Should Christians Support the Death Penalty?

Capital Punishment is a current hot button political issue. The question is this: Is the death penalty archaic barbarism that should end with the likes of slavery and medieval torture? or is it an acceptable and necessary form of punishment for a civilized society?

The debate rages in our political spheres, but more specifically for the purpose of this essay, I want to address the debate between Christians: Should a Christian, who advocates life and grace and love, be a proponent of the death penalty?

I am persuaded that the answer is yes. Yes, a Christian should support capital punishment, especially Christians that believe that all life is valuable–from conception to grave.

The death penalty is not about death as much as it is about preserving life. When we look into the pages of scripture, we find that the death penalty is not given primarily for the purpose of vengeance, but for the purpose of preventing crime from spreading throughout the community. This is laid out for us in several places:

And those which remain shall hear (of the death penalty given), and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. – Deuteronomy 19:20

And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you. – Deuteronomy 13:11

And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously. – Deuteronomy 17:13

These verses give us the clear purpose of the death penalty. It is done so that people will HEAR about it, FEAR it, and not commit the acts of evil that they may have been inclined to commit.

Now, of course, not everyone is inclined to commit evil acts such as murder, rape, kidnapping, etc. But some people are. And it is these people that need to hear this message: ‘If you commit these vile and malicious crimes, you will be caught and put to death.’

When the death penalty is used properly, less vile crime will be committed in our communities. When less crime is committed, more people live good and productive lives. Thus death penalty = life. This is why we need to not only keep the death penalty, but do a better job at employing it properly.

Objections.

The idea behind the death penalty is simple and doesn’t need much explanation. However, there are several objections that are often employed against capital punishment. I answer those objections here:

  1. Isn’t the Death Penalty an Old Testament idea? Shouldn’t the fact that the New Testament emphasizes grace cause us to re-think the Death Penalty?

While it is true that Old Testament law does not apply to us today, it is also true that the principals of government found there still apply and can be learned from.

It must be understood that Moses’ law was written with a theocracy in mind. A theocracy blends heaven and human law together. They are not separated in a theocracy. Religion and government are one. However, the New Testament is clearly not written with this in mind. The New Testament was written to be used in any kind of governmental system. This is evident, for the New Testament often exhorts us to obey the commandments of human government. This was done so that no Christian would be mistaken to think that being under God’s government excuses them from obeying human government. The only exception is when the two governments conflict. Then we must ‘obey God rather than men.’

This is important to understand because some people get confused. For example, the Old Testament says, ‘eye for an eye,’ but Jesus said, ‘turn the other cheek.’ Which is right? Both are. ‘Eye for an eye’ was clearly a command for governmental use in the Old Testament. The Jews in Jesus’ day twisted the scripture to feed their lust for personal revenge. ‘Eye for an eye’ was not a command for everyday citizens to get back at their neighbors. Jesus corrected their bad theology and revealed God’s desire to show grace. But as far as government is concerned, eye for an eye is a good and important concept. Eye for an eye is an exercise in equality. Punishments were not to be too much or too little. This is the idea behind eye for an eye. This wasn’t understood absolutely literally by those it was written to, but it was a general concept for them to follow. And this is still a good concept to follow. Throughout history many governments have been too harsh or too lenient. Both are a mistake. 

I said all that to say that the New Testament is not a guide for human governments. It is a guide for everyday citizens. Human governments who wish to have God’s wisdom must look to Old Testament principals in fashioning good government (and that is precisely what many of our founding fathers did).

On a different but related note, it needs to be understood that every criminal must answer to the government that they sin against. Since human government and the government of God are separated, it is perfectly possible to sin against one government and not the other. It is also possible to sin against both governments at the same time. In the former case, the criminal must answer to only the government they sin against. In the latter cases, they must answer to both.

By way of example, suppose a man is found stealing money from his company. His company is a type of government and so he must answer to them–he is fired. Theft is a crime under the law of the land–he goes to jail. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ is a command of God–he goes to hell.

This, of course, is a generalization. It may be that he repents and is forgiven by God. It also may be that he goes free from jail on a technicality. It also may be that his company deems him reformed enough to employ him again. But this is not the point. The point is that he must answer to each government seperately. He has sinned against each of them.

With this in mind we can understand the death penalty within a Christian framework. Under God’s law, because of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, every* infraction a person commits can be forgiven if he genuinely repents. This includes murder and any other vile crime. His grace is truly great and no sin too wretched that He will not forgive if we truly repent.

This fact, however, does not take away from the fact that the same man must answer also to human government. As far as God’s government, a repentant murder is forgiven and shares in the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven. As far as man’s government, he is a murderer and must be punished accordingly.

This is precisely why all Christians can forgive vile criminals and desire their salvation, but at the same time agree that the execution of their physical body is what human justice demands. There is no contradiction here.

  1. What about innocent people who are wrongly put to death? Isn’t it better to for multiple criminals to live than for one innocent person to be executed mistakenly?

