Is Capital Punishment Unbiblical?

All Christians agree that life is sacred. God Himself considers human life is sacred, and He commands man “You shall not murder”. But, what should we do when one person takes another person’s life? Is the death penalty unchristian or unbiblical, or contrary to the gospel? This is a highly debated theological question that divided many Christians.

You will be surprised to discover how many churches, even among Bible believing Christian churches, including most mainline protestant and evangelical churches, like Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, United Church of Christ, Episcopal Church, American Baptist Churches, The United Methodist Church, and National Council of Churches oppose the Capital Punishment. The Roman Catholic Church also actively opposes the capital punishment and holds that it is a violation of human dignity. On the other hand, most conservative Protestants, (i.e. members of the Southern Baptist Convention), and some evangelical movements (i.e. Reformed Christians and Conservative Baptists), support capital punishment. [You can read their official statements on Capital Punishment at the end of this article].

Common Objections to Capital Punishment

Rebuttal: Even if capital punishment did not serve as a deterrent, it still would serve at least one other worthwhile purpose: the elimination of destructive behavior from society. The death penalty would spare law-abiding citizens any repetitive crimes by hard-core criminals. How horrible and senseless it is that so many people have had to suffer at the hands of heinous criminals who already have been found guilty of previous crimes, but who were permitted to go free and continue their criminal behavior! Contrary to this humanistic thinking, Bible teaches that the application of the death penalty, is, in fact, a deterrent (Deuteronomy 13:11; 17:13; 21:21; Acts 5:11). The Bible also teaches that an inadequate, insufficient and delayed punishment, leads to increased crime and violence (Ecclesiastes 8:11). If the Bible is to be believed, capital punishment is, indeed, a deterrent to criminal behavior.
Rebuttal: One of the main objections to capital punishment takes into the account of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:1-11), and produces as evidence that Jesus opposes Capital Punishment. This story has been misused and misapplied just like any other Scripture. A careful analysis of this passage shows complete harmony with the principle of capital punishment. Jesus’ reaction in this incident was rather at those who sought to trap Him into participating in an illegitimate act for several reasons: First, Mosaic Law requires two or more witnesses to the crime (Deuteronomy 19:15). One witness was insufficient to evoke the death penalty (Deuteronomy 17:6). The woman was reportedly caught in the very act, but nothing is said of the evidence of the witnesses. Second, even if there were two or more witnesses present to verify the act, the Law states that both the woman and the man were to be executed (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Where was the man on this occasion? Obviously, this was a setup that did not warrant invoking the capital punishment on the woman. Third, capital punishment had to be implemented by a duly constituted court of law. The scribes and Pharisees did not constitute an official judicial authority. This mob was actually engaging in an illegal action. Jesus actually handled the situation appropriately, according to the legal protocol of both the Old Testament as well as Roman civil law. Jesus, though the Son of God, would not have interfered in the responsibility of the civil authorities to handle the situation and his action in no way discredits the legitimacy of capital punishment.
Rebuttal: Those who argue against the death penalty say that capital punishment is resorting to the same kind of behavior as the criminal. The biblical response to this is seen in the phrases: “his blood be upon him” (Leviticus 20:9,13,27; Deuteronomy 19:10; Ezekiel 18:13; 33:5) and “his blood be upon his own head” (Joshua 2:19; 2 Samuel 1:16; Ezekiel 33:4; Acts 18:6).
Rebuttal: But the opposite is true. Keeping every murderer alive cheapens the value of human life, because it belittles murder. Imagine that the punishment for murder was the punishment for the driving over speed limit. Wouldn’t that cheapen human life? Of course it is. Society teaches how bad the action is by the punishment it gets. What about the pain inflicted upon the loved one of those who murdered. For most people their suffering is immeasurably increased knowing that the person who murdered their loved once, who inflicted them an unimaginable terror is alive and being cared for. Of course putting the murderer to death doesn’t bring back the loved once back to life, but surely it provides some sense of justice. Death is the just punishment for certain heinous and depraved murderers.
Rebuttal: Most people equate the murder of an innocent family with putting the murderer of that family to death. Now who gets to decide the definition? What is the difference between killing and murdering? Who defines it? Who decides it? The answer is ‘an Authority’!

What is God’s view of Capital Punishment?

The Bible is God’s authoritative Word, so we need to see what God’s view of Capital Punishment is. We can see that not only the Old Testament, but also the New Testament address this issue clearly. In the Old Testament there are several offenses that were considered so wicked God ordained in the civil code that required death penalty, and God commanded to execute the death penalty for 1st degree murder. At the very beginning, even before the Law is given, God instituted the death penalty – the murderers were to forfeit their own life -“Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he the man” (Genesis 9:6). This standard continued into the Mosaic Law, and at least for Sixteen Crimes God has decreed the death penalty.

