Home > interpretation, justice, kingdom of God, murder, sin > >In defence of the death penalty

>In defence of the death penalty

> There is disagreement within Christendom over whether the death penalty is compatible with Christian theology. I am not fully certain as to which camp is correct, though I favour the conclusions below.

Here I wish to give a defence in favour of capital punishment. I will restrict my discussion to the case of murder. I will not cover pragmatic opposition such as miscarriage of justice and the fear of innocents being put to death. While these are important issues, they are issues of administration. My concern is whether execution is fundamentally an appropriate punishment.

There is Scripture in support of the death penalty in certain situations. Therefore I do not think the question is whether or not capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, God ordained it several times. The question is whether not putting people to death is preferable for reasons based on Jesus’ deeper revelation of the intentions of God.

The first mention of the death penalty follows the Flood.

But you* shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 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….” (Genesis 9)

As mentioned previously this verse is significant in its reasoning. Men have the implanted imago Dei. We must not remove this. Only God has the right to destroy life because it is his image that is being erased.

When God gives the Law to Moses we see similar commands. The 6th commandment is, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). Others translate this as, “You shall not kill.” Neither “murder” nor “kill” is fully conveys the Hebrew ratsach (רָצַח). “Kill” is too generic. “Murder” implies immoral intention, though the word can be applied to sanctioned and accidental killing. The NET Bible notes state,

The verb רָצַח (ratsakh) refers to the premeditated or accidental taking of the life of another human being; it includes any unauthorized killing (it is used for the punishment of a murderer, but that would not be included in the prohibition).

Compare Deuteronomy 19:

This is the provision for the manslayer (ratsach), who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills (nakah) his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past—

This prohibition clearly does not apply to those carrying out capital punishment for murder. This is seen in the specific commands given to the state and those acting for the state. The above example from Genesis specifies that the offender is to be put to death; that is, there is a command to kill in the pursuit of justice. The Mosaic Law also makes similar provision:

Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. But if he did not lie in wait for him, but God let him fall into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place to which he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks another to kill (harag) him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die. (Exodus 21)

But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you. (Deuteronomy 19)

The command to put someone to death is specific. It holds even if there is a general command not to kill men. Deuteronomy expands this commenting that the murderer killed an innocent man. The prohibition of killing or murdering does not apply to the murderer as he is not innocent.

So we see clear commands both in the time of Noah and of Moses that men are prohibited from killing people and the punishment for such crime is to forfeit one’s life. The reason for such is:

  • that the victim is innocent;
  • that such behaviour offends God’s holiness (note the words: “take him from my altar”); and
  • that God’s image in man is destroyed without God’s permission.

I do not see statements from Jesus that would lead us to reconsider the above arguments. Jesus spoke to hatred. He informs us that hatred and murder come from same source within us. We cannot claim to obey the commandment not to murder if we hate. Despising men in our hearts is breaking this law. This does not necessarily imply that the degree to which we sin when hating our brother is the same as if we murdered him. Not all sins are equal. But it does state that before God non-murderers who hate have still offended God. They have still broken the essence of the 6th commandment. They are still in need of judgment by God for this.

Jesus also emphasised the need for us to forgive. Whether we are to forgive those who do not request or desire it is debated by Christians. There are examples of those who forgave unrepentant men including Jesus and Stephen. We are definitely commanded to forgive those who ask us (Matthew 18). I do not seek to resolve this question here. But even assuming the murderer is repentant and requests forgiveness, should this affect punishment?

While forgiveness is important to our own spiritual health, and forgiveness removes any right of redress when extended to a repentant man; I am not certain that this is relevant to government punishment. It would be difficult for them to let such murderer free immediately as although he has acknowledged his wrong, he may struggle to behave righteously. He may hate his anger but his struggle to control it may put the lives of others at risk in the future. So for the safety of the community he, at minimum, probably needs to be in prison.

Further, Jesus’ commands seem to be predominantly aimed at the individual. The problem with the world is us and it is us that need to change. Individuals repent and enter the kingdom of God, not governments. Granted, men in government can belong to the kingdom of God and thus govern righteously, but it is still individuals who are redeemed. We are eternal, cultural structures are not. But although the state may be temporary, it still the governing authority in the current dispensation. And I do not see how the teachings for individuals change God’s intention for the state.

Paul makes an interesting comment in the era of grace.