It is certainly true that innocent people have been mistakenly executed. And, of course, that is that very last thing that anyone wants to happen. However, God knew about this and still thought it wise to command the death penalty to be used. Furthermore, in His wisdom, He required certain safe-guards so that mistaken executions would be much less likely to occur.

Those safe-guards were as follows:

  • no person is to be put to death except by two or more witnesses. (Deteronomy 17:6)
  • false witnesses would be condemned to the same fate as they sought to bring upon the accused. (Deuteronomy 19:16-21)

At least two people had to testify that they saw a crime happen. Without two eyewitnesses, no one could be put to death, no matter how much evidence there was of other sorts. If those witnesses were found to be lying, they would suffer the fate of the accused.

God considered these safe-guards enough.

Whether these same safe-guards are exactly what we need today is up for debate. What is not up for debate is having safe-guards. But this is another subject.

The amount of life preserved and crime deterred by the death penalty is sufficient reason to employ it even though the risk of an innocent person being killed is possible. In other words, many more innocent people will be saved with the death penalty than might be killed by it. And while it is extremely sad for any innocent person to die, we must choose the lesser of two evils.

  1. What about instances in the Bible where God did not use the death penalty? Cain was not put to death, nor was Moses or David.

If Cain, Moses, and David were not put to death for their murders, why should we put people to death? This is the argument that comes from some that oppose capital punishment.

To answer this we must refer back to the idea of answering to the government we sin against. Each government is free to decide what they deem best with each infraction of the law. If the government is sovereign, it is free to do whatever it wants. If you own a business, you can choose to punish a thieving employee or not. If you are a king, you can choose to punish a murder or not. God can also choose to forgive or not to forgive. There are no restriction except higher government. Therefore God, being the highest governmental being in the universe, can do whatever He wants (Psalm 115:3). If He chooses to pardon Moses or David, as an exception to His rule, He is perfectly within His rights as governor of the universe to do so. If He chooses to punish Cain in a different way, He is perfectly within His rights to do so.

In the case of Cain, there was no human government present to punish him, only God. God thought it wise to punish him in the way that He did. How can we object to that?

In the case of Moses, Moses escaped the judgment of human government when he fled from Pharaoh. God willed that Moses live and, being a higher government, overruled the government of Egypt. God has done this throughout history and is perfectly within His rights to do so.

In the case of David, David was the highest human authority. He answered to no one but God. God, knowing this, still decided to forgive him. Once again, God is allowed to do this.

And even today, if God so chooses, he can, through providence, overrule the government of man if He desires to do so. He is the highest authority and He can do whatever he wants.

Now, that being said, it must be understood that these were special cases and not the norm. It is not wise for any government to pardon freely, for this can lead to vigilantism and to criminals feeling that they can commit crime with impunity. This is why God requires an atonement for forgiveness–but that is in an entirely different topic.

  1. Doesn’t the gospel teach us to exercise mercy and not judgment?

The New Testament is a great and wonderful expression of God’s grace and mercy. However, God is not more merciful in the New Testament and less merciful in the Old Testament. Anyone who believes this idea is not familiar with the scriptures. God’s mercy is wonderfully displayed in the Old Testament. God’s forbearance often spread for generations before He finally brought judgment. It must be remembered that the Old Testament was written over the space of 6000 years of history. The amount of instances of God’s judgement recorded in that time period is very small. The New Testament, in contrast, was written over the space of about 70 years. We don’t see large displays of God’s judgment in the New Testament simply because it only covers a small portion of history. But this doesn’t mean that God does not judge anymore.

The New Testament is an amplification of both God’s mercy and his judgment. While it is true that a person can be justified of sins that one could not be justified from under the law of Moses, it is also true that hell is cast in a much clearer light. And while mercy flowed like streams of water, certain judgments fell harshly upon people like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), king Herod (Acts 12), the Corinthians who did not discern the Lord’s body (1 Cor 11), and the ‘prophetess’ Jezebel of Revelation two.

Furthermore, God affirms the use of the death penalty through the apostle Paul in Romans chapter 13. Whether Paul is referring to Roman rule or Jewish rule, it does not matter. Both of those governments used the death penalty. And if Paul’s thought was to speak against the death penalty, his choice of words were very poor:

But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. – Romans 13:4

Conclusion

The death penalty is an essential tool in the hand of any legitimate government. The Bible clearly teaches that it is an effective deterrent when employed properly. And while capital punishment has certainly been abused by many wicked people throughout history, it does not take away from its legitimacy when used correctly. The Bible affirms the use of the death penalty as long as certain safe-guards are in place. Furthermore, the Bible teaches us that the death penalty was God’s idea. In other words, God, who is the author of life and all that is good, thought it wise to employ this type of punishment in the governments that He ordained. We should follow His lead.

It certainly could be argued that the death penalty is not properly employed in our country. I think there is a good case for such an argument. But that argument should not lead to the abolishing of the death penalty, but to reform. What that reform should look like is another discussion.