe support for the death penalty is incompatible with Jesus’ ministry and teaching. A Barna Poll taken in 2014 revealed:
When asked if they agreed that “the government should have the option to execute the worst criminals,” 42 percent of self-identified Christian boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, said “yes.” Only 32 percent of self-identified Christian millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, said the same thing.
But, when asked ‘what would Jesus do?’:
According to the Barna study, only 5 percent of Americans believe that Jesus would support government’s ability to execute the worst criminals. Two percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10 percent of practicing Christians said their faith’s founder would offer his support.
In other words, even many who say they support the death penalty demur when asked their thoughts on Jesus’ support for it.
Of course theology is not determined by polls or popular vote. The question is, what does scripture teach? I contend scripture supports the death penalty for murder, not only supports it, but affirms it as God’s prescribed way to deal with that sin temporally.
Before explaining why, there are some theological truths we must affirm:
- Jesus Christ is God incarnate (John 1:1, 8:58, 10:30)
- God is immutable, He does not change (Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8)
- God has given the church and the civil government different spheres of authority and different missions in this world (Matthew 28:19-20, Romans 13:3-5, I Peter 2:13-14)
If these are true, and they are, there is no Christian case for opposition to the death penalty on principle. That’s not to say Christians should not oppose it in some circumstances or be active in opposing its unjust use, but a position that it should never be used cannot be supported by scripture.
Keeping in mind our three truths from above, here’s why.
The definitive passage on the death penalty is Genesis 9:5-6:
And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.
The context of this passage is right after Noah and his family exited the Ark. God had destroyed a world where every inclination of man’s heart was wicked continually (Genesis 6:5). In the new earth, to check the spread of evil, the value of human life was to be held high, so high that the murder of someone made in God’s image was to be dealt with in the most severe way.
While we believe all scripture is “God breathed” (II Timothy 3:16) and therefore not only authoritative but the very words of God, some parts of scripture are direct quotes from God. Genesis 9:5-6 is one of those. So, if our first premise is true, that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, then this is as much Jesus speaking as any red letters in the New Testament. And, if the second premise is true, that God does not change, this continues to be Jesus Christ’s view on the death penalty today.
This brings us to the third premise. I’m convinced much opposition to the death penalty among Christians is because they confuse the role of the civil government and the role of the church. God has given the church a clear mandate laid out in what we call the “great commission:”
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. – Matthew 28:19-20
The church has been given a ministry of grace. She is to share the gospel with the lost and disciple the found. This ministry is for all people, from the kindly grandmother next door to the most hardened criminal in the state penitentiary, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This ministry assures those who’ve placed their trust in Christ that no matter what they’ve done, they are forgiven by God and will one day be with Him in glory because of the work of Jesus Christ. What it does not do, however, is promise to remove temporal consequences of sin or administer justice in this life for crimes committed, even by believers. God has ordained the civil government for that purpose.
The civil government has been given a ministry of temporal justice:
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. – Romans 13:3-4
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. – I Peter 2:13-14
Confusion happens when we expect the civil government to have the same mandate as the church, to offer grace and forgiveness to the offender. This is not to say judges and juries are prohibited from being gracious (while remaining within the bounds of justice), only that they are not required to do so. It is perfectly just to impose the death penalty on a murderer, even a repentant one, because that is God’s ordained temporal punishment for such a crime. I go so far as to say governments which take the death penalty off the table as an element of the their justice system are as disobedient to God as those who promote things like same-sex marriage and abortion. In fact, promotion of abortion and opposition to capital punishment often go hand-in-hand because both are marks of a culture that has devalued human life.
This is not to say Christians are called to be slavish supporters of the civil government. We should call the government to account and oppose it when it acts unjustly, including when it implements the death penalty unjustly. What we are not to do, however, is call what God calls just, unjust. If God declares death as the just punishment for those who take innocent human life, we are setting ourselves above Him when we claim it is unjust – and that’s not a posture Christians should ever take.