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 afra
id, 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. (Romans 13)

The sword may be representative of the threat of punishment, however if the threat does not go headed then the punishment occurs. And sword here is a metonymy for execution. Paul affirms the appropriateness of state having the power of execution. If the state is allowed to execute at all then this will apply to the most appropriate crimes. Murder being the most appropriate, save, perhaps, treason.

The earliest teachings tell us that the death penalty is to be enacted. Ezekiel suggests that refusal to execute those deserving of death is unacceptable,

You have profaned me among my people for handfuls of barley and for pieces of bread, putting to death souls who should not die and keeping alive souls who should not live, by your lying to my people, who listen to lies. (Ezekiel 13)

Since Jesus we know that capital punishment for murderers is still at least permissible. However could a judge appropriately override this punishment? Say a righteous judge who was not open to corruption, a murderer who has repented, the victim’s next of kin forgiving and not desiring revenge. Perhaps the murderer has accepted Christ and the judge is Christian; both aware that Christ’s death had atoned for his heinous sin.

I guess a situation like this could allow for an exemption. And because Christ takes the curse there is no curse on the land from the bloodguilt.

This assumes a (Christian) theocracy, or a general tacit approval by the governed (in a democracy) or the king (in a monarchy) of the truth of Christianity. This may describe the current situation in Rwanda. I do have difficulty applying this to all governments. It also opens up the possibility that men will claim religion to escape punishment and thus, potentially, lead to the perversion of justice.

In conclusion there is strong evidence that the death penalty for murder is an appropriate punishment, it is probably the best punishment and it may even be commanded by God. Therefore governments who disallow it are answerable to God for this. There may be situations in which men may be exempt from this punishment however this should be applied with caution. In situations where exemption is permissible, if exemption is still not granted the state is probably not sinning in its refusal.

  1. Dudley Sharp
    2009 March 21 at 11:36

    There are thoughtful writings on both sides of this debate, but the pro death penalty side is stronger.
    Even today, a Catholic in good standing can call for more executions, if their prudential judgements finds for that.
    1) Avery Cardinal Dulles:
    This recently deceased US Cardinal, in one of his final interviews, states that he thought the Church may return to a “more traditional posture” on the death penalty (and just war).
    “Recent popes, Dulles conceded, beginning with John XXIIII, seem to have taken quasi-abolitionist positions on both matters. Yet used sparingly and with safeguards to protect the interests of justice, Dulles argued, both the death penalty and war have, over the centuries, been recognized by the church as legitimate, sometimes even obligatory, exercises of state power. The momentum of “internal solidification,” he said, may lead to some reconsideration of these social teachings.” (1)
    NOTE: Based upon the strength of the Catholic biblical, theological and traditional support for the death penalty as, partially, revealed, below, I think the Church will have to.
    2, Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., considered one of the most prominent Roman Catholic theologians of the 20th century.
    “There are certain moral norms that have always and everywhere been held by the successors of the Apostles in communion with the Bishop of Rome. Although never formally defined, they are irreversibly binding on the followers of Christ until the end of the world.” “Such moral truths are the grave sinfulness of contraception and direct abortion. Such, too, is the Catholic doctrine which defends the imposition of the death penalty.” (2)
    “Most of the Church’s teaching, especially in the moral order, is infallible doctrine because it belongs to what we call her ordinary universal magisterium.” (2)
    “Equally important is the Pope’s (Pius XII) insistence that capital punishment is morally defensible in every age and culture of Christianity.” ” . . . the Church’s teaching on ‘the coercive power of legitimate human authority’ is based on ‘the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine.’ It is wrong, therefore ‘to say that these sources only contain ideas which are conditioned by historical circumstances.’ On the contrary, they have ‘a general and abiding validity.’ (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1955, pp 81-2).” (2)
    (3) Romano Amerio, a faithful Catholic Vatican insider, scholar, professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council.
    “The most irreligious aspect of this argument against capital punishment is that it denies its expiatory value which, from a religious point of view, is of the highest importance because it can include a final consent to give up the greatest of all worldly goods. This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to

  2. 2009 March 22 at 03:58

    Thanks Dudley Sharp. Haloscan truncates at 3000 characters I think.
    I haven’t read much in depth from a Catholic (or Protestant) point of view though it comes up in articles and posts from time to time. I am happy to read an argument from the opposing position, ie. against capital punishment. I have not found anything (though haven’t looked) that is particularly convincing.

