The interpretation of scripture regarding the death penalty is a topic of hot debate amongst Christians. Some argue that it is mandated, while others question its applicability in the post-Christ era.
This article seeks to answer the following questions:
- Does scripture mandate the death penalty?
- Is the death penalty still applicable post-Christ?
Does scripture mandate the death penalty?
Yes. The Old Testament contains dozens of examples where the death penalty is used as a punishment for a crime committed against a person or God. For example, take Genesis 9:6 which outlines the requirement of a blood penance for murder.
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
— Genesis 9:6 ESV
This was part of a wider covenant made by God with Noah after the flood which reflects the value of human life and provides the reason for its value - that we are made in the image of God.
Take also the law as it was given to Moses. It ordains the death penalty for various offences including murder in all forms except accidental, kidnapping, adultery, incest, bestiality, sodomy, rape, witchcraft and more. See Exodus 21, 22, 35; Leviticus 20 and 24; Deuteronomy 21-24.
These items are carried over in the moral law to the New Testament and are re-iterated by Jesus and the apostles. The New Testament would definitely assume the existence of the death penalty, but there aren't any clear cut examples of how it applies. Romans 13:1-7 also calls us to submit to the authority of the government.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 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.
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.
— Romans 13:1-7 ESV
Does scripture prohibit the death penalty?
As we've clearly seen, the Old Testament is clear on its position of the death penalty. But does this carry on in the New Testament era?
A common argument is that Israel was a theocracy ruled by God who had required Israel to be set apart from the world therefore making its law unique. When Israel ceased to exist as a nation, its law was nullified. However, this ignores that Jesus did not just come to institute a new law, but to fulfil the old. See Matthew 5:17-18.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
— Matthew 5:17-18 ESV
This viewpoint also ignores the differences between the moral, ceremonial and judicial law and how the moral law has carried on. To learn more about that, check out this sermon.
Another argument is Christ's death. His death was the ultimate sacrifice, replacing the sacrifice of animals as a blood penance for our iniquity. See Hebrews 9:14.
How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
— Hebrews 9:14 ESV
But perhaps the strongest arguments against the death penalty are examples where criminals who had every right to be killed were not. For example, Cain, Moses and David who had committed murder were not executed for their crimes. There is also the example of Jesus who refused to condemn the women caught in adultery. He suggested that those who were without sin to perform the execution, knowing full well that he was in the presence of sinners who all already deserved capital punishment.
There are also the following verses that require meditation:
Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.’ For the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants, when he sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free.
— Deuteronomy 32:35-36 ESV
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
— Romans 12:19 ESV
No one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.
— 1 Thessalonians 4:6 ESV
For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.”
— Hebrews 10:30 ESV
And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
— Luke 18:7-8 ESV
Huh? Is it permissible or not?
I would argue that there are points here on both sides of the argument. Ultimately, I would not encourage the death penalty as outlined under the Old Testament law without using the rest of the Bible to inform us. For who would be guiltless in our modern day? As a society seared by sexual immorality in every sphere, the death penalty applied would be akin to a genocide.
Scripture permits capital punishment, but under the New Testament, it should be used as a last resort and with reluctance. See Ezekiel 33:11 for an example of God lamenting in the death of the wicked.
Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?
— Ezekiel 33:11 ESV
This text implies that the death penalty should be approached with reverence, care and used as a last resort. It also implies that repentance could commute the death sentence! And this is demonstrated with our relationship with God also, He relents against our destruction for His son has paid the blood penance for us. Don't forget Nineveh and their own repentance! God relented his judgement in that instance also!