Now, moving from the Law to the Grace, God treats capital punishment virtually the same. Romans 13:1-4 says, – “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 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.” Here you find God giving the civil magistrate ‘the power of the sword’, meaning ‘the power of Capital Punishment’ – the power to carry out the capital punishment in order to enforce the law of God.

The Covenant of Creation

We see in Genesis 6 that the world had become so wicked and filled with violence, and God wiped the whole human race out from the earth except Noah and his family. Men before the flood were men of violence (Genesis 6:11) and, had no regard for human life. After the water had dried up from the earth God spoke to Noah and re-established His covenant. A new beginning, with a new set of rules, and man is taught to reverence life. In Genies 9:6, God instituted the Capital Punishment – “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.”

When capital punishment was instituted by God to Noah it was part of renewal of the covenant of creation. When God establishes law in His creation it applies to every human being. Every man alive on this earth is under the creation covenant with God. We know that many people do not believe in God, or the creation or any covenant with God. But the denial or the unbelief of God or the creation or the covenant, does not eliminate the obligation on our part to that covenant. We are either covenant keepers or covenant breakers. Today, the vast majority of people live in the state of covenant rebellion. This law of capital punishment for murderers is not restricted to the civil code of Israel in the Old Testament, it is a law grounded in creation. That means as long as creation lasts this principle of capital punishment in the case of 1st degree murder is in effect. What is the principal reason? The sanctity of human life. What makes the value of human life more significant? “For in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6b).

Thus saith the LORD!

We can enter into endless arguments on this subject based on various criteria. As Christians we need to get our bible and show who gets to decide the punishment for murderer – ‘Thus saith the LORD’. We must invoke a higher authority when we argue any moral issue including capital punishment and defining the difference between the killing and murdering. Who has the final authority on human life? It is God Himself who gives life and who takes the life back, and His Word has the final authority on human life. He has given that authority according to Romans 13:4 to the government to execute the punishment on murderers so that the rest of us can live in peace. God has instituted the death penalty for the entire globe for all time and it is not embedded in the Mosaic laws. It is the law that was given after the flood. Life is precious, we are God’s image bearers. And if somebody rises up and maliciously, unjustly takes the life of an image bearer of God, God has determined that the correct justice is to take that person’s life. Civil authorities are required to execute murderers to reflect the moral purity of His Creator. Government acts on God’s behalf in punishing the evildoer and rewarding those who do good.

The humanist case against Capital Punishment is based on the main argument that the corrupted and inefficient judicial system leads to unfair and unjust decisions against people, based on money, competence of attorneys, and race etc. The Biblical mandate calls civil authorities to punish the guilt and not the innocent. It is their responsibility to administer the law fairly and justly without any bias, and unjust punishment must be avoided at all costs.

Though capital punishment remains a legitimate option for the state, this option must be exercised under the strictest of conditions. The state that chooses to exercise the power of life and death over its citizenry must be certain it has done all it can to assure that it is punishing the right person, that the punishment fits the crime, and that everyone, regardless of class or status, has had an adequate, vigorous defense. Anything less may bring the condemnation of God on that society. – The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention

Finally, does the Bible teach capital punishment? Yes. Is capital punishment biblical? Yes. We should consider life to be as precious as God does. Any society which loses its reverence for life cannot endure long. For this reason, God instituted capital punishment as a gracious restraint upon man’s sinful tendency toward violence. The sanctity of life is the basis for the government to protect, maintain and defend human life from aggressors. As Christians we should not rejoice over death, but at the same time the government is obliged to execute the perpetrators of the abominable, heinous crimes. We have to believe that if it is done according to God’s Word today, we would have a lot less crime than we have now.

Official statements of different Christian organizations on ‘Capital Punishment’

Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church officially changed its teaching on 02nd August, 2018 and declared that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.

American Baptist Churches
American Baptists, condemn the reinstatement of capital punishment and oppose its use under any new or old state or federal law, and call for an immediate end to planned executions throughout this country.

Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), reaffirmed their positions and declared its continuing opposition to capital punishment, and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.

The United Methodist Church
The church passed resolutions reaffirming its opposition and encouraging its membership to advocate for the abolition of capital punishment.

United Church of Christ
The United Church of Christ historically has opposed capital punishment.

Episcopal Church (Anglican Communion)
They have maintained a position against the death penalty.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
It is because of the church’s concern regarding the actual use of the death penalty they oppose its imposition.

National Council of Churches
The National Council of Churches, which represents 35 mainstream Protestant and Orthodox churches, has advocated for the abolition of the death penalty since 1968.

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod asserted that capital punishment is in accord with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.

Southern Baptist Convention
The Southern Baptist Convention issued a resolution in support of the fair and equitable use of capital punishment.

National Association of Evangelicals
National Association of Evangelicals has continued to support the use of capital punishment in cases involving premeditated murder as well as crimes such as hijacking and kidnapping where people are physically harmed.