  3. 2009 March 22 at 04:40

    This is going to be long, so I am going to be posting it in two comments. Just to warn you.
    If there is one general theme that one can glean from the sermon of the mount, it is morality is grounded upon one’s attitude. The one who is focused on God and what God wants will act rightly, and visa versa. To some degree, that implies that morality is also bound to motivation. I don’t think it is good enough to simply ask the question whether or not we can use the death penalty. I agree with you that the Bible permits it. The question is more, should we use it.
    There are four basic philosophies towards sentencing (American Correctional Association, Religon in Corrections, (Lanham, MD: ACA, 2000), 16-17):
    A) Retribution:: This is what you mentioned. When someone does something wrong, they are responsible for their actions, and must pay it back.
    B) Deterrence: When someone does something wrong, punish them in such a way as to make anyone else who may commit that crime afraid.
    C) Rehabilitation: When someone does something wrong, punish them in such a way to convince them the act was wrong so that they would never do it again.
    D) Incapacitation: When someone does something wrong, prevent them from ever being able to do it again.

  4. 2009 March 22 at 04:40

    Now in the case of the death penalty, rehabilitation clearly does not apply. Thus it is down to the other three. Incapacitation is truly the best reason for the death penalty (if someone is do dangerous to keep alive…). Deterrence also may work (indeed, this was the philosophy Paul was speaking from), but this requires the punishment to be public and horrifying (not necessarily inhumane though. Consider the Guillotine).
    However, the point of view that you most strongly brought up (IMO) is retribution. You said:
    “So we see clear commands both in the time of Noah and of Moses that men are prohibited from killing people and the punishment for such crime is to forfeit one’s life.”
    I think that Christians should no longer support retributive capital punishment. I agree with you that we cannot expect worldly governments to live by Christian principals. Indeed, I agree with you that it may not be wise for Governments to act like churches at all, since, to some degree, governments need to interact with worldly people (war comes to mind as something that Christians should avoid, but governments need to often pursue).
    But I think that Christians need to avoid supporting the death penalty because of our call to evangelize. We, as Christians, need to remember that when the government kills a convicted murderer, there is a very good chance that that person is going to Hell. This is not something we should pursue, but something that we should be actively avoiding. The longer we can keep those men alive, the more opportunities we have to reach them.
    Note how my reasons are not ethical in nature but pragmatic. Ethically, I agree with you. But practically, I believe it should be opposed, because we need to be working towards redemption, not retribution.

  5. Dudley Sharp
    2009 March 22 at 12:01

    Rehabilitation does apply, both humanistically, as well as religiously.
    3 comments:
    1) From an American Friends, Quaker, biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey:
    Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer:
    “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” (p. 116).
    ” . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none.”
    “It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect.” (p. 111-113)”
    synopsis of “A Bible Study”.from Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992. Dr. Carey was a Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College.
    2) St. Thomas Aquinas: “The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.” Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.
    3) Humanistically, all we have is the time remaining. If our time in life is important than any effort to improve ourselves will also improive thw world around us. Therefore, positive rehabilitation, to that end, is always a benefit. We all die. To improve ourselves is a positive result, no matter the time remaining. Therefore, positive rehabilitation is important, even for th

  6. Dudley Sharp
    2009 March 22 at 12:05

    rehabilitation contd
    Therefore, positive rehabilitation is important, even for those who are given a death sentence, to be carried out in 1-40 years, just as with the rest of us, who will die in the next minute or 100 years.

  7. Dudley Sharp
    2009 March 22 at 12:09

    Romano Amerio contd
    This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to civil society, capital punishment can cancel all punishment due in the life to come. His thought is . . . Summa, ‘Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or a least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation and contrition; but a natural death does not.’ The moral importance of wanting to make expiation also explains the indefatigable efforts of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist Beheaded, the members of which used to accompany men to their deaths, all the while suggesting, begging and providing help to get them to repent and accept their deaths, so ensuring that they would die in the grace of God, as the saying went.” (3)
    Some opposing capital punishment ” . . . go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory. In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened. In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life.” (3)
    Some death penalty opponents “deny the expiatory value of death; death which has the highest expiatory value possible among natural things, precisely because life is the highest good among the relative goods of this world; and it is by consenting to sacrifice that life, that the fullest expiation can be made. And again, the expiation that the innocent Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through his being condemned to death.” (3)

  8. 2009 March 23 at 06:06

    That does not mean that the death penalty itself brings rehabilitation, though the threat of it might. The actual act of killing a criminal does not rehabilitate them.
    I also understand the principal that the threat of death may cause a criminal to seek salvation, but this also assumes a Christian justice system that actively works to teach criminals the gospel. This we do not have, so the concept doesn’t really apply.
    This is especially true in New York, after the many anti-clergy laws Spitzer passed.

