Capital Punishment (The Death Penalty)
The value of every person’s life is intrinsic because we are all created in God’s image1 and in His love for us, as demonstrated through the life and substitutionary atonement of His son Jesus Christ2. As the author and preserver of life3, God alone has the authority to determine its length4 and the reasons for its lawful termination, as revealed through His supernatural revelation, the Bible. Historically the Church, representing the scripture’s teaching concerning the sanctity of life and the designated role of the government in the protection of it, has affirmed both the right and responsibility of that civil authority to utilize capital punishment as a means of justified retribution when lethal force has been used to take an innocent life.
The imposition of the death penalty upholds the unique value of human life, created in the image of God, while also recognizing the guilt of every perpetrator, who, even though he is a fallen human being, is still endowed with both dignity and moral agency. Since debates concerning this volatile issue often devolve into emotional rather than ethical discussions, we need God’s enlightened perspective, which perfectly balances His justice and mercy. Only by embracing both can we experience His compassion and His grieving5 for both the offender and the offended and those who love them.
- Capital punishment was ordained by God for all mankind when a life is maliciously taken. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.6 This command is based on the dignity of man, since he is created in the image of God. Deliberately murdering a human is tantamount to killing God in effigy. This command is universal in scope since it is directed to man as mankind before the Mosaic Law.
- Capital punishment is also commanded in the Mosaic Law for the nation of Israel. If a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him from My altar that he may die.7
- Capital punishment was not always the remedy in the case of murder. God’s retributive justice against evil does not eliminate the possibility of mercy, even in cases where murder has occurred. Cain, Moses, and David were all murderers, yet their lives were spared by God.
- Capital punishment is alluded to as a remedy for crimes by the secular government in New Testament times. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.8
The scriptures teach that human governments are ordained by God and that the civil magistrate is a minister of God. Paul uses the emblem of the Roman sword to reinforce the concept of capital punishment. The New Testament reminds us that it is the role of government to exact justice for murder, not any individuals within society. There is no place for personal revenge in the administration of justice.9 In addition, those who sit in judgment of murderers should consider mitigating factors that might warrant a sentence other than capital punishment.
Common Concerns Regarding Capital Punishment
- Concern: We are no longer subject to Old Testament law, which required capital punishment for many crimes.
- Response: While absolutely true, it ignores the fact that God mandated capital punishment for murder for every society before the law was established for Israel. The command given in Gen 9:6 is said to be for “all future generations”. 10
- Concern: Even if capital punishment is warranted, its unequal application across racial and socioeconomic lines subverts its effectiveness and fairness.
- Response: Though the percentage of minorities on death row does not reflect the make-up of the general population, neither does the percentage of minorities who commit the crimes eligible for capital punishment. Ongoing research, monitoring and evaluation of death penalty crime perpetrators, victims, prosecutors and juries are needed to assure the fair application of capital punishment without regard to racial or socioeconomic bias and the cessation of it when or if those biases occur.
- Concern: In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls for an end to the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. 11
- Response: Jesus did put a radical limitation on the individual right to justice, but Jesus’ command only applies to individual vengeance. Jesus’ “love ethic” never sets aside all requirements of civil law. Note that in quoting the Old Testament scripture, He leaves the off the role of the civil magistrate. “If there is an injury, then you must give life for life.” 12
- Concern: If capital punishment is not the sentence for someone who commits murder, Biblical justice has not been applied for the family of the murdered person.
- Response: Though capital punishment is prescribed as a punishment in cases of murder, its application is not absolute. Even God leaves room for mercy as seen throughout scripture.
- Concern: If capital punishment is not the sentence for someone who commits murder, the murderer will not receive their proper judgement.
- Response: Romans and Hebrews declare that ultimate judgement for all sin is in the hand of God and He will repay what is due in the end.
Resolutions Concerning Its Implementation
The Bible also provides directives for Christians as they work to assure the fair administration of justice in a secular culture.
- Capital punishment should only be administered when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt.13
- Because of our deep reverence for human life, profound respect for the rights of individuals, and respect for the law, as a church we will call for vigilance, justice, and equity in the criminal justice system.
- Capital punishment should be applied as justly and as fairly as possible without undue delay, with the use of humane means, and without reference to the race, class, or status of the guilty party, recognizing that capital punishment can be unequally administered in our culture.14
- As a church, we commit to love, pray for, and share the gospel with victims and perpetrators of crimes, realizing that only in Christ is there forgiveness of sins, reconciliation, emotional and spiritual healing, and the gift of eternal life.(Adapted from Southern Baptist Convention)
God has established capital punishment in our fallen world to help balance the scales of moral justice and has given that authority to the civil government not the individual. Our support of this form of punishment must always be based on respect for the sacredness of human life and its protection, the preservation of order in our society, and the attainment of justice through law. Though scripture clearly prescribes capital punishment as an acceptable form of punishment in the case of murder, we should grieve its use. We should also understand that opposition to the use of capital punishment is not sinful and we can have fellowship with believers and non-believers as we respectfully disagree with their position.
FOOTNOTES: 1 Genesis 1:27 2 John 3:16 3 Acts 17:28 4 Job 14:5 5 Genesis 6:6 6 Genesis 9:6 7 Exodus 21:14, 20-23 8 Romans 13: 3-4 9 Romans 12:19 10 Genesis 9:12 11 Matthew 5:38-39 12 Exodus 21:23-24 13 Numbers 35:30 14 Deuteronomy 1:17; Leviticus 19:15
For further study, see our Position Paper on The Sanctity of Life.