  9. 2009 March 24 at 04:10

    One passage of Scripture you didn’t mention is John 19:10-11
    10Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?
    11Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.”

    In my opinion Jesus does not argue against Pilate’s power to execute Him, in fact I think He acknowledges that power as given by God.
    Clearly Jesus is accepting as valid Pilate’s authority to take life.

  10. 2009 March 25 at 09:00

    jc_freak, your argument has assumptions that may not be true. And if a murderer murders in prison, or arranges one from prison, does the state bear some responsibility because they did not execute him. And what of the victims who are hell bound because they died before they heard the gospel.
    farmer Tom, an interesting thought. The question is whether Jesus was affirming his authority or also his actions as that authority.

  11. 2009 March 25 at 14:07

    Joel, I don’t quite understand your objections. Let’s take the second one first. If a murderer kills an unbeliever, and that person is hell bound now, then why would that influence the way the now treat the murderer? Should we be less inclined to see that person in heaven? I dont really understand here.
    As far as the criminal killing while in prison, I did say that I support incapacitation as a reason for the death penalty, which is what you are talking about here. If a person is too dangerous to keep alive, then it is understandable to kill him. Wait, I just realized I didn’t say that before. Oh well: I’m fine with using the death penalty for incapacitation.
    My issue is that not whether the death penalty is present, but why it is present and how it is being used.

  12. Blair
    2009 June 25 at 08:26

    Not with standing the distinction you make between individuals and governments I post the following and would be interested in your response. I suspect in your mind you have already addressed the points I raise in your existing post but this is where my thinking is at and having read your post again, while I see where you are coming from, I am not persuaded.
    In John 8:3,5 the leaders of the Jewish people (the experts in law and religious authorities) challenge Jesus as to what to do with a woman caught in adultery. They directly refer, Jesus, to the law of Moses which states such a person should receive the death penalty. While she has not committed murder she, according to Mosaic law is deserving none the less of the death penalty.
    It is clear from the passage that they are not motivated by any sense of the holiness of God, obedience to the law or justice. Rather, their desire is to trap Jesus over a legal question to discredit him [6].
    In response, he does not contradict them on their point of law. Instead he issues a challenge to their understanding and application of the law. A challenge that is intended to expose their hearts: before Christ the only one who can administer the punishment they have called for is one who is without sin. Jesus isn’t making this point to a group of individuals who are self appointed but to the Jewish leaders [3]: those in authority who could ‘legally’ stone her. It appears to me that in Christ’s mind only those who were without sin could administer such a penalty [7].
    If the only ones who could administer such a penalty were those without sin – where then does this leave us if, as Christians, we advocate for the death penalty? Surely in the same position as those that Jesus spoke to in [7].
    In my mind it is clear from the passage, that as one who never sinned, Jesus considered himself the only one justifiably (from a legal, moral, ethical & spiritual sense) able to administer the death penalty, but in this situation he chose not to. Instead he asked her where her accusers were (after his challenge to her accusers), forgave her and in doing so ‘raised’ her from the dead (for without his intervention she was as good as dead) while commanding her to go and sin no more. (He met her as her redeemer for her sin, saving her from the death penalty. In choosing to exercise grace and mercy and not judgment or condemnation [10 – 11] he set her free and restored her to be able to fully partake in society again as one forgiven and restored). This is evident from his question with regards to her accusers and in his command to go and sin no more.
    Another instance from the NT: where a couple this time suffer the death penalty is Annanias & Saphira. On this occasion, as members of the newly established Church, they deliberately and publicly lie to the to the Holy Spirit. The consequence is that they are struck down separately (one does not incriminate the other) & not by any direct human intervention, but

  13. 2009 June 25 at 13:05

    If the only ones who could administer such a penalty were those without sin – where then does this leave us if, as Christians, we advocate for the death penalty? Surely in the same position as those that Jesus spoke to in
    God is not man that He should change His mind. If God declared the death penalty to be morally licit at one point, then it is still morally licit.

  14. 2009 June 26 at 23:34

    Blair, there are several issues you comment raises. I think the reason for the men bringing the adulteress to Jesus was perhaps part of a trap. The Jews under the Romans were not allowed to execute.
    I am not certain how instructive this situation is to capital punishment, but it is worth pondering further as it gives us insight into Jesus’ purposes and Jesus has a habit of challenging our beliefs.

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